The message is splashed across billboards in Times Square, New York; it has backers in Israel, Brazil and Russia; one supporter urged UK Prime Minister Theresa May and Parliament to intervene; and a hacker cracked 50,000 printers worldwide last weekend to spread the word: “Subscribe to PewDiePie. Stop T-Series.”
The battle for YouTube supremacy between Swedish YouTuber PewDiePie aka Felix Kjellberg and Indian music label and production company T-Series has been raging for almost six months now. It began when T-Series seemed poised to outstrip Pewdiepie’s 75 million subscribers on YouTube, which triggered a wave of support for the latter.
It was portrayed as a contest between an independent creator putting out one video a day against a big corporation with multiple daily uploads and has fellow YouTubers rallying behind Kjellberg.
That subscriber battle took a pleasant turn Wednesday when Kjellberg urged his fans to donate to Indian NGO Child Relief and You (CRY). “One in 11 children are working in India (5-18 years). Let’s help change this!” read the GoFundMe page, which crashed frequently under the load of heavy traffic, as 10,784 internet users raised around Rs 1.6 crore in 24 hours.
“A few hours into the campaign, GoFundMe tagged us in a tweet. That’s when we got to know officially about the campaign,” says Vatsala Mamgain, Director, Resource Mobilization at CRY.
The fundraiser is among the many gambits that Kjellberg (29) has used to delay the inevitable – losing the status of the most subscribed channel on YouTube that he has held since 2013. The current count – T-Series: 74.5million, PewDiePie: 75million.
T-Series, which started out in the 80s selling music recordings, covers and bhajans joined YouTube in 2006 and its subscriber base has exploded in the last two years thanks to cheap smartphones and cheaper data.
At the time of Reliance Jio’s launch in September 2016, T-Series had 12 million subscribers. The count doubled a year later, with close to 25 million flocking to the channel daily for the latest Bollywood songs and film trailers. Fellow Indian channel Sony Entertainment Television has benefited from a similar upsurge and is now the seventh most subscribed channel at 37 million.
More subscribers, of course, mean more views and ad revenue for a channel, and more data on demographics to plan for bigger things. Swedish music-streaming platform Spotify is planning to join hands with T-Series to make its long-awaited India debut.
Named in Time magazine’s list of 100 most influential people in 2016, Kjellberg, with his exaggerated, energetic, absurd, thinly-veiled satire, remains a divisive figure and enjoys a largely-younger following, also referred to as “an army of nine-year-olds”.
This isn’t his first run-in with India either. Kjellberg mocked Indian cartoons ‘Motu Patlu’ and ‘Chhota Bheem’ for their crude animation and later trained his sights on old Hindi soaps with their flashy transitions and segues, prompting producer Ekta Kapoor to start a one-sided feud, in which she said Kjellberg “Luks like d firang junior artists we hire from Colaba when we create Paris in Arey.”
But he really fired the shots in August, urging his fans to “fight back” against T-Series. Two months later, he released a ‘diss track’ called ‘Bitch Lasagna’ – a phrase referencing Indian men sending sexually inappropriate and error-ridden messages to women on social media.
A section of his audience, however, took it upon itself to attack T-Series, and by extension Indians, with racially-charged expletives.
“…It seems a set of overzealous PewDiePie fans are negatively spamming the T-Series channel on YouTube. I would like to inform them that we are not perturbed by this kind of behaviour. No amount of spamming will be able to hold back the power of good music,” Neeraj Kalyan, T-Series president, told DNA last month, adding: “PewDiePie is indeed a good channel and there is no competition as we have different sets of audiences.”
The Indian YouTube community has rushed to T-Series’ support. But, with both channels rapidly collecting a record number of subscribers (about 150,000 per day), there are no real losers in this war. And Kjellberg, with annual earnings of around $15.5 million, is no underdog. And he realises that losing the top spot will make no tangible difference.
“Honestly, I don’t care if they pass me. But this is the most fun I’ve had in a long time,” Kjellberg, who has often addressed burnout and other mental health issues, said in a recent video. “I’m getting more attention now than I’ll probably ever get,” he added. “So why not just take that fact and redirect it to something more positive, and show that this fanbase can do something positive as well, because I know we can. No more ‘**** India.’ Instead, let’s help India.”