Culture is future »


Contribution : "Open Shazam!" by David Lacombled

Success story. How Shazam is moving from a music identification application to a global business, present in a both cultural and advertising ecosystem.

Shazam is one of the few applications to have the privilege to give birth to a verb. “To shazam” is the action of handing your smartphone towards a music source (from a radio, in a bar, in a party, in a nightclub, at the neighbors’…) starting up the app so that it can give, after a few bars, the title and the name of the singer of the piece of music that is playing; what proves that this application is useful. Annoying his friends by humming clumsily a chorus in order to try to identify a song is now over.

However, in 2001, things started badly in the Silicon Valley for the founders Chris Barton, Avery Wang, Philip Inghelbrecht and Dhiraj Mukherjee. When, passionate and certain to have a golden idea, they presented their concept with their PowerPoint, they faced a general refusal from the investors. But in their defense, let’s admit that this period was not that favorable at that time. Because of the bursting of the internet bubble, financiers were more interested in save their interests in troubled start-ups than in committing to new adventures.

Moreover, their faith in the development of mobile applications met skepticism: the mobile phone – which was not a smartphone yet – market in the United-States was still at its infancy, and late compared to that the European one. London, where the founders found the support of investors, was chosen to be the launching site for the application.

Thus the music door-opener could be set up. With two key elements: on the one hand, reactivity: the answer given to the user needs to be immediate, with a logic of impulsiveness. And, on the other hand, independence, because the “digital print” or the “digital signature” that allows the identification of the pieces of music should be able to be isolated without needing to resort to licenses or rights that would have hindered the development of the application, or would have made it unviable.

Today, ten years later, it is more than 420 million people who use the application on more than 200 territories, and every month, Shazam conquers 15 millions of new users, raising the application in the top 10 of most downloaded apps. The application has therefore proven its “social value” as this is the users themselves that speak about it, boosting its development by hearsay.

In this way, Shazam’s process is typical of that of the technological businesses that start by establishing the reputation of their brand, in order to find afterwards an economical model on which it can lean on.

And actually, the company did try different models. After having tried a “freemium” formula consisting in making the consumer pay when using it more than five times a month, the company definitely chose to make it free for the consumer.

If it remains a music identification application for the consumer, Shazam managed to become a launching media for music professionals. Shazam has become an indicator of what Anglo-Saxons call the “stickiness” of a piece of music. Thanks to its collected data, the app can allow to predict which artists are likely to have success and to foresee future hits.

Shazam become one of the door-openers of success, not only by allowing every user to share every discovered title with his friends via the social media or email, but also by allowing him to buy it through the legal downloading services.

At first, partnerships with music industry were complicated to make as the music producers feared digital cannibalization of their revenues (it was the time when Napster and the peer-to-peer were in full swing)… But today it is a success: Shazam generates almost $300 million by selling digital music, mainly through iTunes, the Apple service, which transfers them a commission.

But while carving out its own path in the disc industry, Shazam opens up to another flourishing market today: that of the “second TV screen”. Thanks to its “music digital print”, Shazam can become a kind of “audio flashcode” enabling interactivity with TV programs. Thus, in the United-States, Shazam was used by advertisers – particularly during the Superbowl – to offer to viewers who “shazam” a TV ad when the logo appears on the screen to have access to more contents. In France, the model was just launched with the clothes store La Halle via a cover of the singer Jenifer in TF1’s leading program “The Voice”.

It is a safe bet that the door-opener Shazam, while remaining a vector of development of new music artists, will open up to new markets. No doubt that Shazam, which took over the magic word[1] used by the weakling Billy Batson in comics to turn into Captain Marvel, will open to new markets.

Davis Lacombled

About David Lacombled 

A journalist by training, David Lacombled is a Managing Director for the content strategy at Orange. He is also president of the think-tank, The Villa Numeris and author of the book Digital Citizen (Plon).

His website :

On Twitter : @david_lacombled

[1] Remember that in the comics, the formula « shazam » allows the young Billy Batson – of which it is the acronym – Salomon’s wisdom, Hercules’ strength, Atlas’ endurance, Zeus’ power, Achille’s courage and Mercure’s speed.