UnitedMasters Launches With $70 Million to Rethink Labels From The Ground Up -- But What's Different?

Jesse Grant/Getty Images for VH1
Steve Stoute at the Leonard Goldenson Theatre on June 3, 2014 in North Hollywood, Calif.

The system-disrupting startup raised millions from Alphabet, Andreessen Horowitz, 21st Century Fox and Floodgate.

Onlookers have been bemoaning their downfall for years, but the reality is that record labels are still a dominant force in today's music industry. While the traditional, contractual skeletons behind labels may be breaking down, the core functional roles of financial and marketing support, plus taking a cut of royalties, are alive and well.

One company might now have the money necessary to enact more disruptive, meaningful change -- if that’s really the end goal it wants. Steve Stoute, former president of Interscope Records and CEO of ad agency Translation, announced yesterday (Nov. 15) the launch of a new artist services company called UnitedMasters that aims to scale and operationalize smarter data analytics and insights for the DIY artist community. The company, which will operate as a subsidiary of Translation Enterprises, has been running in stealth over the past several months, and has raised $70 million from an A-list investor slate including Alphabet, Andreessen Horowitz, 21st Century Fox and Floodgate. Several employees from Translation and Pandora have transitioned to the company, while former Etsy CFO Kristina Salen has joined the team as CFO/COO.

In a blog post following the launch, Jack Krawczyk, chief product officer at United Masters and former vp of product management at Pandora, revealed that the inspiration behind building a new service from the ground up was the concept of a "music data chasm," which Krawczyk defined as a gap between "the information behind how people listen to music (via streaming and physical sales) and how they experience music in the real world (inside their social feeds, IRL at live concerts, merchandising, and other externalities that music generates)."

Underlying this concept is the argument that music cannot exist in isolation of other industries and formats, and that music marketing strategies haven’t yet caught up to this distributed reality. "We see music listening as one component of the bridge into influencing how fans engage with music in the real world across all forms of media," wrote Krawczyk.

UnitedMasters claims that its tools will empower artists to listen to their fans more effectively by making these various cross-media data streams more intelligible and actionable -- "turn[ing] your 0s and 1s into real fan love,” as a promotional video preaches. But what does that tool currently look like? Is there any information or data displayed on the UnitedMasters platform that you can’t already get on other third-party services?

As of today, the answer is no. The UnitedMasters artist page displays follower counts and engagement rates on Instagram, Twitter, SoundCloud, Facebook and YouTube, with no actual paid streaming services in sight yet -- in other words, the same platforms that competitors like Pandora’s Next Big Sound have been tracking for years.

Perhaps the most surefire way that UnitedMasters could disrupt the recording industry is if it delivers on its promise to offer competitive distribution rates to artists, while allowing them to retain their masters rights -- but there’s currently no distribution option active on the site, only bare-bones social media analytics. Nor is there any capability yet to integrate email lists or phone numbers, which fails to address arguably the biggest pain point for DIY and unsigned artists, namely the ability to fully own their communications channels to their fans.

On UnitedMasters’ Product Hunt page, Krawczyk clarified that version one of the core product will focus simply on calls to action for artists to dig into their data and understand their fans’ online behavior, rather than improving communication or building structures in the other direction for fans to support artists à la Patreon and Kickstarter. As part of this initial version, artists will also receive weekly, personalized recommendations on how to grow their fan bases -- which, if truly effective, could be a key competitive advantage in an era where the likes of Spotify and Bandcamp are launching their own data dashboards and trying to beat rivals to the punch when it comes to transparency and convenience.

While not much might actually look different for now in the UnitedMasters setup, many entrepreneurs in the music startup ecosystem are speaking out about how this race to transparency simply cannot be ignored by the incumbents. "Historically, we've seen labels and publishers fight technology and suffer the consequences as a result," Roy LaManna, CEO of video content management platform Vydia, told Billboard in a statement. "This is just another wakeup call that they need to get ahead of this inevitable change in our industry and provide the services and tools artists are starting to demand, and will soon require."


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