Musical.ly: A Proving Ground for Digital Natives

On November 9, app Musical.ly made headlines when it was reported that Chinese media startup Jinri Toutiao was buying Musical.ly for between $800 million and $1 billion. The reported sale price was especially impressive since Musical.ly (based in Shanghai) was founded only three years ago. The news was also notable for many other reasons, among them:

  • Musical.ly is probably the first Chinese-created social app to penetrate the United States and has managed to operate independently of the Four Horsemen (Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook).
  • Musical.ly has demonstrated how to capture and engage the attention of Gen Z, the cohort of digital natives that is growing up mobile and app savvy.
  • The app has become a multimillion dollar powerhouse even though many casual observers have absolutely no idea what anyone really does on Musical.ly.

Musical.ly has often been described as a “lip-syncing app,” and indeed, the app permits its reported 60 million users to record elaborately staged lip syncs. But Musical.ly is a lot more than that. With its attendant app, Live.ly, Musers can broadcast livestreams of themselves hosting amateur shows where they engage with other Musers for hours at a stretch. Musical.ly is really a proving ground for digital natives to learn how to become self-made brands. The livestreams and lip syncs create ways for teens to figure out the art of engagement.

Throughout 2017, I have gotten immersed in Musical.ly. I have made some of the worst Musical.lys ever. I’ve watched a serious livestream from Musers discussing self-esteem issues and a livestream in which a Muser performed gymnastics routines to earn Likes and Hearts. I’ve watch a Muser livestream a fascinating performance of fire dancers during her vacation in Thailand, and I’ve seen a Muser entertain her fans by crinkling a packet of M&Ms. Here is what I’ve learned:

Musical.ly Resonates Because It Taps into Natural Behaviors

We all like to sing along with our favorites songs, dance, and do a little air guitar. Some of us are better at it than others. Musical.ly gives every performer an even playing field. By liking each other’s performances, you can reward the best ones, who can go on to be featured and become real self-made celebrities, such as Ariel Martin (@babyariel), a 16-year-old entertainer who started out on Musical.ly before achieving renown in publications such as Forbes, Fast Company, and Time for her digital presence.

Ariel Martin

But even if you’re an awkward lip syncer (as I am), you can have fun posting those little inspired moments of the day. And if you want to elevate your game, you can learn from the more experienced Musers, who have elevated lip syncing to an art form through skillful editing and creative storytelling.

Musical.ly Is a Proving Ground for Self-Made Digital Brands

Musical.ly is the perfect platform for digital natives to master all the tools of creating a personal digital brand. As breakout names such as Ariel Martin and Anna Zak demonstrate, sometimes Musers become bona fide stars. But even more importantly, Musical.ly gives digital natives a way to learn skills such as short-form content creation, visual storytelling, and audience engagement, which are crucial to building a personal brand in any communications field (arguably any field). Musical.ly gives performers a platform to showcase their creativity through lip syncs similar to how Snapchat and Instagram are platforms for visual storytelling. Live.ly streams create an excellent way for Musers to learn how to engage an audience for extended periods of time.

In addition, because Musical.ly is so well connected with other apps such as Instagram and YouTube, experienced Musers can learn the art of cross-promoting their other socials easily.

Some of the livestreams can seem tedious to the uninitiated. Musers can spend long, uninterrupted chunks of time soliciting viewers to shower them with digital gifts and badges, responding randomly to viewers’ comments (which appear onscreen a la Facebook Live), and moderating competitions and challenges such as “I’ll BFF the person who comments with 25 hearts.”

But the livestreams serve a purpose. The only way to get good at learning how to engage an audience is to spend time with them. Naturally, the more time you spend hosting a livestream, the greater your chances of experiencing moments of unfiltered awkwardness. But Musical.ly is Gen Z’s world. If you don’t like it, stay out.

The more experienced amateur Musers mix humor, personal storytelling, and an ability to keep a one-way conversation moving, sort of like good telethon hosts know how to do. Katelyn Butcher, for example, is a 16-year-old Muser with close to 391,000 fans, crown status (granted only to verified users and celebrities), and a presence on Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube. Her livestreams are upbeat and life-affirming, as are her songs. She skillfully engages viewers with contests that encourage interaction.

Katelyn Butcher

She tells me that she discovered Musical.ly on her own when she saw the app on the top of the iTunes chart one day. (“I downloaded it to see what it was and ended up loving it.”)

Since then, she has relied on Musical.ly to try and build a career in the music industry. “I have a huge passion for singing and music,” she says. “I use Musical.ly to express that and share that with people and to try to grow – so maybe one day I have a chance to be a singer and do what I love.”

When I ask her why teens love Musical.ly, she replies, “I think Musical.ly is so popular with teens because it’s fun, first of all. And it gives everyone with a passion a chance. Anyone can be featured if they work on it. Before Musical.ly, I had no supporters, and now I have people who support my music.”

Oh, and “Adults don’t get Musical.ly because they think lip syncing is pointless.”

What happens next for Katelyn Butcher in the fractured music industry is anyone’s guess. But regardless of what the future holds for Katelyn Butcher, Musical.ly is a platform for her to cultivate a skill that will serve her well: using digital to make her mark.

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