Partnerships between the music and games industries go back decades, but in 2022 there’s a lot of talk about music and ‘the metaverse’ – a catch-all term that includes games, virtual worlds and augmented reality.
This in turn is part of the wider buzz around web3 technologies that takes in NFTs, blockchain infrastructure, cryptocurrencies and decentralisation. Sometimes, as when fans are invited to buy artists’ NFTs with cryptocurrency in decentralised, blockchain-powered games like The Sandbox, it all comes together (or, for sceptics, fills a Bullshit Bingo card at one fell swoop).
Still, excitement about the potential for music in the metaverse is real, and that means there is a lot of activity to explore it, from some of the biggest technology and games companies to a flurry of startups. Music Ally has picked out 33 of the firms we’re watching keenly, and you can find them below.
All this comes ahead of our Sandbox Summit Web3 Special conference on 28 June, where the metaverse and its potential for music will be one of the key topics.
THE BIG TECH / GAMES PLAYERS
01: Epic Games. Fortnite’s publisher Epic Games has worked with artists like Marshmello, Travis Scott and Ariana Grande on set-piece performances within its flagship game, while it has put on smaller in-game concerts and launched a Grand Theft Auto-style in-game radio station too. However, the company’s music ambitions stretch beyond that. In November 2021 it acquired veteran music-games developer Harmonix to “develop musical journeys and gameplay for Fortnite”, then followed that by snapping up D2C music platform Bandcamp in March this year. Epic has also invested in music licensing startup Lickd, and partnered with Radiohead to launch a virtual exhibition powered by its Unreal Engine game-dev toolkit. There are grander plans afoot than just virtual concerts, in other words: Epic wants to be the base for many kinds of music metaverse experiences, developed by and for artists rather than just by itself. Oh, and it has the digital store to distribute those experiences at scale too…
02: Meta. The Company Formerly Known As Facebook is so excited about the metaverse, it changed its name to reflect it. Music is already playing a prominent role in the company’s exploration of virtual reality technology, too. Meta has acquired two music VR startups so far: Beat Games (the developer of four-million selling music game Beat Saber) and Supernatural (the fitness app launched by VR pioneer Chris Milk’s startup Within). Meta also has its own purpose-built space for virtual music concerts, Horizon Venues, which was recently merged into its Horizon Worlds virtual world. For some time now, Meta’s user-generated content (UGC) music-licensing deals have covered its Oculus VR business alongside Instagram, Facebook and Messenger, too. Meanwhile, its newly-launched Avatars Store has potential for artists’ virtual merch, and we’re keeping an eye on its plans for Roblox-style games platform Crayta, which it acquired in 2021.
03: Roblox. Talking of Roblox… This gaming platform has been courting artists and labels for a while now, gradually expanding the ambition of its virtual performances and album launches since its music boss Jon Vlassopulos told Music Ally in 2020 “we’re open for business!”. It started with events that were essentially video livestreams within Roblox worlds, with 1.2 million visitors to Ava Max’s album launch in September that year showing the potential reach. We’ve since seen avatar-based performances (Lil Nas X, Tai Verdes); activations for physical-world awards (the Brit Awards and Grammys) and festivals (Electric Daisy Carnival); and listening parties held across some of the most popular games on Roblox. A lawsuit from music publishers thankfully ended in a deal; and there are encouraging signs from Lil Nas X and Zara Larsson that virtual music merch can generate significant sales. However, with Vlassopulos having recently left, all eyes will be on how Roblox continues these efforts.
04: Niantic. Much of the buzz around music and the metaverse involves self-contained games and virtual worlds, but the definition extends to augmented reality tech that brings digital stuff into our physical world too. Niantic knows a thing or two about that, as the company behind the most successful mobile AR game (well, the only successful one, on a global scale) Pokémon Go. It’s dabbled in music before: a collab with Ed Sheeran in November 2021 for example. Recently it’s stepped up its interest though. That same month it unveiled Lightship, a software development kit (SDK) to help developers and brands create their own AR apps and games. The Coachella Festival and Warner Music Group were among the first to test it out. Niantic has also invested in music/tech startup Pixelynx, which is using Lightship to develop its own music-themed game.
05: Riot Games. As the developer of League of Legends, one of the biggest games used for esports (professional gaming), Riot Games has a long history with music. It has booked various artists to play its big esports events; released music from its soundtracks through a deal with FUGA; and is tackling the challenge of providing gamer creators on Twitch with music they can use without takedown fears, both through its own releases and a partnership with licensing startup Slip.Stream. However, if we’re talking ‘metaverse’ the interesting thing is Riot Games’s creation of a succession of virtual music stars: K/DA (K-Pop), True Damage (hip-hop), Pentakill (RAWK!) – as well as virtual influencer-slash-musician Seraphine. This has led to spectacular hybrid performances at those live events, and a fun cycle whereby these groups can also spawn playable characters in the company’s games, which in turn provides a springboard for new music to be teased and released.
06: Unity. Perhaps not so well known in the music industry, but very well known in the games business, where its development platform (also called Unity) is a key rival for Epic Games’s Unreal Engine. And like that rival, Unity thinks its tools are just as useful for creating music experiences as they are for creating games. In March 2022, it announced a partnership with live music firm Insomniac Events, the company behind festival brands including Electric Daisy Carnival and Wonderland, with plans to create “a brand new, persistent metaverse world” for music performances.
07: Apple. To date, Apple’s involvement in the metaverse has focused purely on its App Store as a distribution model for other companies’ games, AR and VR experiences, and the ARKit tools that help developers to build those apps. However, there have been longstanding rumours, hardening into widely-accepted fact, that Apple is working on its own AR/VR headset. It is thought to have been demonstrated to the company’s board (a big step towards launch) and could debut later this year or in early 2023. Given Apple’s history and culture, we’d be very surprised if music isn’t a prominent part of that launch, from third-party music apps and experiences to whatever Apple Music becomes in XR.
08: ByteDance / TikTok. To date, TikTok’s involvement in the metaverse has essentially been streaming a mixed-reality concert by The Weeknd, and the AR effects that people can use in their TikTok videos – complete with its own suite of creation tools that can be used by labels, artist teams and agencies. However, we’re keeping an eye on parent corporation ByteDance’s plans for virtual reality. Having acquired headset-maker Pico in August 2021, it has recently gone on a hiring spree for that business, including what looks like a new unit called Pico Studios. With music so prominent in Meta’s VR strategy, we’d expect it to feature in Pico and ByteDance’s plans too, even if the thought of a VR TikTok is making our head spin a little.
09: Snap. Snapchat’s parent company is another firm whose contribution to the metaverse thus far has focused on augmented reality lenses, which started off as novelties (rainbow vomit, flappy dog tongues) and have grown into a creative, fun and innovative platform for developers to play with AR. Music companies included, with a number of new tracks debuting as lenses for a community that averages 6bn daily ‘plays’ with these products. Armed with music licences, Snap is also into its third generation of AR eyewear, and through location/mapping and live-music partnerships is exploring more ways to turn the physical world into a metaverse.
A quick interlude, if you don’t mind, to tell you more about the Sandbox Summit Web3 Special on 28 June. Sessions will include a presentation on music and the metaverse from Decentraland producer Iara Dias; a talk about licensing the metaverse from CrossBorderWorks CEO Vickie Nauman; and a panel where Dias and Nauman will be joined by Volta CEO Alex Kane, Ristband chief creative officer Roman Rappak and FOV Ventures partner Dave Haynes to discuss music and the metaverse. In-person and remote-viewing tickets are available here!
THE MUSIC SERVICES
10: Spotify. No, the world’s biggest subscription music-streaming service isn’t a metaverse company, but it is starting to explore the space. In May this year Spotify unveiled Spotify Island, an experience on Roblox to show off its partnerships with artists and music companies; sell virtual merch; and spin off new ‘hub’ islands focusing on particular genres and topics. The first of which was a K-Pop island called K-Park later that month. It’s too early to tell whether this is all geared towards learning and building a bigger metaverse strategy in future, or just a short-term ‘this’ll win us a Cannes Lion, lads!’ marketing wheeze. But Spotify and its rivals absolutely should be thinking about bigger strategies in this space: if people are going to be spending more time in games and virtual worlds, it would make sense for music services to figure out the technology and partnerships to accompany them there.
11: Tencent Music. In its homeland of China, Tencent Music is a music-streaming giant with 604 million users (80 million of whom are paying in some way) across its three services. Oh, and a lucrative sideline in karaoke and livestreaming apps too. But in March this year TME talked for the first time to investors about its metaverse strategy. It had launched a music-focused virtual world called TMELAND with a virtual festival on New Year’s Eve, It’s planning to hold more virtual performances (and karaoke contests) there. Later this year, TME’s flagship QQ Music streaming service will get its own metaverse feature where each user “will have its own individual room where you can put your own music into that virtual room, friends can come and visit, you can listen to the music together, you could play instruments together”. Oh, and “virtual showrooms” for artists to invite fans to experience their albums in TMELAND too.
12. Napster. This is a strange one. In August 2020, music VR startup MelodyVR announced plans to merge with streaming service Napster. The new company would blend streaming with MelodyVR’s catalogue of music performances filmed for watching in VR. “The first ever music entertainment platform which combines immersive visual content and music streaming,” as the blurb went at the time. The acquisition was completed in January 2021, and by April that year the company (which kept the Napster name) was announcing that it had more than five million users. However, in May 2022 Napster was acquired again, by two companies from the web3 sector: Hivemind and Algorand. Beyond promising to “bring the iconic music brand to web3” not much is known about the new owners’ plans – and to what extent they are on the metaversey side of web3.
13. Splash. Australian startup Splash started life as an AI music company, training an AI named Alice to play piano duets with people. The company has pivoted but that tech is still at its heart: Splash’s AI has been used to create a catalogue of beats, loops and sounds, all available for humans to play with in its Roblox game. Millions of players and a $20m funding round later, Splash is hoping to nurture a new talent pool of young musicians in the metaverse.
14. Pixelynx. This startup counts a pair of prominent artists from the electronic-music world among its co-founders: Richie ‘Plastikman’ Hawtin and Joel ‘deadmau5’ Zimmerman. Unveiled in April 2021 as a ‘direct-to-avatar’ startup, it has been the focus for these artists’ experiments in virtual worlds (deadmau5 even launched his own); their investments in related startups (like Oorbit); and will now be the publisher of a game blending music with NFTs. And as we mentioned earlier, they’ve got Big Pokémon Money to do that with.
15. Ristband. Artists as co-founders is a trend we welcome, and Ristband is another example. Its team has been working with AR, VR and mixed-reality technology around concerts by the band Miro Shot for several years. The band’s frontman Roman Rappak is also the company’s chief creative officer. Armed with an ‘Epic MegaGrant’ from Epic Games, Ristband is building a metaverse designed to be used by independent artists, rather than just the biggest, richest acts.
16. Wave. Another company that went through a name change as its business evolved: this one from TheWaveVR, which emerged in 2016 as a virtual reality app for concerts and DJ sets. The rebrand came in 2019 with a pivot away from VR as the sole way to experience its events. Instead, Wave would help artists put on impressive metaverse shows, which it could stream out to YouTube, Twitch, TikTok and other video services to reach as wide an audience as possible. Lindsey Stirling, The Weeknd, Pentakill (see Riot Games earlier) and Justin Bieber are among the artists to have tried it, while Tencent Music invested in the company in November 2020.
17. TribeXR. This startup came onto Music Ally’s radar as part of the Techstar Music accelerator’s 2020 cohort. TribeXR is a VR app for learning to DJ, complete with virtual decks and daily workshops and masterclasses. However, it’s also a performance tool: people can use it to play their sets live to the world. TribeXR was one of the first startups to use Meta’s subscription billing for Oculus Quest apps, and by June 2022 had signed up more than 90,000 students. What’s interesting is that TribeXR is focused on DJing, but it has long-term potential as a VR education tool for pretty much any topic you can think of – music and non-music alike.
18-19. The Sandbox / Decentraland. Blockchain gaming and decentralised virtual worlds is a burgeoning industry (in hype at least). The Sandbox and Decentraland are two of the most prominent examples to have worked with music in some way. Both focus on users owning the world (or at least parcels of virtual land within it), with digital items as NFTs part of the mix too. The Sandbox has already worked with Snoop Dogg and Warner Music Group, both of whom are building within it. Decentraland held its own music festival last year, meanwhile, and has a calendar of events including virtual clubs and concerts. Will either appeal beyond the crypto community to mainstream music fans though?
20. FitXR. This UK-based startup began life as BoxVR, a virtual reality fitness app based on boxing. Having raised $7.5m of funding in July 2020, it changed its name to FitXR and expanded its ambitions to other forms of exercise including dance and high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Music has always been at the core of its app though: soundtracking and also driving your activities. Initially it was mostly production music, but in July 2021 FitXR signed a swathe of deals with labels, indicating its willingness to license commercial tracks too.
21-22. Anything World / Solace Vision. Two more startups that we’re bundling together as they are in similar spaces. We know more about Anything World, having profiled its ambitions to help people conjure virtual worlds into being using voice commands. Thus far, its tech has been used commercially more often in simpler promotional games for artists, but with funding from WMG, there is still potential. Solace Vision is even newer, and is building tools to create virtual worlds from text inputs rather than voice. Its participation in the Techstars Music accelerator suggests music is on its agenda.
23. XRSpace. XRSpace was founded in 2020 by the former CEO of tech firm HTC, and launched its own virtual reality headset called the XRSpace Mova. However, the company is also working on content for its devices, and in 2022 that includes a “music performance metaverse” called PartyOn, debuting in China as a virtual world for people to perform karaoke to a catalogue of more than 17k licensed music videos. Online karaoke is big in China, so will it also be a popular activity in the metaverse?
24-25. Supersocial / MELON. One of the interesting things about Roblox is the community of developers around it – many of whom cut their game and world-creating teeth as kids on the service. There are a number of dedicated agencies who have been working with artists and labels to build experiences on Roblox and other platforms. Supersocial raised $5.2m of funding last year from backers including WMG, an increasingly prolific investor in all things web3. Melon (not to be confused with the South Korean music service of the same name) is another creative shop with plenty of music clients. At NY:LON Connect this year, its president Josh Neuman predicted “an explosion in creative output… with artists that really want to get their hands dirty and get involved in what can be done”.
26. Sensorium. This is the startup behind very ambitions plans for an interconnecting set of virtual worlds under the Sensorium Galaxy umbrella. Having raised $70m in 2019, it’s been working on plans that include creating avatar versions of popular DJs to play sets in its music world. David Guetta, Carl Cox, Armin van Buuren, Charlotte de Witte and Steve Aoki are among those to have signed up. Sensorium is creating its own virtual DJs who’ll play AI-generated music too. Last December one of them, Kàra Màr, released an album on Spotify.
27. AmazeVR. Much of our coverage of startup AmazeVR has focused on its fundraising abilities: investment from K-Pop firm YG Entertainment early in 2020 followed by a $9.5m funding round in April 2021 and another $15m in January 2022. What is it doing with all this money? Well, one thing it’s doing is helping Megan Thee Stallion go on her ‘Enter Thee Hottieverse US Tour’. Fans can buy tickets to experience it in cinemas across the US, where they’ll be provided with VR headsets rather than expected to have their own. AmazeVR says that by 2024, it wants to be releasing new VR concerts every week for home and theater viewing alike.
28. Endlesss. This UK startup didn’t begin life as a metaverse company: in 2019 it was a clever app to help people make electronic music together. As it has evolved, Endlesss has pivoted towards web3 technologies, including exploring the potential to turn freshly-made music into NFTs. However, for this article we’re interested in its metaverse plans, as outlined by CEO Tim Exile in a guest column for Music Ally last October. “Rather than producing content to compete for attention, the outputs of our creativity in the metaverse will be symbols, narratives or experiences. They’ll encapsulate and communicate the value of the spaces we gather in, and the status of the people that gather there…”
29. Stageverse. Another startup, like AmazeVR, that wants to help artists create VR concert experiences. Stageverse raised $7.5m of funding in September 2021 to build out its technology, which is being used by rock band Muse for its ‘Muse: Enter The Simulation’ experience, which was released the same month. It takes footage recorded at a 2019 concert and offers fans 16 viewpoints, as well as chat and virtual merchandise features. Since then, Stageverse appears to have set its sights even more widely: as a platform for all kinds of brands (and artists) to launch virtual experiences – complete with The Sandbox-style land sales.
30. Volta. Volta is another Techstars Music alumnus, and it’s more akin to Wave in being a production tool for artists who want to give their livestreams a bit of mixed-reality pizazz. They connect it to their software (Ableton, Traktor etc) and can then create their own “real-time, interactive performances” that can be streamed out to YouTube, Twitch, TikTok and other platforms. Imogen Heap and Blessed Madonna are among the artists to have tested it, and the company raised $3m of funding from investors including Pixelynx and Beatport CEO Robb McDaniels earlier this year to continue developing it.
31-33. Soundr / Strangeloop Studios / Authentic Artists. Finally, three startups with different spins on what Riot Games has been doing around ‘synthetic reality’ – virtual artists that are capable of performing (and interacting) in metaverses as well as traditional social, video and streaming services. Soundr launched in July 2021 as a label that would ‘sign’ avatar artists, release their music (and NFTs) and put them into various games and virtual worlds. Strangeloop Studios is another Techstars Music alumnus, with its own ‘virtual artist label’ called Spirit Bomb and a roster of “decentralized virtual beings”. And yes, more NFTs.
Finally, Authentic Artists popped up in 2021 with funding from James Murdoch, Mike Shinoda and Roblox’s chief business officer, and a roster of 12 artists “from a lofi-loving cyborg to a high-octane, half-iguana DJ”. As this post was published, the company raised funding from investors including, yes you guessed it, WMG. The point around all this is less about avatars competing with human artists in the charts, but more about what kind of creative things can be done with these synthetic musicians in virtual worlds and games.
And that’s a wrap! But before we go, a note. Music Ally is fascinated by what’s happening with music and the metaverse, and we love to think about what all these companies are doing and where it might lead. But that doesn’t mean we are blind to the challenges (from music licensing complexities to the lack of interoperability between the big virtual worlds and games.
We also raise a weary eyebrow at much of the froth claiming music will be ‘revolutionised’ by the metaverse, as veterans of the first time the music industry got excited about this sort of thing (specifically 2006 and peak ‘Let’s spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars building branded artist islands in Second Life that nobody will visit!’).
And yet… People are spending more time in virtual worlds and games, and the next generation of music fans will have grown up with Minecraft, Roblox and Fortnite as some of their biggest social environments – not least during the Covid-19 pandemic.
So, with as many pinches of salt as you feel necessary, there’s value to watching what the companies mentioned in this piece (and others) do over the coming months and years. Even if you ultimately decide, like iPod father Tony Fadell, that your ultimate standpoint is “F**k the Metaverse“.
(But before you decide that, how about coming to the Sandbox Summit Web3 Special to see if any of the speakers can change your mind? Or, indeed, harden your opinions! It’s a Music Ally event in association with CIRKAY, Fanaply and Global Rockstar, and supported by Tuned Global.)