WHO—OR WHAT—would you imagine to be the world’s most popular YouTube star? A musician-superstar from the millennial age perhaps, since a lot of people turn to YouTube for music videos. Maybe, Ed Sheeran or Justin Bieber? A ‘socmed’ star, a person famous for being famous—maybe, a Kardashian?
Nope, on all counts. The two most popular YouTube channels—and there is very little separating them—is a YouTuber from Sweden called PewDiePie (the pseudonym of Felix Kjellberg). And the other is T-Series. Yes, the Indian music company which once specialised in devotional music.
These two accounts have been locked in an intense competition for several months now for the YouTube crown. PewDiePie’s has mostly maintained its lead since 2013. But on several occasions this year, T-Series came very close. For a few minutes briefly, it even surpassed him.
The competition has been dubbed as ‘The Great Subscriber War’, fought out with hashtags, memes and online petitions, and occasionally even spilling out into the real world. It has in itself become something of an internet meme. Supporters of PewDiePie have hacked into printers (according to reports, over a lakh) and Google Homes, spray-painted World War II memorials, taken out ads on billboards with the message, ‘Subscribe to PewDiePie’. And perhaps the most absurd, the Christchurch shooter Brenton Tarrant, just as he drove off to reach the ill-fated mosque, dropped the line ‘Remember lads, subscribe to PewDiePie’.
PewDiePie has cast the competition as a fight between independent creators and corporates, between early YouTubers like him who have created their following one video at a time, versus behemoths like T-Series that have an army of teams bringing out content. There is also an anxiety online about how YouTube—or rather YouTube culture—is being taken over by ‘others’ (in this case, T-Series) and PewDiePie has managed to tap into this.
T-Series’ head Bhushan Kumar hasn’t been found lagging in this competition. He has pushed his channel with a nationalistic pitch—egging on Indians that becoming the most popular YouTube channel will be a moment of great national pride. He’s had several Indian superstars from Aamir to Salman Khan to support his channel with the hashtag ‘BharatWinsYouTube’. On March 31st, T-series managed to go ahead. But by the next day, PewDiePie was again in the lead.
At the time of writing this article, both have over 92.5 million subscribers. T-Series is trailing by just a few ten thousands, which in YouTube numbers is very slim.
Long before Indian godmen had fully realised the potential of a market that married media and religion, T-Series founder Gulshan Kumar was bringing out tapes, audio and video, of bhajans and pilgrim sites. According to one story, the idea for audio cassettes with devotional music came to him on seeing elderly devotees struggling to read chants and hymns from books. He expanded later by bringing out VHS tapes of pilgrimage sites to cater to devotees who hadn’t managed to travel there.
He leveraged a then new technology to arrive at a new market. His son Bhushan—although his company has many more interests, from music and film production to new digital forays—seems to be banking on something similar with social media explosion.