Smule's Rap Battle Builds on Idea of Social Music

Music has always had a strong social component, and it's only in modern times that it has developed as a sometimes solitary and passive media.

Smule and its quirky chief executive, Jeffrey Smith, are determined to change that. The San Francisco company's latest effort in this direction is Thursday's release of a Rab Battles feature within its AutoRap application. Downloaded more than 20 million times since it launched in July 2012, the app has users who create about 2.5 million raps a week. Up until now, users can share the raps they create, but that's about as social as it got.

The update taps into a street phenomenon around Rap Battles, where two rappers face off to see who can outperform the other. The video below shows Smule's take on rap battling, featuring MC (Greg Davis Jr.), AKA Klarity (Vine), chief waKiL (chief waKiL) and Lil' Timmy (Isaiah Roberts). 

The update is built on a social platform that grew organically from the company's Sing! and other music creation apps as its 130 million users began to self-organize on Facebook to collaborate on songs. Some groups have hundreds, sometimes thousands, of members. One group, the SmuleNesians from Indonesia, even recorded an original song using Smule apps and sold it on Amazon, Google Play and iTunes, where it landed the No. 56 spot on iTunes' Indonesian music chart two weeks ago.

"We built SmuleNation, our social platform, to allow people using Smule Apps to create music together," says Jeannie Yang, Smule's chief product and design officer. "This platform has evolved to allow people all over the world to create duets and group songs with Sing! Karaoke, play along with singers using Guitar! or Magic Piano, and now compete in Rap Battles with AutoRap."

The point isn't whether Smule is creating rock stars, celebrity rap battlers, out of its users. Rather, Smule is more interested in creating large communities around music creation, rather than being just an app developer.

As a result, its subscription-based business model looks more like "World of Warcraft" than "Guitar Hero." The former, a massively multiplayer online game, is a subscription-based game that charges players monthly fees. Despite approaching its 10th anniversary, "World of Warcraft" still has around 7 million subscribers who generate a steady stream of monthly subscription revenue. "Guitar Hero," which was sold as a discreet product, came and went over a period of roughly five years, from 2005 to 2010.

What keeps "WoW" players coming back year after year is just as much about the social connections they've developed within the game as it is the game itself. And that's just what Smule is trying to build through music.