You wait ages for an inventive new startup focusing on apps for music artists to come along, then two turn up at once. We published our interview with US firm Freeform yesterday, but now UK company Disciple Media is formally launching its platform.
We say ‘formally’, because the company – founded by musician Benji Vaughan with former Napster and WMG exec Leanne Sharman on board as chief operating officer – has talked about its plans for a new wave of subscription-based apps for musicians before in interviews.
Today, it’s coming out with more details of its platform, which it plans to offer to musicians, but also sports stars and other celebrities. Like Freeform, it’s going after a market that has been dominated by US firm Mobile Roadie for several years, with Disciple Media’s armoury including live-streaming video, in-app shopping, social features and live chats.
“I started the company two years ago, and I guess I made it out of necessity: that classic thing where you want a product and you can’t find it, so have to build it,” Vaughan told Music Ally ahead of the launch.
Vaughan has been releasing electronic music since he was a teenager, and found that after an initial “honeymoon period” of marketing on Facebook, he was itching to find a new way to bring fans into his own space, rather than simply rely on other platforms.
“All I found was Mobile Roadie, which didn’t feel like a two-way interactive platform between us and our audience. It felt like a website,” he said. “I wanted something where I could not just push content out to my fans, but get them to push content back to me, and fulfil that excitement that they had around the music.”
The launch of Disciple Media comes at a point where a lot of labels and managers are thinking hard about this kind of thing, especially with regards to the ‘gathering your fans on other platforms while not getting much of the data’ issue.
“It’s for anyone who wants to regain control of the audience. I talked to one artist who had 50m-60m fans on social networks, but they’d spent nearly $3m acquiring those fans and interacting with them!” said Vaughan.
“Artists and managers are starting to wonder whether this is a classic bait-and-switch: ‘We’ve handed our content and audience over to someone else who is now monetising that audience for themselves, and charging us to reach them’.”
Sharman, who launched Napster as a legal subscription service in 2004 and went on to “play with every single digital service in the marketplace” in her role heading WMG’s digital strategy and business development in the EMEA region between 2008 and 2013.
“We’re not cannibalistic. We’re an incremental revenue stream for artists, for record companies, for publishers and collecting societies,” she told Music Ally. “And the reason why we’re confident is that we already have an app that has got really nice traction.”
That would be the official app for Rufus Wainwright, which launched in November 2014 as one of the first public apps using Disciple’s platform. Available for iOS and Android, it offers a mix of news, merchandise and social features plus live-streaming videos of gigs and impromptu performances, fan interviews and unreleased tracks.
Fans get a month for free before being prompted to pay £2.99 a month to continue subscribing. “He did a live stream of his gig on Friday: I was out for dinner and in the cab when I got the notification that he was about to go live, so I watched it on my phone right then,” said Sharman.
“Rufus is getting up on Sunday mornings when he’s at home in Brooklyn, going to his piano with a cup of coffee, and playing for an hour to his fans,” added Vaughan. “And his fans absolutely love it, as the feedback has shown.”
Both Vaughan and Sharman are keen to stress that they see Disciple Media as a “first window” for artists’ content – a phrase that brings the strategy of online video firm Vessel to mind, albeit in an adjacent industry – with videos, photos and other posts able to be pushed out to other social networks once they have appeared first in artists’ apps.
“We’re not about creating a walled garden: an island in the middle of nowhere. It’s about artists super-serving their core audience, and then allowing it to spread across the internet. We work in harmony with other social media platforms,” said Vaughan.
“Rufus had no interest in social media before this: his Facebook engagement was very slight. But something about the personal nature of this really excited him as an artist, and since he’s started working with us, his Facebook engagement has gone through the roof, because his content is so much better: it’s hitting his app first, and then populating his social media.”
One interesting point about Disciple Media is that it’s not pulling in music from other services, whether free (YouTube, SoundCloud) or premium (Spotify, Rdio, Deezer). Instead, the company is striking licensing deals with labels – Universal Music licensed Wainwright’s back catalogue for his app, for example – and publishers and collecting societies.
“Labels have been really supportive. We want to make sure that we are paying, and that everyone benefits from what we do and supports us,” said Sharman. “We would like to encourage the entire industry to look at our technology and our apps and see if there are new, creative ways of pushing the boundaries.”
That said, the exclusive content – Sunday-morning piano sessions included – is a simpler affair to license, since it’s not the recorded works. Sharman said that the appeal here is more about serving fans, however.
“Although the music is important, it’s also vital that we offer fans something special and new,” she said. “There’s a whole load of content that could be in the app that is exclusive to those fans: behind-the-scenes material, Q&A sessions, interviews, live footage, ticket presales, merchandise discounts and more.”
So who else is using Disciple’s platform? The company is keeping quiet for now, promising more announcements later in the year, once the word has got out about the company. Besides Wainwright, its other two apps released so far are for metal band Suicide Silence and electronic musician Simon Posford.
“We’re choosing artists really carefully at the moment: there’s a lot of A&R involved in understanding what are the key factors in an artist’s audience, how they engage with that audience, and what content they produce,” said Vaughan.
“There are plenty of artists out there that this model would not work for, but an awful lot that it would work for. And outside music too. We have an amazing pipeline of artists launching between now and Christmas, including one of the biggest artists in the world in July.”
Beyoncé? Taylor Swift? Ed Sheeran? Rihanna? Katy Perry? Disciple isn’t saying – we can see it working for most of the above, although the first three would be our strongest candidates if we were betting folk.
Whoever it is, they’ll have the flexibility to decide how they want to make money. “Each artist or client has a choice of whether they want to do subscription, in-app purchases or advertising – or blend the three together,” said Vaughan.
“For the July launch, the artist has said they want a low-priced subscription: a low barrier to entry, but they do want there to be that barrier to get that commitment. But they could then decide to charge on a pay-per-view basis for livestreams, or bring in some of the massive brands that sponsor their tours.”
(Okay, we’ll swing back to Beyoncé or Rihanna with our guessing game – check back in July to see whether we were right.)
Both execs did stress that they see the best artist apps fitting in with existing social networks and streaming services, although they are keen to establish a pecking order in terms of where content appears first.
“We need Spotify – and now Apple Music – and we need Facebook, and we need YouTube. These are all tools that build the artist’s audience, which they need to do. We’d never tell them to stop using Spotify or not to put their content on Facebook,” said Vaughan.
“But the one thing we do need is to get the content first before it hits those places. Facebook should be getting the social content second. Spotify, in an ideal world, would be getting the music second after it’s been windowed by the artist’s own platform.
“I don’t like Tidal and Spotify saying they’re going to get exclusives on albums: I think it’s going to fragment the whole space. It’s a terrible idea! But I don’t think it hurts for the artist to publish their album first on their own app, for those core fans.”
Sharman, meanwhile, has been pitching apps as the answer to artists’ concerns over streaming royalties. “We don’t think artists can and should rely on streaming royalties only. There has to be an evolution of the model, and we are that evolution,” she said.
Disciple Media, like its US counterpart Freeform, is in its very early days in terms of proving that its platform can be successful for artists. The contrast between the two is worth thinking about though.
Freeform is skewed more towards free apps and fans unlocking music through “offers” from commercial partners, while Disciple is more towards in-app subscriptions – but crucially, both say they are flexible on the details, and prepared for artists to choose different options for making money.
The fact that two startups are tackling this problem – and doubtless others too in the coming months – could reinvigorate the music industry’s appetite for artist apps, after the initial hype from the early days of the app stores ebbed away.
Rather than cookie-cutter aggregators of social feeds and e-commerce links, can artist apps provide meaningful extra income for musicians, while giving fans genuine reasons to install them, let alone pay? There’ll be plenty of sceptics, but the fact that we have new companies trying to prove them wrong is a healthy thing for the industry.