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.

Screen Shot 2015-05-23 at 3.55.46 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-05-23 at 3.56.48 PM

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.

Karma, Passion and Identity: A Response to Chris Sacca’s Bleeding Aqua

Chris Sacca‘s post “I Bleed Aqua.” yesterday is the must-read (or rather, reread) for me today. It’s poignant and candid, enabling it to speak on a deeper level than perhaps would be possible, had it been more reserved. It touches on business terms, but it’s really not about business at all. It’s about relationships and identity.

Sacca illustrates his relationship with the service in an intriguing way, preferring to start the post with a declaration of his passion for it, rather than examining it as a wise business investment. Though he touches on this candidly in the following paragraphs, they fade somewhat when compared to the arguably deeply personal thoughts he shares.

For him, it seems to be so much about the relationships and personal experiences it’s allowed him to have—how it’s allowed him to share milestones in his life with friends (and complete strangers), and to glean from that a certain conversation with the world. As he bluntly notes, “Twitter went from just being an investment to a huge part of my identity.”

And like with so many things, I make the music analogy in my head. If Twitter was the indie band trying to gain any sort of traction in its early days, then Sacca was the truly passionate fan who brought people to their shows and proudly wore their T-shirts. He was (and is) the fan who identified something so magnetic that by his own words, they became a part of him—a part of his identity.

For anyone who missed Sacca’s Periscope talk with Peter Pham on Wednesday, a huge topic that they covered (well, huge in my opinion) was the concept of good karma and relationship building. When discussing the process by which he builds and cultivates his relationships (personal as well as professional), Pham stated that one should do things for others without asking for anything upfront: “create value before asking for value.” Pham and Sacca seemed to agree that the dynamic of good karma was something they both subscribed to. Pham went on to discuss how it’s through this dynamic of good faith and positive relationships that he’s built his (former and current) companies.

Sacca’s subsequent post on how he thinks about his relationship with Twitter is telling of this sort of relationship dynamic. In many ways, it illustrates the notion that I discussed in my post on being excellent; letting your passion inform your professional decisions as much as good business strategy. As I examined with Product Hunt, letting concepts of community and positive relationships inform one’s business tactics is a winning strategy. Even as he discusses the concept of being critical of some of Twitter’s moves towards the end of the post, he does so in a way that reaffirms his love of the service, and excitement at what it is and can be.

Perhaps the strongest sentence is also the simplest. Just three words: “I bleed aqua.” That’s how Sacca caps his post—a blunt, positive statement. And that’s exactly how the post as a whole comes off: blunt, positive, reaffirmed, excited.

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…”

Musings on Community

My earlier post this week on Product Hunt’s community seems to have struck a nerve—in a good way. It’s underscored in my mind the notion of community, and what that can really mean on a macro level. As such, I’ve begun to seriously question what things can be gleaned from communal dynamics, and how one can learn from these dynamics to look at society and “read between the lines,” so to speak.

Inasmuch as I would like to make the bold statement that I’ve examined concepts of community and “figured it all out,” the more tenable reality is that community as a concept is far more difficult to understand that to simply experience. Experiencing community is easy because it’s something that we learn to do naturally from day one. We are (mostly) comfortable with the intricacies that flow between communal conversations and relationships, even as we struggle to understand their deeper meanings.

Certainly no bold statement or thesis can be made at this stage, but perhaps one will appropriately materialize in the future. Only through these examinations, though, can one truly begin to understand and fully appreciate how communities work on their simplest levels.

Learn to Really Talk to People

Many nights I stay up and reflect on deep things that transpire throughout the day, and ponder meanings of ambiguous gestures by people. Tonight though, I’m thinking less about ambiguous happenings and more on specific thoughts flowing through my head. Tonight, the notions from the day are simpler to decipher.

I always go back to my belief that relationships with other people are everything. They define our lives, and open up doors for us even when we’re not necessarily looking. Talking to people, and being able to do so with relative ease, is something that I believe everyone should learn how to do, at least on some level. But people need to also learn to hear others; not just listen, but hear. Hear what other people are saying, even if you need to listen for the words between the words. Being able to read the non-verbal cues that people put out—what’s important to them, and how to augment those things with your own positivity—is one of the sure-fire ways to cultivate meaningful and mutually beneficial relationships with people. Everything else follows that.

“On Our Horizon”: The Commencement Speech I Never Gave at Brandeis University

As we approach the graduation weekend for numerous schools around the country, I’ve been reflecting on the past year. A year out of the dorm, and a year beyond the home I made during my college years.

I graduated from Brandeis University a year ago this month, and as I see posts containing the words “graduation” and “college” beginning to trend on Facebook and Twitter, I remember what it was like sitting my dorm days before life would take a major turn.

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And I think about the commencement speech draft I wrote, but ultimately didn’t end up giving during graduation. Another wonderful speech was chosen, but as I reread the words the went pen to paper 12 months ago, it’s striking just how much they still hold true today. Even more striking, though, is just how applicable they might be and are to most every student graduating now, regardless of the school.

I’m struck reading it just how much it still resonates with me. And it seems that it should see some sort of public viewing, even after a year, and even if it’s not from my lips at a graduation ceremony. So I suppose I’ll take a chance and publish it here.

The terms may not apply to every school, and the people referenced may have long since found new avenues. But I still think perhaps some few might get something out of reading it. I certainly did writing it. I wrote it while listening to the song “You’re a God” by Vertical Horizon; I’m not sure what exactly was in that song, but to me, it seems to capture the surmounting victory and limitlessness of graduation perfectly.

So I’ve simply copied my original text; no corrections, omissions or substitutions. Honest words for an honest feeling, take from it what you will. This is how I felt a year ago this month. Accomplishment and pride in oneself go hand in hand as we forge through tough times to hit our most celebrated highs. To all those graduating, congratulations on reaching a new horizon.

On Our Horizon

Everything we need is right here before us. We have conquered so much to be here now, and our tide is still rising. To my fellow graduates of the Brandeis University class of 2014: Congratulations!! We’ve reached our horizon!!

What we have accomplished here today is success unto itself. We have succeeded in becoming what we always thought we might be, but never truly could be until we came here, to Brandeis; we have succeeded in fully becoming the best versions of ourselves: compassionate, driven, talented, destined. As far as we move in the future, as uncertain as our paths might seem, or scary the times may become, we will always know that it was here at Brandeis that we become heroes, the masters of ourselves, our pasts and our destinies.

I could never be anything but honest in saying this to all of you. As Brandeis graduates have stood here before me to say, “thank you” is what we can only begin to communicate back to our esteemed President Lawrence, Provost Goldstein, the members of the board of trustees, and Brandeis alumni. Even more, though, to the distinguished and hard-working faculty and staff, our honored guests, our friends, and most importantly, our families, without whom none of us would be standing here today.

In the seven semesters that I’ve spent here at Brandeis (yes, I was a Midyear, and such a cult status will never be lost on me haha), I’ve learned more than I could ever articulate at this particular moment. I was breathless with excitement and determination on the day my acceptance letter came, and I only became more so the moment my college career began here, a feeling I’m sure you all share.

Because that is exactly the kind of school that Brandeis is; the kind of school that challenges us to achieve all that we can, the kind of school that challenges us to be masters. Yet Brandeis is the sort of place that welcomes not only those students who are academically bright and accomplished, but those students who possess other talents, most more than anyone could ever imagine. Brandeis accepted me when I certainly didn’t have the 4.0 GPA. Yet they saw in me not what I had ever been (in grade school, high school, or whatever), but what I could be as a Brandeis graduate. For all of you, I can only begin to imagine the potential that Brandeis saw when your names came across the desks here.

And what a breathtaking community we’ve cultivated here, like no other anywhere on earth. We are not content to crawl; Brandeis students run everywhere, most times with three or four textbooks in hand! But I’ve seen Brandeis students achieve amazing things: I’ve seen students create a more stable sense of community than I have likely ever seen, rejoice with one another when the times are wonderful, and console one another when the times are tough.

Little did I know when I stepped foot on campus during Orientation the experiences at Brandeis that would unfold before me; the experiences that will forever shape my life. Here’s just a little bit of what we did. Things we loved (and some things we regretted so much haha!):

  • We rode down the library hill in the snow, flipping over on impact at the bottom
  • We all somehow got through UWS
  • We fought tooth and nail for the best seats in the library during finals (regretting immensely when we left for just a minute to grab a coffee!)
  • We put together amazing broadcasts on BTV and WBRS (seriously, who doesn’t have a WBRS shirt?)
  • We dominated in sports (sometimes haha), led by our captivating athletes (and yes, we all tried desperately to figure out what our mascot actually was (apparently an owl with a law degree who sits on a jury))
  • We totally rocked the social justice thing; no we didn’t always agree, but hey, we’re the judges and jury, so would anyone expect us to?!
  • We absolutely excelled in the classroom, and collected majors and minors like they were baseball cards (and yes, I still only have one major, so I might be back in the future!)
  • We hung out at Ollie’s way past our bedtime, rocked out at Chum’s and ordered Asia Wok way more than any of us want to admit (yes, this is another regret we think back on warmly haha)
  • We mentored each other, competed with one another, and learned more in four years than many of us thought possible
  • And most importantly, we made friends and relationships that will last a lifetime

Brandeis is just one more step in our life’s journey, but one that we will hold close forever. Last year, I went abroad and found myself in Amsterdam, in a city, country, and culture vastly different from my own (ok, not that different haha). And although I miss Amsterdam every day, while I was there I found myself missing Brandeis every day. No, I didn’t miss the BranVan so much, or the Rabb steps, and I for sure didn’t miss that ridiculous East Hill most of us had the displeasure of trekking up in the winter. No, what I missed was the sense of community that one can only describe as “Brandeis social justice.” Because it’s not something that we do to create a sense of community for social events in Waltham or Boston, but also something that we create for each other here, every day.

It’s something that begins to envelop prospective students the minute they come for a tour, and something we all feel throughout our time here. And while I made wonderful friends while I was abroad, and felt a sense of community that was special at that time in my life, nothing was or will ever be able to replace what we have with one another here at Brandeis. The support we give to one another, the benefits we afford each other and the pride we take in one another…these are all things that we came to learn best during our years here.

And now this time has come to an end, and it’s time for us all to move to our next chapters in life. But what a ride it was! We handled it as best we could, and I must say, I think we absolutely succeeded. I could say that I believe that the degrees we receive today are a testament to our accomplishments. Except they aren’t. They are an affirmation of what we already know: we, us, here right now, we are our own testament. We are all we need. Look to the people sitting beside you today, and take pride in the people they are, take pride in yourselves. Let us take pride in who we have all become. We have become the heroes of our own stories, masters of our own destinies, if only for a little while. That is what our degrees are a testament to: that we will never give up, and that the drive and success we found here at Brandeis will follow us our whole lives through.

So today as we strike the next notes in our symphonies, remember what Brandeis taught us: be fearless, take risks, dare to dream, dare to strive for something more. Reach the crescendo like we did every day here. Continue to be Brandeisian in every moment of your lives, lending hands to the world and spreading the values that were instilled in us here. We’re pretty stubborn, I think we’ll make it work.

I am inspired by every one of you every day, and look forward to seeing the amazing things that you all, that we all, accomplish. Congratulations, class of 2014!! We are heroes. We did it!!

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.

Blank-Page Syndrome

Even on the toughest days when writing seems like it should be the furthest thing from my mind I still find a way to put something down on paper. It’s not that I’m fleeced into thinking that everything I write will be groundbreaking, but that the simple act of writing helps me to feel productive. Despite the fact that it may seem counterintuitive to feel productive when one forces oneself to put anything down on paper, the opposite is quite true. It rather feels like more of an accomplishment than anything, as one’s initial thought process might usually find such a task daunting in that moment. But even the dreaded blank-page syndrome can’t curtail the sense of productivity I feel when I see words—any words—on that page in front of me. Perhaps in the end, it’s simply that experience that encourages me to continue to write, even in my most off days.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.