How Smule’s Sing! Karaoke App Nailed It

Whenever a software product goes viral, those of us trying to create similar successes go about breaking down how and why things went so right. Sometimes products go viral and I’m at a loss to really understand why. Or, I understand why, but it’s still not for me (i.e. Pokémon Go). However, neither is the case for Smule’s Sing! Karaoke app.

I remember well sitting in the audience 7 years ago when Smule’s CEO Jeff Smith gave his pitch at the Under The Radar conference (you can watch his pitch here). I remember nothing of the pitch itself, but he closed with a demo of their Ocarina iOS app, and it made everybody sit up and pay attention. It was a ‘wow’ moment in terms of their creativity and technical prowess. I wondered though at the time and since — as I’m sure did every VC in the room — if Smule would end up only creating hit apps that burned hot but faded fast. Would they ever be able to realize their goal of making audio the ubiquitous social networking medium that they endeavored to do? That was a huge leap to make from a demo that, while remarkable, had no apparent sustainable viral characteristics. I hadn’t paid much attention to Smule since, as their subsequent apps like I Am T-Pain widely missed me as a demographic target.

About a year ago, they launched Sing! Karaoke, a follow-up to their Glee Karaoke app. Again, not being a karaoke fan, I felt outside of their target demographic. Yet as someone that could do relatively well on Rock Band at the singing position, at least I had some overlapping interest and gave it a try. And that’s when I became convinced they had finally figured it all out.

Of course, I’m late to this realization — they raised $38 million a year ago before they even released Sing! Karaoke. Since then, they reported earlier this year a user-base of 35 million and 70% increase in sales. I suspect a lot of their growth has been on the back of Sing! Karaoke. And I now have little doubt that their numbers will continue to impress.

Software Porting a Human Experience

Smule’s Sing! Karaoke checks off a lot of boxes for a social networking app. It copies a lot from Twitter (to be fair, so do many new social networking entrants). Their user profile construct, follow feature, verified celebrity profiles, and their recently added peer messaging all fit the Twitter model. Leveraging their audio technology, they are also able to offer Instagram-like filters for the video and audio recordings. These audio filters alone are a very compelling feature, giving users the ability to apply reverb, auto tuning and harmony overlays with one touch. This capability has the ‘magic’ quality that technology can sometimes create, something Smule has always had. This technology enables their users to record in a way that only a few years ago required a fully-equipped recording studio. And of course, they have their own vanity metrics in the app (preferring Loves over Likes). This offers the dopamine flooding feature that drives social networks in general. Yet outside of the audio filters, nothing remarkably unique stands out about this app. This is often the case with viral applications — can you name one thing that Slack does for communication that had never been done before? But Smule did do something very unique; they created the portability of an awesome, uniquely human experience.

If you’ve ever sung in a choir harmonizing with beautiful voices all around you, you know that it can give you euphoric chills. Even just hearing beautiful voices live is somehow immensely powerful. However, when you are able to participate with such voices, it brings this euphoria to a whole new level. And this is what Sing! Karaoke is able to accomplish. It’s a smartphone app that does what previously required placing talented singers in an acoustically friendly hall. Sing! Karaoke brings together a huge community of incredible voices from across the world and allows you to harmonize with them. And even though these collaborations are not real-time, it doesn’t matter — it feels like they are in the studio with you.

To be sure, Smule didn’t have to make the perfect app in order to accomplish what they have. In reality, the app has a lot of UX flaws, and I find it already encumbered with too many features. It is also priced pretty aggressively for apps in its genre, suggesting they are prioritizing revenue over user growth. But when you accomplish bringing portability to one of the great human experiences, it covers a lot of sins. Well done Smule, here’s a standing ovation sent back to you from our smartphones.