App “Musical.ly” Is the Music Industry’s New Secret Weapon via VICE

The music press may not take Jacob Sartorius’s music seriously, but the 14-year-old has roughly 10 million followers on the musical.ly app and now tours for his fans. Portrait by Jared Soares

This story appears in the upcoming October issue of VICE magazine, which will be online on October 10. Click HERE to subscribe.

Dae
Dae is a 23-year-old rapper with a toothy grin and long, blue-dyed dreads that
flap up when he dances. He
grew up poor in Atlanta’s Boulevard/Fourth Ward and started rapping at ten
years old. When his father got locked up for selling drugs, he took a job
pouring concrete and doing flooring to support himself and his family. It was
while pouring concrete that he came up with the words for his debut single,
“Wat U Mean (Family to Feed),” a song with a hook that summed up his reasons
for being there: “Got a family to feed, they dependin’ on me.”

Less than a year
later, he signed a record deal with in-demand producer Nitti Beatz and got to
work promoting the track. When it hit the internet last April, the music video
for “Wat U Mean” enjoyed modest success, while online clips by two prominent Atlanta
dance crews—SheLovesMeechie and Team NueEra—earned the song 2.5 and 1 million
listens apiece. By summer, the song was making the rounds on the radio,
reaching number 7 on the
Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart on August 27
and 25 million hits on YouTube by September. According to Dae Dae, a catalyst
for the song’s success was musical.ly, a music video-production and sharing app
that few people have heard about in the Atlanta rap world.

Approximately 50 million people under the age of 21—or roughly half of the teens and preteens in America—are on musical.ly.

Musical.ly is both a
utility app and a social network. Users select from a menu of their favorite
songs, then record a 15-second video of lip-synching, dancing, or clowning
around to the music. There is also an in-app livestreaming feature called
live.ly. As with Instagram, its suite of editing tools and filters enables
users to easily and speedily create content and then share it with their
followers, who reward the videos they like with a dizzying proliferation of
views, hearts, and comments. Musical.ly users who receive the most hearts over
a given 24-hour period rise to the top of an in-app leaderboard displaying the
most “popular” musical.ly users—dubbed “musers”—at a given moment. Of
particular interest to young artists like Dae Dae, there’s also a song chart,
ranking the most popular songs on the app.

Approximately 50 million people
under the age of 21—or roughly half of the teens and preteens in America—are on
musical.ly, and a handful of that generation’s most beloved viral stars got
their start on the app. There’s Baby Ariel, a 15-year-old Florida native who
began uploading lip-sync videos to songs by Justin Bieber and Drake while
living in her grandparent’s house; as I’m writing this, she has 13 million
followers on musical.ly, does national tours with other digi-celebrities, and
makes money off of sponsored editorial on her YouTube channel. And there’s
Jacob Sartorius, a former child actor from Virginia who debuted his first pop
single, “Sweatshirt,” to his roughly 10 million followers on the app. By
September, the song—a tune about the 14-year-old heartthrob offering to let a
girl wear his sweatshirt in case she’s not yet ready to kiss—had more than 26
million views on YouTube.

Musical.ly boasts more than 11 million video uploads
per day from more than 120 million users worldwide; 64 percent of the app’s
American users fall within the coveted 13–24 demographic, and 75 percent are
female. Hoping to capitalize on that audience, Dae Dae debuted a 15-second
snippet of “Wat U Mean” on musical.ly in August; to promote it, he hosted an in-app
contest challenging listeners to make a music video of themselves performing
his signature dance, where he languidly swings his arms in the air to the
song’s staccato “Aye” shouts. Since its inception, the challenge has yielded a
staggering 153,719 responses, with scores of newly won fans performing their
own renditions of the “Aye” dance.

“I definitely did connect with a lot of
people on musical.ly I wouldn’t think even listen to rap music,” Dae Dae told
me via email. “This older guy made a video, and I was thinking he could be
doing anything else with his time, but he took time out of his day to rock out
to my song.”

According to a representative from musical.ly, the app drove a
major spike in YouTube views for “Wat U Mean” and more than doubled iTunes
sales from one week to the next, all through outgoing links on his user-profile
page. D.R.A.M., an up-and coming rapper from Virginia, who has worked
behind-the-scenes with Rick Rubin, noticed something similar happening with his
Lil Yachty collaboration, “Broccoli.” After his team released the music video
on YouTube in July, they discovered that the song had already been charting on
musical.ly for months, garnering 30,000 videos without any direct promotional
campaign. Today, more than 285,000 videos have been posted with #broccoli; thanks
in part to the app, it was the summer’s biggest sleeper hit.

Dae Dae, a rapper from Atlanta, accessed a new audience by promoting his single “Wat U Mean” on musical.ly. More than 100,000 of the app’s users created their own videos to the song. Portrait by Devinn Pierre

Through
musical.ly, Dae Dae and D.R.A.M. gained access to the sort of impromptu
secondhand promotion typically reserved for artists who already have rabid fan
bases (think Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video, which spawned a wave of memes that
further spread the song). Beneath musical.ly’s ostensible function as a place
where young people amuse themselves making videos for their friends, the app poses
an eye-opening, potentially industry-disrupting question: Why try to promote your
music all on your own when you can get fans to promote your work for you?


“Fans don’t want to only receive new music;
they really want to create and interact with this music,” Alex Hofmann, president
of musical.ly North America, told me by phone from the company’s San Francisco
headquarters. The soft-spoken German helms the company with Alex Zhu, a
self-titled “designtrepeneur” from Shanghai whom he met while working as a marketing
director at SAP Labs, a Silicon Valley enterprisesoftware company. Zhu has said
he came up with the idea for a combined music-video app and social network
while riding the train one day, watching a group of teenagers taking selfies
and listening to music. A month later, in July 2014, he and Shanghai based
co-founder Luyu Yang launched an early iteration of musical.ly in the iTunes
app store.

Downloads were slow the first year. But in April 2015, after the
company began allowing users to follow one another, favorite one another’s
posts, keep tabs on the highest-charting videos via a leaderboard, and remotely
collaborate on videos via musical.ly “duets,” things started taking off. By
July 2015, the app jumped from 1,450 downloads a day on average to half a
million and landed the coveted number one position on iTunes. By March 2016,
according to a TechCrunch report, musical.ly had 60 million active users and
$100 million in venture capital, at a $500 million valuation. Today, it employs
around 100 employees in offices in California and Shanghai.

The music press has
largely ignored musical.ly, likely because Baby Ariel and Jacob Sartorius, two
of the app’s most visible faces, seem more like vlogger-style internet
personalities than serious musicians. But many of the big-name rap and pop
stars—and the labels that sign these musicians—have been paying attention for
months.

Musical.ly uses song snippets to entice users out of the app and to streaming sites where they can listen to—or purchase—the real thing.

Log on to musical.ly, and you’ll find a selection of songs by Wiz Khalifa,
Fetty Wap, and Ty Dolla $ign to choose from; each has run promotional campaigns
similar to Dae Dae’s. According to musical.ly, a campaign Arianda Grande did
for “Into You” yielded 772,000 fan videos; Rihanna’s #Work challenge generated
830,000 fan videos, which, per Hofmann, caused the hashtag for the song to start
trending on Instagram. This summer, Hofmann also reported observing a direct,
if delayed, correlation between songs charting on musical.ly and songs that
began charting on
Billboard.

As Hofmann sees it, musical.ly’s potential to
transform the music industry stems from its emphasis on what folks in Silicon Valley
call “digestible” content, using fragments of songs as advertisements for the
whole. “It doesn’t disrupt the flow on Spotify or Apple Music,” Hofmann
explained. In other words, musical.ly uses song snippets to entice users out of
the app and to streaming sites where they can listen to—or purchase—the real
thing. “What the industry [is realizing] is [that] secondary consumption leads
to primary consumption,” he explained. “We don’t take a piece out of the pie
with musical.ly. We actually make the pie a little bigger.”

Musical.ly’s in-app editing tools simplify producing and sharing 15-second videos, which are soundtracked by users’ favorite pop songs.

Lyor Cohen, a
storied music executive with experience running major labels like Island Def
Jam and Warner Brothers, is one of many in the industry who stand to profit
from a larger pie. In 2012, he co-founded 300, an independent record label synonymous
with the viral successes of rappers like Fetty Wap, Young Thug, and Migos, with
a professed mission to harness social media to transform the music business. In
2014, 300 announced a partnership with Twitter and gained unparalleled access
to the social network’s stockpile of music-related data in exchange for helping
the company develop yet-to-be-unveiled tools for A&R and marketing
professionals. Cohen only had complimentary things to say about musical.ly—in
fact, his team encouraged Dae Dae and Nitti Beatz Recordings to try it in the
first place.

“300 loves being the test-tube babies for innovations,
particularly around products that incorporate music,” Cohen told me by phone.
He said Dae Dae’s musical.ly campaign resulted in a “dramatic increase in
streaming and sales,” and that 300 plans to run campaigns for other artists on
the label, including Young Thug and Brooklyn post-punk band Mainland.
“Something they’re hitting is very powerful,” Cohen said of the app.

Sebastian
Begg, an A&R and artist manager at Interscope Records, said he noticed
success similar to Dae Dae’s with BUNT., a German electronic-folk duo that
launched a twangy comeback single, “Old Guitar,” on musical.ly after some time
out of the spotlight. By the end of the three-week musical.ly campaign, the band
saw its Spotify listener base increase from 86,000 monthly listeners to
902,000. Begg wasn’t entirely surprised; the MIT grad had been meeting with
Hofmann since around the time musical.ly went number one in the app store.
According to Begg, he’d advised Hofmann to develop musical.ly as a tool not
only for amplifying preexisting stars but also for launching new ones. “If you
can contribute in breaking an artist, you will be a lean-forward platform,”
he told me. “That means that instead of being able to react to pop culture, you
will be able to progress pop culture.”

Business
Insider reported that musical.ly now offers its artists certain free-of-charge
support services, such as connecting them with
talent agencies, organizing meetups with fans, and even helping them to review
some contracts. In June, news broke that musical.ly had signed a deal with
Warner Music Group, home of Atlantic Records, Rhino, Warner Bros. Records, and many
more. Ayal Kleinman, the vice president of marketing at Warner Bros. Records,
said he was unable to comment on the specifics of the deal, but said that it
enabled the company and its affiliate labels to freely license music to and
promote music on musical.ly. Hofmann added, by email, that musical.ly has “formal
relationships with all of the major record labels and music publishers,”
including Sony, Interscope Records, which is part of the Universal Group, and
300, which is distributed by Atlantic Records. When it comes to streaming sites
like YouTube, iTunes, and Spotify, he wrote, “Musical.ly is in conversations with
all three and will likely partner with one in the future.”

But Kleinman said he
sees the app less as a catchall marketing tool than a way of targeting a very
specific demographic. “I know that there’s a sweet spot in the demographics for
the app, and it’s definitely younger kids,” he said. “In terms of the repertoire
that we choose to promote on the app, it’s going to be stuff that speaks to
that audience. We’re not putting more mature material on there.”

Beyond the
question of demographics, musical.ly has limitations. Its emphasis on creating
viral content out of hooks lends itself more to accessible pop fare than to the
stylistically adventurous corners of music creation—a reality reinforced by the
leaderboard and song-chart features, which suggest that the most popular
content is what matters the most. Musical.ly may also be taking a grassroots
promotion method and stripping the democracy out of it. If social media’s
biggest contribution to the industry has been to level the musical playing
field, allowing artists without label backing to market their output
themselves, then an app running promotional deals with the majors runs the risk
of using the veil of digital meritocracy to mask a system that is innately
rigged. Viewed in the most cynical light, musical.ly could also be seen as a
vehicle by which major labels can
manipulate unsuspecting teens—drawn in by the app’s entertainment value—to run
their promotional campaigns for them.

Jacob Sartorius, a former child actor from Virginia who debuted his first pop single, “Sweatshirt,” to his roughly 10 million followers on the app. Portrait by Jared Soares

Still, Hofmann stressed that he sees
musical.ly more as a “family” than a service. “Our goal is to have a platform
that connects millions of people and allows them to express themselves,” he
said.

These days the company is focused on expanding internationally. Of the
territories musical.ly is in, it’s seen strongest growth in Germany, the
Netherlands, France, Mexico, Indonesia, and the Philippines; for countries with
poorer-quality internet, the company has even introduced a lower-bandwidth
version called musical.ly light. Hofmann told me the company now allows fans to
compensate artists directly, by using live.ly to digitally deliver small sums
of money—or “gifts”—to the artists they love.

In September, Hofmann’s employees
at musical.ly North America were in the process of packing up their desks. This
fall, they’ll relocate to a new office in Los Angeles, in order to work more
closely with the entertainment industry. It’s a move that feels symbolic of the
company’s rapid rise from a tech-world startup to music-industry power player,
like Apple and Spotify before it. Still, the full scope of its impact on that
business remains just as mysterious as the day when Dae Dae woke up, opened the
app, and saw thousands of people from around the world dancing to and
lip-synching his song.

This story appears in the upcoming October issue of VICE magazine, which will be live on October 10. Click HERE to subscribe.

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