Six guys, in-between projects and seemingly semi-bored in Israel, were looking for a way to avoid having to copy and paste YouTube links when they wanted to message their significant others, or each other, a song. With time to kill, they made the dryly named Music Messenger. Roughly a year later and they're being courted by Gee Roberson -- manager of Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne -- and having Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich -- whose investment firm Millhouse Capital divested a $13 billion stake in oil giant Sibneft in the mid-aughts -- walk into their office with open arms.
"Some guy named Gee Roberson -- we had to Google him... we're not from that world, we love music but we had no idea -- jumped on a plane, met up with us and introduced us to [Avicii manager] Ash Pournouri, David Guetta. Within two to three weeks we closed our first round." Meet David Strauss, co-founder and business development lead for Music Messenger, giving his first U.S. interview. That funding round, delivered in mid-August last year, brought $5 million to the five founders and, as Strauss says, let them know they "had a business."
That business is not revolutionary -- sending songs to friends with your phone. In fact, Music Messenger is entering a crowded field; Boomio, Rithm, Undrtone, Radeeus and probably more all do basically the same thing. So why then is Music Messenger averaging nearly a million new users a month while Rithm, which launched in beta last July, has three million users, $1 million in seed funding and at the time of writing at at No. 534 of music-related apps -- Music Messenger is currently No. 20 -- on Apple's App Store?
"If i'm in Brazil, Mexico, Guatemala, Chile -- what do I do," asks Strauss. "These nations can't afford $10, let alone Tidal's $20 a month -- it's that or eat this month. That's what we're focusing on." Strauss says the app's most-shared song is the Enrique Iglesias hit "Bailando."
The team was well aware of that underserved global market -- they're part of it. The team of six -- O.D. Kobo, Shai Azran, Eyal Cohen, Uzi Refaeli, Jordan Tanner and Strauss -- is based in Israel, where Spotify has made no entrance, but where free text messaging service WhatsApp, Facebook's infamous $19 billion acquisition, is extremely popular. Their music streaming option is, through much of the world other than the U.S. and U.K., simply YouTube. And the way most of the world connects to the web? Smartphones. (A recent Pew study found that even in the U.S., Latinos were three times more likely to connect to the web primarily through their phones.) "We were always copying and pasting YouTube links on WhatsApp," says Strauss. They refined that idea, connected No. 1 to No. 2, and ended up, this past Monday, with a $35 million funding round from Abramovich, Roberson, ABBA's Benny Andersson, Tiesto, will.i.am, Nicki Minaj and David Guetta.
"We made it simpler to listen to that content." Simple.
The team will expand into China this summer, another gigantic, smartphone-reliant market -- that they happen to have extensive experience working in. "We know that market really well, some of us were out there for years. YouTube is blocked, but Tencent [which has recently signed partnerships with two of the three major labels], Baidu, Tudou -- they all have a pretty decent API, and open source streams . We can access pretty much every Chinese song in the history of Chinese music."
The app uses those open-source APIs -- or "application programming interfaces," the way you can make one thing shake hands with the other and share data, like audio and images, between them easily -- from YouTube and SoundCloud, or VK in Russia, or Baidu, for example, to serve users its music. Users can also playlist shared songs, and add text to album art.
The app, ad-free -- Strauss references WhatsApp and its use of the Fight Club koan, "advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need" -- makes money through iTunes Store referrals and -- now that they count Nicki Minaj and Tiesto among their backers -- partnerships with the creative industry. "I'm in London to meet with one of the big labels, who want to use the app to promote this band's new album. They want to push it on Music Messenger because it gets distributed faster."
Asked about drawing such rarefied attention, Strauss exclaims: "We didn't do anything!"
"It's been a weird... it's just the beginning. For all i know we could all go bust in year," he says, laughing like a man with newly deep pockets.