Music startups aren’t dead — they’re just changing

For those of us who work in digital music, this week has delivered a nasty one-two punch to the gut. First David Pakman (eMusic, N2K, MyPlay) posted the text of his testimony during US Congressional hearings on his blog.  It focused on how prohibitively expensive it is to license music from record labels. Then  Peter Kafka, one of the best writers at All Things D,  was incredulous that anyone would even bother starting something new in the music space at all.

I’d argue that both of these very smart guys are obsessed with the wrong problem and, on this topic at least, they are as stuck in the past as major labels are.

They both make the mistake of focusing primarily on start-up business models that revolve almost exclusively on getting publishing or performance rights to stream or download music. And by getting tangled up in that mess, they miss the forest for the trees.  They’ve forgotten that the music industry isn’t — and has never been — just about recorded music.  Sure that part is hard and it’s been shrinking for the last decade, but that aspect is only a part of the bigger picture.

Don’t believe me?  Here are some forward-thinking companies who are wisely focusing on other parts of the music world and not just whining about the high cost of licensing music. So what are they doing right?

They focus on live music

Live music revenues have eclipsed recorded music revenues and while a lot of that money is flowing through LiveNation (s LYV) or AEG, both of those companies are ripe for disruption. Live experiences are hard to pirate and commoditize. As the money drained out of recorded music sales, money spend on music has moved products and services that are harder to mass produce and offer intimate access to their favorite musicians.  And fans are willing to pay for these experiences, in stark contrast to the smaller segment who are willing to paying for downloads or subscription music services.

This is what start-ups like SongKick and BandsInTown understand as they build communities and tools for live music.

They are making promotion and discovery better for artists

The truth is that 90 percent of musicians don’t have a piracy problem, they have an obscurity problem. The people who should love their music just don’t know it exists. The old channels of videos and radio are still there, but the internet exploded everything and diffused attention. In many ways it’s harder than ever for artists and fans to connect. While Peter scoffs at the value of a start-up based on bands without music contracts, it’s where the future Radioheads and Beyonces are going to come from. And plenty of new and old artists who DO have label deals also need these services and will pay for them.

This is what Soundcloud (CEO Alex Ljung pictured) is doing by proving easy-to-use tools for artists who want their music to be heard by more people in more places. Or WebDoc, which creates a platform for artists and their fans to collaborate and share creative projects.  Or The Hype Machine, which has harnessed the power of music blogs to amplify discovery of new music. This is also the area that my old company,, SHOULD be pivoting toward…but don’t get me started on that.

The opportunity to partner with brands here is also amazing. It’s also a place where you can get the labels to work with you instead of sending their shark-like lawyers to negotiate with you.

They are making the whole ecosystem better

The value of music for fans isn’t just listening to it.  It’s about the connections you make with other fans and to the artists themselves. Or by disrupting the number of middlemen who take a part of each dollar an artist gets from fans. Fans want to pay artists, particularly when they understand that the artist gets a larger piece of the pie than they did with the old-school record labels.

This is what Ian Rogers has been preaching forever as TopSpin pioneered the direct-to-fan platform. Or what Benji Rogers is doing with his alternative funding platform for artists, PledgeMusic. Or what Bandcamp does when they create a better deal for artists by letting them sell direct to fans.

They created simpler and more intimate services

While the first generation of services that Pakman and his generation ran were based on the size of the catalogs they offered and on trying to be all things to all users, a music services doesn’t have to be massive and complicated to be valuable.   This is what Hannah Donovan and Matt Ogle, formerly at, are doing with This Is My Jam, which you an think of as Instagram (s FB) for music. Watch them closely.

They move their focus to mobile

Mobile phones are already the most personal technology we own these and so they have already become central to many people’s music listing experiences. The opportunities to expand that to other music-centric features like with ticketing, new music discovery, fan/artist interactions are all fantastic. Location and hyper-local services around music are also untapped. Improving and enhancing music playback of music we already own is also under-developed as an opportunity.  Apps have become a new medium for artists like Bjork and Brian Eno and there is more room for innovation here, even as it gets even more crowded.

This is what Mobile Roadie recognizes as they build a mobile-first platform for artists who want to want to reach their fans directly.

They build B2B services around the music

Every label and artist manager, large and small, is struggling to understand audiences and to collect data around how music is being used. And it’s not just labels who want this data. Brands and advertisers want it too. This is where Next Big Sound and MusicMetric live, providing important analytics and tools to create “actionable intelligence” in the fragmented music world.  The Echonest, meanwhile, is also building data-driven services and commercial APIs to help small and big companies to make their music products with data, play listing, and recommendations.

And that’s not all

Here are other areas that haven’t really been touched yet:

Sync rights

     – the licensing of music to TV, games, advertising and film  is one of the most lucrative parts of the recorded music business.  Creating a better marketplace for sync rights could make it even more valuable, particularly if you can make it faster and simpler for companies to do it.


     The company that really fixes the “merch-table” for bands and creates the Threadless or the


     for music fans could clean-up.  TopSpin and BandCamp are doing this now too.

Royalties and payments to artists

      The accounting system that underlies the publishing and performance rights is one of the most rotten and complicated things about the industry. It’s only getting worse as are more digital products and services are created. A few companies like

Kobalt Music

    are trying to start again from scratch.  A music start-up built on transparency, great analytics and paying artists faster and more fairly would be the most disruptive music business ever.

Start-ups create the most value when they carve out new business models and transform the way we used to do things.  They are less valuable (and thus less viable) when they just wringing the last drop of money out of old models.  The truly great ones transform industries and build new opportunities, growing the market for everyone.

Kafka and Pakman are right about one thing:  trying to licensing music is hard and the corpses of many start-ups litter are littering the battlefield.  So be smart and don’t play on that field.  Move to a new one or make your own field.

Matthew Hawn is product development and strategy consultant based in London, and previously VP of product at