"We're going to build a stage here, with a Times Square background, and stream out of it," says YouNow CEO/founder Adi Sideman, 45, gesturing at his new office's view of flashing midtown billboards one Tuesday evening, glass of scotch in hand. "We already have record labels and artists reaching out for album releases." It's a fittingly ambitious setting for a company reshaping how musicians find audiences -- and poised, in 2016, to launch some stars of its own.
Today Sideman is joined by Hailey Knox, a 17-year-old singer-songwriter with 48,000 fans on the app, who is taking a break from recording her debut EP with S-Curve Records. The label signed her in part because of her YouNow following. Founded in 2011, the app is a live-streaming platform -- like Twitter's Periscope and the video game-oriented Twitch -- that has been especially successful helping new acts connect with fans. Listeners access the app, says Sideman, more than 100 million times per month. It's "an unusually valuable asset," attests S-Curve GM Milo Pacheco. The key for artists, says Knox: "Be as entertaining as you can. I once put 30 hats on my head."
Sideman -- whose teen band got some radio play in Israel, where he grew up ("It was late-'80s white rap") -- worked on user-generated video startups for 20 years before founding YouNow (he sold his company kSolo Karaoke to Myspace for an undisclosed amount in 2006). YouNow's active user base drove a recent $15 million post-Series B round of funding that included investors like Comcast and Broadway Video. America's Got Talent uses it to host virtual auditions and in October 2015, Pentatonix played a YouNow showcase to a crowd of 100,000.
YouNow musicians are making money, too, through a partner program in which users buy "gold bars" to spend as tips. Tips and likes help artists in YouNow's promotional rankings and in finding viewers, and unlike YouTube (which it is not affiliated with), it doesn't take massive numbers to earn meaningful revenue. Brent Morgan, a folksy 27-year-old guitarist from Alabama, quit teaching to pursue YouNow full time. He has more than 35,000 fans and his income, he says, "goes up 30 percent every month."
In 2016, YouNow intends to bring musicians and listeners even closer, with features including the ability to split screens with guests and take "virtual selfies" with fans. "My personality comes out more easily" on YouNow than when she performs live, says Knox -- music, surely, to Sideman's ears.
This article was originally published in the Jan. 16 issue of Billboard.