Will.i.am Joins 'Mobile Record Label' Startup Amuse, Talks 'Defining a New Type of Record Industry'

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Will.i.am attends A Green Carpet Challenge BAFTA Night during London Fashion Week Spring/Summer collections 2017 on Sept. 18, 2016 in London.

The Black Eyed Peas frontman is now a co-founder at the company with an eye on the future of music.

will.i.am is betting big on data to drive the future of the music industry, as the Black Eyed Peas frontman announced on Wednesday (Sept. 6) his joining Swedish tech company Amuse as a co-founder. 

The company is being billed as the "world's first mobile record label," but unlike most labels the only barrier of entry to use the service is being the least bit tech savvy. From there, it's simply a matter of whether your music takes off. Amuse provides free digital distribution for artists to all the major platforms, offering insight into audience and income analytics for the sake of full transparency and opportunity. In that, alone, it is unique in contrast to other independent distributors such as TuneCore or CD Baby that take a fee to act as the middleman between artists and the digital marketplace, and is instead focusing on forming label deals as the route to success. When Amuse sees artists performing well (they will after all have access to all that juicy data), the service becomes a proprietary A&R tool with the aim of signing these artists and developing their careers in partnership. 

Amuse has been live since March and reports 15,000 artists using the app on iOS and Android devices, with eight acts so far signed to the label. Now with will.i.am's involvement official and announced, it is sure to get a boost in recognition. But if they were just interested in a celebrity ambassador they should have hired someone else, the futurist musician says. Instead, he's interested in "defining a new type of record industry."

Billboard spoke to will.i.am and Amuse co-founder and CEO Diego Farias about their vision for the company and what their teaming up brings to the project. The focus is honest transparency first followed by empowering artists to become superstars in the new age of music, with will.i.am envisioning wide-spreading collaborations coming up with these acts and the impressive array of services available at his Hollywood creative complex, The Future (which features a sound stage, photo studio, multiple recording and mixing suites, full video production, a graphic design team, product engineering and way more). It's ambitious big thinking, but from will.i.am would you expect any less? These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Billboard: Based on your vast experience in the music industry, what appealed to you so much about Amuse? 

will.i.am: Okay, so, I'm signed to a label -- this year marks 20 years that we signed with Jimmy Iovine. And the record company is an amazing promise, like, "Hey, record, we'll give you a budget and we'll distribute your stuff to all the places that, you know, play music and sell music, and that's that." But when it comes to recouping, that's when things get foggy.... Nowadays, everything's been opened up: You can record on your phone, you can record on an iPad and a laptop, you can publish on Soundcloud, you have access to uploading videos to YouTube and getting in front of millions of people, you can put your photos up and talk directly to people, you don't necessarily need a traditional publication to get the message out there. Think about all the things that offer freedom to artists and thinkers and collaborators, you know. Except for finance around your art -- that's the only thing that's still foggy, right? "How do I get paid, though? And when do I get paid? And can I draw down whenever there's money there?" That still was this very gray area up until Amuse.... That, to me, is revolutionary, because record companies don't allow that. 

To basically clarify what Amuse does, is you offer free digital distribution and in return you get data on all these artists that you can use for A&R -- correct?

Diego Farias: Yeah, that's what we're talking about here. It's every play that gets created anywhere in the world today, is getting played digitally. And it creates these fantastic digital footprints which can be broken down and then insight can be gained from those. Obviously it doesn't remove the personal factor and the emotional factor of music, but it's an incredibly strong tool to start visualizing interest. So imagine you're going to a show and you look at the crowd and how the crowd is interacting with the music, that's kind of what we can do with all of this fantastic information that we're collecting.

Are there other uses for that data?

Farias: The information can be used for a bunch of different things, but I think the most important usage is this transparency that has been missing for some extent that allows an artist to make informed decisions about their career. And I think that aspect, putting the control back in the hands of artists around the world, is very meaningful and very important. And it's a big step in a direction that we don't fully understand yet, because this could inform tour decisions, it could inform how I communicate with my fans, who I communicate to, such and such. So I think it's a very powerful empowerment step. 

When it comes to signing acts to the record label, how do your offers or services differ from traditional labels?

Farias: So what we've been talking about so far is that there are a couple of things that we want to get started with from the beginning and one of them is the fact that we don't foresee a future where we outright buy rights. We don't think that's the future, we don't think that the younger artists are connecting with the idea of selling their rights to someone else. So the first part is removing that part in the equation. The other part is in the true spirit of transparency and artistry, being a partner of the artist, and I think that's what a lot of artists are seeking nowadays. So it's about reinventing the relationship between the label and the artist and it fits perfectly into how society works nowadays -- a lot of the creative process has moved from labels into smaller groups closer to the artist. A lot of decisions are being made around the artist or by the artist, him or herself, and it's a very natural progression in how labels have operated in the past. We don't have all the answers right now, but I think those two points speak to the power of philosophy in this area.

Will, in joining the Amuse team, you bring a level of celebrity and industry experience to the project -- as well as the sort of innovative thinking you've shown beyond music -- how will that benefit the company and those artists with whom you choose to work?

will.i.am: There's not that many people in the music industry as well versed in it and with an inside role to this new path, like, "Hey, let's start working with brands directly," like Black Eyed Peas and I did that. When Apple launched iTunes and we worked with them directly early on in 2003, when they launched iTunes and iPod.... So, if they wanted just a celebrity, there's lots of them, right? So I think that me and my faculty here in Hollywood where we have sound stages, our own cameras and lights, our own recording studio and editing facilities, developers, you know, amenities.... So, for example, when we find artists that are bubbling using our platform and they want to do a video, they can come into our complex and not have to pay an arm and a leg for high-quality awesome video or editing. Or, say, one wants to come up with an app, we have developers in-house. Or if one wants to come up with products, we have product designers in-house. 

Artists want to do more than just sell music, ask Kanye, ask Rihanna, and these artists have led a path to like make music, connect it with audience, and dare to dream and bring something to market that's more than just audio and a couple of visuals. And, together, what we're doing can bring that and consult and guide artists to be more than just, you know, Instagram stars.

That actually brings me to my next question: You're involved with a lot of different projects in and out of music — how do you envision Amuse working in tandem with some of those, if at all?

will.i.am: What I'm really excited about is when a success happens on Amuse, for them to come to our facility, The Future, here in Hollywood and to think about their future in other areas. 

So this could extend beyond typical label deals and into something more like a collaborative partnership or management? I'm not exactly sure what the right term for that would be. 

will.i.am: So that's the.... The music industry has been conditioned so much that the only way to go about it is either like a record deal or a management deal, then there's this third, this new thing that I think that needs to be defined. So Jimmy [Iovine] is not Dr. Dre's manager. And when they did Beats, it wasn't through Interscope. He didn't do Beats with Dre as an artist signed to Interscope. What is that called? And Beats is not an anomaly. Right? So there's going to be a system in which we put together these new types of like, brand building, business building, after we see success from music, because music sells a lot of stuff. And there's a lot of people that are on Instagram and Snapchat suggesting that they are those people for the things that they like or things that they want to see in the market other than just songs. And Kanye West and Rihanna and Drake and Dr. Dre have pushed the ball forward and lift the benchmark to where there's going to be more of them -- an army of them are about to come.

Farias: I think Will articulated it really well. It's about using this platform as an entry into a bunch of other things and Amuse will be involved as the label in bringing out these artists out into the world, and I think that that's where Will's experience and expertise becomes so important for us. He has all that experience, you know 20 years being a signed artist, it's incredibly meaningful in when we start to figure out exactly how we want to make our offers or how we want to make our deals look and how we work with the different artists. He's bringing a lot to the table and it's just going to be super exciting to see where this leads.