Universal Music Group wants to find the next Spotify before it’s too late

MusEDLab Studios, a startup team that completed the NYC Media Lab Combine program's first cohort in 2016.
Image: Anne Ruthmann

Tuhin Roy is hoping to find the next big thing in music—before it’s too late. 

“Not only are we looking for the next Spotify or Pandora or consumer music service, but a lot of the startups we interact with are helping in less visible ways,” said Roy, vice president of new digital business at Universal Music Group, one of the three major record labels.

The times they are still a-changin’. The music industry is finding its footing after almost two decades of upheaval. Once-maligned streaming services are now driving serious growth, and there’s a sense of optimism that the worst is in the past.

But there’s still a ton of change. Inside the industry, upheaval continues. Artists are now emerging organically, with some even eschewing the mighty music labels. With the cost of music distribution almost zero, just what is the point of labels?

“I think that the thing that major labels have always done that is important in the business is provide highly sophisticated, robust, well-developed processes for artists to reach their highest potential,” Roy said. “At the end of the day, that’s why artists come to us, because they believe we’re going to help them reach their highest potential.”

To that end, Universal on Monday announced the launch of its accelerator network in an effort to encourage the emergence of music startups— with the goal of getting Universal in on the ground floor of the next big thing.

The deal puts Universal at the earliest stage possible with entrepreneurs looking for help in trying something new. The label is working with accelerators at that application process, then lending expertise and mentorship to founders with music-focused startups. 

Justin Hendrix, executive director of NYC Media Lab, said that corporate partners are important for entrepreneurs who might not otherwise have those relationships.

“They’re willing to help startups in ways that can be very crucial to them to get their ideas validated, and I think that’s one of the things we’re going to see here with Universal Music Group,” Hendrix said.

In music, that’s particularly important. Hendrix said that getting access something like a music library—which Universal will be offering to startups as part of its program—can make or break a startup.

“Getting access to content, getting access to material for the purposes of prototyping, of validating, a lot the time that’s a really big deal for a startup,” Hendrix said.

The goal is to encourage more entrepreneurs and accelerators to focus their energy on music, which can be a daunting and byzantine industry to deal with.

“We have to be a lot more proactive for conditions to exist out there where entrepreneurs and investors want to do amazing things in the music space. So really that’s where this particular program is focused on… being very proactive that accelerators have the relationship they need so that they’re accepting of the great music ideas that entrepreneurs have,” Roy said. 

At launch, Universal counts Axel Springer’s Plug and Play, LeanSquare, and NYC Media Lab among its accelerator partners. Roy said Universal hopes to find around 10 total partners to work with.

Universal isn’t taking equity for its efforts, which is the usual deal between startups and acceleartors. Roy said the label sees value in hearing about new ideas from entrepreneurs and having the chance to work with startups from early days.

“There’s a reverse learning process for us. We actually learn as we engage in these startups how they view the business which is maybe a view for where things are heading,” Roy said. 

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