In the last 12 months, the music industry has quickly untethered itself from the touring/streaming duopoly and more fully realised the potential of various previously-untested platforms, approaches, and products.
Artists have embraced the Direct-to-Fan ethos in all its forms: whether it’s livestream performances on Twitch, building a Patreon supporter base, or selling limited edition merchandise.
Startup Unitea thinks it has found a simple way to leverage the eagerness of super-fans and turn an artist’s direct-to-fan relationship: by turning their repeated plays of a song into its bespoke ‘Karma’ points – and those points into rewards. Brands and artists collaborate to provide those rewards and turn fandom into strong connections between all three parties.
Founder Ketan Rahangdale says his company has a wider mission, too: “We’re helping artists know their fans in a data-compliant way and monetise it. Our mantra is that you don’t need a million fans to make a career – you need 10,000 who make a million Karma. We look up to platforms like Patreon that build advocacy between superfans and artists – and Unitea is a Platform for superfans.”
Rahangdale has been in music tech for over a decade – he worked initially in hardware (if you have an iPhone, it contains the Bluetooth technology that he worked on) – and when he moved to software he spotted an opportunity for Unitea. “I noticed that every artist was looking for a tool to get to know their fans better, and monetise their data – and that’s what inspired me.”
For the user, Unitea is a weaponised streaming-monetisation platform. Fans link their Spotify account to the Unitea app, and are greeted with their favourite artists, who offer rewards – like access to special merch, or exclusive meet and greets, or virtual events.
To get their hands on these rewards, fans must stream the artist’s songs within the Unitea app. Each time they do this, they’re rewarded with Karma points. When they earn enough points, they unlock the prize. Points are unique to artists: Karma earned by listening to artist X can’t be used on a reward for artist Y.
If it works, artists get a big lift in streaming numbers and maintain a direct connection with their fans – who feel like they are helping artists, whilst being rewarded for their superfandom. It’s a brute-force approach but feels legitimate: this is what artists and fans want and will do anyway. So why not gamify it?
Rahangdale is particularly keen to give artists a bigger seat at the table, noting that a huge proportion of the value of social platforms – particularly in the era of UGC short-form video – is directly attributable to the music that is used on them. “So we said, ‘how can we build a mechanism to put that back in the artist’s hands?’”
His answer was to build this “Karma economy” which the artist owns: the more an artist is streamed, the more Karma they accrue, and the more value that artist has. Unitea then helps brands invest into this artist economy and create brand partnerships, activations and merchandise opportunities.
The key here is that the economy is built around the artist: Karma points are not transferable: “If you can listen to Skrillex – the Karma points are only spendable on Skrillex. So a brand is putting investment into that economy – Skrillex’s. That’s cool because we’re building a special platform where the fan is being rewarded for streaming and engaging.”
Unitea, he believes, is fundamentally different to other artist reward schemes in three ways. Firstly, he says, Unitea is “the first incentive platform that is mutually different for each artist: each artist has their unique reward economy.”
Secondly, Unitea is designed to work with live events, encouraging fans to schedule artists on their festival app lineup for instance – and reward them with Karma: “We’ve established key partnerships with live event promoters – big live festivals – they’re on our platform.”
Finally, he says, Unitea is sharing the platform’s data with artists and facilitating brand partnerships: “we’re competing across the value chain, not just on the streaming, loyalty, or brand component – we’re tying it all together. As we scale the goal is to create UGC: TikTok meets a frequent flyer miles programme.’ Unitea intends to keep adding more features so that every point of interaction between artists and fans can reward the user in Karma.
So how is fan listening rewarded? Well, the longer the song, the more Karma. A typical song, says Rahangdale, creates 5-10 Karma points, and those points add up relatively fast: “With about six hours of listening you can get access to merch.” This is the lower end of what’s available as a reward. “Higher ticket items can be 2,500-5,000 Karma – they can take weeks to earn… it incentivises fans to stream up to seven times more music than normal on Spotify.”
In fact, Rahangdale says, Unitea encourages fans to steam so much that Spotify wrongly thought something fishy was going on: “Last summer we had a little issue with Spotify’s SDK because we had more people streaming certain songs and artists in Unitea than in Spotify – it tripped their “breaker switch” and we had to call them to sort it out!” He says that this shows that “the proof’s in the pudding”.
For an artist, he says, the value proposition is clear: “If I can incentivise my fans to listen for three hours a day, that’s a nice little lift. And as I build my Karma economy, I now have an asset in my data that is valued, which I can then sell to a brand […] so for an artist, what does it cost you? A five minute FaceTime call as a reward that encourages fans to generate a million streams in a week – that’s not a bad quid pro quo.”
Unitea knows that one thing that brands also want is access to fans’ user data: who they are, and what they do. So Unitea has given that a value too: “if fans opt-in and share their data, they can accelerate their Karma.”
Rahangdale’s example is easy to follow: if fans share their data with Skrillex and a brand partner like, for instance, Ableton, they will get three times as much Karma per stream. The dangling carrot is that this boosted Karma gains them access to a backstage meet-and-greet with Skrillex, powered by Ableton.
Superfans who will happily stream a song over and over may also be prepared to go the extra mile and share their data to access the reward, and be recognised as a superfan.
Rahangdale thinks they have achieved something slightly radical in this sense: “we’re the first platform that is not only ready to share data in a privacy-compliant way, but that can share with fans in an omni-channel way.”
Moreover, he sees it as a modern solution to a modern problem. “Brands today don’t believe that paid media is going to get the consumer to think of the brand top-of-mind and be loyal for a long time. Paid media shows a spike in sales […] but to generate loyalty and top of mind awareness, they need to reward fans in unique ways with unique interactions. So on Unitea, we sell paid media based on the amount of Karma a brand buys (a brand can buy, for instance, a million Karma) that might cost $¼m but we pay the artist typically 80% of that, and we keep 20%.”
In return, the brand gets media impressions, and the opportunity to reward fans, and turn them into brand evangelists. “It’s a win-win-win for brands, artists and fans. The brand gets more than impressions – they get data, impressions, and product placement.”
Rahangdale says its model is simple: it provides a platform and ecosystem, and helps bring in brands for partnerships with artists. Brands are charged a fee to access an artist’s data, and artists are paid a royalty when Karma points are generated by fans as they stream songs to access the rewards.
“We never monetise the fan, and we never charge the artists either. We charge the brand typically an additional fee – typically around 20% – as our platform and data licensing and platform fee. And the rest of the money is spent on the talent and the cost of the artist- brand experience.”
Unitea already has some forward-thinking industry partners – electronic music label DirtyBird is one of them – and Mr. Worldwide himself. “Pitbull is on our board and is a great partner – and a lot of our team came from places like (live events production company) Madison House or AEG and have cut their teeth in the industry. The partners we’re working with are really ingrained in the music and electronic music – we’re working with Easy Star records and Rolling Loud, and we just started a partnership with Space Yacht.”
Live is currently a focus – Unitea recently acted as the official app for a handful of festivals, including Dirtybird CampINN, Singularity, and the upcoming Retrospekt festival in Miami.
Rahangdale says he hopes Unitea will start to work with “the more established at-scale players” in the promotion space – and labels and management companies are on their list too.
“Our main goal is to build with management. Our sweet spot is talent with up to 2m fans. When you have 10m fans you don’t need us to make money! But how do we take artists from 75k to 250k fans? If we can use brand dollars or data royalty dollars to juice that up – any management and the labels would be interested. We’d love to work with more labels and management – especially indie ones.”
Rahangdale’s mission is a bit reminiscent of that of Tim Westergren at Sessions, who has a similarly strong focus on ownership of data and the value it brings: “Success for us is to empower all creators with data transparency and monetisation.”
For him, that means plugging Unitea’s creator Karma into any brand vertical that connects with music and making that data valuable for both artist and brand. He wants “artists to understand and get to know fans better, while rewarding fans for their attention and getting paid for this data in a data compliant way.”
He sees Unitea as a vehicle for authenticity – which in a multi-faceted music industry, where fans can smell inauthenticity a mile away, is elusive but increasingly important.
“We want to reward fans for leading culturally relevant lifestyles. If you love coffee and techno, I want you to get coffee discounts and Richie Hawtin passes. And at the same time, the people that are inspiring you to live that lifestyle and that promote that lifestyle in those cultures – I want those creators to make a sustainable living.”
Rahangdale finishes by expanding on the latter concept with undiluted passion. “I don’t believe in a world where we have trillion-dollar companies, and all the creators on that platform who don’t have 10m fans are starving, and having to scrounge on a secondary market to get people to pay them for posting. That’s what it’s turned into,” he says.
“The secondary markets on the social platforms where people are getting paid to post are larger than the ad revenues generated in the platforms themselves! So why can’t the dollars from those brands just go directly to the people that’ll promote those products in organic ways? Because today we’ll only buy something and be loyal to a brand if we experience it, and feel it, and love it. And that’ll typically come from someone we trust.”