The Resurrection of The Hit List — July 6, 2015

When I was running my radio show Underground Takeover, one of the best things I did was run a feature called The Hit List: 10 Demos, Albums, and EP’s You Need to Hear Right Now. Every couple of months I would compile a list of the albums, EP’s and singles that I found myself listening to ad infinitum, and that I figured everyone needed to be aware of and listening to.

When my show ended (it was a college show, after all), The Hit List ended with it. Lately though, so much amazing material has been coming out, these artists really need to be highlighted. So, we’ll resurrect The Hit List for a little while and see how it goes!

Some new details though, to reflect a new incarnation of The Hit List:

  1. Lists will be lengthened from 10 entries to 20.
  2. List items (demos, albums, EP’s, single) appear in no specific order; i.e.: there is no “top” or “bottom” of the list.
  3. I will do my best to attach relevant details to each item, including title, artist, artwork, and year.
  4. I will do my best to keep the list running, and publish a new list as often as possible.
  5. These albums and singles are spread across a variety of platforms, and thus making a straight playlist is currently too time-consuming. However, I’ll reexamine this point over the next few months.
  6. To help distinguish: demo, Single, Album, and EP titles occur in italics, artist names in bold, and years of release in regular font.
  7. Artist names will be linked to either their Facebook, Twitter, home site, or other pages.
  8. This is all for fun, so let’s keep it that way.

So with that, let’s get to it. Here’s my Hit List for July 6, 2015:

  1. Take Me – Single — Pneumatic — 2015

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  2. Ephemeral   Remedy X — 2013Ephemeral
  3. The Devil Never Comes — Molly Rhythm — 2015The Devil Never Comes
  4. Passengers EP — The Fallen Prodigy — 2015Passengers - EP
  5. The Steppin Stones — The Steppin Stones — 20154pan1t-1
  6. Fourstory EPA Black Eye Affair — 2015Fourstory EP
  7. Prophet — Florence & Normandie — 2015Prophet
  8. Triangulum Mechanism — Sunshine & Bullets — 2014Triangulum Mechanism 1
  9. Half Blue — Half Blue — 2015a4155327433_16
  10. Sweet Disillusion – Single — Elie & the Engine — 2015Sweet Disillusion - Single
  11. Just the Tip — Big Red Dog — 2015Just the Tip
  12. Girls of the Yukon — The Head — 2013Girls of the Yukon
  13. Demo — Third Season — 2015Demo
  14. Faces of the Sea — Party Asylum — 2014Faces of the Sea
  15. Blur of Our Souls — Heavy Gloom — 2015cover
  16. Distance Between Us — Eat Your Heart Out — 2015Distance Between Us
  17. Miles Away — My Monthly Date — 2015Miles Away
  18. The Drake Equation EP — Helion Prime — 2015The Drake Equation EP
  19. Dais EP — Dais — 2015Dais EP
  20. Unable to Function EP — Vanilla Function — 2015Unable to Function EP

Spotify’s Sony Contract: What It Means for Everyone

With the leak of Spotify’s contract with Sony last week, there’s a lot of attention on the streaming service right now. I’ll be taking a closer look at that contract over the next week, but for now I’ll focus on the fallout over the last week. In particular there seems to be a lot of renewed interest on the music space, more so than I’ve seen in a while. I think, though, that this has to do with a lot more than simply one contract between two companies; for the first time perhaps, the general public (including music producers, artists, and general music listeners) is aware of the kind of deals being struck behind the scenes.

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Even as Spotify soars in newer valuations that have the company somewhere in the $8B range, yesterday’s leak shows that such a valuation may in fact be misleading—Spotify has to cough up around $43M just for licensing from Sony alone. How much do you think they need to cough up for the other two majors, Warner and Universal? Even if we snip off the extra $3-4M, and assume an upfront licensing fee of $40M from Sony—and then simply assume similar prices for Warner and Universal—then Spotify has already spent $120M of investor money. And that’s just for the privilege of having access to the major labels’ stable of artists.

Also, don’t forget that’s before royalties and any other metrics that Spotify has to hit. Therefore it’s more like $43M upfront for the privilege to pay more later on; it’s not a one-and-done purchase. And most unfortunate for Spotify, this latter number is also predicated on how an artist performs in popularity, something they have essentially no control over.

I’m not going to rewrite Micah Singleton‘s article, but I will draw on a number of points he highlighted and what they mean in reality. There are numerous points of importance, but these are the ones I think the general public really needs to be apprised of. Though the contract has since been removed, we got the basic gist:

  1. Written by Sony—First let’s just take a moment to note that the contract was written by Sony. Of course this is their prerogative, but when considering the fact that Sony holds the rights to much of the content that Spotify wants to license, it clearly illustrates who is subject to whom. Frankly, since Sony holds the content rights, they (and the other major labels) essentially hold Spotify’s lifeblood in their hands—that’s not an opinion, it’s a fact. Realistically Spotify is not built around an independent and free model, so they need to play ball with Sony and the other labels, or they won’t play at all. Period.Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 8.01.23 AM
  2. Advances—Spotify paid Sony $42.5M just for the right to license the music. That’s an upfront fee just to get in the door. This means that anyone looking to compete head to head with Spotify or Rdio needs to magically have about $130M lying around or in funding before they even get their feet wet (projecting the combined upfront licensing fees of the Big Three major labels). One of the reasons that Spotify has to raise such massive funding rounds is because these advances are somewhat annual, and thus need to be renegotiated all the time. And as the major labels continue to get squeezed in their wallets, these numbers are only going to rise for services looking to use major label content.
  3. Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.36.33 PMDivided How and Among Whom?—As Singleton points out, Sony can essentially do whatever they want with that money; there’s no stipulation that it has to be divided in any particular way, or that any of it has to go to artists or songwriters. According to multiple sources, that money usually stays with the label and is generally not shared with artists. This particular point has raised such criticism that its prompted both a response from the EU, which is now looking into Spotify’s contracts, and virtually obliged Sony to come out with a public statement on the matter. Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.36.56 PM
  4. Most Favored Nation Clause—Essentially a clause that guarantees that Spotify’s balls remain in Sony’s vicegrip. The clause guarantees Sony the right to amend  any portion of the contract if it perceives that any other label has a better deal than it does. This means that Sony is essentially never bound to Spotify in any way; it can decide—based on its own perception—that another label has a better deal (which it may or may not) and rework the entire deal for its own benefit. And Spotify has to swallow everything.
    Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.41.24 PMScreen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.42.20 PMWhere this really kills Spotify is when used in conjunction with the clause dictating payment based on market share. Thus, if another label has a better deal in that regard—perhaps double what Sony is getting monetarily—then Spotify has to cough up and pay Sony the difference.
  5. Spotify’s 15%—Basically exactly what it sounds like. Spotify takes 15% of the revenues from third-party advertising right off the top. What they do with this money is unknown, though it’s quite plausible that they’re not redistributing it to the artists, and are probably giving third-party advertisers a raw-ish deal. Next time Spotify releases a statement saying that they don’t have the funds to pay the artists more money, let’s all remember this little financial tidbit.Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.47.16 PM Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.48.28 PM
  6. Sony’s Ad Spots—This one’s pretty easy to understand: essentially Spotify is obligated to give Sony a certain amount of free ad space on its service. The ad space—which is clearly worth a fair amount of money—is given to Sony at a massive discount.Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.53.33 PMScreen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.54.09 PMBut that’s not all; Sony retains the right to sell the credited ad space to whomever they want, whenever they want. Again, Spotify gets squeezed.Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.54.41 PM
  7. User Metrics—Spotify essentially has goals it needs to hit in terms of its user metrics (on both payment tiers), and if it misses those, it could be penalized. Conversely, if it exceeds expectations in either of the tier metrics, it recalculates that number so that Sony gets paid more. In English, what this means is that the better Spotify does, the more money Sony is entitled to, but doesn’t necessarily mean that it all works out for the streaming service.Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 3.07.40 PM Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 3.07.51 PMIt’s important to remember that Sony isn’t in the business of making sure that it backs up Spotify. It—like the other major labels—is licensing its music to numerous services, so its only real loyalty is to its bottom line. How that affects Spotify is essentially irrelevant to the major label.
  8. The Royalty Distribution (Forget About the Artists)—Without going too deeply into it (Singleton’s initial analysis and infographics are worth consulting), it basically boils down to this: the royalties per stream are so miniscule that you need to be getting millions of streams in order to make any real money (and by real, I mean anything more than $10.00). We all know that independent artists are never going to get to that level trying to compete on an unfair playing field, so let’s just put that point to bed right now. One thing that is worth noting now, though, is that not even every artist has a contract entitling them to royalties. So for all the bluster about royalty payments, many of the artists signed to major labels aren’t even entitled to fair cuts from the streaming.Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 6.33.02 PMBut even more so, the way in which streaming royalties are calculated is so incredibly convoluted you almost need a degree in economics just to understand it. That’s not how it should be. For independent artists—and even mainstream artists who simply want to understand the financial dynamics—this is yet another way of keeping them in the dark. No one in any other industry would accept some sort of voodoo economics principle when it came to calculating their earnings, so why should music artists—mainstream or independent—have to settle for that? That’s the point, they shouldn’t.

There are numerous other points worth discussing, but these are some of the major ones that discussions of the music industry revolve around. Though arguably a major embarrassment for Sony and Spotify, the leaking of the contract between the two really shines a bright light on what goes on behind the scenes. It clarifies that what happens behind the curtain affects every type of artist, and underscores why more transparency and reform is needed in the music industry. And it highlights something else: the music industry is not dead and foregone. We’re now right on the precipice of a whole new type of music industry that’s taking shape every day. Those who accept and embrace the new dynamics will be the ones who benefit most from them when they inevitably come.

 

Thanks to Shelley Marx for reading early drafts of this.

Tidal Is Losing More Lifeboats by the Day

Yesterday, TechCrunch ran a piece from Kelli Richards postulating the viability of Tidal as a service, and its likely outcome in the streaming wars. The article was essentially an overview of what’s been going on with Tidal lately, with Richards doing a good job of zeroing in on a couple of things I’ve discussed and underscored in my own mind as the real deal-breakers.

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Before getting into the two main things of her article, I think it’s important to note a very shortbut important—sentence in Richards’ piece: “…the prospects of Tidal upending Spotify in the near future are slim…” This falls right in line with something that I wrote earlier concerning SoundCloud, namely that trying to out-Spotify Spotify is a losing battle and a very poor battle-plan. Going head-to-head with Spotify and playing their game their way (that is, general popular music streaming) is such a poor decision because it means you’re starting way behind the starting line. And in Tidal’s case, this goes double for any sort of exclusive content which might be your main attraction.

Now, Richards’ two main points, and my takeaway from each:

1. Premium/Exclusive Content—Firstly, I’ll be the one to say it: “exclusive content” as one’s main gameplay is a very tough sell. It’s a tough sell because it’s a drastically diminished niche of a larger market, which is basically popular music. That means you’re trying to play on two different levels with two completely different mindsets.

The “exclusive content” play is difficult because it requires your customer base to desire those exclusives almost as much as (or more than) the original content. This isn’t anywhere near the same thing as looking at an independent market, since those content producers are increasingly giving away their material for free (including “exclusives” like remixes, acoustic sets, etc.), and making money elsewhere. For a service like Tidal though, they need to first out-Spotify Spotify to gain the market share of the original popular music demographic, then they need to persuade those people to convert to “exclusive” consumers and pay a whole lot more for something they could just as easily get on YouTube if they wait a couple weeks or a month. This is one of the major flaws in Tidal’s plan in my eyes.

Also under the first point is a small comment included by Richards made by Tidal’s CEO Peter Tonstad, which basically asserts that the industry is moving away from the freemium model, and that “it’s going to be the content richness” which listeners begin to look and pay for. This is bold, but false.

First, the sorts of audiences which Tidal is looking to court—general consumers of popular music—are not about to leave the freemium paradigm anytime soon. Secondly—and funnily enough in my opinion—the rabid, content-rich focus which Tonstad identifies as Tidal’s silver bullet doesn’t really apply to popular consumer audiences on a general level anyway. Ask anyone listening to Spotify if they’d pay double (or anything) for higher quality which they can’t even discern anyway, and I’d be surprised if large numbers converted over. Ironically enough, the rabid thought process which Tonstad is alluding to is alive and well—in the independent music industry—where free plays a much bigger part than it clearly does with Tidal.

2. Celebrity Backers—This point made by Richards is a lot easy to wrap one’s head around; people simply don’t feel so bad when Jay-Z and Kanye West start lecturing about needing more money because, well, they’re rich. And not like “we perceive them as rich but they’re really not;” they actually are rich. Being lectured about money from people like that, then, is not only not welcomed, but it’s really irritating. There’s really no way you can look at that celebrity-backed list of Tidal promoters and take them seriously.

Even more so, though, it really alienates artists who are not rich—you know, like everyone else. For the singer-songwriter playing in dingy clubs, or the band on the road and sleeping in their van, Jay-Z might as well be speaking an alien language. Their thought process is almost indignant (and why shouldn’t it be?); they’re thinking “dude, you have all this money and influence, why the hell do you need any more?” And frankly, if I was still an artist, I’d be thinking the exact same thing. Celebrity-backed things like this are rarely ever a good idea, especially when it alienates others within the same industry.

Richards notes that Tidal has someone who Spotify doesn’t—Taylor Swift—but as I explained here months ago, here’s why Taylor Swift is on the same level as Jay-Z in terms of “not getting it.” She’s so engrossed in the major label paradigm and its trappings that she doesn’t see what life is like for normal artists anymore. And, just like Jay-Z, her disparaging remarks about artists “devaluing their music” strikes a sour and indignant chord in a lot of musicians who think she takes her good fortune for granted.

But if one needs any more convincing of why it’s going to be a very tough road ahead for Tidal, you can read about:

  1. Jay-Z’s hissy-fit onstage
  2. Their firing of their previous CEO, Andy Chen
  3. Criticism from producer Steve Albini
  4. Criticism from other mainstream artists
  5. Their highly criticized and misleading relaunch

The storm isn’t about to end anytime soon, and it seems the lifeboats have left the ship.

SoundCloud’s Failed Highwire Balancing Act: The Sony-SoundCloud Breakup

Trying (and Failing) to Balance Two Completely Different Paradigms

The SoundCloud-Sony Breakup

The Sony-SoundCloud Breakup

It’s been a tough week for Sony between its leaked contract with Spotify and criticism over its moves with SoundCloud. And yet, inasmuch as the former is embarrassing and will certainly come back to bite the two companies, the latter is arguably more problematic because it’s not simply between Sony and SoundCloud; it’s between Sony, SoundCloud and the independent artists and fans. That last little caveat is something that Sony can afford to ignore—but it’s going to become an increasingly difficult reality for SoundCloud.

SoundCloud, now a platform for major labels and advertisers

SoundCloud, now a platform for major labels and advertisers

News broke over the last couple of weeks that Sony has started pulling their artists’ music from SoundCloud—regardless of what the artists want. To Sony, SoundCloud isn’t a viable option since it doesn’t presently have a strong monetization plan (as if services like Spotify and Rdio do), and until the label and streaming service can come to terms, it seems that any and all Sony-controlled material will be stripped from SoundCloud.

This has put SoundCloud in quite a precarious position. On the one hand, it doesn’t want to alienate its initial die-hard independent fanbase, but on the other it’s been actively seeking out a deal with Sony, as well as with the other two major labels, Warner and Universal (already having one in place with Warner). SoundCloud is trying to balance two completely different bases and paradigms that are moving in opposite directions: 1) the major label paradigm which is still predicated on an obsolete business model, and 2) the independent paradigm which is increasingly embracing “free” as a big part of the future.

What the major label industry really looks like; The Big Three

What the major label industry really looks like; The Big Three

What I Said a Month Ago

On April 9th, SoundCloud signed a deal with Zefr—that same day, I wrote a post on why independents should very soon kiss SoundCloud goodbye; why the Zefr deal was essentially irrelevant for them. It seems I wasn’t the only one who’d identified SoundCloud’s prospective problems, as a day later on April 10th, PandoDaily writer David Holmes came to the same conclusion and published a piece with a similar premise. Holmes’ post validated many of my points, and cleverly brought up a few others, all to conclude, as I had, that the Zefr deal was a band-aid for a bullet wound. And now the bullet wounds are really beginning to gush blood.

This week, electronic artist Madeon released a heavily critical statement regarding he Sony-SoundCloud breakup, noting: “Thank you SoundCloud for being such a great discovery platform over the past five years. Well done Sony for holding your own artists hostage.”

Ouch. Snap. Burn.

Clearly Madeon (along with droves of other EDM artists who’ve gained significant followings on SoundCloud) isn’t pleased with Sony’s “money first” thought process and strategy. And while Sony has the legal right to pull music which it holds the rights to, in the grand scheme, it’s not exactly a play which will endear it either to the fans it seeks, or the artists it works with. Actually, it has the complete opposite effect.

Who’s the First Priority?

But what lies beneath the surface of this very public breakup is not simply an issue for Sony, but a major issue for SoundCloud. People expect Sony to act like a major label—because that’s what it is. But increasingly, SoundCloud has been chasing the major label content which it thinks could help it become more competitive with Spotify, Rdio and Apple. In the process, it’s spitting in the faces of the people who loved SoundCloud for what it was before: free discovery.

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Excerpt from my original April 9th article

And as SoundCloud moves closer to the major label paradigm, it becomes increasingly irrelevant for independent artists, regardless of genre. Independents are where SoundCloud cut its teeth, so now, moving away from the free-model will leave them somewhat toothless. Case in point: SoundCloud’s new NMPA deal, which, again, is irrelevant for independent artists.

The thing about the independents is that, unlike major label artists who are tied to the major label business model, they’re not tied to anybody. Their loyalty can and will be to whoever gives them the best service as a first priority, not an afterthought. This means the best service for the independents, not the best they can do after the major labels have had their fill. SoundCloud is trying to perform a balancing act on a razor-thin highwire and it’s 600lbs overweight. It’s trying to straddle two completely different business paradigms, and managing to piss everyone off in the process.

Free Is Here to Stay—Live With It

The free paradigm which the labels are beginning to get fed up with isn’t going away—something which Peter Kafka seized on in his article on Spotify. Free is a way of life now, and as independent artists continue to explore the benefits that free affords them, they will increasingly detach themselves from the obligations of the major label paradigm. Services like SoundCloud will eventually have to choose a side—something that’s going to be exceedingly difficult for SoundCloud now that they already have a deal with Warner and are chasing deals with the other two major labels.

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Excerpt from my original April 9th article

It seems that they’ve already made their choice, and it won’t be too long before droves of independents notice. They don’t have to and won’t settle for being second-tier priorities, and will look for alternative options. In the meantime, Sony and SoundCloud will duke it out until the former signs the latter to a major label-style contract.

I said it before and I’ll say it again: if you’re an independent, kiss SoundCloud goodbye.

Be Excellent: Even After a 4-Year Hiatus, People Remember You

"Be excellent to each other"

“Be excellent to each other”

Yesterday I received a Facebook message from a guy who I didn’t know. At least, I didn’t think I knew him. I didn’t recognize his name, and couldn’t remember where I would have met him. And then it hit me—I did know him, from years ago!

Perhaps one of the most magical things about Facebook is how it’s enabled people to reconnect with people they haven’t seen in long bouts of time. Yet, inasmuch as reconnecting with old classmates or coworkers is nice and can dredge up all sorts of nostalgic feelings, reconnecting with people you’d even forgotten about is certainly a different kind of trip.

Screenshot of Facebook message from old band contact

Screenshot of Facebook message from old band contact

The guy who messaged me yesterday was someone I’d connected with years ago, and we haven’t spoken since early 2011. At the time, he was a guitarist in a band in the U.K., and I was a hungry new music journalist who’d stumbled across their band page. I’d fallen in love with their garage rock sneer, and written up a short piece on them. We’d exchanged a few messages and gotten to know each other a bit.

And then they went silent (on a hiatus and then breakup, I’m now aware). I moved on and went to college, and frankly forgot about them. Not out of malice, but simply because people get busy with life.

Yet to get this message yesterday from him—telling me he’d taken a break from music for a few years but was now back with a new project, had some demos, would love my opinion on them (was I even in the music industry anymore?)—was as thrilling as our first correspondence. It reminded me of why I love the independent music industry so much. It reminded me of the dynamics that are so magical—that you can go years without speaking to someone, move on with your life, and resume your conversation like no time had passed at all.

"Party on, dudes!"

“Party on, dudes!”

I’m not perfect by any means, but I do my best to take to heart Bill and Ted’s poignant mantra: “Be excellent to each other.” You never know what will come of your relationships with people.

I’ve since listened to his demos and they’re awesome. I’ll be messaging him tonight to see how I can become involved in his new project. This is where the real thrill is in the music industry. At the end of the day, like so many other arenas, it all comes back to the people you meet and the relationships you develop. Everything else is secondary.

Jay-Z’s Tidal “Freestyle” Was Basically a Hissy-Fit

A couple of days ago, during one of his Tidal concerts, Jay-Z went on a rant, and basically laundry-listed a bunch of people whom he felt have been wronging artists in the music industry. He called it a freestyle, but that’s not really what it was. To anyone who’s not a Jay-Z fan (and probably to many who are), it came off as a hissy-fit.

Jay-Z at one of his TIDAL concerts

Jay-Z at one of his TIDAL concerts

It’s not surprise that Jay-Z and company have been having a hard time of it with their new Tidal streaming service. I posted about their launch here, and then followed up with posts on criticism of Tidal from folk band Mumford & Sons, famed producer Steve Albini, and the sudden removal of their (now former) CEO Andy Chen. It’s been a tough couple of months for Tidal, yet instead of putting his head down and working to find a solution to differentiate his music service, Jay-Z thinks it’s a better tactic to antagonize the competition. Though it might make him feel better in the moment, it comes off as petty and juvenile. He looks like a kid throwing a fit for not getting his way.

In his “freestyle,” Jay-Z attacked not only other music services (Google, YouTube, Apple), but called out a few people by name (Jimmy Iovine). Jay-Z asserts that he came into the music game as an independent…which may be true, but that was more than a decade ago, and the musical landscape has changed a hell of a lot since then. The same rich people he’s insulting are his peers—I don’t think he goes home at the end of the night wondering if he’ll make enough money to tour next month.

Frankly, watching him play the victim is getting tiresome. Jay-Z needs to accept the fact that running a music streaming service may in fact be more difficult than he had originally thought. So stop whining about it, put your head down, and work out the problem until you have a solution. That’s how everyone else does it. Getting up on stage and attacking your competitors doesn’t make you a good business person. It make you appear socially and strategically tone-deaf.

Here’s the (mainly) full text from Jay-Z’s rant:

“…So I’m the bad guy now I hear,

because I don’t go with the flow

Don’t ever go with the flow, be the flow…

Pharrell even told me go with the safest bet
Jimmy Iovine on for the safety net
Google dig around a crazy cheque

I feel like YouTube is the biggest culprit
Them niggers pay you a tenth of what you supposed to get

You know niggers die for equal pay right?!?
You know when I work I ain’t your slave right?
You know I ain’t shucking and jiving and high-fiving, and you know this ain’t back in the days right?

…You know I came in this game independent, right?

TIDAL, my own lane, same difference

Oh niggers is skeptical about they own shit
You bought nine iPhones and Steve Jobs is rich…”

Music Startups Are About the Artists, Not the Code

You Can’t Hack the Music Industry in a Weekend

You can’t hack the music industry in a weekend by talking to a few artists and trying to extrapolate from there. This is a mistake I see music startups make all the time, and a reason I think that a lot of them fail. The music business is a much more complex system than I see people give it credit for, and I think this really throws a lot of would-be music startup founders. It’s also very different from the tech industry in a number of important ways, and I think that this also scares people away—making the music business seem like a losing battle, and an inevitable death. But it’s not.

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Me on my show, Underground Takeover

I wrote here how and why music startups do indeed succeed because of passion, not in spite of it. Unlike other startup industries where an overflow of passion might very well blind founders from the realities of customer desires and industry trends, the music world works on its own axis. It’s much more intricate than is reported on by the press—so much so that I would even argue that many within the established model may have a skewed view of what’s possible and probable. Thus it’s precisely that overflow of passion that leads to one’s desired immersion in the culture, arguably the real key to building a successful music startup.

I recently read a short blog post from a little while ago, wherein the founder of a failed music startup wrote about the problems which were encountered. As I read through it, I noted a number of mistakes which I think should be deeply examined. Let it be noted here, though, that this is not an attack on the author, nor is it meant to call anyone out; as such, I will steer clear of any terminology (including specific pronouns) that might reveal the author or their failed company. Let’s begin.

The Realities

1. A Few Conversations Aren’t Enough

In most startup industries, talking to your customer base is key, and fast iteration is the name of the game.

But music is different. Music is different because people seem to forget that it’s an industry that can’t be understood by reading a few articles on Wikipedia or having conversations with a few artists.

Who are these artists? Where are they from? How big is their fanbase? How rabid is their fanbase? How many albums or EP’s have they released? Are they teetering on the point of break up, or are they solid? Do they tour or don’t they? These are just a few questions you need to ask yourself before relying on the feedback given to you. It helps qualify the types of answers you get. Different types of artists think different types of ideas are “cool” (which means nothing until you qualify that word as well), and without understanding where in the ecosystem these artists exist, such feedback is essentially useless.

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Never stop talking to artists.

That was the author’s first mistake. The second one was much more egregious. Never ever stop talking to the artists. If you stop talking to them, you’re dead. Period. The music landscape changes every day, much faster than a lot of other companies, even within the context of tech. The artist who was nobody yesterday is a national name tomorrow. If you stop talking to artists and stop putting your name out there, you become irrelevant so fast it’s not funny.

This is not an industry where you can have some conversations, gather feedback, go back and recode something, then collect more feedback. You need to find a way to be coding and strengthening your reputation among artists simultaneously. The artists don’t care about your iteration cycle; the only thing that they understand and connect with is your passion and their voice through you.

Me interviewing (clockwise): Felice LaZae, Alabaster, Christopher Linden (Neverblue), Me vs. Gravity, Isobel Trigger, Diamond Eye, and Heel

Me interviewing: Felice LaZae (left), Alabaster (top), Christopher Lindén (Neverblue) (mid, top-right), Me vs. Gravity (mid, top-left), Isobel Trigger (mid, bottom-right), Diamond Eye (mid, bottom-left), and Heel (bottom)

2. Music Isn’t Neatly Splintered Like Other Industries

In the music industry, the first thing to understand is that things aren’t as splintered and unbundled as they are in other fields. In other arenas, being an expert in data analytics or e-commerce sales might very well be enough of a foundation on which to build a company. But in music, understanding only one aspect means not understanding all of them. This is where the author failed (or rather, misunderstood) in this respect.

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 2.44.07 PM

Music isn’t neatly splintered.

“Sales” in the music business can mean different things to different people; it could mean sales of tickets, merchandise, music files, special gifts, etc. And it could mean understanding those sales from the point of view of an artist, fan, promoter, venue, etc. Thus to say that one isn’t a “music sales domain expert” essentially means that one doesn’t understand that there are a very many different types of music sales domain experts, and that they are all very intricately interconnected in different ways. In approaching a music startup with this skewed notion of understanding, I believe the author began on a misleadingly difficult path to come back from.

3. Never Keep Anything from the Artists.

Understand that this is an industry where artists and people are used to being taken advantage of. That’s the norm. For many artists, industry experience has taught them to be wary, and anyone who is familiar with the dynamics of the industry can understand why. Sexual harassment, broken promises, money troubles, and limited access to resources are just a couple of things that plague artists daily.

The music industry is full of all kinds of realities that music consumers rarely see, and even more rarely care about: breakups, bad blood, intra-band politics, collaborations, no money, live touring, ridiculous royalties payments, new releases, band tragedies, sleazy industry “professionals,” loyalty to particular people—these are all things that music startup founders should understand way before writing any code. If not, you’re doing it ass-backwards.

The meaning of this is very simple: if you keep secrets from or mislead the artists you want to work with, you’re dead. Done. Finished.

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 2.45.52 PM

If you mislead or keep secrets, you’re dead.

The author did the company a massive disservice by misleading an artist they were working with. Artists are not VC’s; they don’t give a shit if your product is subpar and you need to pull it back, if you’ve missed multiple ship dates, or even if the damn thing works right the first six times they try it. They don’t care. The only thing they really care about is not feeling taken advantage of. If you’re honest and up front, you’re golden, no matter how many ship dates you’ve missed. Their deepest loyalties (most artists, anyway) are to people who they perceive as supporting them the way their fans do. This is where you need to be speaking with passion, not tech logistics.

The music industry is very much like the tech industry when it comes to interconnectedness; everyone knows everyone. They tour together, play together, promote each other, and rely on each other to steer clear of sleazy people. Keeping secrets and misleading artists is one of the sure-fire ways to quickly find yourself a pariah in the music community. (And no, genre doesn’t matter. People talk, and word gets around. It doesn’t matter if you’re dealing with rappers or heavy metal bands, a bad reputation is a bad reputation).

4. Free Is Ubiquitous. Live With It.

Free is ubiquitous in the music industry. No matter how much people might try and fight it, it’s a big part of the future. Period. Fighting the free dynamic will only give you headaches and lead you faster toward the deadpool.

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 2.46.37 PM

Free is here to stay, live with it.

If your company can’t exist in a very competitive way within the free paradigm, you’re fighting a losing war. And no, royalties aren’t going to save anyone, so don’t believe that they will.

The fact of the matter is, many artists embrace free. They see it for all its benefits. Again, this has to do with understanding the differences between different types of artists. If you can’t even make those distinctions, then trying to understand this whole point is useless and thus irrelevant.

5. Artists Tend to Be Open-Minded By Nature

The reality of it is, many artists tend to be open-minded by nature. These are not engineers focused on the logistics of how realistic something is. They don’t care about market-cap, valuations, competition, or which programming language will run the best.

This is the music industry, it’s inherently filled with dreamers. These aren’t people who care which classes you took in college, or how many programming languages you know. They are perfectly happy to tour the country in a crappy van, and hang all their hopes on the notion that they might be able to make a living playing music. And there are a lot of them.

Me with: Those Mockingbirds (top left), Bloody Diamonds (top right), The Steppin Stones (bottom left), Sunshine & Bullets (bottom left)

Me with: Those Mockingbirds (top left), Bloody Diamonds (top right), The Steppin Stones (bottom left), Sunshine & Bullets (bottom right)

This means that if your ratio of yes:no doesn’t skew heavily towards yes (like 80-85%), you are doing something very, very wrong. In an industry where the content producers are dying to try new avenues every single day, if you don’t at least capture the attention of 8/10 with your pitch, you have a real problem.

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If you don’t capture around 8/10, you’re doing something wrong.

Again, these are people who live on passion, and are not super bothered by logistics. If you put out a soft beta and it doesn’t load the first six times for an artist, no big deal. As long as they really believe in your vision, they will keep coming back. Period. And they will wait as long as they need to.

(In fact, if you’re not getting emails from artists apologizing for not signing up for your beta fast enough, you’re doing it wrong. This actually happens, and if your inbox isn’t full of apologies for delayed responses, you haven’t gotten through to your key demographic. I actually have emails sitting in my inbox from artists apologizing to me for not signing up for a small test fast enough, hoping that they haven’t lost their spots).

6. Artists Don’t Care About Your Software

Artists are not engineers. They don’t give a shit about your software. None. Zero. Zilch. They don’t care if it’s written in Ruby or Python. They don’t care how many iterations it’s gone through. Many times, unless they’re programmers themselves, they won’t understand what makes your software unique or special. And frankly, they don’t care to understand.

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 2.48.41 PM

Artists don’t care about your software. Period.

Artists care about what the software will let them do. What kinds of doors will it open for them, and how many of their fans will they be able to reach through those doors? Is your software just like SoundCloud’s or Spotify’s? Doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is their understanding of what the core dynamic is that the software is attempting to solve. This understanding is again distilled down to passion.

Most every artist I know—whether they’re from the U.S., Canada, Europe, or Australia— doesn’t give a shit how good your playlist-making algorithm is. It isn’t aimed at helping them, so they don’t care. If that’s your pitch, you should really reexamine your status.

This is where the author made a major error. There wasn’t a clear argument made for how this startup’s software would augment the passion dynamic of the artist. How would it affect the passion of the his fanbase? Would it give the him more dynamic tools to address the passions of the fans with regard to his music? Clearly there wasn’t enough of a distinction to dissuade him from using another platform.

This actually brings up another important point: if your music startup is so threatened by the existence of other music platforms that they can’t be used in conjunction, you have a major problem. The music landscape is populated by numerous services, platforms, apps, and companies. If you need to unseat one or more of these to be successful, go home and redesign your company.

7. You Need to Speak Their Language

All of this culminates in one singular, important point: you need to speak their language. Artists are like engineers, bankers, lawyers, doctors, or journalists in that they have their own language; their own buzzwords (both good and bad), their own tone, diction, emphasis, and colloquialisms. If you don’t know or understand these, you’re out of luck. No amount of good programming will make the difference if you can’t sell it to the artists.

Me in Dublin, Ireland with Chris ____from the Riot Tapes

Me in Dublin, Ireland with Chris O’Brien from the Riot Tapes

If you want to be a music startup founder, you better have at least a few years’ experience in actually talking to artists. Understand that conversations between you and the artists, and you and the music fans will be very, very different. Do not speak to artists the way you would to music consumers. They are not the same as music consumers, and if you treat them as such, you label yourself as someone who can’t distinguish between the two.

If you don’t have a cofounder on your team to translate the tech speak into artist language, you will have a very, very hard time. There’s no substitute. Being comfortable talking to other startup engineers or investors means very little in this respect, except for knowing how to put words together in a sentence. Other than that, you’re speaking a completely different language than the artists you’re most likely talking to. Artists are not engineers, so assuming that they are will kill you.

Me interviewing Cherri Bomb (now Hey Violet) from Amsterdam, Netherlands

Me interviewing Cherri Bomb (now Hey Violet) from Amsterdam, Netherlands

To artists, metrics rarely, if ever, speak as loudly as passion. The passion is what comes across first and last. Most everything else sandwiched in between is somewhat secondary. If you’re a founder of a music startup, accept the fact that you’re going to be speaking to artists and music industry professionals (promoters, venues, organizers, merchandisers, etc.) a hell of a lot more than you’re going to be talking to your music consumers. And if you’re working in the major label paradigm, get used to talking to major labels (that means lots of lawyers and executives). All of these people have different dialects of the same language. This doesn’t mean that the music industry is impossible to crack for new music tech startups. It just means that if you’ve never been in the industry before, you’re starting very far behind the line.

 You Need to Live This Passion

In the end, what this all means is that being a music startup founder has to come from a deep-seated passion. It has to almost be a nagging need that you wake up with. It’s not a one-and-done scenario, where if your first crack as a music startup doesn’t work you move on. If that’s the case, you don’t care enough—you don’t love it enough. You need to live this kind of passion. From how you dress to the slang you use, the little things matter, even if they shouldn’t. And trust me, the artists notice. It becomes an “us/them” mentality. You’re either with the artists—you know them, you understand them— or you’re not. There’s rarely a middle ground.

Me at Warped Tour 2012, with: June Divided (left), The Nearly Deads (middle), Might Mongo (right)

Me at Warped Tour 2012, with: June Divided (left), The Nearly Deads (middle), Mighty Mongo (right)

In the music industry, if you’re an artist and don’t use every tool at your disposal to try and grow a fanbase, you simply don’t care enough. That sounds callous, but it’s true. The same is true for music startups—the only thing that will really get you through to the other side is your passion. You need to breathe the relationships with your artists; you need to be friends with them on Facebook, know them by their first names, know their birthdays, why they started playing music, what their ambitions are—everything short of how they take their coffee, and maybe even that.

Your Code Can Wait—They Can’t

All of this information comes from conversations that never stop. If you stop messaging an artist because you’re busy fundraising, sorry, you’re dead. If you can’t be bothered to respond to their emails because you’re too busy fixing you’re code, sorry, they don’t care, you’re finished. Your code can wait—they can’t and they won’t.

Ironically, this is what I find the most invigorating about being a music startup founder. I love talking to the artists and contacts—I thrive on it. I’ll respond to Facebook messages from artists in Canada, Denmark, Ireland, or California at 4 AM. And I do it because I love it. If you’d rather be writing code at 4 AM than talking to artists in New York or Germany, don’t do a music startup. Do something else that’s not people-based. Because in the end, you can’t hack your way into personal relationships. These relationships take time and care—they don’t happen on your schedule just because you’re trying to code your next app update.

But the flip-side is also true. If you have them going in, you’re lightyears ahead. You have a built-in base that’s invaluable. That’s how you really need to build a music startup: based on the relationships you develop with the artists. Everything else flows from that.

Music Startups Succeed Because of Passion, Not in Spite of It

The Lead-up

Full disclosure: I am a music startup founder. 

Right now my earbuds are in, and my music is turned up so loud I can feel my spine shaking. Not because I’m angry or sad, but because I’m determined. I’m determined to put to rest the jaded notions that surround music startups, even if it takes me more than one post to do it.

I read an article on Medium today that postulated that part of the problem with music-tech startups is the passion which those music-tech founders have for their products or services. The piece concluded with this sentence: “Passion is great, but in the end, it often fades.” False.

The article, though written I’m sure with the best of intentions at shining a light on the challenges of music startups in the tech arena, is fraught with generalizations and assumptions, none of which are good to have for an objective point of view. The piece referenced a talk from Google User Experience Researcher Tomer Sharon, using it to bolster the premise that “music startups go at it about all wrong” (of course I’m taking some creative license here, but that seems to me to be the basic paraphrase of the piece).

In his talk which the piece points to, are six main points about executing the wrong plan, and how this dynamic seems to plague numerous founders. By the author’s own admission, the talk wasn’t music startup-focused, and the resulting analysis is just a serious of personal views. The application of these points to the large deadpool of failed music startups is understandable. After all it makes sense to look at a slew of failed projects and calculate the correlation and causation of their respective deaths. However, the piece takes too much latitude in my opinion, and shines a shadow on all future music startups for the sake of bolstering a (misleading) argument in the present.

Statement admitting most everything that follows is personal opinion.

Statement admitting most everything that follows is personal opinion.

The (Asserted) Problems and the Responses

Here are my responses to the six points in the talk, and subsequently in the article (the asserted points are paraphrased for the sake of simplicity:

Asserted Problem #1. Founders assume that their personal struggles are mirrored by a larger struggle that the world needs a remedy for (which the author admitted is something that does happen). Further, most people don’t care as much about music; most everyone besides you and your music friends is essentially a casual listener, and thus an insignificant statistic and/or demographic.

Statement asserting that mostly no one cares about music.

Statement asserting that mostly no one cares about music.

Response #1. In many areas, and in music as well, there are problems that avid fans/users identify that other, “more casual users/listeners,” might not identify until they can see an improvement (the proverbial before and after picture). Not every identification of a problem can or needs to come from a “casual” user. Sometimes it takes a trained and experienced eye to understand and be able to identify something as broken and to be able to innovate a way to fix it.

This has nothing to do with the passion that music startup founders have for music. It has to do with their ability to dissect an industry that they have come to know better than most, and be able to see room for innovation within it. The generalized statement that “most people don’t care as much about music as you do” is misleadingly false.

It first assumes that one (the founder) cares too much about music, or is in same way too in love with music so as not to be able to strategize accordingly. Secondly, it presumes to know what the music founder has in mind for an innovation, and already moves to the assumption that such an innovation will fail. And lastly, it presumes to generalize peoples’ unique affections for music without citing any real statistical proof.

People do care about music—in fact they care a lot. That’s the reason that Napster was such a snafu in 2000, and the reason that the music space will be the next crowded arena as numerous companies try to cut a niche in the space. People do care, though with each person at a varying degree, how can one possibly know that “most people don’t care as much as you do[?]”

Asserted Problem #2. Startup founders seek validation from friends and family, who tend to be biased.

Response #2. This is a problem that all startups face, not just music startups. The piece’s assertion that founders of a music startup essentially only congregate with similarly “music obsessed” individuals presumes to know the particular group dynamics of every music startup founder.

Statement asserting that "music people only congregate and seek feedback from other music people."

Statement asserting that “music people only congregate and seek feedback from other music people.”

I am a music startup founder, but my social circles are filled with people who populate the music, tech, theater, science, medical, and legal fields. Therefore, to reduce my social circles down to individuals who “think like I do” is fairly pandering and presumptuous.

Asserted Problem #3. Listening to users rather than observing their behavior can lead to disaster, as it can lead to building something people say they want, as opposed to something they will actually use.

Response #3. Much like point #2, this is a conundrum that plagues all startups, not simply music-related ones. Therefore, it should be relegated to the list of startup mistakes to avoid, not used as a reason to forego building a music startup.

The author’s use of the company Jukely as a buttress for the argument actually brings into question the author’s own view of the music industry. The analysis is filled with wild generalizations like “[t]he live music audience [is mostly] made up of people in their twenties” and that “many people [can’t stay out late and see music because] they have a career and kids to think about.”

Statement asserting that the only relevant music-goers are in their twenties.

Statement asserting that the only relevant music-goers are in their twenties.

Statement presuming to know the career and family dynamics of music-goers.

Statement presuming to know the career and family dynamics of music-goers.

The former is false because it’s a gross generalization (and assumption, for that matter), of the age-range of all music-goers everywhere, failing to take into account different music scenes, tastes, geographical dynamics, or any number of other factors. The latter is negated (and thereby false) because it presumes to know the intra-familial and career dynamics, realities, and responsibilities of all music-goers everywhere. As a result, the whole analysis can’t be put forward in any sort of objective way, and must therefore be taken as a matter of opinion, not a matter of fact.

Asserted Problem #4.  Most music startups don’t test their riskiest assumptions.

Response #4. This entire point negates itself because it purports to know every assumption that every music startup has, and every failure that came as result of ignoring those assumptions. Again, gross over-generalization is the culprit here.

In the midst of arguing point #4, the author makes a bold statement that I can personally bear witness to as wholly false. The author writes: “The other risk startups take when entering the music space is that they simply don’t know anything about the music business.” I am a music startup founder, and I have spent nearly a decade in the music industry.

Statement asserting that music startup founders know nothing about the music industry.

Statement asserting that music startup founders know nothing about the music industry.

Though the author does make a good point—that the “launch first, ask questions later” approach isn’t suited well to the music industry—the point is negated by the assumption that all music startup founders are simply overzealous music fans with no understanding of the inner workings of the music business. I for one take offense to that.

I was in a band in high school, and after graduating, took a gap year before college, during which I was a music journalist. I continued my journalism well into my college career, even as I simultaneously ran a radio show and conversed with artists daily. In fact, I had press access at Warped Tour in 2012 precisely because of the connections I’d made and things I’d learned during my tenure as a journalist and DJ. All of these experiences and understanding are what I draw on every day to help formulate the best decisions for my music startup.

Me on my show, Underground Takeover

Me on my show, Underground Takeover

Me with: Those Mockingbirds (top left), Bloody Diamonds (top right), The Steppin Stones (bottom left), Sunshine & Bullets (bottom left)

Me with: Those Mockingbirds (top left), Bloody Diamonds (top right), The Steppin Stones (bottom left), and Sunshine & Bullets (bottom right)

Me at Warped Tour 2012, with: June Divided (left), The Nearly Deads (middle), Might Mongo (right)

Me at Warped Tour 2012, with: June Divided (left), The Nearly Deads (middle), and Mighty Mongo (right)

Asserted Problem #5. Music startup founders become obsessed with can I build it, and lose sight of should I build it.

Response #5. Again, this is a problem that all startups must contend with. It seems that the author takes the most general points of avoidance made to most and/or all startups and sets them up as tools to bolster an argument that takes aim at music startups specifically. But in reality, if these are simply more general avoidances (seeing a pattern here?), then they have no place in this argument anyway, and are thus negated by their own generalization.

Asserted Problem/Response #6. The author actually doesn’t actually make a point #6. I assume it was meant to be taken or gleaned from the concluding paragraphs, but all that is left at the end of the piece is more generalizing. Statements like “[t]he music tech business is a graveyard littered with startups that seem cool at the time, [but no one wants or needs]” and “[the music founders] all went to SXSW, and lit some money, and crashed and burned a few years later” are more presumptuous than perhaps anything else in the piece.

Screen Shot 2015-04-30 at 8.14.56 PM

Statement asserting that music startup founders just go to SXSW and build companies no one wants.

The former of the statements asserts that no music founder could ever possibly create a music app or service people want/need, and the latter elevates SXSW to the pinnacle of godhood in the realm of music festivals. Yet if the author was familiar with the trends and grumblings that go on below the surface, then it would be understood that SXSW has in fact become sour to many independent music fans in recent years, as it leans further towards a mainstream agenda.

The last paragraph in particular is annoyingly pandering; its tone and diction betray a bitter and jaded writer using generalizations to bolster arguments of arrogance and assumptions.

The Last, False Sentence

Which brings us back to the last sentence yet again: “Passion is great, but in the end, it often fades.” Clearly the author is surrounded by other jaded personalities who forgot (or perhaps never knew) why most people get into the music business in the first place. It’s not about being the next Led Zeppelin or being rich and famous (though it’s fun to entertain fantasies); it’s because our passion is visceral—a part of us that we can’t turn off and on at will. It just exists as a nagging need, like the need to breathe when we wake up in the morning.

Passion can transform or ebb, but it rarely fades in the way that the author asserts it does. In the end, many of us in the music industry chose this business not because we wanted to solve some major problem (not at first); we chose it because it speaks to us in a way few other things do. That passion doesn’t fade. If anything, it gets stronger with every subsequent experience.

Artists Live On

It always sucks when bands break up and artists move on to new projects. As music fans, we find ourselves so drawn to some artists because they speak to us on such deep levels. We them as extensions of ourselves, which makes their breakups all the more palpable and disappointing.

It’s an unfortunate reality of being in the music business that I’ve experienced this more times than I care to count. Many nights a band will come on my playlist, and I’ll find myself thinking, “damn, if only they were still putting out new material.” It’s a yearning for more of something that you love, and a deep desire to see what other creative heights they’re capable of reaching.

And yet, through others, these artists live on. I went to an event tonight at my brother’s high school, and found myself talking to a couple of his friends who shared my music taste. When I asked one of them if she’d ever heard of a few particular bands, she told me no, but that she’d be interested in hearing them. Later, after I got home, I had my brother send her a link to this band’s music video from a few years ago. According to my brother, she loves it and is asking how she can get her hands on the full album.

Things like that remind me every day why I continue to do this, even when some of my favorite artists break up and move on to new things. There is always a new audience, up and coming, curious and hungry for something they’ve never heard before. That sort of curiosity and enthusiasm is one of the reasons I love this industry so much. This music never dies. It continues to play and reach new people every day, who are eager to hear it, and pass it on. Introducing someone to something they’ve never experienced before, and see their eager grasp for it—there’s no thrill like that. Man, what a rush.

Passion Isn’t Exhausting—It’s Invigorating

A couple days ago, I wrote a post about how when things get tough in my line of work, it’s always best to go back to the artists. The artists are where I find my love rekindled again and again, and where I’ve made some of my best friends.

I think, though, that one of the best things I experience in talking to artists every day is the sheer passion that spills through their emails and calls. They are so passionate about their work and the work of their peers that, most days, they can barely contain themselves. Sometimes our conversations consist of us (me and an artist) interrupting each other to ask the other if they’ve heard the latest release from a group we both love.

While some might take this as daunting and exhausting after a certain period of time, the truth is that it never really gets old. It gets old hearing someone blather on about something when their heart really isn’t in it; you can tell. But when someone is so incredibly passionate about something that it jumbles the words falling out of their mouth—that’s not exhausting at all; it’s reinvigorating.

That’s something I would wish on anyone having a discussion in their professional field. That’s what makes this feel like play-time when it really is work. It’s what enables me to send out stacks of emails (does that metaphor make sense?) without losing a bit of my drive for the day. And what’s more, it’s incredibly infectious. This is why I do what I do, and love it every day.