A Social Network for Making Music

Smule’s success with apps led it onto the PC

A Social Network for Making Music
One hundred twenty-five million people use social music-making apps from Smule. It costs members $40 a year to store an unlimited number of songs
Photograph by Emily Keegin for Bloomberg Businessweek

Maria Limperos is a closet chanteuse. Several nights a week, after her kids and husband nod off, the pharmacist from Columbus, Ohio, takes her iPhone into her bedroom closet and opens an application called Sing! Karaoke. Under the user name Maria66, she has recorded about 1,000 songs over the past two years—some covers of hits such as Killing Me Softly and Total Eclipse of the Heart, some original songs. She’s recorded duets with strangers as far away as Australia.

Limperos is one of roughly 125 million people who use social music-making apps from Smule, a five-year-old startup that takes users a few steps beyond conventional karaoke or button-mashing video games such as Guitar Hero. The San Francisco-based company’s 18 mobile apps, which also include Guitar!, Magic Piano, and AutoRap, have spawned online communities creating music that falls somewhere in quality between the amateurs on YouTube and artists on the radio, says Chief Executive Officer Jeff Smith. “Most of the songs are quite bad, but some are pretty good, and now we’re enabling people all over the world to listen to them,” says Smith, a doctoral candidate in computer music at Stanford University. “We’re making the Internet a big campfire.”

On Oct. 1 the company unveiled a revamped website, Smule Nation, which highlights select performances from users across all of its apps through a social network accessible online by anyone with a personal computer. In addition to posting their own songs, users can follow and sample tracks from their favorite Smule artists, making sharing easier than it is in the confines of the apps. It’s a big step for the company, whose apps previously were usable only on mobile devices, and could lead to an even broader audience.

That audience is limited somewhat by the software’s relatively high learning curve. Unlike Guitar Hero and Rock Band, which are all about button sequences and timekeeping, Smule’s apps encourage players to freestyle and set their own tempos. The company’s Ocarina app, a simulation of the esoteric wind instrument best known from Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda series, requires users to blow into their phones to play notes. Perry Cook, a retired Princeton University music professor and a member of Smule’s advisory board, says the company’s apps fit into the tradition of digital home recording studios and synthesizers—tools that radically democratized music-making in the 1970s and ’80s. “We’ve never had anything like this, except maybe Friday afternoons when drummers gather together at the marina and bring their instruments,” says Cook.

Smule’s apps are free. The company makes money on ads and from ad-free subscriptions. For $40 a year, heavy users can also store an unlimited number of songs on the startup’s servers; free users are allowed 100. Smith estimates that Smule (short for “sonic mule”) will bring in revenue of $20 million this year, up from $12 million last year and $6 million in 2011. The company will turn a profit in the next few months, he says.

Smith, whose 70-employee office is littered with drum kits and acoustic guitars, has raised $25 million from venture capital funds including Bessemer Venture Partners and Shasta Ventures. One of his biggest expenses so far has been securing music licenses from record labels.

Some well-known artists, including Grammy-winning country group Lady Antebellum and teen singer Austin Mahone, have used the app to connect with fans. Smith says he’s been contacted about possible partnerships by reality TV shows such as The Voice and American Idol that could use the site to screen auditions. No matter how big—or small—her app audience is, says Limperos, “it gives me the opportunity to be the star that I always wanted to be.”

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