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Independent music company Marathon Artists launched its LABs accelerator in 2016, bringing together a group of six music/tech startups to work with its label, management and publishing arms, as well as a group of external mentors.
This year, LABs has returned, with partners including Domino, Audiotube, Tileyard Studios and Music Ally, and a theme of ‘monetisation’. Its latest cohort of startups are gathering in London for a week a month to meet around 80 mentors.
By having the accelerator sitting within an independent music company (Courtney Barnett, Jamie Isaac) Marathon’s ambition is that the startups will benefit from a unique perspective on the industry, whilst making sure Marathon Artists is always seated at the forefront of innovation in the music landscape.
Music Ally interviewed four of the startups – Mahogany, Musimap, InPlayer and Dummy – to find out what they’re doing and how they see the music industry’s current trends.
Mahogany started life as a music blog in 2009, although it’s best known for its Mahogany Sessions series of exclusive video performances, which have helped it build a YouTube channel with more than 560,000 subscribers and nearly 140m lifetime views.
Artists including Bastille, Laura Marling, James Bay, Leon Bridges, Michael Kiwanuka, Rag’n’Bone Man and George Ezra have all been selected to film Mahogany Sessions in the early days of their careers, cementing Mahogany as a true tastemaker that can genuinely move the dial for the artists they choose.
“We have grown into a brand that works with all record labels, indie and major, and we have extended that to work in partnership with artists directly too, marketing and monetising the assets we create through YouTube, and now across streaming platforms as well as servicing for sync, always sharing the revenues back to our partners” says COO James Gaster.
Mahogany has also been expanding into new formats on YouTube, such as its ‘Covers’ series of cover-version videos, shot with an instantly-recognisable side-on and silhouetted visual style.
“For 99% of the content we make, we find an artist we really like, tell them we want to shoot them, and get to work shaping how that performance will work on screen” says Gaster. “We can engage with artists from all different genres, and it’s a nice relationship to have.”
CEO Mark Murdoch adds that Mahogany has developed its visual aesthetic to ensure its content stands out, particularly on YouTube.
“When we first began, we shot a session in 2010 with three cameras, angles everywhere, and spent a month editing it. It was a nightmare! Since then, we’ve done it with one camera, in one shot, and that format [for the Mahogany Sessions] is still being used today, even if the camera gear is better,” says Murdoch. “For us, it’s all about being the closest you can get to the artists.”
Mahogany already has viewers and listeners from around the world, and its horizons have expanded on the production side too. “We have filmed in Thailand and done a lot of stuff around the world,” says Murdoch.
“India and Brazil already come up as two of our top 10 markets too, even though we haven’t got a Punjabi artist or a Latin artist for example. But we’re present in those markets with the content that we have, and with something like our ‘Covers’ format, we can look at those territories: maybe we do something in India, or Mexico, or Brazil…”
Marathon LABs is exploring new revenue models with Mahogany that are incremental to their well known and respected format – the YouTube-based acoustic music sessions.
“Finally the algorithm that comprehends music,” is the first slogan that greets visitors to Belgian startup Musimap’s website. “Our emotion-sensitive algorithm senses, reasons and responds to music as humans do.”
This is a take on artificial intelligence that is hoping to be the next step on from what Spotify’s Echo Nest team and Pandora’s Music Genome Project have done, in terms of classifying music and matching it to the tastes of listeners.
“We concentrate on decoding the emotional signature of any unit. It could be a song, an artist, an album, a brand, a music festival… Whatever!” says CEO Vincent Favrat.
“And then to bring this emotional signature into the recommendations, so that you can receive recommendations that evolve in time, depending on the social context, and on your psychological profile, and depending on your mood.”
According to its website, Musimap’s ‘self-learning, context-aware neuronal music network’ now includes more than 3bn data points and 2bn relations between 50m tracks from 4.3 million artists. More stats? It uses more than 11k keywords, 400 genres, 400 ‘complex’ moods and 100 contexts.
Favrat thinks that this technology is going to come into its own as more and more people interact with music through smart speakers and voice assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri.
“We have a lot of smart assistants, but how smart are they really? What they are missing is the emotion. But emotion functions five times faster than our reasonable brain, and 90% of the decisions we make are based on emotion, not on reason,” he says.
“If you can master emotions, you are mastering some capabilities: to identify the user; to comprehend them; to predict their behaviour; and to have an impact on their behaviour too.”
“Now, you can speak to Alexa to say ‘play me this song’ but that’s not complex. What we want is for Alexa to know us already, based on our listening history, so that if we tell her ‘I’m tired, play me music’ she plays me the right music.”
Favrat sees Musimap’s technology as helping a streaming service and/or smart assistant provide a similar service to the traditional independent record-shop owner, who can listen to a customer then recommend them the right music.
“Our business model is B2B2C. We help companies to reduce their churn and to increase stickiness, by improving the user experience,” he says. This isn’t just about streaming services though: telcos, music catalogue owners, hardware firms and even retailers and restaurants are on its target list.
Marathon LABs is working with Musimap to introduce their humanised algorithm for recommendation to new music clients.
InPlayer isn’t a ‘music’ startup as such, but its technology – billed as a “professional monetisation layer for your digital content” – certainly has applications in an increasingly video-conscious music industry.
In a nutshell, the company has a tool for helping people charge for video online, whether that’s through donations, subscriptions or pay-per view models. It works with a variety of video platforms, including Livestream, Vimeo and Brightcove.
“We help people with digital content to monetise it,” is how CEO George Meek puts it. “We work with people who traditionally don’t sell direct to end-users, and we give them tools to do that: the paywall, an application to accept payments and protect their content, with a dashboard to create packages, be it subscription, pay-per-view, download-to-own. And then we provide support for all that.”
At this point, InPlayer has a range of clients, from Everton-focused football podcast The Blue Room to clients in the education, enterprise and spiritual sectors – via ‘twerkercise’ videos from Atlanta; root-canal dental tutorials from Australia; and Senegalese wrestling.
“Our first major steps into the music market are working with some live-music companies, mainly in the US,” says Meek, referring to concert-films company TourGigs. “We have been working with Marathon to hone our product for the music industry.”
The theory behind InPlayer is that its technology should work as well for events with 1 million subscribers / viewers as it does for those with 10. Early indications are that there is a demand: the company has around 120 clients at the moment, and is aiming to grow that to 300 by the end of 2018.
Marathon LABs is working with InPlayer to introduce their well-established paywall solution for media to the music industry.
Like Mahogany, Dummy has its roots in music editorial, having been started as a print magazine by Paul Benney and John Burgess, previously founders of dance-music and club-culture magazine Jockey Slut. In 2009, they switched to an online publishing model with the Dummy website.
“It’s always been about finding new artists and supporting them by writing about them. And it’s been very useful for finding talent for our independent record company Dummy Records,” says Benney.
The business model for this, as for other editorial operations, was mainly advertising. This is becoming much tougher for independent music sites, which has led Dummy to think hard about its next evolution.
“Instead of supporting artists just by writing about them, how can we help them out in other ways, and participate in other revenue streams as a result?” says Benney.
“There are lots of self-released artists coming to Dummy and wanting support, and while it’s now very easy to make your music available on streaming services worldwide, it’s harder than ever to get noticed. So there’s an opportunity for us to be working with these artists.”
The plan, then, is to develop a streaming-focused record label, which Benney says doesn’t have to be about long-term deals, and figuring out how else the company can work with artists beyond those releases.
“We will work with a lot of artists: the aim is to release between 12 and 24 singles a year, but it won’t be a problem keeping the quality up, based on the music we see being sent in to Dummy already,” he says.
Hip-hop, grime, electronic music and R&B have all been staples for Dummy’s website, but Benney stresses that “when a great band comes along, we will still cover them” – and that applies to the label as well.
Key to these plans are playlists. “We started in the era of music blogs, and that was where people would discover new music. We’re moving into an era where people discover new music via playlists,” says Benney.
“We’ve got the brand and the audience with Dummy the online magazine. We just need to get that audience to follow us over to Spotify and the other global streaming services.”
Also on the agenda: developing Dummy into a live brand, and doing more with merchandise after selling out its first apparel range at the end of 2017.
Marathon LABs is working towards finding alternative revenue models that don’t rely on advertising for respected editorial voices like Dummy.