Celebrity Apps Keep Failing. So, Why Are They Still Being Built?

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for DIRECTV
Taylor Swift performs onstage during the 2017 DIRECTV NOW Super Saturday Night Concert at Club Nomadic on Feb. 4, 2017 in Houston, Texas. 

Taylor Swift and the Kardashian sisters have abandoned their mobile apps, but investors are just getting started in the space.

Back in 2008, one year after the iPhone launched, music-industry commentators were lauding the celebrity app as "the new MySpace page." Building an app from scratch, they argued, could offer artists and labels not only maximum customizability over the presentation of their visual brand, but also full ownership over direct relationships with fans.  

Fast-forward a decade later, however, and some of the biggest trailblazers in the celebrity-app world are now having second thoughts.

In Dec. 2018, the Kardashian sisters announced that they would no longer be updating their suite of branded subscription apps, developed by Whalerock Industries. Shortly thereafter, Taylor Swift announced official plans to close down her mobile social network, The Swift Life, on Feb. 1, in the wake of declining user engagement and complaints about political content moderation.

This high-profile exodus is only the latest addition to a vast graveyard of failed artist-branded apps and social networks.

Glu Mobile, the developer behind The Swift Life, had already warned investors in early 2017 that most of its other celebrity-centric projects -- including Katy Perry Pop, Britney Spears: American Dream and Nicki Minaj: The Empire -- “failed to generate meaningful revenue.” DIY fan-community builder Backplane, which was backed by Troy Carter and developed Lady Gaga’s first Little Monsters fan site, sold to unnamed investors in 2016 after burning through nearly $19 million in cash. More recently, Fullscreen Direct -- the direct-to-fan membership platform formerly known as StageBloc that had racked up over 70 clients, including Keith Urban and Justin Timberlake -- announced in December that it would be shutting down, as part of 140 layoffs from parent company Otter Media.

In this landscape, one could easily pronounce artist apps "dead." But as far as investment is concerned, it seems that the music industry is only just getting started.

A whole ecosystem of boutique agencies and development firms -- including but not limited to Disciple Media, Integral Studio, Opus Studio, EscapeX and Universal-owned Fame House -- is staying busy meeting the growing demand for artist apps, fan communities, paid memberships and augmented-reality experiences, at both the major and DIY level.

“I don’t think an artist app shutting down is indicative of the underlying concept not having the potential to be successful,” Nick Rizzuto, director of marketing and partnerships at Fame House, tells Billboard. “These apps really do need constant upkeep and management. You can’t just ‘launch’ an app with a ton of hype, set it and forget it and hope it’ll take off.”

There are many reasons why artists remain interested in making their own apps, despite the sector’s rocky and costly history. On a more abstract level, emerging and legacy talent alike can benefit from the more positive, tech-forward branding that comes with embracing software development partnerships. In addition, the concrete, harsh realities of the current music-business climate -- lower streaming margins, a pay-to-play digital ad ecosystem and a shrinking media landscape -- have created stronger financial incentives for artists to build their own communication platforms and subscription programs from scratch.

The typical artist app runs on a freemium model: giving fans free access to a community feed or forum, with the opportunity to pay for perks like exclusive live streams with artists, boosted comments on posts and discounted merchandise.

Beyond freemium, a growing number of artists and labels are also embracing direct-to-fan subscriptions, which charge a monthly fee for access to exclusive content and experiences. Platforms like Patreon have already demonstrated the power of this model in the independent world, with the most successful artists like Amanda Palmer receiving over $50,000 per project directly from supporters. Bandcamp has also enabled subscriptions on its platform since 2015 (e.g. indie label Stone’s Throw runs a Bandcamp subscription for $10 per month), while newer initiatives like Mixcloud Select are attempting to bring the paid-membership experience into a pure streaming environment.

“If you convert 0.1 percent of your 2 million Instagram followers to pay for a $4.99 per month subscription, that gives you an extra $10,000 a month,” Sephi Shapira, founder and CEO of EscapeX, which manages subscription-enabled social apps for the likes of Zaytoven, Ashley Tisdale, J Alvarez and Bob Marley, tells Billboard. “That’s nothing to sneeze at, when you consider plenty of musicians make less than $500 a month and have to do odd jobs to make ends meet.”

Even major stars who might not need the extra money are running their own branded paid memberships, such as the Neil Young Archives ($19.99 per year), Justin Timberlake’s Premium Tennessee Kids ($24.99 per year) and Keith Urban’s The ‘Ville: Phoenix Club ($29.99 per year). Typical benefits for fans include early previews of new releases, advance presale codes for tours, exclusive access to meet-and-greets and discounts on merch -- perhaps a nostalgic nod back to the snail-mail fan clubs of decades past.

But a large or avid fan base alone is insufficient to keep an artist app or subscription service alive. Running a successful celebrity app means competing meaningfully not just with the likes of Spotify and Apple Music, but also with Facebook, Instagram, Uber, Venmo and every other app that exists on a given fan’s mobile device.

Recent studies have found that the average mobile app loses anywhere from 71 percent to 95 percent of its daily active users in the first 90 days. Maximizing the chance that users return to a given app requires a dedicated staff that regularly monitors, updates and improves said app’s performance -- an operation that not all artists can (or want to) pay for.

Fame House has nearly 100 employees, while EscapeX employs a total of 72 staff, 50 of whom are in product and engineering roles. Palmer, who has over 14,000 supporters on Patreon, has around three full-time staff, including a strategist at Fame House, who help manage her account and accompanying Facebook fan group. “That’s barely enough to cover the amount of work it takes to run a totally indie operation well,” she tells Billboard.

In fact, Palmer had previously built two separate mobile apps between 2009 and 2012, but “found on a much smaller scale what Taylor Swift probably found: it’s very hard to run an artist’s life, an artist’s office and a separate media empire all at the same time,” she says. “When it comes down to it, all artists and personalities have one thing in common: We only have so many hours in the day to make art and talk to people. Not every artist wants to run an entire company or customer service department; all they want to do is write and deliver music to their fans. I never judge artists who don’t go the direct-patronage route, because managing that is a ton of work.”

From the fan’s perspective, another potential downside to the rise in artist apps and subscriptions is an even more fractured content experience, beyond the already-crowded landscape of mass-market streaming and social-media platforms that are battling for each other’s audiences.

“If I’m a superfan of Travis Scott, I would probably try out a $5 per month subscription for a few months. But then if J. Cole, Kanye West and a bunch of other rappers I like also start doing that, it becomes tricky for me as a fan,” Adam Kane, founder of Opus Studio, which has worked on AR and web development for Robin Schulz, Good Charlotte, Kemba and other artists, tells Billboard. “Now I have to pick and choose who I subscribe to. And in the internet era, any ‘exclusive content’ tends to get screen-grabbed and leaked to other fans anyway.”

One indisputable asset that artist apps still bring to the table: an opportunity to execute on creative concepts that might be too technologically complex to implement natively on social platforms like Facebook and Instagram. This is especially the case for mixed reality, with a growing number of artists like Eminem and A$AP Rocky developing AR-enabled apps to coincide with new album and tour announcements, even if those apps end up getting relatively little exposure.

But as big-tech giants like Facebook, Apple and Snapchat invest more in their own AR experiences, this specialized use case for artist apps could potentially fall by the wayside.

“For A$AP Rocky’s app concept, he needed an image recognition and tagging system, where your phone camera could recognize a street sign and automatically superimpose AR content on top,” says Kane. “That’s not something you can currently do with WebXR, or on Instagram or Snapchat. But once you can build just as compelling of an AR experience natively on a website, or even within the iOS camera app, I bet there will be fewer independent apps and much more web- and social-native development happening.”

Note: This article has been updated since publication to reflect more accurately the state of the Kardashian sisters' branded apps. Their discontinued subscription apps were managed by Whalerock Industries, not Glu Mobile. Glu develops the role-playing game Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, which remains active.


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