Music-related Startups of 2011
I wrote this piece about various music startups in June 2011 for TechCrunch. Since August 2011, I joined @rexly to work on their operations and will eventually turn into an advisor to the company.
Many years ago, as an avid Knight Rider fan, I would use a handheld cassette recorder to record the audio portion of the show so I could hear it on road trips. Pretty bizarre, yes, but we didn’t have a VCR. I’d do the same when a popular new song came on the radio, waiting patiently to hit “record” and write the music to cassette tape. Over time, this turned into copying CDs, downloading music, burning CDs, uploading .wav files into iTunes, swapping hard drives.
Only until recently, music was tied to the medium, but along the way, one impulse has not only persisted, but grown in strength: As social animals, we want to discover and share music, and external forces are working in concert to unbundle all types of media. These forces helped produce services like Grooveshark and Rdio, new incarnations of the Rhapsody subscription model, where users pay monthly fees to access catalogs and additional fees to carry that music with them. In parallel, services like Shazam and SoundHound help us identify music we hear, and Instant.fm,Last.fm, and 8tracks help us create new playlists and keep track of what we listen to over time.
In 2011, these primal urges have roared to life, producing a flurry of services aimed at helping us discover, share, and network around music experiences. A few have built on the “following/follower” model, such as SoundCloud, which allows users to capture and share a variety of sounds (not limited to music), and SoundTracking, which allows users to broadcast the songs they’re currently listening to. A new service, Rexly, adds a recommendation layer on top of iTunes accounts, built on the intuition that we don’t discover music we like via the wisdom of the crowd, but rather through a small group of influential friends we admire. All of these companies are interesting in the sense that they create a dedicated channel for us to discover, share, and build relationships around music online.
Then there’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room: Facebook. The current rumor is that the largest social network will shortly launch a new offering integrated with Spotify that gives users access to a massive song catalog, with the added sweetener that Facebook already has captured information around what musicians we “like,” giving it an opportunity to provide targeted add-on services alongside our favorite tracks. With Sean Parker advising Spotify, it seems as if his presence alone will make this happen on a massive scale.
It’s fitting that all of this activity is bubbling up the year Pandora Radio is set to IPO. Back in 2000, I first heard about the Music Genome Project in Berkeley, which eventually turned into Pandora Media. Over the next decade, Pandora survived a battery of legal disputes and tricky fundraising rounds to eventually emerge as the dominant Internet radio station and become a household name. Pandora also pioneered many of the trends fueling new startups today, many that we may take for granted, such as discovering new music (“serendipity”), listening on the go (“mobility”), and getting information that we like (“personalization”). Every new service that launches today, in all categories, not just music, touts these principles, so we should take a moment and commend Pandora for blazing that trail.
In the surge of new music services, I believe one is fundamentally different, brilliantly designed, potentially groundbreaking, and could lead to entirely new trends in social music: Turntable.fm (and I am not alone). Users on this new site bounce around different “rooms” in the Turntable building, each room hosted by different DJs who select what tracks will play next (the “curators”) and the audience, which can vote if they like the song or not (the “crowd”) and chat with others in the room. It’s only a matter of time before a company hires a new intern or finds an investor through Turntable. The service is also noteworthy because of the manner in which it launched, metering access only through Facebook friend connections, which gives them a viral loop and theoretically helps manage growth, though there’s been so much demand for Turntable.fm, especially during peak hours, that their servers are working to catch up.
Finally, there are two aspects to the site that warrant attention. First, the mobile app possibilities are intriguing, such as listening to streams of certain rooms while on the go (or in the car), or using the curator-vote model in concert settings or clubs, to let the crowd vote on what records to spin. Second, the concept of moving in and out of “spaces” within the Turntable.fm building is fascinating, a digitization of real life, where the possibilities are literally infinite. While Pandora rests in the background of many browsers around the world, it’s possible that Turntable’s features bring online music-sharing more to the foreground, and it seems it is already starting to do just that.
In the evolution to help users discover and share music online, pistons are firing on all cylinders, and I believe we’ll continue to see new concepts emerge. While it’s essential for many of us to listen to music while we’re plugged in at our desks, what about the offline world of small shows, concert halls, and music festivals? Isn’t music essentially best experienced live, in the moment, with friends, loved ones, and complete strangers?
While musicians can leverage these new channels to increase their reach, they’ll need ticket sales for live events and a bit of merchandising to make real money. Much in the same way that Groupon is trying to solve a very valuable online-to-offline problem, there’s a similar opportunity in the music and entertainment space. We may all discover new music or reconnect with an old favorite by using SoundTracking, Turntable.fm, or Pandora, and we may even pay for the right to carry those particular tunes with us on the go, but what will drive us into the bars and concert halls to actually see something live, to connect us to the real world? A few services are trying, though it’s full of incumbent landmines: Songkick launched their mobile app this week, which crawls your song library for artists and helps you figure out where and when they are performing live, GigLocator allows users to follow their favorite artists and be notified of upcoming gigs, and Sonic Living helps aggregate events from various networks to help drive concert discovery.
Both services are doing something admirable: trying to push us offline, away from our desks, and out the door so that we actually experience music in-person, with other real people, disconnected from routines of everyday life for a few hours. However, as hardened concert-going fans know all to well, the logistics and add-ons associated with consuming live music are often costly and just plain annoying. That’s because venue owners, artists, and ticket brokers have a stranglehold on the content and distribution, and once they have the consumer’s dollars in hand, their incentives to make sure they earn those dollars falls dramatically.
For many, live music events can be religious experiences, but they’re often watered down by “convenience” fees, crowded venues, jacked-up concession prices, questionable set lists, and poor acoustics. The audience deserves more, and they may now have the tools to demand better. This is the way it is today, but it doesn’t need to remain this way. Perhaps on the back of all of our social data and tastes for music, as well as all of these new tools, we’re finally at a point where the online music world can converge with the offline. The future of concerts and musician-audience interactions could change in radical ways, and it could be the surge of new online music-sharing services today that will help shape how we experience music in the real, offline world. Imagine that.