Smule: Melting Mac Minis to return music to the masses
“The past 100 years of recorded music will be seen as parenthetical in music history.”
This bold assertion was leveled at me by Jeff Smith, co-founder and CEO of Smule, a musical phone app hothouse headquartered in San Francisco’s SOMA district. I was sitting in the company’s “Slayer” conference room with Smith and Chief Product Officer Jeannie Yang, discussing Smule’s latest offering on the App and Play Stores, Sing!
Beyond the glass walls, amid a rats nest of instrument cables, a baby grand piano, electric guitars, keyboards and basses were assembled into a circle in the middle of the office space. Smule’s 115 employees are welcome to jam whenever they feel the urge.
Smith and his squadron of musical savants are responsible for such apps as the Ocarina, I am T-Pain, and the Magic Piano. Those offerings leveraged the team’s knowledge of acoustic science to place novel and easy-to-play instruments at users’ fingertips, with surprising success. Last fall, with the unveiling of Sing!, they launched their most ambitious project yet.
Sing! is a virtual karaoke platform, which sounds simple enough: users sing alone or together to perform songs from the app’s catalogue, capturing the performance on video. Those videos are rendered and synched, the audio mastered, and then hosted on the platform, which serves as a karoake social network.
A melted rack of Mac Minis at Smule headquarters provides testimony that this not a trivial amount of work. Nor is it cheap.
“We’re spending a fortune on bandwidth and storage,” Smith said. “Users are uploading about 1.5 terabytes per day.” Since the demise of those Mac-Minis, the company has tapped into more robust computing power. “We have 300 servers processing right now, in an old World War II building under the Bay Bridge, fenced in, locked down, and totally secure,” Smith said.
Smule currently has a fortune to work with, raising $38 million this spring in debt financing and a $26 million Series F round. Smith said that Smule did $40 million in sales last year, and has 400,000 paying subscribers.
“Right now we are burning some cash, by design,” he said. “We’re planning to get back to break-even by the middle of next year.”
The singers on Sing! come from an impressive array of points throughout the globe. The U.S. is far and away the most common point of origin, representing nearly a million videos in the month to June 30. But the rest of the videos are fairly evenly distributed among users in east Asia, Europe, the Middle East, the Pacific Islands, and Africa. The U.K., the Philippines, Mexico, and Japan have the most active non-U.S. user-bases. Brazil is coming on strong, an average of 2,500 performances posted each day.
Nearly everyday, someone in Iran posts a video, there were even 15 videos posted in June from the remote island of Pitcairn, home of the descendants of the mutinous crew of the HMS Bounty. More than two hundred videos come from Saudi Arabia in an average day, a dozen or two from Afghanistan. Karaoke is an entertainment without borders, and Sing! provides a space for those musical exhibitionists to congregate.
For the Smule team, the surprises go beyond just where people are using the app.
“When you offer an open platform like Sing!, it attracts all new kinds of ways for people to use it,” said Yang. “For us the challenge is just keeping up with that.”
Some users have used the platform for rap cyphers, remotely trading freestyles over a beat, which Smule knits together. Others have organized a complex competition akin to NBC’s The Voice. People have begun adding their own lyrics and doing mash-ups of multiple songs. Still other users exploited a bug allowing them to expand the duet feature into group performances, well before Smule launched its Group Sing! feature earlier this month.
Another coming feature, currently in a beta release, promises to expand the song catalogue drastically. Originally, all the karaoke song arrangements on the platform were created by the company’s crack team of 10 musicians, who generally churn out about 40 arrangements per week, complete with indicators for timing and different vocal parts. The version in beta allows users to generate their own arrangements. It was launched with little marketing this spring on Android, and in the time since, the Sing! catalogue has grown from 2,000 to 30,000 songs.
“We’ve been bottlenecked on catalogue expansion,” Smith said. “It’s hard to do, internationally, to keep up with every sort of genre. We can scale it by opening up the content production platform to allow our 26 million monthly active users to arrange the songs. It completes the loop, and now any type of song can hit our network.”
Perhaps the most novel thing of all about Smule: it pays musicians. The company has over 800 contracts with publishers across the world, including blanket deals with big players like Universal and Warner. Payments go directly to the artist or publisher each time their song is played. And on top of that, the company retains those ten musicians on salary.
This artist-friendly policy has recently begun attracting the attention of artists, who have shown up on the platform to sing their own songs and engage musically with their fans. A recent performance by singer Jessie J, of her song “Flashlight”, got 139,000 people around the world to join her in duet. One of those duets went viral on Youtube and garnered 4.6 million views; another by a woman in the Philippines got 3.5 million. The song got 29 million total views through Smule, and Yang said that Jessie J’s sales and streams elsewhere picked up noticeably as a result. T Pain also did a video, and this week Jason Derulo uploaded a performance of his song “Want to Want Me,” which recently spent weeks in the top five on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
This might all be in fun, but make no mistake, Smule CEO Jeff Smith is a man with a mission.
“I often think of Bela Bartok, at the turn of the last century, tramping across Romania trying to capture songs from village to village. Downloads and streaming have changed the music industry, but at Smule we are trying to bring music back to its roots in songs that people share,” he said.
Smith began his career as a computer programmer, but went on to obtain doctorate degrees from Stanford in Computer-Based Music Theory and Acoustics, and he continues to teach there as consulting professor. He’s a classically trained pianist. His previous company, Simplify Media, was sold to Google in 2010 and incorporated into Google Music. Smith’s devotion to the study of musical behavior through data and statistics analysis has led him to open up the entire library of Smule usage to populate Stanford’s Digital Archives of Mobile Performances.
“We are redefining the field of music engagement theory,” Smith said.
While all that music science allows Sing! to do what it does, and Smith is pursuing his interest in exploring the platform’s potential with polyphonic choral music, the app is decidedly targeted at amateurs, and as an engagement platform for artists in the industry’s vast and troubled middle.
Yang, an electrical engineer and computer scientist who worked at Yahoo! before coming to Smule five years ago to lead the Sing! product team, makes no claims to musicianship.
“I’m shy about singing,” she said.
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