“We’ve been likened to the iTunes of VR, which is a comparison we’re more than happy with!”
Well, you would be too, if you were a music/tech startup which had yet to launch its app, and indeed, which only came out of stealth mode a couple of months ago.
The startup is London-based MelodyVR, whose co-founder Steven Hancock is explaining to Music Ally its plans for a dedicated VR music app that will offer recorded performances, live concert streams and interactive videos.
The app is due to launch later this year for Samsung’s Gear VR, Facebook’s Oculus Rift and other VR devices, with plans for Android and iOS apps too.
“We’ve been building this platform for about 18 months, in total stealth until two months ago. One, to keep the competitive advantage, not that we’ve got much in the way of competition, which is nice,” says Hancock.
“But two, we wanted to build a content library that would be impressive when we came out of stealth. Rather than just having three or four musicians, we’ve got three or four hundred already.”
MelodyVR has spent that 18 months filming a wide range of concerts using one or multiple 360-degree cameras, as well as developing its app that fans will use to watch the recordings on their VR headsets.
The spark for the company was when Hancock and co-founder Anthony Matchett both had a demo of the Oculus Rift headset shortly after its maker was bought by Facebook in mid-2014.
“We were absolutely blown away, and we came up with the idea of allowing fans and artists to engage in a completely new medium in a way that had just never been done before,” says Hancock.
“The idea being that if you weren’t old enough; couldn’t afford it; were on the other side of the world; or the gig was sold out, you could sit in the comfort of your home and be on stage with you favourite artist, be in the dressing room, or have the best view humanly possible for that experience.”
When the MelodyVR app launches, it will have three core parts. First, a big catalogue of live performances shot in VR – paid for a la carte – which already includes the likes of Disclosure, Jack Garratt, James Bay, Kygo, Rudimental, Underworld, the Who, David Guetta, Wet Wet Wet and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.
Second, there’ll be live streams of concerts in VR, accessed from within the app and paid for with “a percentage of the general admission price”. And third, there’ll be interactive experiences – VR music videos, essentially – which will change in response to viewers’ controls and movements.
“Our platform goes from Skepta to the London Symphony Orchestra, and everything in between,” says Matchett. “When we started, we had a lot of connections to electronic music, so a lot of the stuff was DJs. But now it’s that, plus bands, solo artists, orchestras… something for everyone.”
MelodyVR has been talking to artists, managers and rightsholders from the early days of its development, with the company determined to secure the necessary licences – which are far from cookie-cutter agreements – before it launches.
“There’s been a natural progression. 18 months ago when we were talking to people, they didn’t really have an idea of what we’re talking about. Now it’s very different,” says Matchett.
“You can’t read the mainstream press without seeing somebody talking about VR. That’s half of the battle,” adds Hancock. “It’s incredibly important to us that all the licensing is in place. Everyone who’s involved in what we do – artist, label, promoter, publisher, the venue sometimes – gets a revenue share.”
There are quite a lot of question marks around MelodyVR’s business, which its founders freely admit. For example, the question of how much fans will be prepared to pay for a VR music experience across the company’s three categories: archived, live and interactive.
Matchett says that understanding whether the sweet spot for a VR gig is £1, £5 or £10 – or even higher – remains to be understood, with MelodyVR carefully testing its app with focus groups of fans to find out.
He firmly believes that people WILL pay for it, though. Is this only an ‘iTunes of VR’ play, though? As MelodyVR’s catalogue increases, couldn’t it also become a ‘Netflix of VR’ with a subscription model, rather than a la carte?
“In the long term, both,” says Hancock, who says that discovering how much people are willing to pay a la carte will be useful data for planning any subscription alternative in the future.
“Subscription models are certainly something we think about. We’ve definitely got the largest library of [VR] music, but is it big enough to warrant paying £15 a month? £5 a month? £2 a month? We don’t really know yet, so we have to wait to find that sweet spot. It’s whatever works for consumers really.”
For now, MelodyVR isn’t putting on gigs itself to shoot in VR: it simply installs its kit at existing venues so as not to over-trouble artists and managers. The company is experimenting with filming the writing and recording process in studios.
When the app launches, MelodyVR is hoping for some good promotion from the VR headset makers, from Oculus and Samsung to HTC, who Matchett says are keen to have better apps and content on their devices.
“We certainly appear to be the only dedicated music platform that exists, so there’s quite a lot of interest from the major companies to feature us,” he says. “There isn’t much [content] out there. There’s still nothing life-changing or groundbreaking, although there are some amazing individual experiences.”
“All the content out there is very demo-esque, but what we’ve got is a big step past demo. It’s an actual delivery platform with a hell of a lot of content,” adds Hancock.
Unlike many music/tech startups, MelodyVR doesn’t have the long-term goal of going public. That’s because it already has: its shares have been trading on the London Stock Exchange’s AIM market as EVR Holdings since may, following a £5.12m reverse takeover of investor Armstrong Ventures.
Its admission document provides more information on MelodyVR’s team, with 7digital CEO Simon Cole a non-executive director, and an advisory board that includes Radio 1 DJ Annie Mac; Infectious Records and Crosstown Songs co-founder Chris Gilbert; and former Last.fm and Amazon exec Spencer Hyman.
The document also hints at long-term plans beyond music:
“In the future, the Enlarged Group may seek to explore new content verticals such as sport, theatre and education and is interested in pursuing opportunities to deploy its existing technology as a white label SaaS solution, enabling broadcasters to launch their own VR platforms and channels.”
In person, though, both Matchett and Hancock stress that their focus is on music.
“We don’t want to do anything that detracts from music,” says Matchett. “We want to make sure we launch the best music platform. If there’s a point in the future where we have done that, and it seems to be looking after itself, then maybe we’ll look at other areas.”
For now, the company’s emphasis is on preparing its app for launch, continuing to create the VR content, and on tying up licensing deals with music rightsholders.
“We spend a lot of time talking to different major labels and publishers discussing rights and the way this works,” says Matchett.
“This isn’t a streaming platform. This isn’t a traditional back-catalogue licence. We’re not licensing old content, we’re creating new content with artists, and because of that we’ve managed to break away from this ‘it’s another Spotify’ idea. It isn’t.”
“We create content. It’s new revenue, it’s fresh. It’s a new market, which is why this got the attention of everyone at the rightsholders very quickly,” adds Hancock.
That emphasis on new content is intrinsic to the VR sector, as it’s simply not possible to go back to, say, Woodstock or Live Aid and repurpose the original footage in 360 degrees.
That’s also a competitive advantage for MelodyVR, its founders believe. Although companies like Jaunt and Within (formerly Vrse) have made music VR experiences with the likes of Paul McCartney, Coldplay and Muse, they’re not creating large catalogues of this content.
“What’s to stop someone else doing this? Nothing, if you build the technology and get the rights in place. But unless you started 18 months ago, you can only start tomorrow. You can’t go out and get two years of back catalogue,” says Matchett.
Both are (sensibly) full of praise for the music rightsholders they’ve been dealing with, stressing again that the conversations have moved on quickly from the initial talks 18 months ago.
“It has taken a long time, but the support we’ve had from the industry, especially the major labels, has been fantastic. They’re not scared to act, and they’re not scared of new technology,” says Matchett.
“It would be quite easy to say ‘we don’t want to do this’ especially as there are so few metrics. Will this be a million users? 10 million? A billion? We simply don’t know, but the labels are willing to do a deal today rather than to wait.”
MelodyVR has plenty of challenges: making an experience that genuinely works well from Oculus Rift to Google Cardboard; striking licensing deals that leave it with enough margin to build a sustainable business; and finding the right pricing structure, to name but three.
Its co-founders are optimistic about the potential, however, with plans that go well beyond the service’s launch.
“Being able to transport someone to a live show is amazing in itself, but as we move forwards, it’ll also be the ability to interact with that environment,” says Matchett.
“What if you could interact with Roger Daltrey while he’s playing on-stage at Wembley, via HTC Vive or via Oculus Rift? Not only putting someone there, but letting them interact with their surroundings? That’s the real dream.”
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