Two years ago, Alex Zhu was the co-CEO of a failing educational app called Cicada, which allowed students to watch lectures by experts in a variety of fields. One afternoon, he spotted kids on a train in Mountain View, California, taking photos and videos while blasting music, and he was struck by a bolt of inspiration. Zhu ordered his company to redirect its last $20,000 of venture capital into a new idea: lip-sync videos.
After changing its name to Musical.ly, the app – which allows users (or “musers”) to share 15-second videos in which they sing along to songs or recite TV dialogue – exploded. Musical.ly now has 90 million users worldwide, the majority of them teenagers. “It took on a life of its own,” says Ayal Kleinman, a Warner Bros. Records marketing vice president who introduced R&B star Jason Derulo to the service.
What’s emerged is a mix of acting, comedy and performance art: a young man pretends to be pregnant during Carly Rae Jepsen’s “I Really Like You”; others dab to a Whitney Houston snippet as part of the #IWillAlwaysLoveYouComedy challenge. Unlike Vine, users can access a Spotify-like streaming database to play songs while shooting selfie videos on their smartphones. (Dubsmash, a similar app that debuted in 2014, had no social-networking features at the time.) “People are moving beyond lip-sync videos and sharing original content that features them dancing, acting, singing and cooking,” says Alex Hofmann, Musical.ly’s North American president.
Artists like Derulo and Selena Gomez post videos on the app, but Musical.ly has also created its own stars. Its biggest, Florida 15-year-old Ariel Martin (a.k.a. Baby Ariel), is one of the headliners on DigiTour Summer, a 28-city run of clubs and theaters, featuring various social-media celebrities. She has amassed 10 million followers, and just hired her first manager. “My life has completely changed,” she says. “But I have the same long-term goals. I really want to pursue acting, whether it’s through social media or a TV show. We’re seeing where that takes us.”