Article and interview by Jade Shames
I got on Skype and called my contact. His name is Ben Westermann-Clark, the VP of Public Relations at Grooveshark's head office in Gainesville, Florida.
While I'm writing this article, I'm listening to a band called Masterface. They're a local band from Brooklyn that Grooveshark recommended for me after I put on something like Animal Collective and then hit the “Radio” button.
For those that have never been to the site: Grooveshark is a website that lets you stream almost any song for free. You can make playlists, and even do what Pandora offers with the Radio button, which takes what you already have queued up in your playlist and starts adding songs to it that Grooveshark things you might like.
But there are some key differences between Grooveshark and Pandora:
See, Masterface is unsigned and barely even has an internet presence. There is no reason I would have heard of them except through maybe a mutual friend, or I happen to be at a bar where they were performing.
What happened is that Masterface uploaded their album to Grooveshark, some guy at the office in Florida took the time to listen to it, and then categorize it. Perhaps, something like [sounds like: Animal Collective, The Grand National, etc.]. I listened to Masterface's album, Freedom Tower, everyday for maybe a month. I'm listening to it again today as a tribute to a great find.
We fumbled through some technical difficulties, but as soon as Ben and I started talking, there was this somewhat bizarre comfort in our conversation. I think it was because I was expecting a suit and tie, middle-aged, spin doctor. No. It was some guy in his mid-twenties…like me.
I asked him how Grooveshark was started…
Ben: It was about four years ago. Sam Tarantino [the founder and CEO] was on his way to donate plasma, right here in Gainesville. You know, just like broke college kids…now we're just broke professionals.
I gave him a courtesy laugh.
Ben: And he drove by this record store that said “Buy, Sell, Trade CD's.” It was like our last great record store. And he said, “that's a great business model. I can't believe that works. I wonder why we can't do something like that for digital music.” You know, you've got all those kids sharing music out there, why not include them in the value chain and make something cool and legal out of it.
Pay attention to the word legal, here. We'll get into the problem with that a bit later.
Ben: So, the first iteration of Grooveshark was actually a music download store – a peer to peer network where you would be online and you would have your songs up from your computer and I would be online and if I liked one of your songs I could pay 99 cents and most of it would go to the label just like iTunes or Amazon, but then part of it would go to you. So, you would actually get a cut for having the music, promoting the music, and being involved in this marketplace. Now, after a while, we realized that music downloading, while it's awesome…streaming was the way of the future. People wanted to listen to music without hassle. And so, we tried to figure out a way to give people the music that they love without piracy.
Are you trying to parallel the Spotify business model?
Ben: Yeah, Spotify has a kind of similar function where there big thing is they let you stream songs to your computer for free. And we both understand that in this age where we all have high-speed internet and 3G smart phones, the physical file doesn't really matter – people just want the music. And if you can stream it, you can actually have a way bigger catalog than you could ever have downloading things.
The way that Spotify and Grooveshark are parallel is in the sense that we're both looking to the future of the music industry and we're, I guess, the two big companies really pushing the streaming service as the way of the future of the music industry. Any differences are sort of user experience related.
Right, but there is a logistical difference involving the law in Europe versus the law in the US with regards to music rights. I believe that the music rights in the US are held by the labels instead of blanket companies like they do in Europe. So, it must be hard for you to get the rights to play your songs.
Ben: Well, it varies from country to country. In the US you see a lot of user-sourced content, and so basically all of the music that's on Grooveshark comes from users going to the site and people uploading their tunes to Grooveshark. It's exactly the same thing with YouTube, where people just upload their videos and share them; or like Flickr for photographs. So, in the US that's sort of Grooveshark's strength. Because people upload their own songs, you can get a much larger catalog and much more diverse collection that you could ever get any other way.
As I write this, I go to Grooveshark and type “Prince” into the search engine. A slew of songs appear for me to choose from and play at my command via the internet – a thing Prince himself called passé. I'm now listening to When Doves Cry.
There is no fucking way Prince uploaded his music to Grooveshark.
I ask Ben about this citing Prince as my example, but you can pick any popular artist. I can even play Metallica on here – one of the first bands to actually go to court over free online music.
Ben explains that just a while back they launched their new DMCA page, which addresses take down requests. Basically, it's the same way YouTube does it. If someone contacts Grooveshark and says, “What the hell? My album is on your site!” but before taking anything down, Grooveshark actually tries to pay them for it.
The latest big company they struck a deal with was EMI. Ben talked about how Grooveshark even had background themes that were in the style of different bands they were trying to promote.
Ben: The Belle & Sabastian [theme] was one of my favorites…When Write About Love came out, we had this awesome theme up that targeted different users and allowed you to hear Belle & Sabastian songs, see their videos, and we could drive them to whatever site Belle & Sabastian wanted them to go to. We've done dozens of these with different artists [with the artist's full support].
This was something that had to develop over time. When Grooveshark first started, Ben explains, they were just trying to promote it.
Ben: As the site becomes more and more popular…we have more options to actually promote bands. If someone comes to us with a guitar and a four some demo and says, “I want people who like alt-country to listen to my music out there,” we can say, “sure.” We can target an audience down to a state, a country, what they're listening habits are, and the people that are most likely going to be a big fan of yours.
This is all possible through that Radio feature I mentioned earlier.
Is the Radio feature putting some fire under Pandora
Ben: Yeah, well, Pandora does what they do well. If you want to throw something on in the background, they're fucking awesome at that. But the difference comes with what we were just talking about. If someone puts on an alt-country station, that's a perfect opportunity for us to be like, “Hey, check out this guy we're working with that has a new EP.” And then we can see what the fan reaction is. So, yeah, we can do both of those things.
People are always talking about how great the internet has been to the music industry – how much it's opened it up to new indie bands. And that's true, but approaching that as a band, it can be overwhelming! You're left saying, OK, what do I do? And you can make a Myspace, but what do you do next? How much is that really going push you in the direction where you can support yourself in your music?
As much as this seemingly altruistic act of promoting unheard bands is great for the bands, it's also great for Grooveshark. With over a million viewers every month and climbing, Ben claims that every month has been that “hockey stick growth that every website hopes for.”
In addition, Grooveshark was listed on Google Zeitgeist for 2010 – the word, “Grooveshark” was the 8th fastest rising searched word in the US.
Ben: Right in front of “Facebook,” and right behind “Glee”.
OK, so then what's the deal with Apple? No matter how much Grooveshark grows, Apple still won't cooperate with them. There are no Grooveshark apps, and the site is completely incompatible with an iPhone or iPad. Just search for “Grooveshark Apple” and you'll find an array of WTF's.
Ben: In 2009, we launched an app. There was a few months of going back and forth, but finally Apple approved of it…we were in the app store for about 5 days. Then sometime in early 2010, Apple gave us notice that it was pulled.
Apple received a letter of complaint from Universal Music Group UK, and, not wanting to get involved in the ongoing bickering between music sites and label giants, Apple just pulled it. End of story…well, sort of.
Now that jailbreaking iPhones have been de-illegalized, Grooveshark can proudly say that their app is available for any jailbroken users.
Ben: It's super slick, super nice. We'd love to get it back into the app store, but as far as Apple's approval…your guess is as good as mine. They're pretty secretive.
Well, all of this sounds great, but we've been through this before. Sites like Napster and Limewire let us expand our music catalogue a hundred fold for free, and they were either shut down or forced to charge. So, I had to ask, are you just leading us in with this promise of free music for all only to charge us in the near future?
Ben: You got to walk the line. It's a matter of what you can provide for your users and what your users want out of your site. What they're willing to pay for, and what you feel comfortable charging for. Because if you go too far one way or the other, there goes your business model, or there go your users. You mentioned Spotify earlier…there was a Spotify's exec [Sean Parker] that said something like, “We get them in for free, and then we've got them by the balls.”
This was referring to the fact that Spotify's premium features require a paid subscription.
Ben: The whole point of it is to compete with piracy. It's to get people out of the illegal networks. It's so that the artist and the label can make money off digital music. And for that, we really feel like it has to be free. We charge for mobel apps, we charge for people who want their libraries on the go (into other devices, cars, etc.), but the basic concept of Grooveshark we have to keep free. Otherwise, you know, it's the wild wild west of the internet. People will just go to another site where they can get what they want quicker and freer. It's very important for us to stay free on the web.
Now, one thing about something that separates Grooveshark from sites similar…When the site is down, it seems that it's never the fault of Grooveshark, it's always the Grooveshark Panda, Pickles, who causes technical difficulties.
Those that have gone to Grooveshark during period where the site is down will know what I'm talking about. There is a picture of a Panda chewing on some wires, and a brief description of how Pickles got loose again.
Ben: Yeah, we've had some Animal Rights groups on us for keeping him in the office.
But it's not Pickles himself that I'm curious about. It's the overall ambience of the site as a humorous, youthful, fun project done by a bunch of kids. This is opposite of sites like Last FM or Pandora. Grooveshark doesn't seem to care about looking professional; they care more about having fun.
Ben: If it were a different industry or a company with a different set of ideals, people might think that Pickles was some kind of branding tactic. Or trying to be funny to distract you from the fact that they're raising the price of a can of coke…[At Grooveshark] we're all young, we're all working really hard, making sacrifices trying to make Grooveshark work, but we're also having fun with it.
It's an exciting time. I think that 2011 is the year for digital music.
We talked about how chaotic the last ten years have been in terms of media online, and how just now are we starting to figure out how to make it work.
My last question to Ben was, “Do you feel like you're helping the music industry? What's Grooveshark's part?”
Ben: If we weren't doing things to help bands and labels, we couldn't have even made it this far. We've worked hard. We've done everything we can to help promote bands, and to help music enter the digital era. I mean, we make less than first year teachers.
And the users, they're not trying to take money away from artists, they're just really big fans. And I think Grooveshark can serve as the conduit to help and promote these bands and get them compensated for their work.
The important thing that Universal may have missed when they wrote that letter of complaint to Apple is that you can't download songs on Grooveshark, you can only stream them. If you want the album, go out and buy it, or if you really like a band, you can still buy a ticket for their show. And the Grooveshark model is far from perfect. For instance, like mentioned earlier, if someone wants their album taken off the site, and Grooveshark can't pay them for it, then it's taken off. A case in point, you can't listen to any Beatles music on Grooveshark. So, some artists just don't want to get on the boat.
But the Grooveshark model, which is just like the incredibly successful YouTube model, is what the kids are doing. This is the next generation of the music industry, whether we like it or not.