Retro-inspired music player Poolside.fm brings its summery fun to iPhone

If you mashup feel-good summer music, ridiculous 80’s-inspired imagery and retro tech, you’ll get the lighthearted and fun web radio service Poolside.fm, the so-called “sunniest place on the internet.” The website where you can stream beachy, chill or disco tracks in a classic MacOS-like space relaunched last year to bring a little joy back to the internet. More recently, the team delivered a Mac app that somehow successfully mixes together the Mac aesthetic with touches early Windows. Today, the Poolside.fm iOS app has arrived, this time taking inspiration from old Nokia 3310 mobile devices.

The Poolside.fm project actually began back in 2014, when founder and serial entrepreneur Marty Bell was in search of some sort of virtual getaway. Bell lives in the Highlands of Scotland, where it’s often gray and rainy, he says. And that can be depressing. As an escape, Bell began listening to a certain type of uplifting, happy music via SoundCloud. He decided it would be fun to his favorite those tunes in a playful environment that also reminded him of his other “happy place” — “80’s beach movies on VHS, where it’s like the American summer dream,” Bell explains.

He then teamed up with developer Grant MacLennan to launch the initial version of the Poolside.fm website, then called Poolside Radio, in 2014. It received a handful of accolades and briefly went viral on Twitter, developing a small cult following.

The site initially ran on a rudimentary CMS (content management system) where Bell could submit SoundCloud tracks and YouTube videos which would then be played at random for visitors.

Image Credits: Poolside.fm

Over the years, Bell continued to work on his other business endeavours, which ranged from a DJ business with a clothing line to a sunglasses company, and later, a finance company called Nude, which helps young people save up for their first home. Though he continued to update Poolside.fm’s Instagram, the website for the radio service wasn’t updated for years. Despite the inattention, it continued to see thousands and, sometimes, tens of thousands of visitors per month.

Bell more recently returned to the project with the idea to reinvent the website with an operating system-like look-and-feel, and even paid people to do three different versions of the site until he found the right team. Unbelievably, the team working on the project now do so on a volunteer basis in their free time because they find it to be a positive experience. (And perhaps because they see long-term potential in the Poolside.fm brand.)

Visitors who go to Poolside.fm can switch through various “stations,” each with their own vibe. The default, Poolsdie.fm, features the upbeat music that prompted the project in the first place. But there’s also an indie channel, Indie Summer, a chill channel, Hangover Club, and fast-tempo disco, Tokyo Disco.

Since last summer’s relaunch, the updated website has seen 1.5 million listening sessions from over 900,000 individuals, with much of the listening taking place across the U.S. (32%), Japan (15%), UK (8%), Germany (4%), Canada (4%). Meanwhile, the recently launched Mac app has already been installed 30,000 times across the past 3 weeks and was featured by Apple in the “Apps We Love” section of the Mac App Store.

Today, Poolside.fm’s retro cool and somewhat goofy 80’s/90’s aesthetic arrives on the iPhone.

But instead of copying the user interface from the web, the Poolside.fm team created something new.

The iOS app, built by developer Josh McMillan, references older cellular devices — like the Nokia 3310, which once featured a grainy, pixel-y image of hands coming together and shaking. On Poolside.fm’s app start screen, however, a similar set of hands now drop a cherry in a martini glass.

Image Credits: Poolside.fm

The app’s main interface, meanwhile, recalls old cellular devices with its use of outdated fonts, pixel-y shading, and grainy imagery. Low-bit “video clips” play in the background, helping deliver the retro vibe. You’ll see women with big 80’s hair, terrible 80’s dancing, classic cars, beach parties, and more.

But the app isn’t the classic gray-and-green color scheme of old phones. It’s a bright and cheery pink. You also can opt for other jewel-toned shades in a theme picker, if you prefer.

The app includes Poolside.fm’s full channel lineup, which you can play, pause, skip or go back, and favorite, if signed in. And despite its old-school feel, Poolside.fm is a modern app with support for things like background play, AirPlay, and the ability to work with your AirPods.

Image Credits: Poolside.fm

The team is now six people, founder Marty Bell, designer Niek Dekker, lead developer Lewis King, iOS developer Josh McMillan, Mac developer Will Chilcutt, and backend developer Nick Haddad. They’ve done some side jobs here and there for cash, we’re told, but the cost of running Poolside.fm is surprisingly low, Bell tells us.

“The bills are like, I don’t know, Ii would say for both Firebase and the hosting, the whole thing is probably under $100 per month,” he guesses. That’s because the video and audio come from YouTube and SoundCloud, which handle the bandwidth load. The actual service itself is very light.

Though Bell says investors have been sliding into his Twitter DM’s, the team isn’t looking to immediately monetize their project. It’s funny, he adds, how the one business (of so many that he started) that wasn’t designed to be a success — the one with no business plan, in fact — has ended up attracting the most attention.

“I think that’s what makes the difference. When you’re just channeling pure passion into something, with a bunch of other people that are working on it because it’s fun — not because they’re being paid — the kind of product that comes out of that is unlike anything that’s going to come out of a product that’s working towards KPIs and metrics for investors,” explains Bell. “In that environment, you can’t build something like Poolside.fm, where it’s six people who are all working on it in their spare time, for free, because it’s their happy place and it’s fun to work on. You can’t get that energy in a business environment very easily,” he says.

That said, Bell does have a few ideas about where the project could go in the future.

The team already sold a little merchandise, like hats and tees. (He’s still packing up Poolside.fm’s motel-style keychains from his house, he says.) Bell could see the team running projects from a separate company, as “Poolside.fm presents X,” for example.

Post-COVID, these could include experiential events. But Bell is also talking to podcast studios about doing a fiction podcast series, and the team is thinking about selling more physical products — like pool accessories, naturally.

Of course, we had to ask if Bell finally now has a pool of his own, after all these years. But he hasn’t taken that victory lap just yet.

“I definitely do not have a pool in the Highlands of Scotland. I’m looking out onto a field full of sheep right now,” he laughs.

Poolside.fm is a free download for iOS.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Positive Grid Spark is a versatile smart amp perfect for guitarists stuck at home

Powered amps for electric guitars have gotten some neat tricks powered by modern mobile tech over the years, but the new Positive Grid Spark ($299) might be the one that packs the most intelligence and versatility into a single package. From a companion app, to voice commands, to tunable modeling and home recording — on top of doubling as a standalone Bluetooth speaker — the Spark offers features for beginners and pros alike.

The basics

The Positive Grid Spark looks physically like your average, portable practice amp. It’s just over a foot long and about half-a-foot wide and tall, and it weighs just under 12 lbs. There’s a removable leather carrying strap attached for moving it around, and it includes a 1/4″ guitar input, a 1/8″ auxiliary input and a 1/8″ headphone jack for connecting your audio gear, as well as a USB port for recording and acting as a USB audio interface for connecting to your computer.

The Spark has a host of integrated controls, including a dial for choosing from a number of preset amp types, as well as individual dials for adjusting gain, bass, mid, treble, master, mod, delay and reverb on the fly. There’s a physical control for output volume, and for music volume, as well as four user-programmable buttons for calling up presets, and a tap/tuner button for accessing the onboard tuner and other features.

Image Credits: Positive Grid

Built-in to the amp are 30 different potential amp models, as well as 40 effects to allow you to customize sound, including a noise gate, a compressor, distortion, modulation, delay and reverb. The Spark also features Bluetooth connectivity for streaming audio. Inside, there are two four-inch speakers for true stereo sound, and it’s rated at 40 watts.

Features and design

The Spark’s design on the outside isn’t very far off from most standard practice amps out there — but it feels high quality, and the grill is done in a nice, retro finish that looks really good even when it’s not in use and just sitting on a side table. The leather is synthetic, making it more durable and more ethical, and the knobs have excellent color-matched brass-tone detailing that completes the look. The metal flip switch for power on and red LED leave no confusion as to whether you’re ready to jam, and the touch buttons have similar bright backlighting.

Spark’s integrated handle, which you can remove when you’re not using, is comfortable and does its job well. The amp also features rubber feet to keep it elevated off surfaces and provide stability while it’s in operation.

In terms of basic performance and features, the Spark is already an excellent amp. Even if you never download the Positive Grid app (which you should) and instead just plug in your guitar, bass, ukulele or electric-acoustic, you can use the physical control to set up a sound you like and go to town. But when you download the app, you get a whole bunch more functionality that really extends the value of the Spark to elevate it above just about every other amp in its price range (and beyond).

Image Credits: Positive Grid

The app has a number of features, including Positive Grid’s “Smart Jam,” which effectively learns your style as you play and can then create auto-generated bass and drum tracks to accompany you. It’s a very cool feature that takes all the work out of trying to find generic backing or accompanying tracks for when you’re just looking to jam and come up with some interesting compositions.

There’s also an auto-chords feature for when you’re not looking to come up with your own stuff, but are rather looking to master your favorite existing song. This integrates with Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube, meaning you should be covered no matter which music service you subscribe to, and will automatically display the guitar chords for a song on your device as you play along. You can even slow down the track, or loop specific sections, if you’re stuck on one bit or just starting out.

The Spark app also provides access to more than 10,000 guitar and bass amp presets, extending the versatility of the amp hardware. Plus, it’s voice controlled, so you can just ask it to provide you with a virtual band, for instance, and it’ll do that on demand.

Bottom line

The Positive Grid Spark is a unique offering in the field of amps, offering a lot of extensible smarts via the companion app — or a great, highly-customizable but more bare-bones experience if you’d rather leave your phone out of it and just get to playing. At $299, it’s hard to argue with it as a top pick, given how much more you get for your money once you factor in the advanced software features and its versatility as a pretty great Bluetooth speaker, too.

TikTok announces a deal with UnitedMasters, its first music distribution partnership

Though TikTok’s future in the U.S. remains uncertain, the company announced this morning its first music distribution partnership, with indie music distributor UnitedMasters. The deal will allow artists on TikTok to tap into the platform’s ability to make their music go viral, then distribute their songs directly to other music streaming services, like Spotify, Apple Music/iTunes, SoundCloud, and YouTube.

The deal allows indie artists to effectively circumvent traditional record labels by reaching young music fans on the social video app, then translate that to charting success.

Already, TikTok has proven its capabilities in this area, having helped push little known or undiscovered artists to further growth, including Lil Nas X, Ambjaay, StaySolidRocky, Powfu, BENEE, Y2K, bbno$, and others, the company noted in an announcement about the new deal. Meanwhile, artists like Curtis Roach, Curtis Waters, Breland, Tai Verdes, BMW Kenny and others have used TikTok to promote their music. Some, like ppcocaine and Avenue Beat, preview original music directly on the platform. Several emerging artists, like Shuba, Blu DeTiger, and Kid Sistr, have even used TikTok as a platform for creative performances.

UnitedMasters, meanwhile, has helped launched the careers of artists like platinum-selling rapper NLE Choppa, plus Lil Tecca, Tobe Nwigwe, Lil XXEL, and others. In the past 18 months, it has grown its lineup to over 400,000 artists who have a combined 5 billion streams and over a half million distributed tracks.

UnitedMasters takes a 10% share of revenue for music it distributes, and allows artists to retain their rights. It also works to facilitate relationships between artists and brands. According to the company’s website, UnitedMasters currently works with brands like the NBA, Bose, AT&T, the NFL and others.

TikTok says its new agreement with UnitedMasters will also involve promoting their artists on its video platform. That means artists will have more opportunities to reach new fans who could then, in turn, use the artists’ music in their videos. TikTok will also add the music from UnitedMasters’ artists, with their permission, to its Commercial Music Library. This catalog gives verified businesses access to royalty-free music for use with their promotional content.

“TikTok artists who are creating music in their bedrooms today will be featured in the Billboard charts tomorrow,” said Ole Obermann, Global Head of Music at TikTok, in a statement. “Our mission is to help those artists achieve their creative potential and success. This partnership with UnitedMasters gives us a turn-key solution to help artists who are born on TikTok to reach their fans on every music service.”

Trying to work around the labels is a tricky prospect, other music services have found. Spotify, for example, tried offering a tool that would have allowed indie artists to upload their own music directly to its streaming service. But the tool was shut down in less than a year’s time, after beta testing, as its existence complicated Spotify’s label negotiations.

TikTok, however, has different sorts of licensing deals with the major labels because it’s not a streaming service for music, nor a platform for watching official music videos, like YouTube and now, Facebook. Instead, its music deals are reportedly shorter-term agreements than those the labels strike with other tech companies, a Billboard report said. The deals give the video platform the right to use 30-second clips of the record labels’ songs, not full tracks. To date, many of TikTok’s music deals are separate from those its parent company ByteDance inked for its streaming music service, Resso. (A deal with Merlin was a recent exception, however).

Because of the complicated nature of these sorts of negotiations, it’s unclear how the major labels will react to what appears to be a way for TikTok to eventually route around their cut. By promoting indie artists to help them achieve viral success without a traditional label’s involvement, TikTok could become a launching pad for artists who don’t want a label deal. Instead, TikTok artists would gain access to fans and, eventually, the resulting revenue potential that comes with having a large audience.

This likely won’t go down well with labels, who have already been pushing TikTok to find more ways to generate revenue for music rights holders, as Billboard’s report had noted.

“If you are a musical artist, TikTok is the best place for your music to go viral and UnitedMasters is the best place to sustain it while retaining full ownership of your work,” said Steve Stoute, CEO and Founder of UnitedMasters, in a statement about the TikTok partnership. “By combining the two, we create the platform for tomorrow’s stars who will be famous, fiercely independent and wealthy.”

Hollywood’s Triller sets its own rhythm even as it gains from TikTok troubles

Triller, the short video app backed by a Hollywood mogul and music celebrities, is rapidly ballooning in both user size and valuation. It’s now seeking a new funding round of $250 million that will push its valuation to over $1 billion, according to a source with knowledge of the matter.

That’s a leap from its $130 million valuation reported last October. Triller’s founder and CEO Mike Lu declined to comment, although another executive confirmed the funding with Dot.la.

The app has emerged as what many see as a TikTok replacement, but it has been around since 2015, two years before TikTok’s debut, and has its own “identity and ecosystem,” the founder insisted.

According to Lu, Triller was already recording “significant growth” even before the Trump administration began mulling a ban or a forced sale of TikTok, although he also admitted the app is getting a boost from the TikTok backlash. 35 million new users joined Triller just within the last few days. The app has so far collected 250 million downloads worldwide.

The Los Angeles-based startup still has a long way to catch up with TikTok, which crossed 2 billion downloads in April. The rivals both tout their capability to let users match videos with music, a defining feature for their success. In fact, Triller recently filed a lawsuit accusing its Chinese rival for infringing its patent for “creating music videos synchronized with an audio track.”

Triller attributed part of its achievement to majority investor Proxima Media, the Hollywood studio founded by Ryan Kavanaugh. Lu said his company has spent zero in marketing to reach its size, something that “has never happened in technology history.” But Ryan, the film producer and financier behind hits like The Fast and the Furious and The Social Network, has no doubt brought unmatched media exposure, celebrity connections, and naturally, their fans who convert to Triller users.

Triller has also secured deals with major record labels, clearing the way for users to make music-centered videos. Its roster of angel investors include Snoop Dogg, The Weekend, Marshmellow, Lil Wayne, among other big names.

“Ryan is second to none in Hollywood, entertainment and media,” said Lu. “I give [Proxima Media] a ton of credit for helping us get to this stage, this massive growth. I don’t think we could have done it without them.”

Celebrity-quality content is one thing that sets Triller apart from TikTok, said Anis Uzzaman, general partner of Pegasus Tech Ventures, which invested in Triller in a strategic round.

“TikTok tries to grow its own celebrities. Triller already has all the big celebrities,” the investor said, refering to videos shared by Alicia Keys, Cardi B, Marshmellow, and Eminem via Triller, which is now a popular place for releasing songs. TikTok has also become a testing ground for artists to test new works.

Meanwhile, the app strives to keep its ordinary users engaged, one thing TikTok has done very well. For example, it boasts of AI-powered editing features that enable users to make professionally looking music videos. It’s also lanched a Billboard chart that ranks the biggest Triller songs, leveling the playing field between emerging creators and celebrities.

“It gives the young people a feeling that they are close to celebrities,” observed Uzzaman.

The investor also believes there’s room for multiple players in the short video space, akin to how Uber and Lyft co-exist. Indeed, China has seen TikTok’s Chinese version Douyin going head to head with Kuaishou in recent years.

For Lu, Triller’s identity is anchored in music, especially hip hop music in the early days, with a demographic of 18-25.

Triller’s App Store images.

TikTok, in comparison, can be everything from light-hearted dance videos to goofy skits. One gets a hint of their differences from the visuals they picked for their App Store pages.

TikTok’s App Store images.

The TikTok alts

The fate of TikTok could still change dramatically in the coming weeks, although so far, there’s a decent chance that Microsoft may scoop up the Chinese-owned app. Some startups are betting that their US identity will help them win over users from TikTok, but a survey done by California-based Creative Digital Agency suggests that may not be the case.

65% of the hundreds of TikTok users it asked said they won’t feel more comfortable with their data policies even if TikTok were an American company, and 84.6% believe the proposed ban is motivated by political concerns.

“The vast majority believe that all American social media platforms are doing exactly the same thing in mining personal data, which is the big privacy concern,” the agency’s managing director Kevin Almeida suggested.

That said, TikTok’s growth has slowed down recently, as some creators hedge the risk of losing followers in the case of a ban. The app’s installs in the US last week were down 7% compared to the four-week average, shows data from analytics firm Sensor Tower. Its total downloads in the US are close to 190 million.

Triller is hardly the only US startup thriving against the backdrop of TikTok’s uncertain future. At least three other micro-video apps have seen new downloads in the hundreds of thousands in the US over the past week, according to Sensor Tower, and two are rooted in China.

They are Byte, Dom Hofmann’s new app after Vine was shuttered by Twitter; Zynn, which is run by Kuaishou, TikTok’s Chinese homegrown rival; and Likee, operated by Bigo, a Singapore-based company acquired by China’s YY. These apps totaled downloads of 2.9 million, 6.4 million, and 16.3 million in the US, respectively.

Growth of TikTok’s old rival Dubsmash isn’t as remarkable but the app has the most US installs among the competitors, reaching 41.6 million recently.

In comparison, Triller has accumulated 23.8 million downloads in the US. The app has seen a surge in downloads in India following the country’s TikTok ban, but it has also ranked among the top photo and video apps across multiple European and African countries where TikTok remains accessible.

The company operates a global team of 350 employees, most of whom are in the US and work on content operation and engineering.

Facebook will launch officially licensed music videos in the US starting this weekend

Facebook today confirmed it will begin rolling out official music videos across its platform in the U.S., as TechCrunch first reported, as well as introduce a new Music destination within Facebook Watch. The changes, which will go into effect starting this weekend, will allow Facebook users to discover, watch and share music videos from a wide range of artists, including, for example, Anitta, Blake Shelton, Bob Marley, Diplo, Elton John, Jonas Brothers, Josh Groban, Keith Urban, Maren Morris, Marvin Gaye, Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj, and others.

Though Facebook had already been working with partners in India and Thailand on a similar music experience before today, the U.S. launch is enabled by Facebook’s expanded partnerships with top labels, including Sony Music, Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, Merlin, BMG, Kobalt and other independents.

Facebook tells TechCrunch its deals include the full catalog across all major partners and a host of independents.

TechCrunch earlier this month reported Facebook’s plans for music videos would arrive August 1st. We also noted that supported artists were being informed they would soon need to toggle on a new permission that would allow Facebook to automatically add their music videos to their Page, where they could be discovered by fans on the Page’s Videos tab. Once enabled, the artists will be able to edit or remove their video posts at any time.

However, if this setting was not enabled, Facebook will instead automatically generate a separate official music Page on the artist’s behalf, titled “[Artist Name] Official Music,” to enable discovery. That Page would be created and controlled by Facebook and accessible through Facebook Watch, though artists can later choose to opt-in to include their official videos on their own Page.

Image Credits: screenshot via TechCrunch

Image Credits: TechCrunch

With the launch, Facebook users will be able to follow their favorite artists, then receive the latest music video releases from those artists in their News Feed, as they go live. The “follow” option will be available not only on the artist’s Facebook Page, as before, but also directly from the music videos themselves.

By clicking through on the shared posts, fans will be directed to the artist’s Facebook Page, where they can browse the Videos tab to watch more officially licensed music.

The music video posts, like any on Facebook, can be shared, reacted to and commented on. They can also be shared across News Feed, where friends can discover the posts, as well as shared to Groups and in Messenger.

Image Credits: Facebook

The dedicated Music section on Facebook Watch, meanwhile, will allow users to explore music by genre, artist name or mood, or across themed playlists like “Hip Hop MVPs,” “Trailblazers of Pop,” “Epic Dance Videos” or more timely playlists like “Popular This Week” and “New This Week.”

The videos will also be monetized by advertising, like elsewhere on Facebook Watch. However, unlike some video ads, they won’t interrupt the music in the middle of playing. Instead, Facebook tells TechCrunch the ads will either appear pre-roll, during the video as an image ad below the video player or post-roll. These plans may change in the weeks ahead as it iterates on the experience, Facebook notes.

Image Credits: Facebook

The company will apply its personalization technology to the music video experience, too, we understand. As users watch, engage and share, the Music destination in Facebook Watch will become more attuned to your personal likes and interests.

More social experiences are planned for the future, including user-generated playlists.

“Official music videos on Facebook are about more than just watching a video. They’re about social experiences, from discovering new artists with friends to connecting more deeply with artists and people you love,” said Facebook VP of Entertainment, Vijaye Raji. “There’s something in our music video catalog for everyone, and we’re excited for people to discover and rediscover their favorites,” he added.

Facebook says this weekend’s launch of the new Music experience is just the start, and it plans to roll out more music across the platform over time.

Image Credits: Facebook

Facebook’s launch of music videos is seen as a significant challenge to YouTube, which accounted for 46% of the world’s music streaming outside of China as of 2017, according to a report from IFPI. YouTube, around that time, also claimed more than 1 billion music fans came to its site to connect with music from over 2 billion artists.

More recently, YouTube reported it had paid out more than $3 billion to the music industry in 2019. The music labels, however, have shown interest in an alternative to YouTube, which they feel doesn’t pay enough. The financial terms of Facebook’s deal with the labels were not disclosed.

Though Facebook had deals with music labels before now, those were more limited. Artists from major labels, for example, weren’t able to share full music videos due to licensing rights — they could only post a short preview. The change to include full videos could significantly impact how much time users spend on Facebook in the months ahead.

The launch follows a month-long Facebook advertiser boycott over issues around hate speech on the platform, which some brands have chosen to continue with, reports say. But the music video launch was not timed to encourage an advertiser return. According to documents previously reviewed by TechCrunch, the date of August 1, 2020 had been the planned launch date for some time.

The videos are now one of several ways artists can connect with fans on Facebook, as the company had already rolled out tools that allowed artists to promote new releases with custom AR effects and Music Stickers, host live-streamed Q&As on Facebook Live and raise money for important causes through the donate button in Live and Stories.

“Artist/Fan connection on Facebook is deeper and more authentic because of tools like Stories, Live and custom AR effects. Official music videos are re-born in that setting — they become part of the way people express identity and mood and bring a new dimension to the artist storytelling that happens on our apps every day,” said Tamara Hrivnak, VP of Music Business Development and Partnerships at Facebook.

Spotify users are streaming again, but ad revenues still suffer due to COVID crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic’s continued impact on Spotify’s business was apparent in the results of the company’s Q2 2020 earnings today. On some fronts, Spotify had good news. As more users turned to streaming services to keep themselves entertained while social distancing, Spotify grew its active monthly users by 29% to reach 299 million in the quarter. Its paid subscriber growth also topped Wall St. expectations with 138 million paid users, versus estimates of 136.4 million. However, the pandemic took a negative toll on Spotify’s advertising business, with ad revenue down 21% year-over-year to €131 million in Q2.

Spotify’s Premium subscriptions, which still account for the majority (~90%) of its revenues, grew by 17% to reach €1.76 billion in the quarter. The company attributed this growth to a range of factors, including growth in more expensive Family Plan subscriptions and its new Duo option for two users, as well as the expansion of those plans to new markets, like Russia.

Meanwhile, the company touted that users’ listening hours are also now returning to levels near what they were before the COVID-19 health crisis.

In the first quarter, the pandemic had initially led to declines in daily active users and listening hours as consumers coped with their sudden lifestyle changes,. like working from home and homeschooling children. Spotify today said that as of June 30, global consumption hours have since recovered to “pre-COVID levels” in all markets except Latin America, which is still around 6% below peak levels prior to the global health crisis.

This recovery in listening hours was led by those areas where the COVID-19 spread is slowing, including the E.U. and Asia-Pacific regions, the company noted. Spotify is also now seeing growth in other areas where listening had slowed due to government lockdowns and the work-from-home shift, like in-car listening. This is now less than 10% below pre-COVID levels, up from a 50% decline at its lowest point in April.

On the downside, Spotify’s ad revenue suffered in the quarter due to an overall more conservative market than before the COVID crisis — a trend the company expects to continue throughout the year. This drove Spotify to miss on revenue expectations in the quarter. The company reported revenue growth of 13% to 1.89 billion euros, but this fell short of analyst estimates of 1.93 billion.

“Last quarter we noted a marked deceleration in sales brought on by the global health crisis where the last three weeks in March were down more than 20% relative to our forecast,” the company said in its shareholder letter. “Performance continued to lag our expectations through April and May, but we significantly outperformed expectations in the month of June. [Quarter to date] through May, ad-supported revenues were down 25% year-over-year, but performance in the month of June showed significant improvement and was only down 12% year-over year.”

Though advertising is not a main revenue driver at this time, it’s still a key part of Spotify’s strategy with regard to its podcasting business. The company is investing heavily in bringing in new and exclusive deals, including recently Kim Kardashian West, Joe Rogan, Michelle Obama, DC & Warner Bros., TikTok star Addison Rae, and others. And it’s willing to spend — Joe Rogan’s deal reportedly cost the company more than $100 million, for instance.

It’s also selling its own podcast ads and building out other tools for podcast creation, editing, and distribution as part of its investment in this space. For instance, Spotify is developing new ad technology aimed at better monetizing podcasts, like its latest test of in-app offers, which will allow users to view and use coupon codes and other offers made in audio ads at any time from the Spotify app.

More recently, the company invested in video podcasts as well. Spotify also says its Streaming Ad Insertion technology will also become more broadly available to U.S. advertisers this summer and announced a $20 million ad partnership with Omnicom Media Group, which Spotify claims is the largest, global, strategic podcast ad partnership to date.

Overall, Spotify said its podcasting advertising outperformed in the quarter and is continuing into July.

 

 

 

Spotify’s new party mode feature, ‘Group Session,’ goes remote

Spotify announced today it’s updating its recently launched shared-queue feature, Group Session, to support remote usage.  Essentially a “party mode,” the feature first debuted in May, offering a way for participants contribute to a collaborative playlist in real-time and control what’s playing across everyone’s devices. Spotify explained at the time that, despite social distancing measures, the feature could still be useful to small groups, like families quarantining together, for example.

But today’s update brings Group Session into the COVID-19 era where people continue to spend apart.

Now, Premium users will be able to tune into the same playlist or podcast together at the same time, even if they’re not in the same place. Before, users would have to be in the same physical space for the feature to work. It had also involved a barcode users would scan with their own device to add to the party playlist.

Now, groups of two to five people can join a remote Group Session by clicking on a “join” link sent out via messaging apps, SMS, or social media from the Group Session’s host. This link is accessed from the “Connect” menu in the bottom-left corner of the play screen in the Spotify app. From here, the host scrolls down to the option “Start a Group Session” to get the link to share with friends or family.

Invited participants can click the link or scan the Spotify code, as before, to join in the session.

Once in, hosts and guests can pause, play, skip and select tracks on the queue or add in their own choices. As one person makes a change to the Group Session, it’s immediately reflected on all participant’s devices.

Group Session had been spotted in development last year, well before the coronavirus outbreak arrived. It was originally envisioned as a feature that could tempt Spotify’s more social users – like party-goers or college roommates, for example — to upgrade to a Premium subscription in order to join in the fun of being able to add to and control the shared queue. But with social distancing measures still in place, few people have need for a party mode feature today.

Likely, Spotify saw the feature was under-utilized due to its requirement for users to be together in person, so expanded it to include remote usage.

However, the bigger limitation is that Group Session is limited to Premium subscribers.

In practice, that means many of the people who have time to sit around and (virtually) hang out with friends listening to music — often, young people on free accounts — can’t even try it. Instead, Group Session should allow free users the ability to participate on these collaborative playlists, but to a lesser extent than paid subscribers. That would allow all of Spotify’s users to try out the addition, but still deliver a push to upgrade to those who found the Group Session feature useful.

The company could even tie the Group Session to a paid video ad experience that allowed users to participate for a limited period of time, after first viewing a sponsor’s message.

The Group Session option continues to be in public beta, which means it’s still being tested and developed. Spotify says the feature is available globally to all Premium users today.

Generative algorithms are redefining the intersection of software and music

What if you could mix and match different tracks from your favorite artists, or create new ones on your own with their voices?

This could become a reality sooner than later, as AI models similar to the ones used to create computer-generated art images and embed deepfakes in videos are being increasingly applied to music.

The use of algorithms to create music is not new. Researchers used computer programs to generate piano sheet music as far back as the 1950s, and musicians from that era such as Iannis Xenakis and Gottfried Koenig even used them to compose their own music.

What has changed are the improvements in generative algorithms, which first gained popularity back in 2014, coupled with large amounts of compute power that are increasingly changing what computers can do with music today.

OpenAI recently released a project called JukeBox, which uses the complex raw audio form to help create entirely new music tracks based on a person’s choice of genre, artist and lyrics. Meanwhile, tools such as Amazon’s AWS DeepComposer and ones released by the Google Magenta project are helping to democratize the ability for developers to experiment with deep learning algorithms and music.

With respect to commercial use, startups such as Amper Music, which lets users create customized, royalty-free music, are seeing businesses adopt computer-generated pieces for a range of use cases surrounding background tracks for videos, and record labels have started to play around with music written by AI.

As the technology and quality of computer-generated music matures, it will likely bring a lot of changes to the media industry from individual artists to record labels to music streaming companies, and present a slew of legal questions over computer-generated music rights.

Facebook to launch officially licensed music videos in the U.S. next month

Facebook is preparing to launch officially licensed music videos on its social network in the U.S. next month, in a direct challenge to YouTube. In materials reviewed by TechCrunch, Facebook informed Page owners linked to artists they’ll need to toggle on a new setting to add their music videos to their page ahead of an August 1st deadline, at which point Facebook will automatically create a page of their videos if no action had been taken.

Artists will not have to manually upload their videos or even provide links, Facebook told the artist Page admins. Instead, by enabling the new setting, artists are giving Facebook permission to add music videos to their Page, where they can be discovered by fans on the Page’s Videos tab. This library will include both the artist’s own official videos and those they’re featured in, Facebook explained in its marketing materials.

Once enabled, the artists can edit or remove their videos from this destination at any time.

Above: Screenshots detailing to artist Page admins how to enable the Music video experience

Though artists are being strongly encouraged to enable the feature by August 1st, if they choose not to or miss the deadline, Facebook will create a separate official music Page on their behalf titled “[Artist Name] Official Music.” This Page will be created and controlled by Facebook and will be accessible by fans via the Facebook Watch tab and a new music video destination on the platform.

In an email sent to Page owners (see below), Facebook explained that whenever it receives a new release from a music label, the artist’s Facebook Page would automatically share the video directly on the page’s Timeline. This allows the new video to reach all the followers’ News Feeds. The setting for automatic sharing can be turned off at any time.

A partial screenshot of the email to artists leaked to Twitter, where it was amplified by social media consultant Matt Navarra. The addition had previously been reported by other smaller sites, as well. TechCrunch has reviewed the marketing materials that explained in more detail how to enable the setting on artists’ Facebook Page.

By enabling the setting, artists are also giving Facebook permission to share aggregate performance insights with rightholders, including likes, shares, comments, views and other engagement data associated with these auto-generated posts, the materials noted.

In addition, artists can edit the auto-generated posts, including their title, description, tags and even the thumbnails.

Facebook’s expansion into music videos will present a significant challenge to YouTube, which accounted for 46% of the world’s music streaming outside of China as of 2017, according to a report from IFPI. Around the same time, YouTube had claimed over 1 billion music fans came to its site to connect with music from over 2 billion artists. More recently, the company reported it had paid out over $3 billion to the music industry in 2019.

Bloomberg late last year reported that Facebook was negotiating with the three largest record labels — Universal Media Group, Sony Music, and Warner Music Group — over rights to music videos. The report noted that record labels were interested in an alternative to YouTube, which they feel doesn’t pay enough.

Currently, artists under the major U.S. labels have not been able to share full music videos on Facebook due to licensing rights; they could only publish a short preview.

Though Facebook had prior deals with labels, the focus had been on the right to use licensed music in “social experiences” across Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and Oculus. That meant users could post personal videos with licensed music in the background without having their videos taken down. The prior agreements also enabled Facebook to test music-driven social experiences of its own. For example, Facebook tested a Musical.ly competitor called Lip Sync Live and later, a TikTok rival called Lasso, thanks to those deals. It rolled out Music Stickers on Facebook and Instagram, as well.

Facebook already offers a music video experience in Thailand and India. The company more broadly sees video as a major focus area, as videos help connect users and encourage social conversations. Facebook Watch, a dedicated video destination, emerged due to Facebook’s earlier video efforts and continues to expand.

Facebook, reached for comment, declined to offer a statement on its plans.

Spotify expands Premium Duo subscription tier aimed at couples to U.S., India, dozens of other markets

Spotify today announced it is expanding Premium Duo, a feature that allows two people who live at the same place — say couples or flatmates — to share one subscription plan while maintaining their own individual accounts, to dozens of new markets.

Premium Duo is a remarkable concept from Spotify, which it first began testing in March last year and expanded to 19 markets months later. Starting Wednesday, Spotify Premium Duo is now available in 55 markets.

The new subscription offering is remarkable mostly because it’s solving a problem that very few people face today. At a glance, it appears that Premium Duo is designed to help people save money and gain access to a shared playlist that represents music they both cherish.

Two people can split the cost by joining Premium Duo, and it would save them a few bucks had they subscribed to the music streaming service individually. The problem is that if you are looking to save money, you can save even more by subscribing to Spotify’s family plan that supports six members in a group.

In the U.S., Premium Duo is priced at $12.99 a month. In India, it’s priced at Rs 149 a month ($2). (In India, subscriptions to Spotify, Apple Music, Apple TV+ and a vast range of services are more affordable generally.)

Spotify says it also creates a special Duo Mix playlist for participating members of a Premium Duo tier that will comprise songs both listeners like. But it offers a similar feature for members of the family plan as well.

I think I have figured out why Premium Duo exists. On its website, Spotify says that “with two separate accounts you can both enjoy your own music without having to take turns.” Couples, Spotify will really appreciate if both of you got your own paid accounts instead of listening to the streaming service from one account.

Alex Norström, who is Spotify’s “Chief Freemium Business Officer” said in a statement that the streaming giant was proud to launch Spotify Premium Duo. “With two individual Premium accounts, you can both listen independently, uninterrupted and get all of your personalized playlists and features tailored just for you. We are thrilled to bring this unique Spotify Premium plan to even more markets around the world.”