Jacob Sartorius is late. He got backed up in the studio, where he has two writers in separate rooms churning out “songs on songs on songs.” This on top of the auditions (he recently signed to UTA, one of the top talent agencies in Hollywood), a coming world tour and the fact that he’s about to drop his new bubble-gum single, “All My Friends.”
“When I go back to my hotel room every night, I think about how thankful I am to be doing what I’ve always dreamed of,” says Sartorius. Chewing gum and tending to his gravity-defying teen-idol coiffure, he’s very much at ease spending this early October day in a Los Angeles photo studio. The 13-year-old is a pop star in the making: His debut ode to PG courtship, “Sweatshirt,” hit No. 90 on the Billboard Hot 100, and “All My Friends” wound up debuting at No. 25 on the Pop Digital Songs chart. And he owes it all to something many adults have still never heard of: Musical.ly, a video-based social media platform that tens of millions of kids worldwide use, mainly to broadcast 15-second clips of themselves lip-syncing to hit songs. Sartorius “has designs on becoming an international superstar,” says Jbeau Lewis, the music agent at UTA who works with him, “with his core Musical.ly fans providing the foundation.”
Musical.ly is many things: a hit mobile app that topped the iOS App Store Free chart in July 2015 and hasn’t fallen from the top 40 since; a scorching-hot startup with a $500 million valuation (as estimated by TechCrunch in May) and more than 133 million “Musers” worldwide; and a promotional platform embraced by the music industry for its ability to translate song clips into streams and sales. And with half of all American teens (according to the company’s estimate) using the app, Musical.ly has become a bona fide cultural phenomenon, even inspiring pearl-clutching among “olds,” from parents fretting over sexualized youth and online predators to traditionalists questioning the artistic validity of lip-syncing. It may not be Elvis thrusting his hips or Public Enemy speaking truth to power — but then again, would anyone who’s not a teen admit it if Musical.ly did represent a new frontier in pop?
Like any youthquake, some savvy adults set off the first tremors. “It was organic growth — word-of-mouth,” is how Alex Hofmann, Musical.ly’s 35-year-old president of North America, explains the app’s leap from 10 million total users one year ago to now, when 13 million are added every month. “Teens on other platforms would see someone share a Musical.ly video, like it, download the app and then ask their friends to try it.”
Hofmann, who grew up in Germany and cut his teeth at Teutonic software giant SAP, is soft-spoken with a slight accent and has lots of genuine enthusiasm for the Musers (as Musical.ly’s users are known), whom he says are like “our kids.” A few days after Sartorius was snapping his gum in the photo studio, Hofmann sits in the company’s as-yet-unfurnished new Santa Monica digs. The Shanghai-based startup, which employs 100 people worldwide, just relocated its American outpost from a WeWork space in San Francisco to here — the hangar-like main room will be painted Musical.ly red before the day is out. In the last two weeks he has been to China, the Philippines (one of its fastest-growing markets) and back again in between.
Musical.ly debuted in August 2014, shortly after co-founder/co-CEO Alex Zhu, 37, who was about to run out of funds for his educational video service, witnessed teens on a Silicon Valley commuter train bobbing their heads to music in their earbuds while shooting selfies and videos. Zhu now oversees things from Shanghai with Luyu Yang, 35, the other co-founder/co-CEO. (Yang, like Zhu, was born in China.)
When he was brought onboard in 2015 and tasked with expanding the app’s audience, Hofmann put in what he calls “community work,” talking to “50 to 100 Musers a day.” “It was crucial to get to know them better,” he says, “to focus on what excites them, and then: ‘Let’s just do more of that.’ ”
Hofmann introduced features like a leaderboard, improved friend-finding, video Q&As, “duets” with other Musers and privilege-granting “Best Fan Forever” badges. Combined with the app’s ease of use — Musers can slow audio for optimum mouth-to-music matching, and there are effects galore kids can use to seamlessly polish their performances — Musical.ly took off so quickly and completely that many parents were taken by surprise, and sometimes taken aback, by their children’s new obsession. (According to reports, the company, which is focused on growth and still exploring ways to make money, has yet to earn much revenue or turn a profit.)
In a way, Musical.ly levels the pop-culture playing field: Justin Bieber found fame on YouTube by singing and strumming guitar along to pop songs. Successful Musers need charisma, but they don’t need musical chops (or traditional video-editing skills, for that matter). “Before Musical.ly, I wasn’t the most outgoing,” says Sartorius, who began acting in musicals at 7 and was bullied for it. “The app helped me goof off. It’s like no one is watching besides the camera.”
Musical.ly spawned Sartorius in the same way that YouTube launched Bieber and Vine enabled Shawn Mendes. But for the music industry, Musical.ly may not be a pipeline for talent so much as a powerful new promotional vehicle. (The company has licensing deals with all of the major labels and publishers, and more than 1 million songs to choose from.) Musical.ly’s new SoCal office will better position it to work with labels and management, but it has already logged some major wins: In May, for example, a promotion of Selena Gomez’s “Kill Em With Kindness” generated 1.3 million Muser clips, 34.6 million likes and 564,500 comments. (On YouTube, meanwhile, the song’s official music video accrued 254 million spins, 2 million likes and 136,000 comments.)
“We absolutely saw the impact” of the Gomez campaign, says Interscope Geffen A&M chairman/CEO John Janick. And besides, he adds, “this is where kids are going. We have to embrace it. It’s what they’re passionate about.”
“Whenever we run a promotional campaign, we expose it to all of the Musers,” says Inga Bereza, Musical.ly director of music and entertainment partnerships. Most are song-specific contests using hashtags initiated by an artist calling for lip-sync or dance videos. The “Kill Em With Kindness” campaign also allowed Musers to “duet” with Gomez by splicing her original clip into their own videos. Those fan videos then accrue likes, comments and shares, and inspire more videos. Getting a song in front of the Musical.ly audience, says Bereza, is “like putting you on the stage of, I don’t know, Madison Square Garden.” (Technically, the entire app’s audience would be more like 7,300 Madison Square Gardens.)
With a minimal investment — 15 seconds of the star’s time — the app delivers a staggering amount of engagement. It helped Gomez to have Sartorius flash his swoon-inducing grin while pantomiming her lyrics. Because she may be pretty famous out here in the world, but he’s twice as big on Musical.ly.
Ariel Martin was bored, crashing at her grandparents’ home after getting flooded out of her folks’ South Florida apartment in the summer of 2015, when she saw a friend post a Musical.ly video to Instagram. She signed up as Baby Ariel and lip-synced Nicki Minaj’s “I’m Legit.” Today, at 15, she’s the top Muser with 13.6 million “fans,” as followers are called in the app.
Martin wasn’t searching for fame. “Oh, gosh, that has never been on my mind,” she says through a loud chortle that belies the confidence she projects on camera. “I didn’t know that people did social media for a living. I didn’t have any of those ambitions.”
But Martin — or at least her family — wised up fast. Dad bought her a domain name. Mom built a website. She studied Internet stars like comic Colleen Ballinger, who created the character Miranda Sings, and started doing YouTube videos, like her Musical.ly tutorial that now has 9.6 million views. Brand deals followed, along with a Baby Ariel lipstick line, a Good Morning America appearance and a headlining slot on DigiTour, a 28-stop circuit where web personalities do meet-and-greets, play games onstage and perform (when applicable) to cheering crowds. (Musical.ly itself does not pay Musers for their videos.) Martin attends school online so she can keep up with her rigorous schedule and content-creation demands. A year-and-a-half ago, she couldn’t decide between soccer and gymnastics. Now, she says, “I guess this is a job, but if you can do something you love, then why not?”
It’s obvious watching her Musical.lys why Martin is the queen of the app. Her face is elastic and highly expressive, her interpretive hand motions are like a silly sign language, and she has a facility with camera angles to rival a cinematographer. And early on, the app positioned her as a star. It featured one of her first clips on its main page, plucked from a sea of content with the help of an algorithm as well as Musical.ly employees who, in keeping with a process favored earlier in the app’s history, singled her out.
With the rise of Martin, Sartorius and the likes of Loren Beech, who signed a major modeling contract at 13, Musical.ly has become, in a way, professionalized. Take The Perkins Sisters, who post three dance clips a day for their 1.3 million fans. Back in 2008, they launched a vlog reviewing restaurants, museums and theme parks. Dani, 16, discovered Musical.ly when Deven, 13, showed it to her when she was in a trailer on set, killing time between takes. Dani recently landed a big role on Nickelodeon’s Legendary Dudas, and Deven wants a career like Beyoncé’s.
“We just keep making Musical.lys. It’s like we’re addicted,” says Dani. And if they took a week off? “Ohhh,” says Deven, a bit horrified. “They’ll think we’re dead!”
Star Musers have their trademarks — Martin’s hand motions, The Perkins Sisters’ wild dances. But everyday Musers broadcasting to their friends often play to the camera like little celebrities — or flirtatious teens, at least — with winks, kissy faces, flattering angles and carefully applied makeup. (Musical.ly says that roughly 75 percent of Musers are girls, and 65 percent of users overall are between the ages of 13 and 20.)
So how do you use Musical.ly? Watch Baby Ariel, Jacob Sartorius, Dani Perkins and Deven Perkins break down the app (and lip sync a little Spice Girls)
Designing a platform where very young people compete for the Internet’s attention obviously carries some risks, and not just the obvious ones. (The viral Musical.ly of Jonas Bridges, 15, blithely lip-syncing by his grandfather’s hospital bed comes to mind.) Musical.ly deploys many safeguards: Accounts can be made private, certain words are filtered, content can be flagged, users can be blocked, direct messages are limited to Musers who follow one another, and if a Muser turns out to be under the age of 13 and doesn’t have parental consent to use the app, that account is disabled.
“When Ariel started going viral, the first reaction was, ‘Who are these people watching my child?’ ” says her dad, Jose Martin, who runs a wealth management firm that he founded. (Ariel’s mom, Sharon Kremen, also works at the firm.) “It’s not something we grew up with. But once we overcame that initial hurdle, we realized that this is a new world and something she enjoys. Let’s just see where it goes.”
“Ultimately, it’s on the creator to decide what he or she creates,” says Hofmann. “We’re doing a lot to encourage positive behavior.”
Like rap lyrics and reality TV before it, Musical.ly may cause unease among some grown-ups. But unlike Napster and YouTube, it’s finding an enthusiastic partner in the music industry. As Hofmann puts it, “secondary consumption” — lip-syncing over song clips — “leads to primary consumption,” or streams and downloads on other services. (Musical.ly would not say how much artists and publishers earn from Musical.ly plays.)
In August, when Musical.ly promoted Hailee Steinfeld’s “Starving,” the song garnered 26.5 million in-app impressions — driving, says Aaron Bogucki, vp digital marketing at Steinfeld’s label, Republic, “an 11 percent increase in streams and a 23 percent increase in sales week on week.” He also clocked a 182 percent sales gain in a promotion for The Score’s “Oh My Love.” Warner Bros. Records vp marketing Ayal Kleinman has noted similar bumps after running Musical.ly challenges for Lukas Graham, Jason Derulo, Andra Day and Jake Miller. “It’s very young, very cool, very next. Every active fan uses it,” says Derulo. “And it’s something every artist should be using.”
“After the official campaign, the songs have a life of their own as they proliferate through the service,” says Kleinman. “We’ve done it when a song is somewhat mature and also just starting to hit the market,” and both were effective.
Hofmann says Musical.ly now gets so many pitches to partner with celebrities and brands, from Paris Hilton to the Pittsburgh Steelers, that it’s “almost unmanageable.” A collaboration with Coca-Cola inspired videos by enlisting Baby Ariel and others to create sponsored posts. MTV turned its fan-voted Song of the Summer category in its Video Music Awards over to Musical.ly in August, allowing Musers to cast a ballot by creating or liking a clip with one of the nominated tracks. “We were blown away by the results,” says Sarah Epler, MTV senior director of fan engagement. “We saw 900,000 videos with 20 million likes created in a week.”
Fifth Harmony trounced a much bigger song by Calvin Harris by actively promoting the contest on its socials. That gave Hofmann and Bereza the idea for a monthly “Next Wave” emerging artists program, wherein Musers vote for their favorite song in a preselected batch. The winner gets a promoted campaign — a reward for driving new users to the app.
To diversify and open up new revenue, the company launched Live.ly, a live-streaming video app boasting 4.6 million users, in July. It’s also recruiting broadcasters with skills like cooking and painting. Live.ly offers a virtual gift system — viewers buy colorful emoji for creators, and the company gets a cut. “This is huge business,” says Musical.ly board member and GGV Capital partner Hans Tung, citing as an example the Chinese holding company Tencent, which “has over $200 billion in market cap and 13 percent of their business in virtual goods.” (Zhu has said that Musical.ly has yet to field any acquisition offers, although Mark Zuckerberg himself has the app on his radar — he mentioned it on a recent Facebook earnings call.)
Musical.ly board observer Josh Elman, a partner at venture capital firm Greylock, looks at viral promotions and, potentially, YouTube-style pre-roll advertising as a safe bet with Musical.ly’s audience. “The #ShareACoke campaign was fantastic,” he says. “If you were sharing bleach, it might not have been as fun.”
In the meantime, Musical.ly keeps fueling breakout creative hits. Take @jayyyyy.yyyy, a Muser who uploaded an original song called “Leg Up Leg Down” in a recent clip. It’s practically nothing: 10 seconds of chanted dance instruction punctuated by hand claps. But loop it 10 or 25 times and it’s a really catchy nothing that Bereza and Hofmann are getting a deluge of calls over.
“At least five different managers from different labels contacted us saying, ‘Please connect us!’ ” says Bereza, who’s sitting on a folding chair at the new office. There’s a modest stage over her shoulder, too small for any Muser who has been featured even once. Too small for @jayyyyy.yyyy, whoever she is — “and of course, she doesn’t reply to her email. She’s just a kid.”
POP STARS WHO HAVE LEVERAGED MUSICAL.LY
MUSICAL.LY BY THE NUMBERS
Launched in August 2014 after its Shanghai-based co-founders Alex Zhu and Luyu Yang pivoted away from building an education-focused social network in favor of combining video, music and social, Musical.ly now claims half of all American teens as users.
The company’s valuation, after a $100 million round of funding launched in May, according to TechCrunch.
Total users as of October, with 60 million in America alone. Approximately 13 million new users join every month, according to the service.
Approximate ratio of female users to males on the service, according to data the company collects from Facebook.