When Verzuz announced on March 9 that it had left Apple Music for a new partnership with the social video platform Triller, the relationship seemed like an incongruous one. While there is tons of music on Triller, there wasn’t anything really like Verzuz, which pits classic hip-hop and R&B artists and producers against each other in a (mostly) friendly DJ battle, where the audience votes socially on whose catalog is stronger.
Launched in March of 2020 on Instagram Live by veteran hitmakers Swizz Beatz and Timbaland, the series quickly became a massive lockdown hit, drawing hundreds of thousands of viewers, and followed with matchups ranging from lovefests like Jill Scott vs. Erykah Badu, Snoop Dogg vs. DMX, and Alicia Keys “vs.” John Legend, while others present artists who genuinely had differences in the past: Brandy vs. Monica — which drew the first biggest audience to date, with 1.2 million, which was eclipsed by genuine rivals Jeezy vs. Gucci Mane, with 1.8 million. The artists also all saw a big bump in their catalogs’ streams in the days after the event. “My catalog jumped over 300 percent by the next morning,” Scott told Variety last year. “So did Erykah’s.” Verzuz partnered with Apple Music last summer, which brought it to the next level.
With co-owner Ryan Kavanagh titling it “the adult version of TikTok,” Triller has become, since 2019, a popular, short form-focused video-led social app, with input from business partners/creatives such as The Weeknd, Marshmello, and managers such as Gee Roberson of the Blueprint Group. Its big play is in sports, where it features regular programs such as Triller Fight Club, with a co-owner in Snoop Dogg and performers such as Justin Bieber.
Yet the platform wanted to make a big move into music, and saw its opportunity with Verzuz. Since the partnership launched, the last several Verzuz episodes (including the Isley Brothers vs. Earth, Wind & Fire, with host Steve Harvey), have looked and sounded stronger than ever, with more dynamic camera angles, richer staging-setting and clearer lighting than in the past. With Verzuz’s pre-Mother’s Day event on Saturday — ‘90s R&B girl groups Xscape and SWV — there’s yet another new element included: an Instagram voting mechanism where viewers can place highest (and lowest) notes onto the proceedings, thus putting the rivalry back into the game.
“You’ll have a button at the bottom, and as the show progresses you can change your vote as you see where the audience leans,” said Triller co-owner/executive chairman Bobby Sarnevesht. “I think as much as everyone in the artist world loves and respects each other, they’ll always be competitive — but it’s not blatant, in-your-face competitive, there’s a beauty to it. As the world needed to calm down from last year, Verzuz’s tone softened. Now, they’re about to kick things up a few notches. The voting gives the name ‘Verzuz’ the sense it deserves.”
With that heightened competition, the Verzuz-Triller partnership suddenly makes a lot more sense. Swizz and Timbaland still push the aspects of education and entertainment with curation as key, while seeing artists who have performed on Verzuz (all 46 of them) as family and/or partners in the creative process.
For their part, Swizz and Tim are eager to build on the momentum and platform they’d established last year.
“The first season was a masterpiece,” Timbaland says simply. “The story was about love and friendly competition. We wanted to get that story right.”
“We were in awe of the fact that so many Verzuz [episodes] happened so fast, and that so many things happened for it so quickly — culturally, for the artists and for us,” says Swizz.
Taking two months off to reflect and reboot, Swizz envisioned Verzuz Season 2 as “going back to the streets, more on the ground than the heights where we ended Season 1.” He got that with the Gucci Mane vs. Jeezy pairing last November. “But we never wanted to play a numbers game or chase rating – curation’s our thing,” Swizz said, emphatically. “We looked around and realized we’re streaming more than daytime and nighttime television, important award shows and online concerts.”
All the signs were telling the Verzuz CEOs that they had a serious media company on their hands. That meant finding a partner that was both serious, but, in Swizz’s words, “Could take any crazy idea that we had and make it a reality.” Which they had with Apple.
“Apple never let us down,” Swizz says. “It’s just that, the infrastructure where Tim and I wanted to go, moving forward, was in a different, unorthodox space.”
Enter Triller. Launched in 2015 by David Leiberman and Sammy Rubin, it took Sarnevesht and a majority investment from Ryan Kavanaugh’s Proxima Media to kick Triller into the high gear.
“Once we got this app, I went to people in the hip-hop community and said, ‘If we all work together on this we can build our own community and tell our own stories, but I need you guys to buy in,’” Sarnevesht says. “They all bought in.”
From there, Triller went into partnership with B2B music company 7digital, which will brought the app access to some 80 million tracks from the three major labels. However, as is often the case, licensing was not as simple as it seemed, and Universal Music pulled its music from the app after a dispute over royalties.
“I think Triller got some bad press around its relationship with publishers, but that was the previous regime,” Sarnevesht says. “We have been at the forefront of wanting the publishers in place and making sure that artists, songwriters and producerd are well taken care of. We want to be part of the community, not pirates stealing stuff,” he emphasizes.
Verzuz was also concerned with taking care of its family and community — so much so that the artists are part of the Triller deal. Not only did Verzuz’s CEOs join the Triller management team, they shared a major portion of their equity stake to the 46 creatives who had appeared on Verzuz.
“We had a lot of deals on the table,” Swizz says. “But once Verzuz became big, Tim and I realized that it shouldn’t be big for just me and Tim. There were a lot people who came together during a very trying time, and when Tim and I thought about any deal, it had to include us and 40-something people. It took a pretty different place to accept that thought.”
“We wanted to make everyone whole,” Timbaland says. “That was crucial.”
Triller also has marketing aggression to matched their frenetic visual look and feel. “We needed a team that wasn’t scared and were super-disruptors and risk-takers,” Swizz says. “You can find companies that have a shitload of money, but they’re not thinking disruptively or strategically.”
Pointing to Triller’s start as a low-key editing app, Swizz is quick to note the company’s progress. “It’s a multimedia company now. It’s a movement. It’s a lifestyle. That’s the part that I like, and this is just the beginning.”
Now that, in Sarnevesht’s words, Tim and Swizz “own a lot of Triller now,” the exec chairman promises that the Verzuz duo will be taking part in any number of new productions, as well as ongoing productions.
“We just got in the house and we’ve barely had a chance to look around yet,” Timbaland laughs. “I knew Triller was a creative outlet similar to TikTok, but it seemed as if more rappers were using it — a lot. I watched the way they worked it, their edits of their own songs, the snippets they put out there. They made their own videos. I caught on to so many songs just because I saw them on Triller.”
Triller’s cinematic look — with a dozen cameras rather than one shot — and richness of design were also a big part of the appeal. While crediting their long-time partner in sound, Roland, for fixing its early glitches and boosting its production, Swizz says, “Now, we’re just a better produced show. Everyone expects a show such as ours to stay raw and gritty, stay in that low place. My thing is that we can still keep it real, but we can totally put quality and integrity first. Everybody on the show is real, everybody behind the show is real — how much more real do you need to get?”
Timbaland adds, “Verzuz is a cultural phenomenon: birthed, gone through the storm and is now a tattoo for the culture. It’s time we looked like it.”
Kandi Burruss of Xscape is hoping for all of the above when her group faces off — peacefully — against SWV this weekend. Burruss also a Grammy Award-winning songwriter (for TLC’s “No Scrubs,” with Xscape member and friend Tameka “Tiny” Cottle) and a longtime Bravo Network “Real Housewives of Atlanta.” As an accomplished businesswoman, with a sex-toy company (Bedroom Kandi) and a web series (“Kandi Koated Nights”), she appreciates where Swizz and Tim’s hustle.
“It’s cool that they took something that was clearly social — since it’s natural for everyone to be on social media during a pandemic when everyone was isolated at home, bored — and found something for all of us to join in on,” she says. “It has nostalgia attached to it, bringing back our favorite artists for fun battles — that’s genius. Plus, to be able take something you love, that is fun and make it into a business — I relate to that as a businessperson. I always try and take things I love doing and make money out of them.” All parties Variety spoke with for this article declined to comment on the multiple sexual-abuse allegations against Cottle and her husband T.I., although Burruss did say that Cottle was the one who insisted that an Xscape vs. SWV battle “was something that needed to happen.”
Burruss continues, “There have been a few artists on Verzuz that have had some sort of rivalry in the past — or beef — but our group and SWV don’t have beef. We respect them and love their songs. But,” she adds with a laugh, “I’m not going to sit here and lie and say that this won’t be a friendly competition — a fun one, a good time, but we’re competing.”
With heightened competition, voting buttons, and dynamic production part of the immediate future of Verzuz, all parties are looking ahead to something that they thought about often during lockdown: a Verzuz live show.
“Obviously this is all in the planning stages,” Sarnevesht says, “but we’re already talking to live venues about doing several residencies in different cities.”
Swizz shifts into promo mode with the topic. “The conversation I want to have with you a year from now will revolve around how yesterday, our live audience was bigger than three Woodstocks,” he says. “We’re already doing that with our phones. If we build this thing to have that kind of engagement, which we will — what will that look like in person? What does 3 million people at one show look like? I’d like to see that.”