As a part of today’s modern music industry there exists a complementary and thriving support system of venture capital firms and music tech startup accelerators who are providing a multitude of innovative services. A fascinating examination of the current state of this ecosystem appeared in an article entitled Music Pushes to Innovate Beyond Streaming, But Investors Play It Safe: Analysis, by Cherie Hu, posted on Billboard.com on 7/24/17. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety for its insights, assessments and accompanying graphics.
I will summarize this feature here, add some links and annotations and, well, venture a few of my own questions. Also, I believe this is a logical follow to three previous Subway Fold posts about the music biz including:
- Book Review of “The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory”
- Two Startups’ Note-Worthy Efforts to Adapt Blockchain Technology for the Music Industry
- Is Big Data Calling and Calculating the Tune in Today’s Global Music Market?
In mid-2017, the music tech market is generating signals as to its direction and viability. For example, Jawbone, the once thriving manufacturer of wearable audio devices is currently being liquidated; Soundcloud the audio distribution platform let go of 40 percent of its staff recently only days before the firm’s tenth anniversary; and Pandora has experienced high turnover among its executives while seeking a sale.
Nonetheless, the leaders in music streaming are maintaining “the music industry’s growth”. Music tech showcases and music accelerators including SXSW Music Startup Spotlight, the Midemlab Accelerator, and Techstars Music are likewise driving market transformation. During 2017 thus far, 54 music startups from more than 25 cities across the globe have taken part in these three entities. They have presented a range of submissions including “live music activations and automated messaging to analytics tools for labels and artists”.
While companies such as Live Nation, Balderton Capital and Evolution Media have previously invested in music startups, most investors at this mid-year point have never previously funded a company in this space. This is despite the fact that investments in this market sector have rarely returned the 30% that VCs generally seek. As well, a number of established music industry stars are participating as first-time or veteran investors this year.
Of the almost $900 million funding in music tech for the first half of this year, 75% was allocated for streaming services – – 82% of which went only to the leading four companies. However, there remains a “stark disconnect” involving the types of situations where music accelerators principally “lend their mentorship” in “hardware, virtual reality1, chatbots, label tools”, and the issues that VC concentrate the funding such as “streaming, social media, brands”. Moreover, this situation has the potential of “stifling innovation” across the industry.
To date, music accelerators have “successfully given a platform and resources” to some sectors of the industry that VCs don’t often consider. For example, automated messaging and AI-generated music2 are both categories that music accelerators avoided until recently, now equal 15% of membership. This expansion into new categories reflects a much deeper “tech investment and hiring trends”. Leading music companies are now optimistic about virtual digital assistants (VDA) including chatbots and voice-activated systems such as Amazon Alexa3. As well, Spotify recently hired away a leading AI expert from Sony.
However, this “egalitarian focus” on significant problems has failed to “translate into the wider investing landscape” insofar as the streaming services have attracted 75% of music tech funding. The data further shows that licensing/rights/catalog management, social music media, and music, brands and advertising finished, in that order, in second at 11.1%, third at 7.1% and fourth at 3.9%.
These percentages closely match those for 2016. Currently, many VCs in this sector view streaming “as the safest model available”. It is also one upon which today’s music industry depends for its survival.
Turning to the number of rounds of music tech funding rather than the dollar amounts raised, by segments within the industry, a “slightly more egalitarian landscape” emerges:
- Music hardware, AI-generated music, and VR and Immersive media each at 5.0%
- Live music; music brands and advertising; streaming; and social music media each at 15.0%
- Licensing, rights, and catalog management at 25% (for such companies as Kobalt Music, Stem and Dubset)
Categories that did relatively well in both their number of rounds of funding and accelerator membership were “catalog management, social music platforms, and live music”.
Those music tech startups that are more “futuristic” like hardware and VR are seen favorably by “accelerators and conference audiences”, but less so among VCs. Likewise, while corporate giants including Live Nation, Universal Music Group, Citi and Microsoft have announced movement into music VR in the past six months, VC funding for this tech remained “relatively soft”.
Even more pronounced is the situation where musical artists and label services such as Instrumental (a influencer discovery platform) and chart monitors like Soundcharts have not raised any rounds of funding. This is so “despite unmatched attention from accelerators. This might be due to these services not being large enough to draw too “many traditional investors”.
An even more persistent problem here is that not many VCs “are run by people with experience in the music industry” and are familiar with its particular concerns. Once exception is Plus Eight Equity Partners, who are trying to address “this ideological and motivational gap”.
In conclusion, the tension between a “gap in industry knowledge” and the VCs’ preference for “safety and convenience”, is blurring the line leading from accelerator to investment for many of these imaginative startups.
- Of those music startups who have successfully raised funding, what factors distinguished their winning pitches and presentations that others can learn from and apply?
- Do VCs and accelerators really need the insights and advice of music industry professionals or are the numbers, projects and ROIs only what really matters in deciding whether or not to provide support?
- Would the application of Moneyball principles be useful to VCs and accelerators in their decision-making processes?
1. See the category Virtual and Augmented Reality for other Subway Fold posts on a range of applications of these technologies.
2. For a report on a recent developments, see A New AI Can Write Music as Well as a Human Composer, by Bartu Kaleagasi, posted on Futurism.com on 3/9/17.