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Smule may be the biggest music app you haven't heard of

If you want to sing out, sing out.

Smule's main app previously went by "Sing! Karaoke." 

Smule wants everyone to know its name. 

The company, a San Francisco-based startup named from a portmanteau of "sonic" and "mule," runs a collection of music-related apps. The biggest by far is "Sing! Karaoke," an interactive singing app with people belting out 20 million songs with each other daily. 

Fifty million people use it at least once a month. That's roughly the entire population of South Korea. But in the US, only about 15 percent of people could recognize Smule out of a lineup of similar apps.


Among Smule's formats are duets with megastar artists like Ed Sheeran (above), Demi Lovato and Luis Fonsi, letting fans can belt out their songs side-by-side with the stars that made them hits. 


So Smule is stepping into the spotlight. It's rechristening its Sing app as Smule, partly to widen perception for the service beyond just singing. It's also putting millions of dollars into its first advertising. The company plans to spend "a couple million this quarter and then a lot more million next quarter" on things like TV, radio and digital ads for itself. 

"I could criticize ourselves for not making this change five years ago, or even thiking about this ten years ago," Jeff Smith, Smule's co-founder and CEO, said in an interview this week. "But we're opening up the experience where it's not just singing."

It comes as competition heats up for apps that let you pantomime being a pop superstar. Behemoth Facebook last month unveiled Lip Sync Live, presaging more music-related video features to come now that it has secured deals with the three major record labels. Teen-sensation lip-synching app was bought by a Chinese company for as much as $1 billion last year, and Smule faces direct competition with apps like StarMaker and WeSing, owned by Chinese giant Tencent. (To complicate matters, TenCent is an investor in Smule.) 

Smith brushes aside the competitive perils. 

"What we built, it's not something a Facebook or Google could wake up tomorrow and replicate," he said.

In addition to its 50 million monthly active users, Smule has 2 million people who pay a $20-a-month or $99-a-year membership to unlock popular songs. 

For comparison, that's nearly as many monthly active users as (60 million when it was acquired in November) and almost as many subscribers at Tidal, the subscription music service backed by Jay-Z, Beyonce, Kanye West and other megastars that claims 3 million paying members. 

Smule sets people up with a gamified recording studio, packed with bells and whistles. When you pick a song to sing, you decide to record a solo of yourself or jump into a duet or group performance where other Smule users have already recorded their portions of the track. Smule provides you with lyrics and a tracker to keep you on (or, let's be honest, generally in the vacinity... ) of the correct pitch. After you record, it packages your track into an edited video with filters and other effects. 

Most of Smule's performances are people simply having fun crooning their favorites tunes. But the format has spawned some creative riffs, like stop-motion animation music videos and mad-lib-style video interviews as well as ambitious explorations of what the format can produce. 


Sing along with Pixar. 


Smule also invites megastar artists on to sing one half of a duet for their hit songs, so fans can sing virtually right alongside them. And thanks to a partnership with Disney, you can partner up to sing with Maui from Moana or Ernesto de la Cruz from Pixar's Coco.

"This is a class of applications who's time has come," said Larry Miller, a professor of music business at New York University's Steinhardt school. "All of these companies have already demonstrated significant traction and have a pretty bright future in front of them."

One factor underpinning Miller's optimism about interactive music apps is their popularity in developing countries. Though Smule's recognition may be low in the US at 15 percent, 80 percent of people recognize Smule in Indonesia. Smule's biggest opportunites are in China, India, Indonesia and Brazil. 

"In developing markets, there's still a long way to go," Miller said. 

Smule's category of interactive music creation may not be as popular in the US as it is some places abroad, but it attracts a coveted audience. They're young and hyperactive on social media, said Russ Crupnick, analyst and managing partner at MusicWatch. 

His research found that among the people who have created a digitally generated music video in the last year, 20 percent are teens between ages 13 and 17 and half of them are between 13 and 24. They're twice as likely to share a song or artist they saw on YouTube than the norm. 

"This is the audience that everybody wants," Crupnick said. "Demographically and behaviorally, they're right in the sweet spot of where streaming companies and advertisers want to be."

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