It’s been an eventful year for UnitedMasters, the artist services and distribution platform founded by Steve Stoute that picked up funding from Alphabet, Andreesen Horowitz and 20th Century Fox to the tune of $70 million in 2017. Late last year, the company struck its first major deal with the NBA, allowing its artists to be featured on all of the league’s digital media properties. This month, it launched an iOS app that allows artists to upload their music to streaming services, and last week announced a partnership with video game publisher 2K to curate the soundtrack for NBA 2K20.
But in between all of the positive announcements, two of UnitedMasters’ more popular artists, NLE Choppa and Lil Tecca, have left the platform to sign with Warner Records and Republic Records, respectively. “We are extremely proud of our partnership with Choppa,” the company said in a statement to Billboard. “Since signing with UnitedMasters he has amassed more than 600 million streams worldwide and legions of new fans. We look forward to continuing to propel the careers of independent artists everywhere to the forefront of music and culture.”
Before the news of Choppa’s departure was announced, Billboard sat down with UnitedMasters founder/CEO Stoute and Lauren Wirtzer-Seawood, its new president, to discuss the current state of the company, how UnitedMasters calculates success and the tactics major labels have begun to use to combat the upstart platform.
Billboard: How do you feel about where UnitedMasters is right now?
Steve Stoute: I think the idea to operationalize independence — to make it much easier for independent artists to get their music distributed, collect their money and navigate as an independent artist — we’ve done a very good job of putting that message out there and building the technology that will allow them to do that.
Of course, none of this — building a company, starting a company — comes without struggles, but I think that we’ve done a really good job of stating it very early and doing exactly what we said we were going to do.
How is the NBA partnership going?
Lauren Wirtzer-Seawood: Incredibly well. The NBA is using a significant number of our tracks and their various content, and some of those tracks that are being used are resulting in significant streaming upsides for the artists. So it’s been going really well. We’re continuing to build on it and grow our relationship.
You have a lot of artists, and all of them won’t be able to take advantage of the NBA deal. All of them can’t talk to Steve. How do you determine who gets in on a deal or gets access and who doesn’t get in?
Wirtzer-Seawood: For the NBA deal, there’s actually a tool that’s available through the platform where you can select whether or not you want your music to be considered. Anybody can make that selection. Obviously, the song has to go through their standards process to make sure it’s what they consider brand-safe. And then we’re able to essentially provide to them, of those songs, which ones meet the criteria that they’re looking for and then they can select which ones to use.
In terms of artists that get significant attention [from us], a lot of times it’s really just looking at our own pipeline, looking into sort of the back-end tools to see what songs are starting to generate some organic success on their own via streaming, via socials, and we can look at that data and then really spend some time really getting to know the artist and figure out how we might be able to support him or her with our artist services. It’s much more of a data approach, combined with our team’s knowledge around music, what works for the music business.
Who’s your competition in this space? Is it labels? It is other distribution startups?
Stoute: This is a brand new paradigm shift. The music business is changing. This is not about what it used to be. We’re racing towards a new tomorrow for the artists in the industry. The marketplace isn’t established enough yet to determine who the competition is.
If you’d asked me this question last year, Spotify’s going direct, we’re done. A year later they’re not even doing it anymore. They invested in DistroKid. They decided to abandon that idea. I don’t know why. I know we’re in a very fertile market, and we have to build it out.
What do you care about when you look at your metrics? What makes you say, “Hey, we’re doing the right thing, we’re heading in the right direction”?
Stoute: We know we’re headed in the right direction. I think getting this app done was important in launching it successfully. Having a diverse group of artists look at us as a solution is important to us. That we’re not just a hip-hop solution. I think having success as recognized by Billboard or Spotify or Apple also helps accomplish that diversity.
I know we’re doing something right. I know we’re pissing somebody off. I also know that our intentions are to do great things to help unlock the value for the artist community. This is Nas not owning Illmatic. These things to me are, they’ve been hiding-in-plain-sight issues for many, many years. I certainly don’t want Taylor Swift and Scooter Braun‘s beef to overshadow how many years artists have been getting robbed — robbed — because of wanting a record deal.
If we can educate, inform and help get people opportunity and money, then we’re succeeding. Now, the sort of goals that we can explain to the public, the kind of artist, the music you love, know that it’s coming through here and know that the artist is actually getting paid.
The reason why people buy Toms shoes is they know that the [revenue from the] shoes are going to help someone. I buy a shoe, and I know I just put a shoe on some kid in El Salvador, right? If you stream our artists, know that the artist is actually getting paid. If you’re a patron of the arts, you should definitely look at our roster, because we are clearly the ultimate patron of the arts. So if that has any value in the way you choose what you decide you want to listen to or invest in, then know that is where our head is at.
If UnitedMasters becomes what you want it to be, do you think the labels change and pivot toward what you’re doing, or do you think UnitedMasters and similar companies upend the labels? Do you think you’re going to see the labels come to your side?
Stoute: 100 percent. 100 percent. They’re doing it now. Very sneaky. What do you think Caroline [Records] is fired back up for? ADA, Caroline, Orchard, these are all farm systems for the labels. And even if you’re not on those farm systems, they’re doing deals right now. The labels are giving deals to new artists that are better than any deal that Eminem ever got. They’re giving deals to artists better than deals that, you name it, Justin Timberlake, ever got. It’s not even disrespectful to them — it’s certainly not fair, actually. I’m using big names to show you how crazy that is. That a new guy can get a deal right now that’s better than the guys who have been serving this industry for 20 years, because of the question you just asked me. Because they’re coming to our side.
Is that a win for you because you would’ve changed the industry, or is that more competition?
Stoute: It’s a bit of both. It’s a win because it shows that we are pushing them in the right direction, but I still think that the majority of our business and the majority of their business are two different businesses.
Does UnitedMasters work with management firms? Say a manager finds an artist and wanted to develop them and use UnitedMasters —
Wirtzer-Seawood: There’s a lot of management conversations that come up and I’m always trying to think flexibly about how we fit within this paradigm shift that’s happening so that we can think flexibly about how to accommodate more artists with different scenarios and situations. Right now, if you’re an artist and you have co-writers and co-producers, of course, there’s opportunity for you to indicate all of those details in the app so that nobody gets left out or shitted on. Which is really important in the independent model. Everybody should get paid for what they have done. It’s less about sort of focusing on management companies and more about creating a platform so that everybody can see success if they want it.
Wirtzer-Seawood: I just got here three months ago, and I’m thinking a lot about what I want to see accomplished in my first year, and I think there’s been amazing foundations laid. To Steve’s point that we’re already headed in the right direction, how do we continue to build on that? The app is truly one of the most crucial pieces to our goals over the next several months because it will give more people the seamless ability to distribute. That is really what is fundamentally core for many artists. How can I just get it out there quick? Full stop. Really focusing on getting the app into as many hands as possible and really working with as many artists as we can to help support them in their quest to be independent.
I don’t have a KPI [Key Performance Indicator] set against that. I don’t know if that’s the right way to go about it. We will have to obviously figure out what the right mix in terms of number of artists that we have more of a bespoke relationship with versus those that are using the platform for straight distribution. But building on things like the NBA deal is obviously crucial to our goals over the next several months. Having more and more deals of that nature which are coming down the pipe so that we can create opportunities for some of these independent artists to generate more awareness through bigger brands.