Product Hunt Doesn’t Sell Products—It Sells Community

A Very Telling Thread

Earlier today, I came across a post on Medium by Product Hunt CEO Ryan Hoover. Simply titled with a captioned quote, “The world doesn’t need another blogging platform. But I did.” is Hoover’s response to a question he posed in the thread of a new PH product, Buffalo.

 

The product in question is yet another blogging platform, the necessity of which Hoover muses on. The subsequent series of responses between Hoover and Buffalo founder Drew Wilson is brilliant.

Hoover first posits that another blogging platform might be overkill, as he’s even more inclined to use Medium than his own blog simply because of its ease and reach/social engagement.

Screenshot of Hoover's comment on Product Hunt

Screenshot of Hoover’s comment on Product Hunt

Notice that Hoover began the entire thought with a positive comment—that he liked the clean design. Already a high note has been struck. His subsequent statements are made from the point of view of his own opinion, and thus are disarming, rather than aggressive.

Wilson’s response is equally brilliant.

Screenshot of Wilson's response on Product Hunt.

Screenshot of Wilson’s response on Product Hunt.

In one fell swoop, Wilson answered Hoover’s thought with his own disarming postulation. He’s not defensive in the least; simply enthusiastic to give a brief overview of what he likes best about his product, and why he thinks it’s different. Beyond that, though, his tone and diction clearly illustrate his desire for a product like the one he’s built. He even concedes that Hoover is essentially right, and that the world doesn’t need another blogging platform. But those three words—”But I did”—would make any reader excited to interact with such an honest and positive personality.

Hoover’s second response was much more terse:

Hoover's second response on Product Hunt.

Hoover’s second response on Product Hunt.

What this tells me is that I was right when I tweeted this last week:

Product Hunt isn't really selling products; they're selling community.

Product Hunt isn’t really selling products; they’re selling community.

It’s Not About the Blogging

I use a number of blogging platforms (Medium, WordPress, etc.) because I love writing and reading what others have to say. And while I most certainly will check out Buffalo after reading the comments on PH, in the end, this entire exchange wasn’t about the blogging platform at all. Not really.

The exchange—deeper, below the surface—is really about and a testament to the kind of community that Hoover and the rest of the Product Hunt team have built. They don’t sit up on top of their mountain acting with God-like hubris, deciding what will and won’t be popular (though, with the popularity of PH, one could argue that they could if they wanted to). Rather, they encourage discussion throughout their network, and concede that their tastes and opinions do indeed come from personal preference. I have yet to see any post by a PH team member that purports to “know better” than any of the product makers or users on PH.

This lack of arrogance is exceedingly palpable—people notice. It’s what makes Product Hunt a real community rather than a forum. A forum has moderators and editors who have the final say. And while PH does employ some extent of moderation when choosing products for the front page (and how could they not, with so many products posted every day), they don’t condone or foster any sense of superiority within the community.

The Product Hunt cat

The Product Hunt cat

Product Hunt Sells Community

Product Hunt is called Product Hunt (I assume) because people post new products on it (duh). But they’re not selling products; they’re selling community. They’re selling a level playing field so open that the team members who built it continue to engage in conversations with their users. And they don’t need to be “right;” they don’t need to have the last say, or come out looking like product soothsayers.

Product Hunt will continue to succeed because of this dynamic. It wouldn’t even matter if their product-content base dried up tomorrow; the people who have come to love the community would find something new to post there. It could end up as Healthcare Hunt, or Garden Hunt, or maybe Airplane Hunt. The products on it would be relevant insofar as the core sense of community remained intact. And I expect it will.

“Why? Because we can.”—An Artist’s Perspective

Hoover capped off his Medium post with this:

Screenshot of Hoover's post on Medium

Screenshot of Hoover’s post on Medium

This tells me two things.

First, Hoover (and the rest of the PH team, I assume) won’t tolerate dynamics of superiority or condescension that would undoubtedly taint the PH community.

Secondly, by way of using the example of a new drummer experimenting with his first skins, he illustrates the notion that he sees the PH community (product makers as well as users) as artists. This statement explains away any necessity there might otherwise be to explain why someone made something. Hoover’s statement makes that irrelevant. Artists create for the sake of creation, and they learn new things from the process every time they do it. Product Hunt’s community is at its core a community of product artists, therefore the question of “why?” is no longer relevant. Why? Because we can.

My gut tells me that’s exactly how Product Hunt started, if you look deep enough below the surface. Hoover started a product mailing list. Why? Because he could, and he wanted to. Everything else is irrelevant (even the success). Artists are artists because that’s how they see the world. Clearly the same is true for Product Hunters.

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.

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 2.44.55 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 2.47.05 PM

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.

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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.

Exhibiting One’s Creative Pieces

Today was day 2 of TechCrunch Disrupt in New York, but what really excited me today was the announcement by a friend of mine that she’s starting a small arts and writing publication. As much as I enjoyed watching TCDisrupt today, it was almost overshadowed in a sense by getting that message in my inbox. I’m still incredibly attached to my writing (as one can tell) and my art, and the chance to present it publicly (however minor) thrills me beyond measure. I suppose that’s part of identifying as an artist: any possibility of an exhibition of your work immediately takes on a whole new exciting tone when one considers it as a viable possibility.

Delusions of grandeur aside, the thrill that comes from doing a small art exhibition, or seeing a piece of yours published somewhere other than your own blog, is something that we creatives live for. In the end, it’s not about being the next great whatever; it’s about creating something and knowing that someone somewhere will see it. That dynamic of produce and consume is innate in all creative souls, and something which drives us every morning to make something new. For me, I’ll be looking into my portfolio soon to see which pieces I’d like to send her first.

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.

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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.

The Secret’s Out: Secret’s Dead

The Background

So it was announced today that Secret is shutting down. Part of me is completely shocked, and another isn’t all that surprised. Secret has had a lot of problems over the last year and frankly, I haven’t seen them do anything to fix any of them.

The old Secret logo

The old Secret logo

Secret blew up last year at SXSW and was everywhere after that. I’m serious, you couldn’t get away from the damned thing. Along with Whisper and Yik Yak, Secret made anonymous messaging handy and fun. Secret screenshots and threads showed up on Facebook and BuzzFeed and essentially took over spring of 2014.

The Fuckups

  1. Yet, like Yik Yak did, Secret encountered a lot of criticism over the issue of cyberbullying. As far as I’m concerned as a spectator and casual user, Secret never really addressed any of these issues. Cyberbullying continued to plague the service (at least that’s what I heard from other users), and I never really saw any major PR campaign by Secret to really dispel any of the criticism. In my opinion, that was their first major mistake.

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    Criticism of Secret’s cyberbullying; courtesy of TechCrunch

  2. Then in December of last year, they made their second major mistake. Secret completely “redesigned” their entire interface. The app was redone from top to bottom. Here’s why the word “redesigned” is in quotes: they didn’t redesign anything, they just copied Yik Yak. No, they weren’t “inspired” or “influenced” by Yik Yak—it was just a shameless, lazy, total ripoff clone. And I wasn’t the only one who thought so.
    New Secret Redesigned Logo (left) and Yik Yak Logo (right); photo courtesy of TechCrunch

    New Secret Redesigned Logo (left) and Yik Yak Logo (right); photo courtesy of TechCrunch

    New Secret Redesigned Best/Hot Page (left) and Yik Yak Page (right); photo courtesy of TechCrunch

    New Secret Redesigned Best/Hot Page (left) and Yik Yak Page (right); photo courtesy of TechCrunch

  3. If their second major blunder set the stage, their third and final misstep locked in their fate: they really didn’t do anything about the criticism they got for essentially cloning Yik Yak’s layout and design. I don’t know if Secret’s leadership just kept hoping the backlash would go away or just didn’t care, but their inaction signed their death warrant as far as I’m concerned. Frankly, after such a series of serious blunders, today’s news isn’t as much of a shock to me as it might otherwise have been.

What They Should Have Done

Here’s what I think Secret should have done over the last year:

  1. They should have acknowledged and met criticism of cyberbullying head-on. They should have addressed it and appeared to take it more seriously than they did. They should have dumped major amounts of money into both looking for a cyberbullying-solution, and a massive PR campaign to set themselves apart from their anonymous messaging peers. The PR campaign should have centered on the fact that cyberbullying was their top concern, and that they weren’t hiding from or shirking responsibility; they were facing the problem head-on. This would have endeared them more to their userbase and the public, and possibly could have served to give them a leg up on their competition in the space.
  2. They should not have shamelessly cloned Yik Yak’s design. It was painfully obvious to everyone (even non-users), and pretty much tarnished their reputation. They came across as having no vision for their company, and as preferring to copy one of their competitors rather than do the hard work to underscore and highlight their unique qualities. The major redesign had to cost a pretty solid amount of money. I would have used that money instead for the cyberbullying problem, and put it towards the solution and PR campaign outlined above.
  3. This is the biggest kicker: they should have pulled back the “redesign” within a week and admitted their huge mistake. People understand and respond to others who act in humble and human ways, even if that means sometimes making mistakes. By not admitting their major blunder, Secret pretty much alienated the rest of their userbase.

Here is word for word the statement I would have released if I was Secret’s CEO:

Earlier this week we made a huge mistake. Our redesign did not convey the message we wanted, and we have decided to revert back to the original Secret for the moment. We do not want to be anyone other than who were are, and we know that our next step forward will better convey our vision for what we know Secret can be. Our next step will act as a tribute to our past even as we embrace our future. We never want to lose the unique qualities that make Secret so special, and we will go back to the design-board so we can better convey those qualities which we love so much. This is not the end; just a little bump in the middle. Our next step forward will be our best yet!

Unfortunately, I did’t see any release statement like that from Secret.

Why Are They Giving Up? Where’s the Fight?

That is all that it would have taken to convey to me that the people at Secret are human and have the best intentions. It would have confirmed for me that the leadership at Secret is committed to succeeding as themselves, and not trying to as someone else. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case, and now Secret’s hitting the deadpool.

What must be the most bitter pill to swallow for investors is the question of “why.” If I was an investor, knowing that Secret still had ~$35M in the bank, I would be wondering why they don’t just pull back and regroup. Where’s the fight? They have the funds, the (somewhat) intact userbase, the reputation, and the manpower, so why are they just throwing in the towel? That must be the most disappointing question for everyone involved to be struggling with right now. I know that’s what would be going through my mind as I cleaned out my desk.

Too Much of a “Personal Journal”?

As I write more and more of these posts, I’m noticing that they’re becoming more personal. Of course there are still those posts which are more hard-hitting news-wise, but still some days I find myself tackling new subject matter like philosophy, history, sociological experiences, and even writing in general. Though I might have resisted this trend in previous years and dismissed it too much as “personal journal” dynamic unfit for a public blog, it seems more appropriate now than ever.

When I zoom out and look at the big picture dynamics at play, I can begin to see trends at play I might have missed upon my previous dismissals. Things begin to play out in new contexts, and as thought processes are laid over one another, they begin to underscore details that otherwise might have gone unnoticed.

We can’t be trained to think like this initially, no matter how much we wish we could be, or how much we try. This thought process and worldview is only something that comes from the experiences that time gives to us, and our motivation to place those experiences over one another and look at the picture which they reveal when we do so. Bigger pictures appear every day, and if we have the right set of lids up to look at them, I’m beginning to understand the broader dynamics and trends which we will be able to discern.

The Making of a Music Lover

Happy Birthday Mom and Dad

Today was my parents’ birthday. Yes, they both have the same birthday. So as I was busy writing the traditional birthday post on their Facebook walls this morning, I started thinking about how my parents shaped not only my life (duh), but how they’ve made me so much of who and what I am (a die-hard music lover and artist). I began to really take a moment to remember just how my parents each played a role in my growth not simply as their son, but as someone who is (more or less) forever tied to the world of music. And the more I thought—the more I remembered—the more I really began to see just how much of an impact they had on me in that arena as well. In fact, it’s an impact they continue to have every day.

Induction

I suppose my induction into the world of music took place in my youth, but it really geared up around the time I was 10. That’s when my real education began. It was because of my parents—what they introduced me too was lightyears ahead of most any and everything my peers had in their CD players (yes, we still used those back then). It began, then ramped up—and then I never looked back.

My Dad gave me what I will always refer to as my first Big Five: The Beatles, The Kinks, The Who, The Doors, and Cream. Some people hear The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” and think of CSI: NY; I just think of my Dad. From there, it was just a hop and a skip to Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and Jethro Tull. I vividly remember hearing Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” for the very first time; I’d dozed off on the couch when he popped the CD in the player. I heard that Jack Bruce bassline, sat straight up, and said “what is THAT?!”

From Mom I got more of a taste from the ’70s; Led Zeppelin, Queen, Fleetwood Mac…and metal. I actually wouldn’t discover until more than a decade later just how into metal my mom actually was. KISS and Def Leppard were favorites, so I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me when she asked if I’d go see them in concert with her last summer. And so we did.

Me, Mom and my brother Josh at KISS and Def Leppard last summer

My brother Josh, Mom and me at KISS and Def Leppard last summer

“Mom, I’m Gonna Start a Band”

My parents took me to my first concert. And not a Backstreet Boys show either. My parents took some friends and me to The Masquerade in downtown Atlanta (google it, it’s still around and still a popular venue). We saw Bowling for Soup. Don’t laugh; they rocked and kicked ass. In fact, I’ve gone on to see them almost 10 times since then, and more than once my Mom has gone with me.

I’m not sure many parents would even drive their kids down to Masquerade, let alone take their kids to a show there. It’s not exactly PG; Masquerade is a real venue, complete with people full of tattoos, piercings, sweaty, jumping, and rocking out.

Around this time—my 13th birthday—I got a knockoff Fender guitar starter pack. Pretty much the next sentence out of my mouth one morning was, “Mom, I’m gonna start a band.” And I did. My buddy got the same starter set, and we set out to conquer the world. I loved that guitar; I still do. It reminds me of my roots.

My first guitar, and still one of my first loves

My first guitar, and still one of my first loves

New and Different Tastes

My parents are such lovers of music that it was just as valid to them to hear me say I wanted to be a rockstar as saying I might want to be a doctor or lawyer. It was natural, and I believe that because their love of music extended well beyond what they were familiar with, they could understand my obsession with something that spoke so deeply to me.

While other parents continued to find comfort in their Zeppelin and Beatles albums, my parents took a trip with me through my teen-year discoveries; Simple Plan, Sum 41, Yellowcard, My Chemical Romance, and Eve 6 were just as valid and exciting to them as Fleetwood Mac or The Who. In fact, I saw Eve 6 with my Dad just a couple summers ago on their 2013 U.S. tour.

Me and Dad at Eve 6's summer 2013 tour

Me and Dad at Eve 6’s summer 2013 tour (notice I’m wearing one of my Bowling for Soup shirts)

I’m not sure how many other people out there were (are) lucky enough to experience these same dynamics, but I can’t imagine too many. Most probably experienced the brush-off that so many people get. But I was lucky enough to escape that. My parents share my love of music and discovery, and that drives me every day.

Days As a Journalist and DJ

When my rockstar career ended (yes, pause for dramatic effect), I decided my next adventure would be as a music journalist. Actually, I completely fell into music journalism, but that’s a story for another day. And even as I was starting to find my way in that cutthroat industry, guess who was beside me, editing my pieces to make them tighter and better? That’s right, the parents.

And when the journalism turned to DJ-work, there was a desire to push my drive yet again. I’ll never forget the first time I was on the air on my college show in Boston, doing my broadcast with my parents streaming from home in Atlanta. They listened to the whole thing (2 hours worth), and when he called me after, I believe my Dad’s words were, “man that was so fucking cool.”

Me on my show, Underground Takeover

Me on my show, Underground Takeover

I took my Mom out last summer to a little indie show to see a band I’m good friends with. The band, mind you, is a little on the screamo side; not exactly what most people my parents’ age would be interested in listening to. But during the course of the show, what really stuck out to me was when my Mom noted, “wow, they are incredible performers.” That level of appreciation for something so far removed from her own tastes is something that I think makes my Mom so special. Many times, it’s my parents who are the first to hear the new artists I find and give me feedback. They really haven’t steered me wrong yet.

Me and Mom at an alternative/scream concert last summer

Me and Mom at an alternative/scream concert last summer

Music Entrepreneur

And now, as I’ve changed my path yet again, it’s paved and bridged by a mutual respect and insatiable love of music. Many parents wouldn’t understand their kid when they hear the words, “I think I want to be a music entrepreneur.” What does that even mean?! I’m still not totally sure, though I’m figuring it out every day. What I am sure of is that my parents are behind me yet again. They continue to help me navigate, all the while partaking in the amazing music scenes that I’ve become privy to.

So as I sit here on their birthday night, I think about how I’m thankful not only for a good relationship in general, but for a shared love of something that is and has become so important to me. Music is freedom and in it lives a certain amount of respect and love; it’s that respect and love that exacerbates the excitement of sharing new music with one another. It’s what draws us together and creates the paradigm we live in. So when I listen to Cream or The Who, I think of my Dad. And when it’s KISS or Def Leppard on the radio, I think of my Mom. Even when it’s Bowling for Soup I can’t help but think of my first concert with my parents. And I can’t look back at anything I’ve done in this business without thinking of them collectively.

I think that’s a good thing.

Blogging: One Month In—A Retrospective

Today marks one month since I started blogging every day, and man has it been a long month. Though long doesn’t necessarily mean bad, and in the last few weeks I’ve found myself able to talk about a number of topics that might not have occurred to me otherwise. True, a lot of my posts have been on topics like music and tech that I continually follow, but the desire to write every day has enabled me to streamline my thoughts into a more digestible format.

In the last month, I’ve discussed numerous things in the music and tech space, including:

Yet I’ve found myself able to write about things that otherwise would seem unimportant, had I not had a goal to write every day. I’m not sure writing posts on writer’s block, on singing, art, and on concepts of passion would ever have occurred to me without the goal to produce new material:

Perhaps the most intriguing thing that’s happened though is how my desire to write has only become more engrained in me. I’ve always been a writer—essays, journalism, poetry, and research papers always came fairly easily to me, and even provided a sense of enjoyment most times. But now my writing has taken on a whole new dynamic in my life.

In fact, it mirrors what artists tell me when I ask why they choose the tough path of day jobs and long nights on the road: “I do it because just like I wake up every morning and need to breathe, I need to play music.” And that’s how writing is to me now. I wake up ever morning and need to breathe, and then I need to write.

The Typhoon Keeps Coming for Tidal

It’s not been an easy couple of weeks for new music service Tidal. A slew of bad press and criticism during and immediately after the service’s launch is continuing to be a thorn in the side of the company’s leadership. So much so that a major restructuring was just announced; things aren’t about to get easier any time soon.

I was first a little skeptical of Tidal during its much-hyped launch, then again when it enjoyed a spate of criticism from mainstream band Mumford & Sons, and most recently when producer Steve Albini piled on to the already bruised service. Things have just been really bad for Tidal since it emerged in the last few weeks. Now it seems that the service itself is intent on rubbing salt in its own wounds.

Business Insider broke the news today (as did other sources like Digital Music News) that Tidal was being strongly shaken up; 25+ people on the Tidal team were being fired to make room for a new direction. Of these, the name that surely drew the most attention was And Chen, the now-former CEO of the service. Maybe it’s just me, but firing your CEO just a couple weeks after your very public launch seems to say a lot about a company’s fortunes, at least in the short-term.

Former Tidal CEO, Andy Chen

Former Tidal CEO, Andy Chen

Chen’s removal will make room for Tidal’s former CEO Peter Tonstad (who was the former CEO of Tidal’s parent company Aspiro Group). In an statement to BI, Tidal commented on the impending change:

TIDAL’s new interim [sic] CEO is Peter Tonstad—a former CEO of parent company Aspiro Group. He has a better understanding of the industry and a clear vision for how the company is looking to change the status quo.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but did Tidal just admit that their now-former CEO—Chen—was basically unqualified for the job? Because that’s essentially what I heard. After all the fanfare that Tidal inundated the press with around its launch, I thought for sure that they at least had a concrete plan to try and accomplish their goals. As critical as I was at the time, I at last figured that their leadership had sufficient experience and vision to make the Tidal brand somewhat competitive for a little while. Clearly that’s not the case.

I was critical of Tidal before because I thought (still think) that they’re attempting to sell a product (service) that essentially is very expensive and not wanted by enough people to offset the expenses to provide it. I was critical because the artists who I saw standing up on stage during the launch don’t need any more money in their pockets, and it came across to me as greed.

Now I’m critical of them because changing your CEO and firing 25+ employees ~20 days after your very public launch is not a good way to start the spring. It shows both a lack of preparation for your business market, and frankly a lack of appreciation for your prospective audience and their thoughts. Actually, you come off as socially tone-deaf.

We’ll see how this progresses, but I must say, I am really not impressed with Tidal’s handling of this entire situation. This is not the way to build trust in an industry that is basically overrun with distrust, and filled with people who are used to getting taken advantage of. This is not a good start; not a good start at all.

When Things Get Tough, Head Back to the Artists

Some days in this business are hard. Some days are downright frustrating. The music business isn’t exactly known for being easy and fair. At times, the most infuriating thing can be dealing with the very industry that you stepped foot in in the first place. Massive egos, backroom deals, power struggles—these things aren’t relegated only to the field of politics.

But the thing that I learned very early on is that in this crazy, upside down industry, there’s really only one respite: the artists. Of course, that’s my own personal opinion, but I hold to it like gospel. On the hardest days, I always go back to the artists, and remember why I do this. It reminds me of my deep-seated passion for what they do and how they do it, and that I’m exceedingly lucky to be a part of the process.

Yesterday was a frustrating day. But that was rectified today; not by any major breakthrough or innovation, but by something as simple as a conversation with the people I love doing business with. A conversation this morning with an artist jump-started my day on a positive note; I could hear his excitement, and that fueled by own drive for the day. Then later in the afternoon, a conversation and interview with another artist I’m excited to work with. What might seem like work to others—scheduling calls, doing interviews, laying out plans—is like an adrenaline shot to me. I love it every day; perhaps that’s the reason I’ve almost turned into a “workaholic.”  But it’s not work for me; every new song I hear, every show I go to, every conversation I have—this is everything I would do on my vacation.

The music industry can be an amazing place. Even more so now that dynamics have shifted to give more power to the everyday singer/songwriter playing that song you like at a bar. We should all take advantage of it. That’s why in my off days, I always remember: when things snafu, just head back to the talent. When things get tough, just head back to the artists.