The final session at the NY:LON Connect conference we organised with the Music Business Association in London this week saw six music startups from the UK showing off their technology, and explaining how it could work for the music industry.
The Bot Platform, Mbryonic, Jaak, Gearbox, Rotor Videos and Tido are building businesses around chatbots, virtual reality, blockchain tech, hardware, algorithmically-edited videos and educational apps. Here are the highlights from their presentations.
Agency We Make Awesome Sh has been making chatbots for artists for the last nine months, including dance star Hardwell and pop star Olly Murs. Founder Syd Lawrence said that customers have been generating 1,000% return on investment from direct sales through their bots of merchandise, tickets and music.
“Axwell / Ingrosso have got a Messenger bot, they’re shifting over five grand a month of merchandise through Messenger… All they did was post to their fans on Messenger saying they have a new cap out,” he said. “We see about a 99% read rate, and anywhere between 15% and 45% click-through rate.” So far, 10 musicians have been using the agency’s technology to run bots.
The Bot Platform, which launches officially this Thursday, productises that: it helps labels and managers create and run bots for their artists on Facebook Messenger, using starting templates created with music in mind.
To show how it worked, Lawrence created a brand new bot for fictional artist ‘Nylon Test Musician’ in a couple of minutes, and encouraged the audience to interact with it live. But he had one warning for anyone talking about this technology area: “I hate the word chatbot. People don’t want to chat with a bot!” he said. “This isn’t about chatting.”
London startup Mbryonic works with artists and brands around technologies like virtual reality, with a background in the games industry and live visuals to draw on. Founder Tom Szirtes explained that “this new shiny thing that’s called virtual reality” is still in its infancy, but suggested it could profoundly change how people discover and consume music.
“It allows you to immerse yourself in the world of the artist… and an opportunity to create new revenue streams that audiences will be perhaps willing to pay for,” said Szirtes. He noted that some artists have shot live performances for VR, or created other kinds of content like telling the story of a song.
“This only scratches the surface of what is possible with virtual reality. Why go to the expense of staging a gig… when you could stage an entirely virtual gig. Imagine going to see a rock band on top of a mountain with fire-breathing dragons overhead… or a dance club where the walls are pulsating… these are the kinds of experiences that VR can offer.”
He admitted that creating this content can still be expensive, while the penetration of VR headsets remains small. It’s a risky, expensive business. However, he noted that Facebook, Sony, Google and other tech giants are pouring money into the development of VR.
“There are going to be more and more people who have access to this technology… we have eight million headsets installed, but things like PlayStation VR are really going to push that envelope,” he said.
Mbryonic has created a toolset to help artists create their own VR worlds, for fans to wander around and listen to and watch their music, as well as interacting with instruments. It has also created a product for turning old music videos into 360-degree VR experiences – essentially playing a 2D video in a 3D environment that reacts to a music. Viewers can trigger DJ-like effects and interact with the environment.
Jaak is one of the clutch of startups exploring blockchain technology and music. Founder Vaughn McKenzie explained what it’s doing, starting by breaking down the anatomy of a song: songwriters, producers, artists, publishers and labels.
He moved on to talk about “the shipping container” – the fact that it cost about $5.86 to ship a ton of cargo across the world in 1956, but after the invention of the shipping container opened up business, it now costs around $0.16 per ton.
“That’s the opportunity we see here,” said McKenzie, pointing to the idea of infrastructure as a service, for companies like Amazon. Jaak wants to help connect the various parts of the music industry, from creators and rightsholders to digital services and startups.
“Blockchain isn’t a database, just a way to move containers around. It’s a protocol: a way to design rulesets,” he said. “It’s just a way to design things that can work exactly how you want them to. We have a way of capturing metadata and then linking it to the actual media file, and then linking that to a smart contract: a mini-API that sits on top of a blockchain. It’s business logic, in an app.”
The smart contract acts as an API for a song, connecting apps, websites, games and anything else that wants access to the song. Jaak has been working on its product since late 2014. “We have got to a place where we can actually build really cool things on top of this stuff.” And Jaak also has team members drawn from some of the smartest minds in the blockchain sector.
“We’ll be announcing our first product on the 17th of February. That will be our first live product,” he finished off. Stay tuned for that.
“I have no slides. I have a thing!” said Gearbox Records founder Darrel Sheinman at the start of his presentation, placing a turntable onto the desk at the front of the room. His company is part vinyl-focused label, but it also has its own vinyl-cutting facility, which others can use as well as Gearbox.
But he also built a turntable, the £350 Gearbox Automatic. “Listening to vinyl is a different theatre of listening to digital. There’s been lots of debate: which is better, digital or vinyl. One is not necessarily better,” he said. Or rather, people want a vinyl record but they also want access to music in digital formats.
Gearbox’s turntable is small, to fit on a bedside table if needed, with a built-in pre-amp, but also Bluetooth to connect to wireless headphones and speakers. “But the big feature on this, is that it combines digital and vinyl together. This turntable is also an internet-of-things turntable, linked to the cloud,” he said. “When you put your vinyl on here, it knows what you’re playing: it’s Shazam for turntables. And the app that we’ve developed shows what you’re playing, and all the artwork, and enables you to download it to Spotify.”
Crucially, the device is not ripping vinyl into digital files: it’s matching the vinyl records with the digital versions of the tracks on Spotify or Apple Music, so that people can add it to their libraries and take those tracks on the move.
“As the vinyl market’s growing, more and more people are going to want discovery in the vinyl domain as well as in the digital domain,” said Sheinman. “With vinyl, you tend to know what you want, but you still want that track in the digital domain. And if the vinyl market keeps growing as it is, people will start discovering new music there.”
“The next step we want to make is to sell the APIs to all other turntable manufacturers… what do we have then? A huge database of vinyl listeners, who at the moment are not connected to that streaming network. This will connect everybody. Assume all the turntable manufacturers have some sort of API that captures this, and it will come into our database.”
And if the vinyl that people play is not available on the streaming services? Gearbox’s label arm may try to get the rights to license that content to put it out. But Sheinman also suggested that in the future, there may be an opportunity for artists and labels to add restrictions: someone may only be allowed to stream an album if they have bought the vinyl version, via a public key.
Rotor is a tool for creating promotional videos for musicians, explained co-founder Diarmuid Moloney, who showed off one example that “was created in 20 minutes, for £20” by an emerging independent artist called Rauzy.
Moloney noted the explosion in platforms for video content, from Snapchat and YouTube to Instagram, as well as the growth in the number of types of music videos: pre-release videos, lyric videos, 360 videos and the like.
Rotor’s process has four steps. First, upload a track, and then trim it to the desired length, from a full-length music video to a 30-second promo. Then pick a style from templates designed by professional video directors, which apply a “look and feel” to the video. Then add an intro: titles and text, and then video clips – the artist’s own footage as well as clips from a stock library managed by Rotor.
Its technology then cuts that footage together in the chosen style, and then prompts the user to pay to download it, after which it can be uploaded to whatever platforms they like. Independent artists and labels are using Rotor, but now majors too. “Sony Music found us through Google!” said Moloney. “We now have Warner and Universal who are also in on the act. They have a huge catalogue for which they need visual content.”
Prices range from $10 for a 360p watermarked version to $60 for a 4K version with no watermark. The company is working on artificial intelligence to make “advanced automagic editing decisions” as well as providing lip-syncing and supporting lyric videos. Rotor is planning an investmnt round later this year.
Product manager Niall Pay explained what Tido (pronounced ‘tee-doe’) does, having been founded by a conductor and editor working with a large music publisher, Edition Peters.
Last year, the company worked with Faber Music on a proof-of-concept iPad app called Mastering Piano with Lang Lang, providing tutorials for intermediate-to-advanced pianists, including reflowable sheet music, dynamically resizing to fit any display, and practice tools like playback to align professional recordings with notation.
The app was featured prominently in Apple’s App Store, and did well, but it’s a step towards the longer-term vision of the main Tido Music app, which launched in late 2016. “This is a platform product, open to everyone, we’re going to be adding new content partners throughout 2017.” It too is aimed at pianists looking to improve their skills through practice:
Pay showed this video, which gives a sense of the app’s features:
Moloney said the difficulty was finding invesors specific to Rotor’s industry. “We’ve found quite a few investors that tried to turn us into a social media tool. We’re not a flash-in-the-pan novelty app, we’re trying to provide a solution to the music sector,” he said. “Because it was difficult to raise funding, it forced us to really focus on what we do and sharpen down.”
Mbryonic’s Szirtes said that his company used an innovation grant to get started, and is already bringing in B2B revenues from clients. Once it has a clearer sense of any consumer angle, it will seek further funding.
Lawrence said The Bot Platform has been self-funded, but is actively starting to look into funding, and has already raised 30% of its target for its first round. “Our advantage is it’s not just music,” he said. “I can see why it would be a struggle, but there’s got to be people out there. Everyone sees the potential for every one of these businesses up here.”
Jaak’s McKenzie: “I’ve run a few startups before and always struggled to find funding, and none of them were in the music space. This time around we bootstrapped for ages, got the prototype right, used that to bring in the right people, then raised a small family-and-friends round, built up more product and validated the idea with the market, and then raised an angel round,” he said. “But we’ve been batting away investors, VC investors. That has to do with the market. I think if you have a really good vision and product and team, it always helps.”
The NY:LON Connect conference was co-organised by Music Ally and the Music Business Association, in association with Armonia.