Loony Tunes

With Taj Tunes, Cambridge businessman Dave Hui has outsourced the singing telegram. The songs are hysterical—as long as you don’t think about what you’re really laughing at.

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Photo provided

There is a man on the phone with me from India, who’s geared up to execute something resembling customer service. Usually that’s enough to transform me into Condescending Elitist American, talking loudly and slowly, sighing often, getting irrationally impatient. Except that I’ve invited this man to call, because I’ve heard so much about him. And anyway, he doesn’t talk much. He’d prefer to sing a song. A song for me.

“If you’re ready, I’ll go ahead and sing the song for you now,” he says.

It’s noon, and I’m sitting at my desk. I summon some coworkers and turn on the speakerphone. I tell the man I’m all set, and he launches into a singsong melody, soft and sweet, like a sped-up version of “Hush, Little Baby.” The notes crest and fall like waves, which gets me swinging my arm back and forth, as if to a pirate chantey.

It’s your birthday, happy birthday.
Hope the sun shines on your birthday.
It’s the day we all want to say, “Happy birthday.”

He’s carrying the tune as best he can, which is to say not very well. He sounds like a drunk on his way home from the bar, parroting, in a sort of lost and buffoonish way, whatever was on the jukebox just before last call. He says “birfday,” not “birthday.” The performance is barely passable by karaoke standards, and yet this man is a professional, a singing telegram, his voice his moneymaker.

India is where our home is.
Across the seas our very wish is.
You would smile on this, your birfday. Happy birfday.

The strangest thing is that the cornier the song gets, the more he butchers the performance, the more enjoyable it becomes. I begin snickering, which doesn’t faze him, and I applaud at the end. He seems genuinely pleased, and thanks me for listening. Then he wishes me a happy birfday again, and says goodbye.

The man—who never gave his name—was calling from Taj Tunes, an outsourced singing telegram service: Customers go to tajtunes.com, choose from a list of special-occasion songs, and provide a friend’s (or enemy’s) phone number and a delivery date. Singers in Bangalore, India, make the call with a smile.

Their employer, however, has been to the subcontinent only twice. Dave Hui lives in Cambridge. And although his silly little songs have a special sort of charm, netting international press and thousands of customers, that’s not why he’s been successful in building a business on them. He’s been successful because he’s tapped into a client base that may be out for more than a laugh.

 

There are some things Dave Hui won’t talk about: the number of singers he employs, how much they earn, even what they do when not crooning. “I guess I’m a little paranoid, as a businessperson,” says the soft-spoken 30-year-old, talking about Taj Tunes with such care that he takes more than an hour to eat half a burger at Z Square on Commonwealth Avenue. “I don’t want to give away too much competitive information.” It’s an instinct he no doubt acquired through his full-time job as a—well, he won’t really say what he does with his days. Hui works with an investment fund and pursues “entrepreneurial projects,” and won’t reveal more. Before that, he was a management consultant who spent 12-hour workdays helping corporate execs become more successful. Hui’s busy schedule was what first led him to explore outsourcing. He decided to outsource his life.

Hui wanted someone to take care of daily mundanities—managing frequent-flier miles, calling customer service, choosing Christmas gifts—so he could spend his free time on friends and fun. He first sniffed out this possibility in 2004, when his MIT business school class took a research trip to India. As it turns out, the country’s new economy hums with more than just call centers. There’s a burgeoning industry there called “remote executive assistance,” which provides cheap personal aides for any task.

Hui hired one in 2006, from a Bangalore company called Get Friday. Soon his assistant was doing everything from compiling newspaper headlines to waking Hui up in the morning. Things were good. Hui had more time to socialize; his consulting work picked up. Friends joked that he had essentially bought a buddy—but he found a way to needle them back. When one had a birthday, Hui instructed his assistant to call the birthday girl and wish her a good one. The assistant got creative, and sang her a random ditty in his native tongue. The friend cracked up. And Hui, as always, saw a business opportunity.

The marketing appeal was obvious. “It’s like outsourcing on steroids: Let’s see how far we can take this thing,” he says. And so, in February 2007, he launched Taj Tunes as a way to make a little extra cash, with his remote assistant singing all the songs. (That made startup costs nearly nil, considering he already paid the assistant around $10 an hour.) The gimmick quickly caught on, flying around the Web. Soon thousands of orders were being placed from across the country, and Hui hired more singers—which wasn’t a financial strain, either.

Like just about everything else, singing telegrams in India can dramatically undercut the cost of a similar service in America. You want a man in a 6-foot lobster suit showing up at your parents’ home to wish them a happy anniversary? A place like Woburn-based LMPK Events charges up to $175 for the pleasure. Hui, meanwhile, can find Indian laborers to work for a few bucks an hour, and have them place calls through near-free Internet phone services. Hui charges $5 a song and easily turns a profit. That’s not to say the guy in the lobster suit will soon be out of work, though. Taj Tunes isn’t like any old remote tech-support service, replicating American jobs in another country. It is, perhaps, the first service that’s appealing only because it’s outsourced, which makes it a different product from LMPK’s telegrams. Nobody, after all, would pay to hear some bad American singer. We get that for free every week on Fox.

Taj Tunes, in fact, adds a handful of jobs to the American economy. Songs with lyrics like India is where our home is/Across the seas our very wish is were penned by Thomas Chan last year in a soundproofed bedroom in Quincy. A Berklee grad who sells computer software by day and writes songs by night, he met Hui at church, and has since become one of three local composers Hui taps to write these things. (Hui pays by the song, but, again, won’t say how much.) All the songwriters know which notes to hit: A Taj tune is best when it’s simple, almost childlike, because innocence is part of the charm.

Taj Tunes’ website now offers a rotating menu of 17 absurdist songs to fit any mood or occasion, including romance (I love it when we hug and kiss—smooch!/And even when we fight, you jerk!), congratulations (Congrats! Hats off to you/You deserve a cookie. Okay, maybe two!), and the need to call one’s mother (Show her how much you care/Ba-da-ba-da-ba-da!).

The Indian singers have had trouble learning complicated melodies. Sometimes, Hui says, it takes them a week or so to get it right. To teach them his songs, Chan records himself singing and then digitally corrects his voice so that it’s pitch-perfect, ensuring that the singers hear a tune exactly as it’s supposed to be sung. Not that it makes much of a difference. “I hear them and I’m like, Oh my gosh, they’re singing the melody all wrong,” he says. “But you know what? I’m listening to this, and it’s funny, and I’m laughing. This isn’t high class. I’m not writing a symphony here.”

 

This is the part of the story where I’d interview Taj Tunes singers, ask them how they feel while making calls, and capture them in action. But Hui has inspired me: I can just outsource the reporting, the writing, everything.

I contact Get Friday, Hui’s preferred remote executive-assistance firm, and am assigned a friendly girl named Rashi. “I thank you for assigning me this task,” she quickly writes, after I e-mail her marching orders. Three days later, she files her report, which reads in part:

There are many singers associated with Tajtunes.com in India. Some of these singers are Revathi, Prince, Anukool, Preetha, Parimala, Suresh, and many more. Revathi has been with TajTunes for the past eight months [and] expresses her joy and contentment in working with TajTunes. She tells us about her experience when she initially stepped into the TajTunes group. She says, “I was initially very nervous and completely terrified of actually having to sing to people over the phone. My seniors encouraged me a lot. My Team Lead Suresh was very supportive and encouraging. He told me that I was doing fine and that I should sing as I would sing to a friend.”

Another drop in the now fast-growing pond of Tajtunes.com is Anukool, who was the first singer of Tajtunes.com. His hobbies are Reading, playing cricket, and browsing through the computer. He says, “The way I feel when people ask me to repeat a song so that they may record it or make their family hear it as well is a feeling which is indescribable. Hearing the people’s shouts of joy and excitement makes me feel on top of the world.”

Sending me to Bangalore to obtain the same information would have cost about $3,000. Having Rashi do it ran $47.50. (She even took these photos of Anukool) Total savings for Boston magazine: $2,952.50. I am so getting outsourced.

Ba-da-ba-da-ba-da!

When the Boston Globe last year sent
50 circulation, advertising, and financial jobs to Bangalore, workers here freaked. “It’s the Boston Globe, not the Bangalore Globe!” cried the Boston Newspaper Guild in an ad it placed in the Herald. In an instance like this, when jobs are lost to the lowest bidder, there is only one person to be angry at: the suit at the top, who balances profits with people and sides with the former. But that bastard is hidden behind oak doors and frosted windows, inaccessible to the rest of us. And so the face of outsourcing, the face of the enemy, becomes some poor guy at, say, Dell, who—in his quest for a stable job in a developing country—sits awake at 5 a.m. and calms disgruntled Americans who can’t figure out how to plug in their printers. This is the person we resent, because this person replaced one of us.

Hui has chosen to inhabit this charged cultural crossroads, a place where phone plus India equals frustration and resentment. And he’s succeeded by playing off that paradigm. Yet after laughing at Hui’s earnest singer, I begin to wonder what’s really driving people to buy and buy again. Yes, in part it’s because Taj Tunes is supposed to be funny. But I suspect that for Americans frustrated by outsourcing, Taj Tunes’ version is more than amusing. It’s comforting.

Hui has harnessed a less threatening aspect of outsourcing. Globalization may send U.S. jobs overseas, but it also allows us to reach out, from across the ocean, and demand to be amused. We can say, You’ll do anything? Let’s see about that, like a king who may not care for the jester’s jokes but loves that he can make a man a jester at all. As shameful as that sounds, and as guilty as it makes me feel, it’s also a reassuring reversal of fortune. Americans hate outsourcing because it makes us feel powerless. But in a world that makes Taj Tunes possible, we haven’t lost control.

I confess my thoughts to Hui, but he says I’m missing the point. “I think after we give them this good experience, both the receiver and the singer feel so good about it. Partly because the song itself is a surprise, but partly because I don’t have to stick to that previous conditioning that I had before. It’s ‘Oh, I can actually get something pleasurable or fun out of India.'” If that’s the case, Taj Tunes is international diplomacy, a sweetening of the medicine, the first common ground on land we all occupy.

I want to believe that, but I’m having a hard time. Studies show that despite Americans’ complaints about outsourcing, they don’t change buying habits because of it—which means U.S. firms won’t stop looking overseas for cheap help. That help increasingly includes a generation of capable, educated workers (Rashi, for one, has a bachelor’s in business communication) who often settle for jobs at call centers and then seek therapy for the stress. If our two cultures can find mutual relief only in things like Taj Tunes and remote assistance, neither is really benefiting from the other.

All of which leaves me feeling conflicted about the call I laughed at. I’d laugh at an American in a lobster suit, too, but I know he’s in on the joke. These singers are so sincere, I can’t tell what they’re thinking. I need an easy way out. On top of that, I need a concluding opinion. Rashi?

On the whole, I would say that Tajtunes.com is a very creative and innovative idea of Dave Hui. It is a service that not only brings delight to the people who listen to these songs but also gives a lot of pleasure to the people who sing these songs.

I’m feeling better already.

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