“What if you had 5 million videos with 5 million unique people signing with you, instead of 5 million YouTube views?” That question is how founder and CEO Jeff Smith pitches his social music application, Smule, to labels and artists.
Smule has about 40 million users, and Smith said the nearly 11-year-old company brings in some $150 million in annual revenue, with investors including China’s Tencent and India’s Times Bridge.
“I wanted to go be a professor of music, but fate had something different in store for me this time,” he said.
Smith created the company while earning his doctoral degree in computer music at Stanford University. He says that he wasn’t planning to start another company, but he began creating music with a whole network of people via the then-new iPhone, and that initiative evolved into building prototypes of products running on iPhones.
“I started the company with a mission to bring music back to its roots as more of a participatory creative medium,” Smith said, “to build a fabric kind of like Facebook but mostly anonymous—the music becomes the bridge.”
He added that he enjoys seeing people across all different walks of life creating songs together, but “nobody expected this to be as big as it was.”
While at Stanford, Smith created some of the first iPhone apps with multitouch technology, allowing users to manipulate the microphone on their devices for on-screen activity. Those early apps included Ocarina, Magic Piano and I Am T-Pain.
Smule now boasts contracts with several major music publishers to license music, with more than one-half of the worldwide Billboard Top 50 songs available on its platform.
Smith said, “We’re bigger than any radio station, and [publishers and labels] care about reach. If you’re going to launch on radio, why wouldn’t you launch on Smule?” He added that when Apple debuts a new song from an artist from one of its partners, that song will debut concurrently on Smule and be cross promoted.
Warner Music is one of Smule’s prominent record label partners, with such artists as Sheeran, Clarkson, Jason Derulo, Bebe Rexha, James Blunt, Lukas Graham, Charlie Puth, Sofia Reyes, De La Ghetto and Jess Glynne participating on the platform.
Olivia Spring, senior marketing manager at Warner Music U.K., said she first became aware of Smule thanks to Derulo, and her label was working with Anne-Marie, a new artist at the time. “It just seemed like a good platform where fans were actually engaging with the artists,” she said. “We thought it would be a good opportunity to associate the artist with the song.”
Smule represented Anne-Marie’s largest social following at one point. Spring added, “Anne-Marie was someone who really gets online content and performing. She just totally nailed it.”
Another highlight for Warner Music on Smule took place when Universal artist Luke Bryan joined Derulo on “Want to Want Me,” which led to further collaborations between the two artists.
Smule is also working with international Warner artists, including Anitta (from Brazil), Robin Schulz (a DJ from Germany), Francesco Yates (Canada) and Kotak (Indonesia).
Disney Music Group is another Smule partner, having run five campaigns on the platform to date. Smule said there have been some 4 million interactions, with its users signing along with “You’re Welcome” (Moana), “A Whole New World” (Aladdin), “Remember Me” (Coco), “Part of Your World” (The Little Mermaid) and “How Far I’ll Go” (Moana), the latter tallying nearly twice as much as any of the other songs.
Disney Music Group vice president of licensing Dominic Griffin said Smule is one of his company’s biggest contributors as far as generating money from its music, adding that Smule came to him with the idea of incorporating classic songs from television and movies, as well as clips from animated movies that would allow users to duet with the characters.
He pointed out that while licensing music from live-action musicals would trigger all kinds of issues, animated characters don’t have those restrictions, adding that his mission is to market, monetize and protect Disney’s music assets, and the activation with Smule “checked all three boxes.”
Griffin said Smule “seemed like a fun family platform that speaks to how we seek to protect Disney’s assets. It took a while to get approval, but we’re happy with the engagement,” calling the platform a fun experience for the end-user that is not off-message for Disney.
Most importantly, the app is fun for users and artists alike. When Demi Lovato joined the platform, she sang an original version of one of her hit songs from her purse closet. Smith added: “It’s pretty fun and engaging for my 10-year-old daughter to be able to sing a song with Maui from Moana.”