Smule: the social music app that lets fans sing karaoke with Jessie J

Apps that let fans create their own versions of their favourite songs - and duet with the likes of Jessie J - have put the US company on the music map

Jessie J has performed with a host of musicians in her time: Dizzee Rascal, Ariana Grande, 2 Chainz, Queen, David Guetta, Mary J. Blige, Tom Bleasby… Wait, Tom who?

Bleasby is the fan whose video duet with Jessie J went viral last month, notching up nearly 3.6m views on his own YouTube channel and another 10.3m on Facebook after the star shared it with her followers.

Tom and Jessie never actually met, though. In fact, Bleasby was just one of more than 112,000 people who sang Jessie’s song Flashlight with her, as part of a promotion in music app Sing! Karaoke.

Bleasby’s video got the most exposure, but there were others that broke out too: 2.6m YouTube views for a version made by Phillippines-based singer Zendee; more than 810,000 views for another version by a singer called Lolo A; 687,000 for one by Taufik Hardiansyah in Indonesia; and 395,000 for Fairus Adam in Singapore.

This was the latest success story for the app’s San Francisco-based developer, Smule, and its Artist Program. The app allows musicians to record videos singing one half of a duet, leaving space for fans to record their own contributions then share the results online.

‘Wow, she can really sing’

“We wanted to have a new way for artists to engage with their fans, who are actually participating,” says Jeannie Yang, Smule’s chief product and design officer.

“It’s her song that she’s singing, using the app, so you get a different version of it than you would on iTunes: it’s very raw and affecting. For the fans, it’s like ‘wow, she can really sing’ because she belted it out.”

Smule may not win the same media attention as Spotify, Apple Music or Tidal, but it is one of the quiet success stories of the digital music world.

The company’s collection of music apps – Sing! Karaoke, Magic Piano, AutoRap, Guitar! and Ocarina – now have more than 25 million monthly active users singing, playing and rapping some 10m songs a day.

Smule charges £2.29 a week, £5.99 a month or £29.99 a year for unlimited access to its apps’ catalogue of music. The business model has helped annual revenues rise from $20m in 2013 to $40m (£25.3m) last year.

“We’re a social network that’s as much about creation as consumption. It’s not a karaoke company per se: we’re building a network around music and performance,” says chief executive Jeff Smith.

Smule is about more than fans duetting with famous artists. The company recently launched a feature called “group video” for the Sing! Karaoke app, which automatically turns footage of groups of singers around the world performing the same song into single, edited videos.

Smule did not release any new apps last year4, opting instead to work on new features for its existing apps, including group video.

However, it’s the artist programme that is putting Smule on the music industry’s radar - particularly since the Jessie J promotion. The nature of its apps mean the company does not pay royalties to labels for the master recordings of songs but focuses instead on royalties to music publishers for the compositions.

“We count streams and we pay on streams, and the royalty that we’re paying on publishing is probably twice what [US streaming music service] Pandora will pay as a percentage of sales, so it’s legit, and it’s a significant source of income for the folks that have the talent to write songs,” says Smith.

“Performers are great, but writers are great too ... there’s something really special about tapping in to these writers and empowering them, and celebrating them.”

‘Wholesale transition’

Smule’s apps are tapping into the same desire for an audience that fuels people to enter TV talent contests. Yet the company is keen to build more of a community than that suggests.

“I think we’re seeing a wholesale transition in media: a democratisation of the process. X Factor and the Voice was a logical venue to be introducing new talent, but it’s not the destination. The pendulum is swinging more and more towards individuals discovering individuals organically,” says Smith.

Smith has a theory about what’s happening on Smule, but also on platforms such as YouTube and SoundCloud where users can upload musical performances – or, indeed, vlogs and other forms of entertainment.

“I think people want something fresh and authentic. They want it to be real,” Smith adds.

Contributor

Stuart Dredge

The GuardianTramp

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