Business

How VR Fitness Apps Like Supernatural Could Change The Music Industry

Ryan Inzana

With a new UMPG deal unlocking ''hundreds of thousands'' of tracks, the virtual reality platform is betting that the future of fitness involves big hits and headsets.

As gyms across the United States closed or offered limited-capacity workouts over the past year due to ongoing pandemic safety restrictions, some fitness junkies transported themselves to an Icelandic lake or an Ethiopian volcano for a virtual reality workout. Supernatural, the subscription-based VR fitness app launched last April by tech company Within, has allowed users to strap on an Oculus Quest headset from the comfort of their homes and enjoy a choreographed cardio workout to uptempo hits.

Thanks to a mid-February deal with Universal Music Publishing Group, Supernatural has unlocked a treasure trove of popular music to expand in-app programming, motivate subscribers and entice those still curious about VR workouts. For $20 a month, users have been able to swing at incoming objects with VR bats, and squat to avoid others, at varying levels of tempo and difficulty. With the UMPG deal, they’ll now be able to jam to Post Malone’s “Better Now,” Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” and The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” while doing so.

“We’re looking at hundreds of thousands of new songs,” says Samantha Storr, vp of content at Supernatural, of the UMPG deal, which follows similar agreements with Sony/ATV, Warner Chappell, Kobalt and BMG, as well as label deals with UMG and Warner. The Universal catalog has allowed Storr to develop a female rappers workout for Women’s History Month, featuring Nicki Minaj’s “Chun Li” and Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage”; she’s also concocted a hair metal workout with KISS and Iron Maiden music, and a cool-down with Bob Marley tunes.

“It just adds so much depth to our catalog,” says Storr. “A lot of these are artists that you’ve seen on Supernatural, but we didn’t have their No. 1 hits, and now we do.”

Supernatural was always envisioned as an exercise option with premium music. Chris Milk, co-founder and CEO of Within, is a former music video director with deep industry ties having developed projects for artists like Arcade Fire, Pharrell Williams and U2 in the 2010s. Within started as a media distribution platform before Milk and co-founder Aaron Koblin realized the potential of at-home fitness, leading them to imagine an app that functions like a full-body, calorie-busting Dance Dance Revolution.

“It feels like you’re essentially playing a sport from the future, but you can do it in the footprint of a yoga mat in your bedroom,” says Milk, who had been talking with the major publishers while first developing Supernatural in 2018, and had multiple deals in place when the app launched last spring. With an expansive music catalog, the app has leaned into the genre cross-pollination of the streaming era: there are pop, dance and hip-hop hits, but Milk says that one of the most popular routines is ‘Sweat Symphony,’ a classical music workout in which users swing their arms like orchestra conductors.

“What’s fun about Supernatural is that there’s a new workout every day, and you’re experiencing new music that you haven’t experienced in the app on a daily basis,” says Milk. “There was a lot of sculpting to find the right [deals] that worked for us, but also, you can’t just have 10 songs that people play.”

Of course, Milk couldn’t have predicted that Supernatural would launch one month after the coronavirus pandemic forced the widespread need for at-home exercise alternatives in the United States. Companies like Peloton and Mirror have accrued millions of subscribers over the past year, but VR fitness apps like Supernatural (as well as predecessors like Beat Saber and Synth Riders) offer an even more immersive experience, allowing users to virtually escape their living rooms during quarantine.

As such, there’s enormous potential for the music industry in the coming years as new exercise initiatives are created and pathways for licensing are forged. A Macquarie Research report in February estimated that fitness technology could eventually generate $300 million annually for the industry.

“We look at it as an exciting challenge that we are absolutely obligated to undertake,” says Michael Nash, executive vp of digital strategy at UMG who worked with Milk on the Supernatural deal. Products like Supernatural will require specialized agreements, says Nash, as technology evolves to incorporate music into different types of exercises. “Fit tech really is the tip of the spear of the lifestyle category’s intersection with music,” he adds, “and we expect to see a lot more innovation.”

Looking ahead, the Supernatural team is eager to secure more deals with indie publishers and expand internationally (Supernatural is currently available in the U.S. and Canada). In the meantime, the UMPG deal will allow an increase in artist-specific workouts on the app -- perhaps a Cardi B routine, now that “WAP” and “I Like It” have been unlocked.

According to Michael Cibula, Supernatural evp of business development & finance, the app’s growth will partially depend upon wider adoption of VR from the general public. But he believes that improving technology -- and the release of the Oculus Quest 2, a sleeker model that dropped the Oculus price point from $399 to $299, last October -- has helped that proliferation.

“Working out in a VR headset -- the thought sounds so strange,” says Cibula, “but as soon as you do it, something clicks, and you realize it’s the best thing ever.”

Billboard Explains: Why Songwriters Are Selling Publishing Catalogs

This article originally appeared in the March 13, 2021, issue of Billboard.