At times in 2015, Music Ally felt like a grouch when surveying the landscape of music/tech startups.
Why? Usually at the sight of the latest ‘Instagram / WhatsApp for music’ social app without an obvious demand from users (never mind a clear business model) in sight.
But as we went over last year’s coverage of new tech companies in or around the music industry, we found more reasons for optimism than we expected. There are still new, inventive startups with the potential to do great things in music.
Here are 20 of the companies we wrote about for the first time in 2015, whose fortunes we’re eager to follow in 2016.
Note, this isn’t quite the same thing as predicting they’ll all be roaringly successful. In fact, we’re sceptical about the sustainability and/or demand for several of them. However they fare, though, their stories will offer valuable lessons for the music industry in the year ahead.
British startup Jukedeck launched in December, after a couple of years of buzz about its technology for composing music using artificial intelligence. Initially, its clients are independent video makers, who choose a mood, style, tempo and length, then the AI whips up a track for them. Users get five songs a month for free before paying $7 per track, although it costs $150 if they want its copyright. A threat to human composers? That remains to be seen, but Jukedeck’s technology is genuinely fascinating.
Admittedly less a startup than a platform: one created by musician Imogen Heap with partners in the tech industry – a startup called Ujo – to explore how blockchain technology might be put to use in the music world. Mycelia was the way Heap released her track Tiny Human as “a digital contract on the page”, with every contributor and rightsholder named, and one-click ways to buy licences and samples for the music. Heap is planning to open up Mycelia to developers and artists alike in 2016, and continue prodding the industry to engage with the debate about blockchain technology and music.
Collaborative music-making startups have been around almost as long as the web has: we have fond memories of Coldcut’s Res Rocket from back in the day, for example. Soundtrap was the latest company throwing its hat (and guitar, keyboard, microphone…) into the ring. Built in HTML5, it works across a host of devices, connecting musicians in a virtual studio – complete with video chatting. The service attracted 120k users in its five-month beta test, including plenty of schools. We’ll be interested to see how its freemium model – people create up to five songs for free before subscribing for as little as $3.99 a month – fares in 2016.
Chris Milk is well known to the music industry for his work on inventive interactive-video projects: Arcade Fire’s The Wilderness Downtown and Beck’s virtual-reality gig, for example. Vrse.works is his startup that is laser-focused on VR, both in terms of producing films, but also developing the technology to shoot and distribute them. It has made headlines with news documentaries, but Vrse.works also partnered with Apple to make a VR video for U2 – indicating that Milk and his colleagues may have an influence on how more musicians experiment with VR in the years ahead.
Is there really a business to be made out of ‘social music’ as a startup? From music-focused social networks to discovery apps to musical photo-sharing or messaging: many have tried, and many have flopped. Can Crowdmix buck the trend? It has lots of money, a heavyweight industry figure in former UMG number-two Rob Wells, and is recruiting aggressively ahead of its launch in 2016. Yet the notion of “a social music platform that lets you discover music through friends and friends through music” faces challenges: not least the prospect of streaming services getting even better at social features, and social networks like Facebook doing more with music.
6. Heard Well
Compilation albums are on their way out in the age of the streaming playlist, right? Maybe not. Heard Well is the label co-founded by online-video star Connor Franta, online talent agency Big Frame’s Andrew Graham and music veteran Jeremy Wineberg last July. It releases compilations hand-picked by Franta and his fellow YouTubers (Lohanthony and Jc Caylen among them). They’ve been selling strongly on iTunes, but it’s as interesting that Heard Well sells physical products too: CDs, vinyl and t-shirts with bundled download codes. Young YouTube fans have bought enough print books to send the likes of Zoella, Alfie Deyes and PewDiePie up the publishing charts: could Heard Well fulfil a similar function for music?
Pictorial communication is now a part of our daily lives again thanks to emoji, as you’ll know if you’ve recently sent someone a dancing lady, a middle finger or an aubergine. Some musicians like Taylor Swift and One Direction have even got their own emoji on Twitter. But British startup Emoticast is trying to do something different with the music/emoji crossover: raising $1.2m of seed funding to launch an app (soon) called TuneMoji. It’ll sell emoji accompanied by licensed music clips, which buyers will be able to use in the existing Facebook Messenger app. Music veterans Jorg Mohaupt, Jason Epstein, Scott Cohen and Alan Cannistraro are among the seed investors.
The idea of bringing a musician’s social feeds into one place certainly isn’t new: the idea of the ‘social hub’ is familiar from the days of iLike and MySpace. The problem has always been turning this idea into a sustainable business model. Can Feedlamp find the answer? The jury is out on its profitability prospects, but it’s an interesting tool: a dashboard for pulling in content from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr, SoundCloud, Vine and Spotify, then publishing it in one place as a “social wall” for fans to visit. Sony Music was an early client, using it for artists as varied as Little Mix, Olly Murs, Judas Priest and Kodaline.
The shorthand for British startup Chew is ‘Twitch for DJs’ – even if that’s slightly undermined by the fact that live-video site Twitch is itself trying to court DJs as well as gamers to stream themselves. Even so, Chew is already working some interesting educational angles of its own with the idea of a site streaming video of DJ sets. The idea being that DJs will learn from one another’s mixing, rather than just listening to the music. Armed with a blanket licence until its revenues pass £200k, it has ambitions to make money from sponsored mixes, Pro user accounts and DJ gear branding deals. The company is currently seeking £150k of funding on crowd-investment platform Seedrs.
10. The Sync Project
Marko Ahtisaari used to be head of Nokia’s design team in its pre-Microsoft period. This year, he joined a startup called The Sync Project as its CEO, focusing on the mission “to develop music as medicine”. Its website expanded on that mission: “Research has shown that music has a profound effect on the brain, triggering neural networks related to movement, cognition, learning, memory and emotion. We know it can help with things like pain, fatigue, anxiety and sleeplessness.” Sitting somewhere between health-tracking and music-streaming, its work could make a real impact.
11. Unique Sound
Unique Sound was one of the winners of the Midemlab startup contest last summer, taking the gong in the marketing, social engagement and monetisation solutions category. It makes for an interesting contrast with JukeDeck: a market of more than 1,000 (human) composers, available “on-demand” to a client base of ad agencies and brands, digital studios and online video producers. It licensed a library of ready-made music, but its composers can also be hired to create original music for projects.
12. Magic Leap
Magic Leap first raised our eyebrows in 2014 when it raised a $542m funding round led by Google. It’s one of the companies exploring virtual reality – or to be specific, augmented reality, with technology to project digital characters and information into the world around its headset wearers. Games appear to be one of its key areas, but in July 2015 Magic Leap hired former Vevo CEO Rio Caraeff as its chief content officer. Caraeff’s history leads us to suspect music may have a big role to play when Magic Leap finally unveils its tech in 2016.
Another one of the massively-funded startups in the virtual reality (VR) space, Jaunt is exploring the potential for video and VR, including music. It first came to the music industry’s attention in late 2014 when it turned a recording of Paul McCartney playing ‘Live and Let Die’ at a stadium gig into a VR video with a choice of on-stage or front-row views. Later, the company worked with Jack White to make four live performances available within its app; and inked a deal with music TV network Revolt to distribute VR concert movies. A $65m funding round in September means Jaunt has plenty of cash to pursue its vision – and work with more musicians.
Another startup where we’re fascinated by the technology, even if we’re not quite sure yet how it’ll make reliable money from it. Fezzee is the company behind a tech called FezzMesh, which was first shown off at SXSW in 2015. It creates a “device-to-device, ad hoc mesh network” created during events, which attendees can use to communicate with one another or to receive updates and content from the festival organiser and its partners. “When the music starts and the signal stops,” as its slogan puts it.
A startup as interesting for one of its investors as for its service – although that’s interesting too. Last October, Ministry of Sound took a “significant” stake in this British ticket aggregation startup, whose site and apps are used to compare prices across 15 ticketing services for events around the UK. The company is planning to expand across Europe, with the aim of becoming the live industry’s equivalent of SkyScanner or GoCompare – even if there isn’t a comedy opera singer involved just yet. In a sector of the music market – live – that’s ripe for more experimentation, TickX is one of the new names to monitor.
Is Revelator a music analytics firm plugging the gap left by the acquisitions of Semetric and Next Big Sound? A digital distributor? A marketing tool? Or a disruptive accounting platform all set to ride the blockchain to Transparency Town? Or all of the above? Nailing down what, exactly, Revelator is promises to be a fun task in 2016. The company came to notice last year when it bagged Rob Wells (him again) as an adviser, joining former EMI exec Tom Ryan and Island Records founder Chris Blackwell on its list of veteran advice-givers. The company’s partnership with blockchain firm Colu in August indicated a willingness to experiment.
Another virtual reality startup with an interest in music: NextVR’s angle is live entertainment, from sports to music, with the company developing the tech to capture footage of these events, as well as distribute it to VR viewers. It worked with Coldplay as long ago as 2014, promising an experience “almost better than being there”, then raised $30.5m of Series A funding in November from Comcast Ventures, Time Warner Investments and Madison Square Garden Company. There’s no proof yet that there’s a big business in streaming gigs live in 2D, let alone 3D virtual reality, but NextVR is one of the companies that’ll be trying to find out.
18. Cute Little Apps
As interesting entrants into the music startup space go, Lars Rasmussen rates highly. He used to be Facebook’s engineering director in charge of its Graph Search and Facebook at Work initiatives, and before that co-created Google Maps and Google Wave at Google. Last year, he co-founded Cute Little Apps with partner Elomida Visviki, claiming that Visviki had “built what I think is a new and exciting way to compose and experience music”. In May 2015, that was unveiled as Weav: a format for musicians to make tracks capable of being played back at any speed, with the listener controlling the tempo but the musician still in charge of the composition. Since the launch, it’s been very quiet: we’re keen to see if Weav goes further in 2016.
19. Disciple Media
Analyst firm Gartner’s ‘hype cycle’ claims every technology goes through stages including a “peak of inflated expectations” and a “trough of disillusionment”. Artist-focused mobile apps have certainly seen both: could 2016 see the category escape from the latter? Disciple Media is one of the companies hoping to prove that a.) fans want an artist app if it has interesting and exclusive enough content, and b.) that artists can make decent money from it, directly or indirectly. Rudimental, Luke Bryan and Rufus Wainwright were impressive early clients to snag, but 2016 will show us how successful those apps can be.
20. Una Tickets
Finishing off with another ticketing startup, and another company based in the UK. Una Tickets raised £1.1m of angel investment last year to launch its new primary ticketing service. It’s been pitched as an Oyster Card for gigging: a “personalised smart card and mobile app pass” that people buy once, then use to store their tickets on, as well as paying for drinks and merchandise without a note or coin in sight. The company hopes to help to battle touting too. Admirable aims, even if the challenge is convincing people that a dedicated gig pass, rather than their smartphone, is the best thing to combine ticketing and cashless payments.