Early this year, we spotted a new music app quietly launch on Apple’s App Store: Vertigo Music.
It was partly about streaming live video from your smartphone, akin to popular apps like YouNow, Live.me and Live.ly, as well as Twitter’s Periscope and the mobile aspects of Facebook Live.
The twist was that Vertigo Music also enabled its users to play music to their viewers by connecting the app with their Spotify accounts – something those viewers would also do – with everyone’s listening synchronised.
“Share your music with the option to layer in live video and/or audio to enhance the moment,” is how the app’s publisher Vertigo Media describes the experience in its App Store listing.
“Receive real-time feedback from users through live commenting. Connect with others to tune into their live sessions and discover new music and moments.”
Since then, Vertigo Music has added the ability to sign in to Apple Music as well as Spotify. In February, we made Vertigo Media one of our 30 music startups to watch in 2017, and we’ve also talked to CEO Greg Leekley to find out more about its plans.
Leekley has a background in the financial technology (‘fintech’) industry, which is where he got the inspiration to launch a music startup.
“Money flows across borders really quickly, between banks and between brokerages on trading desks. It was always bothersome to me that music didn’t have that same free-flowing nature,” he says.
“For me, this was about setting out to comprehend why, and wanting to free it to be shared, but legally and in a way that would be beneficial for the industry. That was the riddle: before, what had been good for the consumer was bad for the industry.”
The key to Vertigo Music is partly the emergence of Spotify and Apple as large-scale music-streaming platforms that developers can build on top of.
That means they don’t need direct licensing, but it also means they can be sure that their listeners are paying music subscribers. But Vertigo Music’s pitch is also that it’s plugging some of the gaps in these services.
“The streaming services give you access to anything and everything you want to hear, but as humans we naturally want significance, and we want to build community around it,” says Leekley. “We don’t want to be out there alone in an ocean of content.”
Armed with a recently-approved patent for “the ability to connect to different legal access points to the music and bring them into a shared, collaborative listening experience”, Vertigo Media is hoping to join the dots between friends on different streaming services.
Leekley describes Vertigo Music as a “social-based” model of music and video, rather than the “broadcast-based” content he thinks is epitomised by YouTube.
“We see that particularly the younger millennials and Gen-Z tend to be more private. They’re the early Snapchat adopters. Nearly half of all the sharing going on since we launched is happening in private, and is not showing up in the feed or trending,” he says.
“It’s all friend-to-friend and private. But the other part they they said they want is the influencers: and the influencers that mattered most to them are the ones who did something with music that they enjoyed.”
(Vertigo Music offers several options for a user launching a session: +1 connects them with a friend privately; Core ropes in a group of friends; and World opens their stream to everyone.)
This is one of the main reasons Vertigo Music made Music Ally’s startup radar ping so strongly when we spotted the app in January. It has the potential to create the most direct link yet between celebrities and social ‘influencers’ on the one side, and music streams (and revenues) on the other.
Leekley uses snowboarder Shaun White as one example: he might be famous for his sport, but fans identify with his music tastes too: so they may be keen to tune in to live video streams where he’s playing his latest favourites.
“People who have influence in a particular sport or lifestyle or activity that is connected to music: those, I think, will be the biggest influencers if I can place my early bet,” he says.
“But another use case is that people want to hear the story behind the songs from the artists who create that content that they love. So listening parties, where artists will be able to engage their fans in a very intimate and deeper way: sharing the listening experience with those fans and chatting to them with live video.”
The key point here, though, is that Vertigo Music is driving streams on its users’ smartphones directly from Spotify or Apple Music, rather than broadcasting the music itself.
“We don’t even touch the music: we just provide a routing and shared collaborative experience from the listeners’ legal access points,” says Leekley.
“If 10 people show up, that’s 10 spins. If 10 million people show up, that’s 10m spins. Social currency becomes music currency. We’re just starting, but you can’t despise small beginnings. We’re just in our crawling stage, but that’s okay!.”
To come back to a celebrity or a native influencer: if they attracted an audience of, say, 500,000 people on Vertigo Music, the theory is that every track they play will instantly generate 500,000 streams.
If an app like this blew up, it could have a significant impact on stream-counts on Spotify and Apple Music, and thus their charts, and thus the revenues being paid out to labels and publishers (and on to artists and songwriters).
It’s a big ‘if’ though – the app stores are littered with examples of cool-sounding social apps that sank without trace. Vertigo Media’s challenge will be to get Vertigo Music to cut through – perhaps by attracting celebrities and influencers from other platforms, who can promote the app to their fans.
Big Machine Music’s Scott Borchetta is on Vertigo Media’s board, while musician Kevin Jonas and music executive Phoenix Stone are advisers, which may help. Big Machine artist Brett Young has already used the app for a listening party:
— Brett Young (@BrettYoungMusic) February 15, 2017
For now, the company is working hard to move beyond that crawling stage, including widening its roster of streaming-service integrations.
“We’ve already gotten yeses from several others, so it’s a matter of resource capacity for us,” says Leekley. “We’ll be looking to connect the world of music as quickly as we can in a quality way. We’re doing integrations with these streamers, and we’re honoured to be part of their ecosystems.”
“Our general direction will be building in more connectivity, but also building more social functions. Our current product truly is a minimum viable product, but we do think we have laid the proper foundations.”
Leekley hopes that Vertigo Music can benefit from similar tipping points that helped previous social apps break out to find mass audiences.
“When instant messaging became interoperable, we saw it explode. But you also see if you look back that the social tipping point often occurred when the environment and ecosystem that they were integrated with has also reached a certain critical mass,” he says.
“Instagram wasn’t really viable until the camera on the phone reached a certain quality. You got rid of your old cameras and your phone could do the job. Twitter took off with the rise of the smartphone. And now the rise of music-streaming.”
He also hopes that younger generations of music fans – those who have flocked to Snapchat, Musical.ly and the various live-video apps – will see the appeal in a combination of live-video and music streams.
“Gen Z is a global generation: they have friends in different countries as easily as they do next door, and they play games with people from across distances,” he says. “They behave like global citizens more than any generation prior.”