Two decades after digital downloads replaced physical CDs, and 10 years into streaming’s dominance of music consumption, music’s tech boom still shows no sign of braking. It’s rather the opposite, as the global business looks to level up its digital offerings.
For hungry entrepreneurs, that means immense opportunities to shine — and the people with deep pockets are watching closely. With the help of investors, startup accelerators, and other industry watchers, Rolling Stone found the five brightest music companies to watch in 2021 and beyond.
Splice offers myriad easy-to-use production tools for musicians, along with hundreds of thousands of royalty-free samples that can form the backbones of new songs. The eight-year-old creative platform has raised approximately $165 million to date, most recently from Goldman Sachs and a music investment firm aptly named MUSIC. Splice’s worth also soared in the year of the coronavirus — which barred many artists from heading to physical recording studios. Splice is now valued at $500 million, per Bloomberg, and that number is expected to climb even higher as more young artists go the do-it-yourself route.
Splice’s CEO Steve Martocci, who was highlighted in Rolling Stone‘s 2019 Future 25 list, says the company was inspired by the open-source software world, which puts a high value on collaboration and transparency. “When we first started, people were like, ‘there’s no fucking way I’m giving you my samples. Why would I give my secret sauce out?’” Martocci recalls. “There’s so much you can learn from how much programmers share.”
There have never been so many video creators on the internet — and most of them are eager to pair their videos with hit tunes, unaware that licensing music is often a costly ordeal. Enter Epidemic, a royalty-free music platform whose mission is to “soundtrack the internet.” For a monthly subscription, Epidemic offers 35,000 high-quality tracks for creators to use however they please, along with nearly three times that number of sound effects. It has courted major investors such as Blackstone, the firm behind Bumble and Ancestry.com, and raised $450 million in its latest funding round — securing a dizzying unicorn valuation of $1.4 billion.
Merely a decade ago, musicians hoping to give their songs a wide release without a record label were pretty much out of luck. Now, 60,000 tracks are uploaded to Spotify every day — most of them by unsigned DIY artists.
A number of those artists are working with the startup UnitedMasters. There are plenty of other self-distributing platforms out there, like CD Baby, DistroKid, or TuneCore. But UnitedMasters — which has secured a $50 million investment from Apple and launched in 2017 with a not-unimpressive $70 million from Alphabet and venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz — stands apart because it also helps artists participate in advertisements and brand partnerships with the likes of iHeartRadio and the NBA, while letting them keep ownership of their master rights (hence the name).Kanye West and Taylor Swift might approve.
“Artists are now looking at ‘How can I control my own brand, how can I take my music into my own hands?’” founder Steve Stoute told Rolling Stone in 2018. “But somebody has to operationalize that — somebody has to operationalize independence.”
You can’t tour in a pandemic. What’s the next best thing? On video-game platform Roblox, Lil Nas X held one of the biggest virtual concerts of the year, drawing 33 million unique viewers. The music industry certainly noticed — and Warner Music Group was one of the investors partaking in a recent $520 million funding round that valued Roblox at nearly $30 billion. Roblox is also opening its doors to firms like virtual-concert developer Wave, which will help build more in-game shows.
Roblox execs told Rolling Stone in 2020 that they see music as integral to their “metaverse” — a sprawling online experience with its own economy and culture.
Roblox ultimately wants to combine “gaming, social media, and entertainment” for a jumbo cultural product: “It’s this fully immersive, vast, diverse universe of experiences,” hints the company’s head of music Jon Vlassopulos. “We love this notion of human co-experience, and anyone can tell you music’s a big part of that.”
Social media rewrote the artist-fan relationship, and Instagram and TikTok have turned into golden escalators between the stage and the mosh pit.
Community, launched in 2019, wants to bring musicians one step closer, by way of the most sacred and intimate platform on fans’ phones — their texts. Artists on Community can send mass text messages to fans whenever they want, whether to remind them about concert tickets, drop a new song, or just to check in and say hello. The company has raised $90 million to date, from players like the tech behemoth Salesforce, the concert giant Live Nation, Ashton Kutcher, Sony, and Raised in Space, the music investment firm co-founded by Scooter Braun.
Celebrities who’ve used Community include Paul McCartney, Post Malone, Diddy, Jennifer Lopez, and Barack Obama. (Unfortunately, Obama has yet to drop a song via text to fans — but it’s only been a minute.)