Verzuz — the popular DJ battle where artists like Snoop Dogg and DMX square off and showcase their hits in friendly competition while fans cheer on via social media — has upped its game via an intergration with Apple Music and Twitter, which not only lifts the series’ already high profile, it elevates the production quality and engagement.
One of the quantifiable entertainment successes of the lockdown, the series — which pits one veteran hip-hop or R&B artist or producer against another — has drawn nearly half a million viewers per installment and many thousands of comments. The appeal for fans? Dissecting tunes they know intimately, recalling their time of discovery or simply rooting for the hotter track in real time.
Launched in March by veteran producers Swizz Beatz (who has worked with artists including Jay-Z, DMX and his own wife, Alicia Keys) and Timbaland (Justin Timberlake, Missy Elliott, Jay-Z, Aaliyah), the series has rapidly grown into a franchise matching the likes of Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds against Teddy Riley and Erykah Badu versus Jill Scott. While the concept had been percolating for a couple years and Swizz and Timbaland had squared off at festivals in the past, the pair — inspired by the popularity and good vibes of D-Nice’s DJ sets from home early in the pandemic — saw that Verzuz could ease the loneliness of isolation with its combination of sports-like competition, classic hits, nostalgia and social media conversation.
It all started when Timbaland called out Swizz on Instagram. In response, Swizz told Variety earlier this year, “I loaded up my beat machine and called him out too. We went live and the audience went wild — talking to us, responding to the tracks.” But the subsequent competitions often suffered from technical difficulties and subpar sound — to say nothing of the potential licensing complication of broadcasting to half a million people music that has your name on it but you might not own. Teaming up with Apple, which is fully licensed, solves this problem.
Competing streaming services saw opportunity, which led to a bidding war won by Apple Music, largely due to a strategic combination with Twitter, where much of the social conversation around the battles was taking place. After a pair of test runs, the integration launched officially in late July with the Snoop-DMX matchup. Apple Music’s Larry Jackson was the connector, bringing Twitter to the mix with Swizz and Timbaland — both of whom he’s known since his days as a label executive in the early 2000s. Exact terms of the deal were not disclosed.
“I think Tim and Swizz were blown away by what we were able to offer — 1080p high-definition video and high-fidelity audio, coupled with something we’ve never done at Apple, which is the social-engagement interface,” Jackson tells Variety. “These kinds of broadcasts are usually a linear video stream with no social-chat engagement, and it was really important to figure out that element. So Jack [Dorsey, Twitter co-founder and CEO] opened up the coding, engineering and design teams at Twitter to help us integrate it into the live broadcast. You’re seeing the manifestation of that work now; with Snoop and DMX we had GIFs and emojis as part of the inline social element.”
Twitter was eager to work with Verzuz because it’s “bringing two incredible artists together in conversation, through the music and around the music,” says Dorsey. “Twitter is the conversation layer on top of that, enabling fans to mix it up on their own and extend the discussion past the boundaries of the event time. It’s been amazing to see the conversation flow on Twitter leading up to a Verzuz battle and what goes down during and for days after.”
Kayvon Beykpour, Twitter’s product lead, adds, “It’s so aligned with what excites us about the way Twitter is used. Even before the collaboration with Apple, the conversation around the battles was already taking place on Twitter, and the opportunity to work with Larry and the team to make the first and second screens come to life in one place, and fuse them together and make people feel like they were part of a larger conversation, was a dream come true.”
While the series has been a boon for all involved, arguably the biggest winners are the competitors, who have seen the streaming numbers on their catalogs soar an average of 200% — more than 300% for some — with the boosts sustaining for several weeks, a source tells Variety. A prerequisite for competing is “at least 20 hits,” which makes the participants veterans, if not legends, but many have not had a major chart success in recent years.
“This is the best idea for catalog [promotion] since I got involved in music streaming eight years ago,” Jackson says. “The only other thing I’ve seen that’s just as effective is something like the Grammys or the Super Bowl halftime show. Snoop’s [1993 debut album] ‘Doggystyle’ went into the Top 15 on iTunes after his Verzuz, from being completely off the charts, and ‘The Best of DMX’ went into the Top 20.”
While the Apple integration has certainly strengthened Verzuz’s delivery, Jackson says he’s glad the company didn’t get involved earlier. “It took flight in a DIY kind of way, and we don’t need to push it to another level. It’s trending on its own without us marketing it, and I think if we protect the rough, understated nature of the battles, we can continue on with this for some time.”