Why Gift an Album When You Can Send a Personalized Song?
It’s boom time for creator-economy music investments. The startup Songfinch, which provides customized songs at listeners’ requests, is the latest music startup to lock down major industry money: The Weeknd, his manager Wassim “Sal” Slaiby and Atlantic Records CEO and chairman Craig Kallman are all investors in the company’s recently closed $2 million funding round, Rolling Stone has learned. Also among the new investor list are Rob Price, the School of Rock CEO, and David Kalt, the founder of online music instrument retailer Reverb.com.
Songfinch was founded by John Williamson, Rob Lindquist, Scott Kitun and Josh Kaplan, the last of whom co-manages Doja Cat with Slaiby. The company is an agency with its own network of artists and songwriters it partners with to meet customers’ requests. Buyers looking to gift a custom song submit their request on Songfinch’s website alongside their preferred genre, the mood and occasion for the song, and a few paragraphs to inspire the song’s content — such as favorite things about the song recipient, inside jokes and memories. It’s not dissimilar to the letter-writing service in Spike Jonze’s 2013 sci-fi romance Her.
Priced at $200 a song, not including extra add-ons, Songfinch pays out $100 of each deal to artists. The artists retain the master and publishing ownership to the tracks while buyers get a perpetual use license that allows them to share the song with friends. “Some people get excited about The Rock saying happy birthday to a friend — there’s shock value and fun in that, but ours goes a bit deeper and there’s room for both here,” Williamson tells Rolling Stone. “We don’t think of Songfinch as simply customizing songs. When we did, that idea fell on deaf ears. What this really is is reminiscing of the times people had together, it’s about those moments in your life communicated in a new way.”
A mutual connection between Songfinch and Craig Kallman told the Atlantic Records CEO of the company, and interested, he tested it out and commissioned a song, Williamson says, which further pushed the process forward to invest.
“Songfinch gave me the opportunity to send an extraordinary musical gift that proved so moving and emotional for all the people I sent it to,” Kallman said in a statement. “The creativity and impact of this service is truly remarkable and I had no hesitation becoming an investor.”
Songfinch’s revenue was $150,000 in 2019 and grew to $1.45 million last year, Williamson says. Through two quarters of 2021, the company’s revenue has already exceeded $2.25 million on pace to surpass $5 million this year. Williamson says Songfinch paid artists over $1.5 million last year and attributes Songfinch’s fast-rising financials in part to the pandemic as well as to the growth of other custom-content companies like Cameo, which has evangelized the concept to customers.
In a streaming economy in which the rightsholders of the industry’s few top catalogs take in the lion’s share of streaming revenue — and at a time when touring, artists’ biggest money-maker, has been pummeled by the pandemic — fan engagement and other ancillary content businesses are becoming an increasingly notable aspect of music makers’ and other content creators’ businesses as they search for new revenue models. The custom celebrity greeting company Cameo flourished last year, paying out $75 million to its creators, while artists were courted for higher numbers of brand deals. Meanwhile, the Guy Oseary-backed TikTok collaboration marketplace Pearpop, a virtual marketwhere content creators can buy and sell TikTok interactions with one another, closed a $16 million funding round in April.
“All of the marketplace models for music, everything’s built from the top down where 5 percent of the talent earns accounts for more than half of the streaming revenue. If you aren’t a big name it’s difficult to earn dollars from streaming,” Williamson says. “The customers on our site aren’t coming because an artist is popular, they’re here because they want what the artist creates. If you’re a good songwriter who can work with small details, even without a following, you can crush it on our platform. Those types of artists need 23,000 streams on Spotify before they see $100, but all they need here is one song. We want to give artists a platform that can operate like Uber and Lyft, something that can help keep them in the studio creating and doing what they’re passionate about.”
Songfinch has won over a few prominent hitmakers, but it isn’t the only business betting on customized songs. Companies like Songlorious and Downwrite offer similar products. In the coming months, executives say, Songfinch will issue a significant overhaul to its site to make it more of a marketplace complete with artist profiles and tools that will allow customers to pick artists themselves rather than just have the company curate requests.
Songfinch also has steep competition in the broader, fast-growing custom content space, where it competes with Cameo and other startups offering similar and cheaper prices for customers to get celebrities to give loved ones a custom message. Williamson acknowledges that customers may be drawn to the novelty of greetings from the rich and famous, such a model isn’t sustainable for a custom song company at scale, and as he says, Songfinch is focused more on playing on emotion and depth than novelty. The backing of prominent industry heads helps spur conversations on emerging tech and new concepts Williamson says, but don’t expect A-list performers to be available for full song commissions any time soon.