Happy tenth birthday, Monstercat. The Canadian electronic music label has made a habit of innovation and experimentation since being founded in 2011.

In 2021, its catalogue does more than 200m audio streams a month, its weekly live radio show reaches 1.3 million listeners, and it’s deeply embedded in the gaming world through partnerships with Roblox, Twitch, Rocket League developer Psyonix and more.

Now Monstercat is taking a moment to celebrate its first decade in several ways. There’s a ’10 Year Anniversary’ compilation; a livestream featuring artists from across the world on 3 July; the launch of a ‘3D influencer’ based on the label’s logo; and the imminent launch of a ‘Lost Civilization’ experience on Roblox.

Founder and CEO Mike Darlington talked to Music Ally ahead of the anniversary about Monstercat’s first 10 years, and where it might be going next.

“It’s a surreal feeling. When we started this we had no expectations, no idea where this was going to go. We had some driving principles and some areas of interest, but I don’t think we knew we’d be around in 10 years, or the pathway we’d take to get here!” he said.

“We’re at a place where we can accomplish those ideas we had early on, that we might have written down on scrap pieces of paper or sent to a Google Doc. Now we have the resources and team and capacity and credibility to pull off a lot of those ideas.”

Darlington and his co-founder Ari Paunonen had a science and engineering background – “neither of us had a background in the arts at all’ – when they started Monstercat.

However, they had lots of ideas about how technology could be used positively by an independent label, from building their own tech to run the company itself (“accounting, invoicing… we started building that in our first year”) to marketing and distribution.

“Externally, the entrepreneur in us would get excited about seeing new innovation and new technology. We were very early to nearly every social network, every platform, every messaging application, to try it out at least,” he said, before quickly adding: “I’m not going to say every time we did it, it was successful!”

From those early days, Monstercat also spanned a number of genres under the electronic music umbrella, reflecting its founders’ love of drum’n’bass, dubstep, techno and more.

“We were told by some advisors that we had to plant our flag and stake out claim for our genre, but that never really sat well with us. From a business standpoint it’s absurd: ‘I only do this one genre’ when we all know that genres ebb and flow. It would have felt like doing a disservice to the next generation of fans.”

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Games were part of Monstercat’s world from very early on too, and would be a key part of its experiments in finding ways to reach those new audiences.

It began by becoming the music provider for creators on YouTube and Twitch, with a licensed catalogue that they could use in their videos and broadcasts without fear of copyright takedowns.

Those relationships saw Monstercat’s team attending games and esports industry events – “I was sleeping on the couches of YouTube creators when I travelled to Los Angeles!” – where they would meet more influencers and pro gamers and end up supplying them with music too.

This in turn led to meetings with esports organisations, games developers and publishers.

“Bit by bit by bit we were climbing the ladder of the ecosystem to the point where we were comfortable with just about everybody. We could cut deals in unique ways, bottom to top,” said Darlington.

“It created tight-knit relationships too. Gaming companies recognised that we weren’t using them: a one-and-done flash in the pan. We have shown our dedication over what is now 10 years.”

The relationship with Psyonix has been one of the most enduring. Its Rocket League game (football, but the ball is giant and the players are in rocket-powered cars that can fly, if you’re new to it) was so successful that Fortnite’s publisher Epic Games bought the company in 2019.

Like Fortnite, Rocket League has also seen music become a more prominent part of the game, culminating in its recent music-themed second season – a partnership with Monstercat.

At the time, the label said it had put more than 90 tracks in Rocket League over the previous three years, driving more than 400m streams on DSPs, aided by an official ‘Rocket League x Monstercat’ Spotify playlist.

“They’re an amazing team very open to innovation. They were pioneers for bringing music into the gaming industry as a way of marketing the music,” said Darlington.

“I have to give them a lot of credit: they took lots of leaps of faith and tried new things that games of their size would normally not risk.”

3D Monstercat is the latest gaming move for the label. Based on its (previously 2D) logo, the company is describing it as a “3D influencer” – an animated character capable of being used in live events, streams, games, social content and more.

The idea was sparked when Darlington was researching the emerging area of virtual influencers, although he wasn’t so keen on the primary use for those characters: snagging brand sponsorships on Instagram and similar platforms.

“I’m not interested in that! But the technology behind this can be used for social content, brand partnerships, in video games, film, television… You’re not having to build original content each time: once you have this built and rigged, you can provide them with models to build off of,” he said.

“I learned about the new technology around mo-cap [motion capture] and how that’s become cheaper and more open, and also how clothing companies are building clothing with tools that are 3D modelling programs, so they can pretty much export it to anywhere they like. If you made a hoodie in this program, you could provide it to a game, and the next day all the characters in that game could be wearing the hoodie.”

That line of thinking led to 3D Monstercat, which has been created with Canadian firm Animism Studios. Unveiled this week, Darlington describes it as “our alpha” with plenty of ideas for how to use the character in future.

“I could be in my home, and moving my face and looking at my phone seeing the character move. Or you could drop it on my desk using AR. There’s so many possibilities…”

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The next phase in Monstercat’s partnership with Roblox is also interesting. It was the first label to sign a licensing deal with the gaming platform to make its music available for people to use in the games they build on Roblox. Now it’s building its own game too.

Monstercat’s Lost Civilization launches on 6 July, and will be a space where players can complete label-themed quests, buy virtual merch, and hear “hundreds” of tracks from its catalogue. It’s one of the first music activations on Roblox that we’ve seen that’s designed to be a long-term thing, rather than just for a one-off performance.

“It blows my mind how Roblox is one of the most powerful, most influential games on the planet, and I don’t think it gets the recognition that it deserves,” said Darlington.

“I don’t really know where our world is going to go in the future. There’s a lot of flexibility here to build puzzles and a home for our younger audience, in a medium that they’re used to enjoying on a daily basis.”

He’s also excited about the potential in Roblox’s own creative community using Monstercat’s music.

“It’s building the next generation of kids to think about world-building, monetisation models. It’s going to create a new era of entrepreneurs, actually. Anything they can think of, they can create!” he said.

“A lot of these world-builders on Roblox are young, sub-20. They’ve built some of the biggest games on the planet. We want to push the technology to its limit and see where we can go with it.”

Monstercat has licensing relationships with both Roblox and Twitch – its music is part of the latter’s Soundtrack by Twitch catalogue, which in turn appears to have influenced Roblox’s approach to licensing.

Both platforms have been controversial in some quarters of the music industry though, particularly with publishers in the US, with their representative body the NMPA currently suing Roblox, and regularly criticising Twitch.

Darlington offered Monstercat’s view on the kinds of deals that labels can do with these companies. “It’s about new ways to allow people to create with our artist content, but still in models that fairly compensate our artists,” he said.

“We always create unique deals, unique discovery mechanisms, that we believe will pay substantially more to their career… none of these deals are standardised, and they are always done in a way that supports the creative economy on the artist side, and on the content creators side.”

“We are committed to making sure our artists can live as artists. Not having to work three jobs to get by as an artist, or having to go on tour for 300 days a year. We are stewards of our artists’ copyright. We are representing them, and they’ve taken a risk on us: the biggest risk on us that we will do a good job with their music.”

For Darlington, this is the guiding principle behind all Monstercat’s experiments with new technology, including its latest moves in livestreaming and non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

“If you can create that direct relationship with 100 fans. Just 100 superfans that tune in every week, that can be a sustainable income with your donations. If you launch NFTs, you only need 100 fans… that is where we will get sustainability for artists,” he said.

“It’s hard to tell artists that they need to get 10 million streams from one million-plus people. That’s a really big moment to get to in their careers. But to find 100 fans, or 1,000 fans if you distribute it across the world? There’s a lot of room for musicians to co-exist in this space.”

Monstercat NFTs

Monstercat recently launched some NFTs, including a series that cost $0.50 apiece. It was positioned as a way to open these digital collectibles up beyond crypto-rich collectors.

“Our fans are global, and NFTs dropping for thousands of dollars are absolutely unattainable for young fans and for fans in developing countries. Even in developed countries,” said Darlington.

“That wasn’t actually going to build the music industry in the NFT space. We wanted to look at this for the long term. Can music become collectible again beyond vinyl records? I was excited to put 50-cent NFTs in the hands of our fans, so that people could give this a chance, and so that we could continue to learn.”

Since first hearing about NFTs, Darlington has bought more than 100 himself as a punter, while spending a lot of time during lockdown soaking up information in the many NFT rooms on live audio app Clubhouse.

“It’s a key! It’s like a direct connection to your fan and what you can do with them,” is how he summarised the potential of NFTs, as he sees it. “You can build social access to websites like Discord, you can unlock new skins in a game if you have that NFT in your wallet… and it shows your level of dedication.”

Monstercat will keep experimenting into its second decade, with Darlington seeing plenty of reasons to be excited for its artists.

“I’m really excited about digital collectibles, gaming is something that every day I’m excited about, AR, VR… I still believe we haven’t scratched the surface of the possibilities,” he said. “That’s why I still wake up excited about coming to work.”

Music Ally’s next Learn Live webinar will help you understand what’s required for artists to thrive in new international markets!

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Stuart Dredge

Music Ally's Head of Insight

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