In a crowded, competitive landscape for music streaming, distribution and analytics, UnitedMasters has a tough road ahead.
When the startup launched in Nov. 2017 with $70 million in funding from the likes of Alphabet, Andreessen Horowitz and 21st Century Fox, CEO Steve Stoute openly praised his company’s unique positioning to “operationalize independence” and use the power of technology to help spawn “250,000 Chance The Rappers.” According to Stoute, UnitedMasters planned to fulfill that mission in part by offering a digital music distribution service at a “competitive rate” — allowing artists to maintain full ownership over their master recording rights, while gaining access to an in-depth CRM tool built atop their streaming stats.
Over the past several months, UnitedMasters has offered a product for artists to track social analytics: their own follower counts and engagement rates on Instagram, Twitter, SoundCloud, Facebook and YouTube, plus a curated, personalized feed of marketing tips and recommendations, such as when to post on Twitter or how to build press kits and run fan giveaways. Roughly 10,000 artists signed up for the platform as of Mar. 2018.
Last Friday (Jul. 13), almost exactly eight months after launching to the public, UnitedMasters finally rolled out a minimalist version of what Stoute promised to deliver: a brand-new, low-cost digital distribution portal for artists, titled Releases. The startup announced the new feature without fanfare, via a recommendation card on artists’ feeds (those with an existing UnitedMasters account can access their Releases page via this URL).
Through Releases, artists can upload their own .wav files and album artwork directly to the UnitedMasters website, which then delivers the content to participating streaming services and digital music marketplaces in exchange for a 5-percent commission on royalties. As of press time, the only two channels UnitedMasters serves as a distributor are Spotify and Apple Music; according to the Releases portal, at least 25 other streaming services and content aggregators are in the pipeline, including Pandora, Tidal, YouTube and Amazon Music as well as several international players like KKBox, LINE Music, Saavn, iMusica and Simfy Africa.
The rate that UnitedMasters offers for distribution may be competitive, but Stem, a popular distributor that counts Frank Ocean and Sheryl Crow as clients, also charges a 5-percent commission. Amuse, the distributor co-founded by will.i.am that raised a $15.5-million Series A round in May 2018, charges no commission at all; neither does Level, a free distribution tool for unsigned artists that Warner Music Group also launched in May.
Hence, UnitedMasters’ value add for distribution can’t come from its price point alone. Instead, as with its initial social-focused product, the startup is trying to elevate itself above the noise as an automated marketing coach for artists.
For instance, when prompting artists to choose the desired release date for their track or album, UnitedMasters automatically defaults the release date to four Fridays after the current date (e.g. if you tried to upload a song yesterday, Jul. 15, the default release date would have been set to Aug. 10). “We recommend you give yourself at least this much time to consider marketing and promoting your release,” reads the website. “Once you submit your music, we’ll start coaching you through this process so keep an eye on your feed.”
Yesterday, the company published a card in artists’ feeds recommending that they upload their music six to eight weeks before the official release date, rather than the “four Fridays” indicated on the Releases portal.
The card elaborated on why artists might need up to eight weeks to prepare a track properly for release, including creating assets for artist profiles and cross-platform promotional campaigns, scheduling social teasers to build hype around the track, pitching press outlets and playlist curators and leaving enough time to make metadata-related corrections to content.
Once tracks uploaded through UnitedMasters Releases start generating streams, artists can view performance via their own fan insights dashboard on the site. One section of the dashboard, titled “Where should you tour?” lists an artist’s top ten markets for “superfans,” who are defined as “listeners who have streamed your song more than five times.” Another section breaks down listener demographics by both gender and age, which the website claims can help artists plan merch orders, target ads and inform venue selection when booking tours.
None of the information displayed on the UnitedMasters Releases dashboard is anything new to tech-savvy artists or managers. Service-native dashboards like Spotify for Artists and Apple Music for Artists already offer detailed breakdowns and segmentation of listeners and fans; both of the above-mentioned sections on the UnitedMasters site simply pull from already-existing Spotify data.
But UnitedMasters’ attempt to stand out lies in repurposing existing data points in a more digestible and actionable manner. For some of UnitedMasters’ early clients, this approach has reportedly generated tangible results: Stoute told Billboard that rapper 2 Chainz reported a 60 percent jump in merch sales within two weeks thanks to UnitedMasters tools.
But thanks to educational initiatives such as Spotify’s video series The Game Plan, streaming platforms themselves are increasingly taking on the responsibility of driving data literacy and actionability for artists, giving UnitedMasters a run for its money.
In Mar. 2018, Stoute told Billboard that he foresaw UnitedMasters expanding into a wider, à-la-carte marketing-services model, in which artists can tap into offerings for PR, playlist pitching and radio promotion — and even a one-on-one consultation with Stoute — in exchange for a cut of revenue generated from those services. At its prime, this model would yield what the startup’s CFO Kristina Salen recently described to Billboard as an “operating system” that not only helps an indie artist make more money, but also “runs your brand so that you can focus on the art, because that’s the most important thing.”
From UnitedMasters’ perspective, proving traction and inventiveness in a saturated ecosystem is just as important — and, judging from its latest announcements, the company still has a long way to go.