British startup SupaPass launched its ‘fair-trade streaming music app’ earlier this month.

The iOS app enables artists to run their own channels, providing music, videos, social media posts and other content to fans, who pay individual subscriptions starting at £1 for access per artist channel. SupaPass pays up to 100% net revenue share to rights holders.

Music Ally talked to CEO Juliana Meyer, who is one of a growing number of musicians turned startup founders, about the motivation behind SupaPass.

SupaPass was actually founded a few years ago: its first press coverage came in a TechCrunch profile in March 2014. Until recently, the company was a two-person, bootstrapped operation.

“We learned so much through that process: it made us a much stronger company as a result,” says Meyer. “And we’ve been in this space for a while: when we talk to labels, it helps to show we are pretty determined and know what we’re talking about.”

The idea of ‘micro-subscriptions’ to individual artists has been talked about for a while now within the music industry, but usually as a notional ‘wouldn’t this be interesting?’ – bar the odd subscription-based artist app (Tiesto, for example) there haven’t been many concrete examples.

“People have talked about it: ‘Oh, someone should do that’. And we’ve been saying ‘hey, we do it!’,” says Meyer. “We have commercial deals, the technology and everything ready to go. It’s good to be able to go out and say we’re ready to welcome artists and labels to add their catalogue – we have over 3,000 artists licensed now, including a major label deal.”

The motivation behind SupaPass is that artists can start building meaningful income streams even from a relatively small number of direct subscribers.

“Even for smaller artists with a handful of subscribers. For example with 10 subscribers on SupaPass, most small artists can already earn more each month than they do from all of the other streaming services put together. Now that gets interesting!” says Meyer.

Juliana Meyer, SupaPass CEO

That’s not the only way SupaPass is defining itself against the big, mainstream music-streaming services. According to Meyer, the communities that artists can build within her company’s app are more engaging for fans than what they’ll find on the streaming services.

The community side of it is really important. It’s something missing from the bigger platforms that are just focused on attracting mainstream consumers and getting as big a market share as possible. Whilst they target casual music fans really well, we’re focused on what’s missing for superfans.” she says.

Social networks could be seen as competition for SupaPass, but Meyer suggests that while Facebook and Twitter are good for reach, the fact that the keenest fans of many musicians gravitate to old-fashioned online forums for deeper conversation shows an opportunity.

“Great user experience is paramount. To make things easier for both fans and artists, SupaPass automatically pulls in all the artist’s content from social media into one place,” says Meyer.

One of SupaPass’ key challenges is to convince artists, managers and labels to support another new social channel, alongside all their existing social media profiles – as well as to sell them on the merits of joining a multi-artist platform rather than launching their own single artist app.

“It has come up in conversations with labels: why wouldn’t they have a standalone app, and why have we gone for it all in one app? And there are a number of reasons for that,” says Meyer.

“There’s the cross-promotion that artists can benefit from. We’re building a special community of music superfans, and typically those fans subscribe to more than one artist: if you’re a fan of several artists, but if you have to subscribe by downloading and creating a login for every single app, there’s quite a lot of friction. Every time you add a layer of friction, you’re going to lose a layer of fans.”

“Plus there’s the technical barrier for companies that have individual apps of maintaining all of them.”

One question about a startup like SupaPass is whether it is a sustainable business: whether the margins on micro-subscriptions for artist channels within its app will be big enough to survive and prosper.

“It’s an important question. Yes, at scale. For us, this model works at scale, which is why we’re aiming for 10,000 artists this year, and then hundreds of thousands beyond that.” says Meyer.

SupaPass is working on licensing deals to ensure it has music for its artists – a complex task, especially for those artists’ whose back catalogues may be spread between several different labels. “These are progressing well with one of the major labels already signed up.”

SupaPass iOS app

Meyer is optimistic that fans will see something like SupaPass as a way to support their favourite artists. In its tests so far, the company has asked users of its app why they are subscribing, and more than 80% said their top reason was to support those musicians.

“You see them elsewhere, on Kickstarter and PledgeMusic for example. There is a whole market out there of fans who see the value in supporting artists, from the smaller artists through to the really big ones,” she said.

She stresses that SupaPass will not be forcing musicians down set paths when it comes to their subscriptions: channels can cost more than a pound a month, and artists can decide, for example, whether they want to run a pay-what-you-want model, or send a portion of the revenues to charities.

“This model certainly is not one-size-fits-all: we offer a wide range of tools and features and it’s up to each artist to choose how they want to use it,” she says.

One thing that Meyer is clear on is that SupaPass is not putting its emphasis on “exclusive” content from artists: that may well exist on the platform, but it’s not a promise made to fans.

“When people in the industry hear about this kind of model, some assume that it’s just about exclusive content. Actually we are very careful not to use that language in our overall messaging. It’s membership of the VIP community that’s exclusive, not the content.” she says.

It’s hard for even the most prolific teams to provide regular exclusive content: it can be a real barrier so we have built the model to give fans many other things instead. Learning from our beta data, we have focused on adding value to fans in many other ways that are not exclusive content.”

Meyer thinks that access to artists’ back catalogues will be an important part of the value of a subscription within SupaPass, as will be features like live video-chats. And even simply access to a community of fans who – by paying – feel like a special, extra-committed group.

(There’s something to this: Meyer points to the controversy when Metallica made their paid online fanclub free to all, leaving some of its previously-paying members angry that what they loved about the fanclub might be diluted.)

SupaPass’ launch this month was aimed more at the industry rather than mainstream music fans. “Whilst focused on signing licensing deals with key major and indie labels, we are also focused on promoting specific artist campaigns over the coming months as we build the amount of content and artists on the platform. Our dedicated marketing team are working with some fantastic chart topping and Grammy winning artists over the coming months and will be putting a lot of promotional support behind them.” says Meyer.

This is saying to the industry: ‘Here it is, open for business, come and sign up your content’. This is a call for content, to create as many channels as possible, so we can help promote your subscription channel to a special community of music superfans.”

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