A Boxing Startup Is Turning Ariana Grande Bops Into “Punch Tracks”: 2 Chainz is standing on the deck of an 82-foot yacht off the coast of Miami, beating the shit out of something. It’s a futuristic-looking heavy bag one might expect to see in the gym of an alien spaceship.
The stunt, filmed last month, appears in new content for Liteboxer — a fitness company that launched in 2020 with the goal of making the solo, at-home boxing experience more interactive — and the bag setup is Liteboxer’s signature equipment, retailing for about $1,500. Today (June 10th), Liteboxer and Universal Music Group will announce an exclusive licensing deal that brings all of the major label conglomerate’s artists to the fitness platform, Rolling Stone has learned.
Liteboxer offers two types of workouts: Users can either take a class, in which music plays passively in the background, or they can choose from a selection of “punch tracks” that challenge them to throw certain punches at shock-absorbing pads as they light up to the beat of the music.
“Universal was able to give us this exclusive deal that really lets us use music in a different way,” Liteboxer’s co-founder and CEO Jeff Morin — a former personal trainer and MIT grad who worked at robotics startups before partnering with his friend and trained boxer Todd Dagres to start the fitness company — tells Rolling Stone. “No one else can use individual songs like we do. That’s a different kind of licensing and approval process. It’s not just a blanket license, so there’s coordination that happens between us and the publishers and labels to make sure we’re allowed to use it in that way.”
Morin says it was Dagres who had initially stumbled upon the market opportunity for at-home sparring sessions, then suggested adding lights on the bag and syncing it up to music. The startup enlisted a team of MIT alumni to program its software.
Universal’s involvement shouldn’t come as a total surprise to anyone who’s watched Liteboxer’s socials lately. In February, the company — which has a modest but steadily growing fanbase — released “Blinding Lights,” “Can’t Feel My Face,” and “In Your Eyes” as punch tracks to get fans hyped for The Weeknd’s Super Bowl performance. For women’s history month in March, Liteboxer dropped new punch tracks from female artists every Wednesday, including Ariana Grande’s “No Tears Left to Cry,” Alessia Cara’s “Scars to Your Beautiful,” City Girls’ “Kitty Talk,” and Karol G’s “Bichota.” (Universal has been on a roll itself with branding and licensing deals throughout the pandemic; fans can even fall asleep to an hour-long remix of Grande’s “Breathin” before waking up to punch their stressors away.)
Liteboxer already scored a win earlier this week when Timbaland signed on as an investor. He contributed an undisclosed amount to a wider $20 million Liteboxer raised in Series A funding, led by Nimble Ventures. In total, the company has raised $28.5 million so far, thanks to a variety of investors including B. Riley Venture Capital, Raptor Group, and Will Ventures.
“We kind of hack your brain by adding these motivational layers of gamification — whether that’s through scoring, challenging other people, or community aspects.”
“Gamification is outpacing the movie industry right now,” Morin says. “We also wanted to make fitness a habit. Boxing is one of the best calorie burns per unit of time, but we were [also] finding that, with this thing we made, you get into a flow state. When your ability meets the challenge, that’s when sparks fly in your brain. So we kind of hack your brain by adding these motivational layers of gamification — whether that’s through scoring, challenging other people, or community aspects.”
While he declines to give financial details of Universal’s deal, Morin says Liteboxer spent months searching for the right kind of musical partnership. Originally, Liteboxer just wanted to license a small number of music tracks. The user could beat levels that were soundtracked by one song each, then become a Liteboxer champion — à la Rock Band. But “we quickly realized that wasn’t going to work,” Morin says, after trainers became an integral part of the operation and wanted more flexibility.
Now, due to the Universal deal, trainers can design the sound of their own lessons via 100 different and regularly rotated punch tracks each week, and users can also create playlists out of that selection. Liteboxer will introduce more changes between now and September, which is when Morin expects to introduce a “huge software update.”
For artists and labels, due to the ever-evolving nature of Liteboxer’s punch tracks — not to mention that of Peloton’s Artist Series and Verzuz workouts — getting a song placed on a fitness platform has all the power of scoring a radio add. “Universal’s sub-labels are working with us,” says Morin. “They’ll say like, ‘Hey, the Grammys are coming up. We want these five artists to be on Liteboxer.’ Then you get this awesome mix of culturally relevant things in your life syncing with fitness. MTV did a great job of fusing music and television, and we’re kind of doing something similar. People’s digital lives have been blended, and now their fitness lives are blended. There’s so many things you can do during the day. Making those lines more blurred is a good thing.”
Morin uses Def Jam as a specific example: “This past weekend, they were like, ‘Hey, there’s a new DMX album dropping. “Dogs Out” is one of the songs on there and we want that on Liteboxer.’ And it was our top-performing track of the weekend.”
On Universal’s end, executives have spent “a lot of the last year” looking at companies in the so-called “fit tech” space, according to Michael Nash, Universal’s executive vice president of digital strategy. Outside of Liteboxer, Nash also points to businesses including Supernatural, which specializes in virtual-reality workouts; Apple, which launched Fitness+ in December; the rowing specialists of Hydrow; and Variis, the app version of Equinox and Soul Cycle. “They’re going to the next level, thinking about the evolution of technology and what’s enabled through streaming music,” says Nash. “There are so many of these individual services that are so differentiated. It comes down to having a ton of consumer choice around what type of workout is most appealing.”
Nash estimates that Universal has done more than a dozen of fitness licensing deals in the last year — while another dozen or so of various sizes are on the horizon.
Like streaming, fitness companies’ business models tend to be based on subscription. (And Universal says artists are paid in a streaming-like pro-rata fashion: Royalties depend onsubscriber minimums, per-play rates, and participation by percentage in terms of total revenue.)
Also like streaming, fit tech creates global opportunities: Several analysts forecast that the digital fitness app market will grow to more than $10 billion in the coming decade at a compound annual growth rate of 17 percent or more.
“Fitness became a nine-figure revenue driver for our industry, across recorded music and publishing, out of absolutely nowhere, if you look at where we were three years ago,” Nash says. “We think fit tech is really important in the second wave of innovation around streaming… Streaming music now enables all of these different applications of music in the broader business landscape. Fit tech is the tip of the lifestyle spear, which also encompasses health and well-being. We’re even seeing people look at medical applications of music.”
According to Nash, Universal is closely watching three “major new revenue categories” as growth opportunities for the whole music business: social, gaming, and fitness. But since executives from Universal’s two rival labels — Warner Music Group’s Oana Ruxandra and Sony Music’s Rob Stringer — have made similar comments this year, the competition is sure to get stiffer.