Be it singing folk songs at weddings or strumming a guitar with friends gathered around a bonfire, few activities unite people – across language, culture and class – the way music does.

So it was only about time that someone would spot the business potential in leveraging technology to create a social network based on music that would allow friends, and even strangers, from different parts of the world make music together. That is exactly the space that the increasingly popular singing app Smule seeks to fill in India, with meaningful strategic help from its investor Times Bridge, the investment arm of India’s largest media house, Bennett Coleman and Co.

Smule was founded in 2008 in the U.S. by Jeffery C. Smith and Ge Wang (who has since left the company). It was meant to be a social network based on music, where users from across the globe could collaborate to make music, using backing tracks of popular numbers to help them sing along and digital tools such as pitch autocorrect to enhance the quality of the music created.

Smule, which has 40 million monthly active users globally, entered India in 2016 and has “millions of users in India” currently, says Bill Bradford, president, Smule. India is Smule’s third largest market after the U.S. and Indonesia. The app seeks to further deepen its ties with multilingual and multicultural Indian users by plugging into live music shows, events, and cultural festivals.

The music app, which has no staff organisational setup in India, is relying heavily on Times Bridge, which invested $20 million in Smule in October 2018, to help it navigate the Indian market, leveraging the Times Group’s plethora of online and offline media properties. Rishi Jaitly, chief executive officer, Times Bridge, says Smule felt like a product made for India even before it launched in the country and that his organisation will help Smule gain scale in India by making it culturally relevant.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

What was the rationale behind founding Smule and what is the size and scale of the app at present?

Bill: Smule was founded 10 years ago and the mission back then was to turn music back to its social roots. Earlier, people would sit together in a group and express themselves through music and music was the original social network. Over time, however, music has become a one-way passive experience where a handful of superstars perform and people consume their music passively over headphones. We want to have people participate in making music again.

We have 40 million monthly active users globally. Our user base in India is also in the millions and India is our third largest market after the U.S. and Indonesia. We actually think that if we can grow our brand here and work with these guys (Times Bridge) to tie into significant cultural events, we can grow our base here to tens of millions.

The average user on Smule has about eight sessions per month, which is high considering it isn’t really an app you can use on the move, when you are in a bus. It is an app that tends to be used more at night when the user is alone, and over weekends.

Rishi Jaitly, chief executive officer, Times Bridge
Rishi Jaitly, chief executive officer, Times Bridge

Rishi: When I came across the Smule team a few years ago, what I saw was a product that I knew intuitively was made for India, even before they had launched here. It is a platform build around singing together and we all know the role that musical expression plays in our social life here. The Indian market has responded really well to Smule over the last couple of years and we are helping them scale and become culturally relevant.

How will Smule ensure that it become a sticky proposition for users even after the novelty factor wears off, considering other established platforms like YouTube also allow for user-generated music content?

Bill: We aren’t trying to compete with YouTube. We are about musical expression and connection. We have a vast catalogue of structured musical content – millions of songs in every language and genre – along with their lyrics, keynotes, backing tracks and pitch information. This allows users to sing along with these songs and create compelling musical content. We can also correct a singer’s pitch and add effects such as reverb or echo to enhance the music.

Then there is the musical connection and participation. We make it very easy for a person to join another person for a duet or a group song and create a performance that can be shared with family and friends. So it is these connections that form a strong bond on our network and that’s where the user retention comes from.

What is Smule’s revenue model?

Bill: Most of our users are free users. We want to build a social network and if we don’t have too many users then there will be no interactions. We have some ad-supported content on the platform, which is very light since we don’t want to add friction to the user experience. We also have a VIP subscription for premium features and functionalities such as special filters and practice sessions before singing a solo. It is about finding the right balance. We want to make sure the experience is great for the free users, but also work on monetisation avenues.

What’s the scope for commercially tying up with films that are looking to promote their music or brands in India?

Bill: That’s something we are talking about. Smule can be a platform for brands or celebrities looking to have a two-way engagement with their target audience. For instance, we did a global campaign with LG when they were launching a new mobile phone. They roped in Shawn Mendes to sing one of his hit songs on Smule; and after you, as a user, would finish singing with him, you would receive a message prompting you to click on a link to stand a chance to win some LG phones and a chance to fly to see Shawn perform in person.

Being a music-based social network, it is possible that you will unearth some new musical talent on your platform. Can you leverage that commercially through live shows and so on?

Bill: We worked with Indian Idol for their last season. We did some light integration through promotions of the judges and their songs. There are definitely opportunities to integrate with live TV shows. For instance, for these shows it is very time consuming to line people up for auditions. We can get them thousands of auditions just like that and give them the best content to review. We can also get some of our users to participate in music shows and sing live before an audience; like we did with the Mirchi Music Awards (Radio Mirchi is a Times Group property).

Rishi: Yes. Our respective teams worked together to create the Smule Mirchi Cover Star, where we made a call-to-action to users around India to share their content and the winner performed live on stage during the awards function.

Are there any interesting insights into the consumption pattern emerging out of India on Smule?

Bill: The age profile of the users from India is similar to the global trend. Most of our users are between 18 and 35 years of age. One interesting difference is that the user base in the U.S. is skewed towards females, whereas in India the gender ratio is more evenly split between men and women. That is probably why we see such strong social interactions here on our platform.

Another interesting difference is folks in India tend to be more concerned about improving their performances whereas in Indonesia, users just want to have fun and don’t care how they sound.

Is this an example of how the Times Group will help Smule grow in India?

Rishi: This is one example. There is a current wave of expression and creativity on the Indian Internet out there. And we at Times Bridge have been paying attention to this. Consequently, we bring a number of things to bear for our partners. We marshal the best of the Times Group on behalf of our portfolio companies. Our obligation is to help our partners win in the market and become culturally relevant. We support them in a variety of ways – form hiring to distribution and strategy, to thinking about the culture and a higher mission.

How will Smule utilise the $20 million invested by Times Bridge to grow in India?

Rishi: My feeling has always been that in India, once a venture has solved for product fit and market localisation, it needs to tell a story – a unique, original Indian story. So across all our deals – from Uber to Smule – a major pillar of our deals and partnership structure involves brand and marketing commitment from our side over a certain number of years. The Times Group brings to bear certain interesting online and offline assets for a business like Smule. And then there is the issue of operational support in the market – such as localisation needs, staffing, creative partnership and so on.

Bill: What we value about our partnership with Times Bridge is that is a real strategic partnership, which doesn’t end with receiving capital from them. They know what we don’t know, like the Indian market, and we value that. I wouldn’t know how to spend $20 million effectively and thoughtfully in India by myself. These guys have the channels and they guide us on how to use them. Also, we don’t have a team or employees in India. So we look at the Times Group to provide creative support to execute campaigns.

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