Steve Stoute, former president of Interscope Records has just launched a new venture called UnitedMasters that is challenging the traditional record label model. It’s what’s known in the music business as an artist services company, a firm that aims to let musicians control their careers in areas like distribution, analytics, and brand partnerships, all while letting them retain rights over their master recordings. The venture is being funded by $70 million from Google parent company Alphabet, and UnitedMasters will operate as a partner with Stoute’s other company, ad agency Translation LLC.
Currently, if a musician signs to a major label, they might get funding, connections, and marketing, but it’s often at the expense of unfavorable deals. This can include small royalties, giving up the rights to master recordings, and even handing over creative control. Recent years have shown that staying independent and being successful is entirely possible — Chance the Rapper is one of the most visible figures doing so — but being indie comes with its own set of challenges, like trying to handle multiple roles at once, and finding access to important people in the industry. All this means the launch of UnitedMasters will pique the interest of smaller indie musicians.
Artists who work with UnitedMasters will pay to have it distribute their work to platforms like Spotify and Apple Music, and also agree to split royalties. This is similar to how artists might use a service like CD Baby. According to The Wall Street Journal, UnitedMasters will aim to keep prices as low as possible. Unlike CD Baby, The Wall Street Journal says the more traditional royalty payout per stream can be replaced with custom deals, like giving UnitedMasters a portion of merchandise or ticket sales.
The platform will then give artists detailed insights on fan behavior and demographics, and based on this information, offer marketing recommendations, such as suggesting specific blogs to reach out to. It will also offer ways to retarget fans that have interacted with content, advice from industry experts, and pair musicians with brands for partnerships to license their music. Currently, UnitedMasters says it works with about 1,000 musicians, though it hasn’t named any.
Retargeting fans is of particular interest. Someone might have an artist’s song on their Spotify playlists, and even if they really love the song, the interaction generally stops there. Retargeting will allow artists to advertise to people who have previously listened to their music, then entice them to buy a ticket for a show in their area, purchase merchandise or an upcoming release, and hopefully, over time, convert them from passive listener to superfan.
While staying indie means you retain rights and control with your music, it also means you’re in charge of your own marketing, branding, and outreach. Several services, like Next Big Sound and Topspin, offer musicians analytics, insights, and some marketing tools (like merch fulfillment and unlocking content for fans that give information like an email address), but this is only one piece of what an artist needs. Distribution, the ability to retarget fans, guidance (especially for those without managers), and licensing are important components most existing platforms miss. They’re also the parts that help build consistent, solid relationships for longtime fans and boost passive income.
As exciting as the concept of UnitedMasters sounds, the site at present is a long way from where UnitedMasters says it will be. As of now, it only functions like a basic analytics service, akin to Topspin, with a couple extras like the song link tracking mentioned above.
“Today’s UnitedMasters product release is focused around amplifying your message as an artist across free streaming services and social media,” says a recent Medium post by Jack Krawczyk, UnitedMasters’ chief product officer. “Learning more about who your fans are, receiving weekly personalized recommendations on how to grow them, and the early phases of what we call direct-to-fan messaging.” A lot of the more exciting features, like retargeting and brand partnerships, don’t exist yet on the UnitedMasters website. We reached out UnitedMasters for comment.
Also, even with UnitedMasters’ limited launch, there are some frustrations. I’ve signed up and am waiting for the site to analyze the data from all my linked accounts, like SoundCloud and YouTube. In the meantime, there’s not much to see. There’s no way to contact the company (other than a “live chat” that says it takes hours to respond), no About section that describes UnitedMasters’ services, and a few oddities. If, for example, I want to share one of my SoundCloud links with my fans through UnitedMasters to track interactions (similar to Linkfire), the service doesn’t show me which SoundCloud songs I’ve marked as private and which are public. It’s a very basic thing to overlook.
Currently, artists are searching for ways to not be dependent on major labels, while wanting to feel like they’re not missing out on what a major label can offer. This idea of a guided one-stop shop, especially in tandem with the clientele of Translation LLC for brand partnerships, could fill a niche for the next generation of musicians. Alphabet and Google Ventures have now made two investments aimed at upending the traditional music industry, and although UnitedMasters has a lot to prove in the coming months, what it promises could be worth the wait.