Marc Brown - Byta
Marc Brown is the founder of Byta - a platform for sending and receiving digital music. It’s a distributed company spread across several continents, and provides a workhorse solution to a daily music industry need, built on Marc’s deep music industry and radio promotion background.
Marc is (or was, until recent global developments) a frequent speaker at music industry events worldwide on topics of artist empowerment, music industry education and the digital landscape. More than what we listen to, he’s interested in How We Listen.
Dubber Hi, I’m Andrew Dubber. I’m the director of Music Tech Fest, and this is the MTF Podcast. A recurring theme in my inbox is new music tech start-ups. I get a lot of mail from people with ideas for new services, new products, new platforms, and new formats. New ways of collaborating and composing music. New ways of creating, performing, or producing music. New ways of distributing music. New ways of promoting music. New ways of identifying, tracking, and monetising music. A lot of new ways of experiencing music.
Now, one thing I hadn’t expected, and perhaps naively, was new ways of moving music files from one computer to another computer. You would think in the decades since FTP, Gopher, email attachments, not to mention more recent developments like WeTransfer, YouSendIt, Google Drive, Dropbox, and not forgetting, for instance, SoundCloud, that if I have a music file on my computer and I want you to be able to listen to it on your computer, then that’s not really a problem that requires a new solution.
But here are three things that surprised me. One, that use case was far from solved, especially within the context of professional music creation. Two, that when you approach the problem from that perspective, there are some really simple and obvious things that are just missing from most other things you might use on a day-to-day basis. And three, that the creator of a music tech start-up like this, that, let’s be fair, isn’t sexy or futuristic like, say, VR concerts, social blockchain generative music games, or wearable drum machines, would have so much to say that’s interesting and compelling about so many things that I think are important, like, for instance, education, welfare, cultural change in the music business, and optimism.
And, of course, I wouldn’t be telling you this stuff if I hadn’t been wrong in my assumptions and delighted to be corrected. So, from a fake tropical island paradise on a Zoom background in Stockholm, this is Marc Brown of Byta. Enjoy.
Dubber Marc Brown, thanks so much for joining us for the MTF Podcast today. How are you doing?
Marc Good, thanks for having me.
Dubber You’re in a very lush, tropical environment, I see. Is that a fake background, I’m guessing?
Marc Oh yeah. The standard Zoom background.
Dubber So where do we find you today?
Marc I’m in Hagastaden, which is a part of Stockholm outside of the main islands of Stockholm, Sweden.
Dubber Right. But that is not a Swedish accent I’m detecting.
Marc No, correct. I’m Canadian, even though most people think I’m American. But before that, I lived in Canada up until I was about 20/21, and then I moved to England. Lived there for 18 years before I moved to Stockholm.
Dubber Right, okay. So what set you on that path?
Marc Thinking back to the start, getting here? Let me see. Oh shit. What I do now, I run a service for sending and receiving digital audio.
Dubber We’ll come to that, for sure.
Marc Yeah, exactly. But the thing is, back when I started, there was no digital audio, really. So back in the mid ‘90s, it was all analogue. And I was living in Canada on the east coast. I don’t know if you know a place called Halifax? And there was a massive explosion there, I don’t know, god, 80 years ago, and it blew up half of the harbour and stuff.
So I was living outside of Halifax and going to school. And in Halifax in the mid ‘90s, there were loads of indie bands. It was called ‘the next Seattle’, really. And so I started going in from the small university and going to see loads of bands play.
Dubber For instance?
Marc Oh, tonnes of them were signed to Sub Pop. Like Sloan, Jaill, Eric’s Trip. If you know mid ‘90s, you’ll know that a lot of them signed to Sub Pop. Sloan signed to Geffen.
And I was going into this festival. It was called the Halifax Pop Explosion, which was named after this famous explosion.
Dubber Right. See, that was the explosion that I was thinking of, not knowing the history of Halifax.
Marc Yeah, but that’s it. You’re right on the money. And, again, it was in the ‘90s, and the internet was still really new. Everything was done on those huge Sun Microsystem computers. And so this university had pretty good internet at that time, and so I started communicating with people on a mailing list, and I met this woman who was hooked up with those bands, one of the record labels there. And I hated university, I had already dropped out of one already, and I was really interested in music. And I thought “Well, what am I going to do?” when this woman introduced me to someone who ran this label called Murder Records. And ‘murder’, it’s not a reference to death, it’s a reference to a group of crows. So if you have a bunch of crows, you call it a murder of crows, and that’s what the logo is.
And she introduced me to this guy named Colin, and I went in and I met up with him. He said “Oh, well, you can come volunteer.”, and I’m like “Okay, that sounds good.”. And I was young enough, I think I was probably only 19 still, that I dropped out of university to go volunteer at a record company.
And I started doing that, and it was great, and I got to do as much as I could. I just took on more and more work, but I had no money. So Colin said to me “Okay, well, I’ve got you a job touring with bands in the U.S. as a tour manager.”. So I literally left Halifax, flew to Memphis, and went on tour with this band called the Grifters who had just been signed. And I toured all over the U.S., and then I took over the running of the Pop Explosion. The festival sort of fell apart, and we renamed it, and I ran a festival. But, again, I wasn’t making enough money to survive. We weren’t, really. So the label folded.
And I had just been to Midem, which is a conference in Cannes, or it used to be. I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen again. But back, again, though, when people needed to actually meet in one place to discuss how physical records were going to be distributed all over the world.
And then I went to London for a couple days after that, and I thought “I quite like London.”. So I was young enough and dumb enough to think “Oh, I’m just going to move from Halifax to London.”. And I did that, and I worked at a record distributor again. Physical product. And then I kept telling people in the warehouse “Look, I don’t want to work in this warehouse. I’m going to get a job at a record company.”, and they’re like “You’re full of shit. You’re never going to get a job at a record company.”. And then, nine months later, I got a job in the A&R department at Creation Records, which was started by Alan McGee, and he signed…
Marc Oasis. Yeah, correct. Primal Scream, Kevin Rowland, Ivor Cutler. He did a William Shatner record on the…
Dubber For which we’re all very grateful.
Marc Yeah, exactly. Tonnes of Super Furry Animals, Teenage Fanclub. And I worked there for about a year, and then Sony bought the rest of them, and then I went back to the old warehouse.
Then he called me up, Alan McGee, and said “Hey, do you want to be my PA?”, and I’m like “Yeah, sure. I’ve never been a PA before, but how hard can that be?”. And I was actually a really shitty PA, sadly. So he got me to do what you call radio plugging, which I had no idea what that was.
And so it’s the same as press, same as doing TV, where you go into radio stations and you sit… The difference with press is, in radio in the UK, you sit there in front of someone and you put a record on, and you both have to listen to it together in what’s called a plugging appointment and look nervously at each other. So you get really good at listening to music, in their case, they maybe don’t like, or in my case that I know really well but don’t want to look at them, and you basically try to convince them to play your records. And sometimes it goes well, sometimes it doesn’t.
But, again, back then it was still all CDs. And that’s where the idea for Byta came up, that everybody started using YouSendIt links and this, that, and the other thing. But it was just so weird doing those meetings, especially considering, sitting here, that you live somewhere, I live somewhere, we’re not together. Everything’s totally distributed these days. But even thinking 6/7 years ago, there’s been a radical change in that way. And so I was a radio plugger for 14 years, maybe, and then I fell into this idea for Byta, basically.
Dubber Right. So this seems like a good, opportune moment. What’s Byta?
Marc So Byta is a platform for sending and receiving digital audio in a clean and simple way. So anybody who works with music or with audio has to either send or receive, in some combination, digital audio files and streams. And so, as I said, the first iteration was your YouSendIt links, and then Dropbox and WeTransfer. And everybody knows how those work. And they’re not built for music, they’re built to send your Excel files or your Word files. And they’re really good at that, but they’re not built for music. And then there’s another category, which is your artist streaming services. SoundCloud, Bandcamp. Pretty good at sending streams, very bad audio quality, no security. And then the category that a lot of people don’t know about are these watermark promo services, which is what big major labels use. They watermark the content, DRM, basically, to ensure that it doesn’t get into the wrong hands, with varying degrees of success.
And I what I realised is, when I was a radio plugger and when I talked to loads of other people, they’re basically sending all these different kinds of links around all the time because no one had ever built one platform to send a receive digital audio the way they want to. So instead of sending just a file via Dropbox and a stream via SoundCloud and a watermark via another service, with Byta, you can do all of those within one platform.
That reference to a Dropbox link and a private SoundCloud link is probably still the accepted way of sharing music in radio promotion in the UK. So these people are sending around two links. It’s a very difficult way to listen to music, really.
Dubber Right. So when you say they’re sending around two links, they’re doing one, i.e. the SoundCloud private share, so that you can hear what it sounds like, and the Dropbox link so that you’ve got something that you can actually use in broadcast?
Marc Exactly. And a WAV file, in that case.
Dubber Right, I’m with you.
Marc And listening to, say, a file on your phone or whatever, it’s a nightmare. But it just goes to show how deeply ingrained these inefficiencies are. And if you have to listen to music all day, the amount of time that’s lost… So that’s the problem we’re solving. Trying to make it easier for people who need to send music to send it, and for people who need to listen to it, to make it easier to listen to. Because if you can’t hear something, there’s no chance of success.
Dubber Right. Essentially a B2B tool. It’s not a consumer-facing product?
Marc But the thing is, if you’re an amateur musician, is that a B2B product? That’s a very good question. We get asked that a lot. We just think of it as something that is for the music ecosystem. So if you’re involved in the ecosystem in any way, shape, or form, if you’re just an artist who’s working with their friends, if you make podcasts, you could use it for that. But there’s no current consumer-facing mechanism, correct.
Dubber Right. And this is not just you. This is not just an idea that you had and you learned a bit of code and you threw it together. Tell me the story of how Byta came about.
Marc That’s another interesting one. So I’m living in London. I go to a friend. He’s not really that interested. I meet another guy. He hooks me up with two people, this woman named Jen and this guy named Pete, and we just start meeting up. And I work from home. Well, all three of us work from home. So we meet in a coffee shop and we talk about it, and then we’re like “Okay, let’s build this thing.”. So we started building it, and that’s how we started as a distributed team. Everybody liked working from home, and it was just the way it was.
And so we did that, and we built a minimum viable product, launched, and just keep building it. And building it that way, working on the side. This was 2015, I think we launched. It’s a long time ago. But we couldn’t really work on it full-time.
And then I moved to Sweden in… No, what happened was Jen said “Oh, I’m moving to Australia.”, and I said “This is the end of the company. How can we work so far from each other?”. No problem whatsoever. It was easy. So I’m like “Well, if she’s leaving, I’m moving…”, it was after Brexit, I’m like “I’m moving to Sweden. I don’t want to live in London anymore.”. So then we were a fully distributed team. Three people, three different countries. And then we took on a couple other people to help us with a bit of marketing, and they were only doing that part-time.
And then we decided “Oh, okay. Well, there is a business here, but we need…”. As you know, streaming audio’s tough, and it takes some resources. So we decided that we needed to find some money. And no one likes to invest in music tech because it’s a bottomless bit.
Dubber I’ve heard that.
Marc I could tell by your laugh, you know what I’m talking about. So long story short, we ended up trying a couple things, but then we raised a seed round about four months ago via a Canadian fund which is called the Canada Media Fund, along with them and some private investors. And so we’ve grown from those three people now to eight or nine people in four or five different countries, I think. So that’s how we ended up where we are today, really.
Dubber Right. Let me tell you the thing that I find really cool and interesting about that story, is it flies in the face of the conventional wisdom about the tech start-up scene. There’s this idea that you have to abandon everything else that you do, move into this incubator environment, and basically throw your entire life, your entire work, and all of your money into this one thing, get millions of investment, all the rest of it. You did this part-time, you built it up, it was distributed, you met in coffee shops. Essentially, you tinkered with it for five years until you got to the point where you went “You know what? This is ready for investment.”, and I think that’s a really interesting lesson.
Marc Well, and I agree, but, as you definitely know, statistically, start-ups have a higher chance of success with older founders. So I’m 45. I think I’m probably two years older than I should be, or whatever.
But you are correct. And I think if you look at a counterpoint, like a company like SoundCloud, they’re very well known, and on the surface it’s a very successful business, but they drown themselves in venture capital. And so I appreciate you saying that that’s the most interesting part of the story because I think I’m quite interested in counter-narratives, and I’m not really interested in the idea that everybody does it a certain way. And I think if we had taken on some investment, we’d be dead already.
If someone comes to me and they say, because I’ve worked in music my whole life, “How do I become successful?”, I think back to this woman when I lived in Halifax. She said “I really need a manager.”, and I said “Well, why do you need a manager?”. And she’s like “Well, I don’t know what I’m doing.”, and I’m like “Well, you need to learn yourself how to do things before you can take on someone else and make sure they’re doing what you need them to do.”. And so I thought “If that would be the advice I’d give to an artist, that you need to do it yourself first, how can I go out and look for millions in investment, or whatever, before I’ve even started?”.
Dubber Right. And so the other side of this is not just that you went with a counter-narrative in terms of how you run a start-up, but you went out and you spent 20 years learning about the music industry before you started a music tech company.
Marc Yeah. Of course, that wasn’t the plan.
Dubber Would you recommend it?
Marc Starting a music tech company?
Dubber No. Would you recommend starting a music tech company only after having spent 20 years in the music industry?
Marc I like having insider knowledge. It’s clear in this business that people have never seen the opportunity, so insider knowledge is helpful. I’ve also worked in the art world for a bit, and I’ve had various different jobs within the music business, so I’m quite familiar with the unfamiliar in the sense that I’m used to working in environments where I don’t know what’s happening.
And tech, specifically building a product… So some knowledge is good, but then not having certain knowledge is also good. So I don’t know. You need to know something before you start a tech company, but knowing everything is definitely not a requirement.
Dubber Right. So what was the hard, unexpected problem you encountered? Because there must have been one.
Marc You need to narrow it down, because, as you know, and I’m sure tonnes of your guests know, this shit is brutal. If you work as a consultant, or in any sort of way, or on a contract basis, you do X amount of work and you get paid. With this, you do loads of work and you don’t see any results. And that doesn’t mean you’re not making any progress, but…
Maybe that would be my answer, that the overarching way of working is a lot different, but I think that’s also the most rewarding thing. That you’re working in an environment where you’re working with people, you’re all on the same page. And that’s very different than the music business because in the music business it’s very decentralised. There’s loads of different players that contribute to success.
So I think that was the biggest challenge, was learning to measure progress maybe not necessarily on how much was accomplished. I find it hard to articulate, but you have to feel your way through it more because you might not see results, but you still know you’re on the right path, and I think that’s been the most challenging for me.
Dubber One of the things I like about what you guys are doing is that you have given thought to the fact that the way in which people listen is a variable. That there isn’t a uniformity of reception of music and consumption of music, and how people listen and why people listen and what they’re doing. Do you want to tell me a little bit about how you’ve approached this How We Listen side of what you do?
Marc Yeah. So Byta is, essentially, a tool to send and receive music. And when we started out, I spent a lot of time interviewing recipients. So I’d go to someone at Radio 1, at the BBC in the UK, and I’d say “Tell me about how you listen to music.”. One of the things that would come up a lot is “Oh, somebody sent me a WAV file. I can’t listen to a WAV file.”. And the metadata in WAV files, from a technical point of view, is completely different. So you import it into iTunes, the phone rings, you come back, you realise “I don’t remember which WAV it is.”. So, from the purely technical side, we’ve thought about “Different people in different sectors, groups of the music business, listen in different ways.”. They have different listening habits, and our product needs to reflect that.
But then also what’s come up is that we have this tool that people use to get the music to people, but if you don’t know who to send your music to, the tool is useless. And that’s the 20 years of knowledge. It’s ingrained in me “Well, this is how it works.”. That “I don’t need a manager. I know who I need to talk to.”, and all that kind of stuff.
And so about a year ago we were putting together some user interview questions, and we realised “Hey, this is actually way more interesting as a blog interview.”, like “How do you listen to music? Where do you find out about music?”. And we started to realise, if you read the press, everything is all algorithms. “Oh, okay. How does a 16 year old kid find out about music? Well, they could never possibly think about having any sort of analogue experience with music.”. And if you’re our age, I’m 45, “Well, I couldn’t possibly listen to music digitally.”. And so we found that that narrative is not only quite boring, it’s completely wrong. People experience music in very, very different ways.
And I think a perfect example is “What’s in my bag?”, that Amoeba Records video series, where people come into the store and they wander around and they listen to music, and then they pull records out and then they talk about it. That is an amazing way for someone like myself to watch and learn what my favourite artists like.
But then, at the same time, when I moved to Sweden, I didn’t have any of my records, so all my music discovery and listening was done via Spotify. So I’m pretty deep algorithm discovery. But then I use YouTube, and then I finally have my turntable again.
And so this interview series started last year, and we did a couple of them, and people seemed to really like them. And then themes would develop, and a good example of that is all these people started saying “Oh, I like listening to CDs in my car.”. So they’d be like “Okay, I love listening to Spotify.”. It’s like “Oh, CDs in your car. That is weird.”. So it’s this argument that still pressing CDs might be a good idea. But then you realise that perhaps this idea that I read that Spotify were working on, they call it the Car Thing, to do some research around cars and listening habits in cars, that there’s actually this… Radio. And I think, we talked about it previously, like Sirius or whatever, that there’s a whole market that hasn’t been dominated yet by these streaming services.
And so these interviews, the themes that came up, it started to teach us that there’s a lot of stuff that we don’t think about from a broad perspective about music discovery. And then we started to realise… Okay, I got asked to go to a couple conferences like A2IM in New York and MUTEK in Montreal and that Halifax Pop Explosion, I got invited back, to do panels where I moderate a panel and I have three random people, whoever is attending. And, say, the one I did in Halifax was a guy from an indie label in New York, the last music writer in Canada who works at a major newspaper, and a woman who does sync from New York, and we just talked about how they listen to music. And from an audience point of view, from an educational point of view, they hear how people who work in music… To learn to understand their experience of how people that they’re going to need to contact actually listen to music.
But the biggest thing that came out of that was that I think we were halfway into it and no one had mentioned a streaming service. No one. And these people listen to music 24 hours a day. And it shows that these, again, counter-narratives, that it’s not exactly how people think it is. And so we realised that there’s this big, whole education angle, and that’s what How We Listen is.
We’ve turned it into a microsite. We’re partnering with the Sled Island Festival in Calgary, Canada to help run their conference next year. Because we realised that, again, you’ve got this tool to share music with people, but if you don’t know who to share it with and you don’t know how the music business works, you’re missing a vital part. The knowledge is equally as important as the tool. And so that’s how this whole How We Listen thing developed.
Dubber Right. When you say you’re sending and receiving music, are we talking about individual tracks? Are we talking about collections of music? Are we talking about albums? Are we talking about playlists? What’s the unit of currency?
Marc Well, that’s the whole point. It depends. So in radio, you’d send a single to certain people, but then you’d send them an album later. And how you’d send that single would be different than how you send the album. But then if you work in sync, you send playlists. And then if you work in press, they generally don’t care about singles as much, so it would be all albums. So that’s the other problem, that people don’t really know… It’s underappreciated how nuanced it is. And so it really depends on what part of the business you work in, really.
Dubber Right. You mentioned… In fact, the word’s come up a few times, education, and it seems to be something that you’re interested in. Are you talking about industry education? Sharing how this all works to people who don’t necessarily have the 20 years plus of experience that you’ve got? Or is there another angle to it?
Marc Well, I think it’s most important, because a word that comes up a lot is ‘gatekeepers’, which makes me furious because I don’t really… The music business was built for hustlers, so you can find a way in…
Dubber For or by?
Marc Well, no, by, and most of them have disappeared. If you go back to the 40s and 50s… Thank god. But just pure determination pays off in the music business. And you just need to know, you need to have an understanding of the context. And so I’m big on the idea that people should be… Like in the tech world, and I’m really thankful for it, open-source is a big thing, but open-source knowledge is super important. So the idea that you can learn about things just by Googling it. Surfaces pretty good blog stuff. In the music business, it’s not like that. Most stuff is just purely for SEO. And so I want to make sure that there’s information out there that I think will help people.
But then, you mentioned industry stuff, there’s a lack of knowledge even within established players in the music business because you generally work from an apprentice point of view, so you pick up bad habits from your boss. Especially around digital audio. It’s unbelievable how little people know, because there’s a lack of quality knowledge about that, really. So the focus is on artists because I think they’re the ones who are missing what they need, and they need the most support, but I think everybody can learn from each other.
Dubber What do you wish people knew more? Is it about metadata? Is it about how files are moved around the internet? Is it about how people should secure their rights? What are we talking about here, exactly?
Marc Okay, so we’ll take it from a purely technical point of view. If you’re in touch with someone, you need to know that you probably shouldn’t send them a WAV file unless they need it. So there’s a very technical element that is missing from the smallest of artists to the largest record companies in the world. Things around security.
But then there’s also about “How do you go from being unknown to known?” is a massive problem, and everybody has a different view on it. So the idea of if you’re sending music to people, when do you send it to them? You don’t send it to them two weeks after it was on Spotify. So timelines are things that people don’t know a lot about.
You mentioned something like securing rights and all that kind of stuff. There is so much information about that, and I think pretty good information, and there’s so much dialogue about that. But I don’t know how much we could offer in that context. But I do think the people that we talk to end up offering a lot more about… It’s back to that music discovery thing. How do you build a team? Build a network? Find the people to work with? Because those are the questions I think a lot of smaller artists come up with. It’s like “What does a press person do? And when is it right to get a press person?”. And so our focus is more on the artist…
Dubber That seems like something that there isn’t a single answer to, that would be different from case-to-case.
Marc Yeah. And that, again, if you counter that to, say, in the tech world, code only does… It’s always in ones, it does what you tell it to, but there are loads of ways to build something. And the music business is the same. There are loads of different ways to do things.
I went to one conference, a day thing, and they were talking about how the British music business works. And I felt a real, big challenge is exactly what you’re saying. A lot of people want an answer. They think it’s very binary. That “If I do this, then this will happen.”. And that’s the first thing you need to do, you need to break that down.
\But then, when I was at this conference, the problem was that people were saying “Oh, well, do X, Y, and Z, and then come to me. And you pay me money and then the next step will happen.”, and that’s a fallacy. So educating…
Dubber Well, particularly if the music isn’t any good.
Marc Exactly. And so I was very offended by that because I think it’s great that everybody wants to make a buck as a consultant, or whatever, but that’s not serving the artist. And teaching the artist that “There are various ways to do things, but here are the tools you need to work with. You need a booking agent, but you should book your own shows first. And you need to focus on making sure the music is good, so get some feedback on your music before anything else. Before you pay people for press.”. So those interactions. People don’t understand that a lot. Learning to develop relationships so when you know or you feel that you’re ready to push the button on something, get a press person or whatever, getting that feedback, you’ll learn when it’s right for you. And that’s the most important thing, that it’s when it’s right for you, not for anybody else, because every artist…
Dubber And for the music, because it would differ from genre to genre, from territory to territory. There’d be all sorts of variables in there, surely.
Marc Exactly. I was talking to a friend who’s got a band here in Stockholm, and he just doesn’t really tour. So from a COVID point of view, he’s not in any deficit. I think the last time he played in Gothenburg, which is three hours away on the train, was five years ago, and he lives in Stockholm. So you’re right. Who you are as an artist, what kind of music you make, what your setup is. A 20 piece band just isn’t going on tour any time soon, whereas a DJ, it’s very easy to tour. So you’re right.
It’s very hard to answer those questions, but we want to encourage artists to look and ask questions and develop their own answers instead of thinking that there’s one way of doing things. And that’s a very vague answer, but that’s the way the music business works, I think.
Dubber Sure. Within that, though, there are some mechanics. Like, for instance, I was told not so long ago that if you’re going to release anything on a streaming service, make sure it hits on a Friday. And I was told that. That’s the received wisdom. I don’t know what the explanation for that was, I was just told that’s how it worked. You make sure that if it’s going to Spotify, Apple Music, whatever, make sure that they receive it and it goes live on a Friday because that’s how it gets heard. Are there strategic tricks like that, cheat sheets? Any place that people can go to go “At least these instructions are helpful guidelines.”?
Marc The Friday thing is a good example because that’s just the release date. And I think it used to be Mondays in the UK, or whatever, and so the charts would be Monday to Sunday. The best way to look at the music business is… I always use the train on the tracks analogy. There are certain systems that you need to follow. Years ago, it was you build up to release. Now, you drop something and start working it after. So what you want to do is you want to figure out what the loose tracks are, like how things work, how you get your music to Spotify. Every streaming service is different, what they possibly want from you, and then you make it up as you go along.
And I think the best thing for me has always been to ask other people, because trial and error really pays off. So if an artist knows another artist who’s released music, that’s the best way to find out the basics. Going to any of these platforms that offer uploading to all the DSPs, or whatever, even learning how the differences in all those is an important first step. Because the information’s there, but I think a lot of artists, specific to your Friday comment, are like “Okay, I’ve made a new track. I want it up as soon as humanly possible.”. And your CD Babys of the world, they say “Well, that’s not what you want to do. You want to take a step back, think ‘Is it good enough? What am I going to do to support it?’”. This is the internet. There’s lots of music. How many tracks is it a day? New tracks that are added to streaming services? It’s something insane.
Dubber It’s a big number, I’m sure.
Marc Yeah. And so it’s “How do you get noticed?”. And any artist can think about that. “How am I going to let people know that I exist?”. Before, 15 years ago, it was hard to get a CD made or to get a record made. Now, it’s “How do I get noticed?”.
I don’t know if there’s tips and tricks. Again, that goes back to the fact that a lot of the information out there is not as reliable. There are certain people, Twitter’s always good, but there aren’t clear places where “Here, these are the best 20 things to do.”, that I can think about. I think the key for artists is to follow and learn from the people that they trust, because everybody, again, does it differently.
But learning about the Friday thing, I know even know where you’d learn about that because it’s so… But, honestly, it’s so ingrained in me after 20 years that you have a date each week, and you have a focus. That’s a good question. I never even thought of it, if I didn’t have that information. You’d learn it from DistroKid. They’d tell you that, wouldn’t they? Don’t you think?
Dubber I imagine that’s probably true. We should put a link to them in the show notes.
Marc Other services available.
Dubber Yeah, of course. You’ve had four months since investment at the time we’re having this conversation. Maybe five by the time this goes out. It’s been a weird bunch of months for most people, I would say. What’s it been like for you guys?
Marc This sounds terrible, no change. The way I explain it to people is that we’ve always worked as a distributed team, and that means I’ve always sat in front of my computer at home. So the only difference for me is that I feel less guilty about not going out because I know no one else is doing anything.
From a team point of view, everybody quitting their jobs and working full-time is exciting, but you really realise that there’s so much downloading of information. So from me or people that were on the project longer or putting more hours in, sharing that knowledge across the whole team. That’s hard. That’s very, very hard. It’s exciting, and I’m extremely thankful.
I would have never thought that I’d be running a digital business as a distributed team in a pandemic. If you want to talk luck… Getting the money is just amazing in and of itself, but to think I could have easily got investment to run some sort of store or to start a touring business. That kind of stuff.
I’m thankful that it’s not affected us, because I think when you look around the music business, it’s pretty amazing how so much of it was based on the live experience. And I have so many friends that do that, that that’s their jobs, and I really feel for them. But for us, again, it’s just getting everything in a place, learning to work in a different way because there’s a larger team. It’s been a very positive experience in a very dark cloud environment, really, unfortunately.
Dubber Sure. There are bad things going on. You were set up for this, is what you’re saying.
Marc Yeah. But I miss the conferences. I was supposed to go to one in August, and the Swedish government, they say we’re not supposed to travel. It’s been peppered with some unfortunate facts about not being able to travel, but overall it’s been quite positive, I’d say.
Dubber Does it change anything about the game plan? What’s next?
Marc Well, you look at online events more. So one of the things we’re doing is Sled Island, the festival. We’re going to work with them on their conference. We’re announcing, we have an announcement next week, we’re going to do a series of online events. Just interviews and panels based around things that we think are interesting.
But one of the things that’s come up in our discussions is there’s been a very quick shift to online events, and just because people think they should be doing something. So say, for example, this podcast. It’s not something you picked up because you can’t leave the house. You’ve been doing it forever, you feel that you’ve got something to say, there’s information that you feel is important that you want to deliver. So we’ve thought more and more about doing stuff online because you can reach people in a different way, but then we’ve also been hesitant to change the game plan just because it’s been a stressful period for people.
So our game plan is always we want to build a good product for people, and then now we want to deliver knowledge to people in the same way. So our game plan is not changing, but there’s definitely more of a thought about what to do online.
But as you, I’m sure, are aware, the question is really “Are you giving people stuff that they really need to know? Or are you just creating more noise?”. And I’m very, very concerned about creating more noise. Especially for artists who don’t know what they’re doing yet, you want to make sure that what you deliver is something of value. So the mission is still the same, maybe the execution will be slightly different.
Dubber For sure. As somebody who has come from a music industry experience background and has started to create a product to solve a problem within the music industry, there are going to be people looking at you thinking “That’s what I want to do.”. So what are the music industry problems that you think still need addressing that are not on your agenda?
Marc I was on LinkedIn yesterday, and I saw some guy who used to work in a booking agent. He’s working at an online event ticket service. Tickets for online events, gigs. I think that’s going to be something that’s going to need to be solved.
Rights is always a problem, but I think that is also a social problem as much as it’s a technical problem. I think there’s a misunderstanding in the tech world over how the music business works.
Oh, the big problems to solve. What do you think are the big problems? No, I’m curious to know what you’d say off the top of your head.
Dubber Culture, I think, is probably the biggest problem in the music industry. Just the amount of toxicity within the music industry culture that has been there for an awfully long time. There are a lot of people doing a lot of good work to address that. I don’t know if there are technological solutions to that, necessarily, but if you’re just simply looking for problems, that would be the first place for me to look.
But in terms of “What could you solve with a technical solution?”, like you say, education is a big thing, but also things like collaboration is something that people have been trying, but I don’t think anybody’s really ever nailed that.
Marc There needs to be substantial cultural changes in the music business. And things have improved, but that’s no excuse to say that everything is great. There’s a long way to go.
But, again, around information sharing, things are purposefully opaque in the music business. Even, from a rights point of view, how deals work. Because that’s the only thing people have left, is that they know the insider knowledge. And I think that puts artists at a disadvantage, and I think that’s unfair, and that’s why How We Listen is important because artists need to realise that they’re running their own show. So the confidence to build their own vision is the most important thing.
But I think from a technical point of view, the direct-to-fan thing. If you want to talk about something that’s never really seemed to have been nailed, is “How does direct-to-fan work?”. So your Patreon, your all that. Delivering music to fans in an efficient way, building those relationships, has never… There have been, over the years, companies that have been somewhat successful, but that is a just… I don’t even know how to measure success there because I think fandoms…
Dubber You’re talking beyond recordings there. You’re talking ticketing, merch, the experience.
Marc Well, all that thing. What was the one ten years ago? There was one of those direct-to-fan things. Topspin, which was a holistic way to keep in touch with your fans. Like “Type in your email and get a free track.”. A lot of that kind of stuff is so messy, and it relies on so many different parts. Again, music business, very decentralised. How do you centralise a decentralised system? It’s impossible. So that’s maybe not a problem to solve more than an acceptance that you’re never going to solve that because the music business is a decentralised system. And that’s where the toxic culture comes from. It’s that everybody’s competing against each other.
So, yeah, I would say direct-to-fan. Rights, ultimately, because it doesn’t really matter if you know what you’re doing on that front if no one cares about you, but as soon as someone cares about you, you’re going to find out that you’re not getting all your money. So those would be the two. Direct-to-fan and rights, really.
Dubber Sure. So I get the feeling that we agree that things are generally better than they were. Are they going to continue to improve? Are you an optimist?
Marc Oh, god, no. People would say I’m a pessimist, but I’m definitely an optimist because I think if you want to work in music, if you want to be in music, you can, and I’m proof of that. From a skills point of view, opportunities came up and I took them, but I had no special skills. And I think it’s easier to be a musician now, and if you look inside yourself and hone that craft and make good music, there will be no one preventing you from being successful. And so I would like to think that it’s better now because you’re less reliant on other people. And then you work with other people from a teamwork point of view, but you don’t need to go anywhere to get approval, and that is an exciting world. It’s the same in the tech world. You can fail quietly by yourself and then learn and learn and learn, and you can do that in music.
And so, no, I’m definitely an optimist. And I think, hopefully, people can learn to make more money, because I think it’s very, very hard for an artist to make money. And that was the hard part building a tech company, when you don’t have any money. So that would be the only thing that worries me for artists. Record labels seem to be able to survive somehow, but artists, I think it’s very tough to live on the money, and you need to pay the rent.
I’m optimistic because, well, there’s tonnes of great music out there. There’s too much. So my Spotify discovery playlist just gets better and better and better. And so I’m definitely an optimist. But I don’t know how it’s going to unfold. I’m not good at predicting. But it will be better. It has to get better, otherwise we’re living in the dark ages, and I don’t want to think about that, really.
Dubber Brilliant. Marc, thanks so much for joining us for the podcast.
Marc Thanks a lot, I really appreciate it.
Dubber That’s Marc Brown, and that’s the MTF Podcast. Byta, if you haven’t picked it up, is B Y T A. You can find them at www.byta.com where, as Marc explained, you can send and receive digital audio.
I’m Dubber, you can find me @dubber on Twitter, and you’ll find everything MTF, including our upcoming innovation labs in Aveiro, @mtflabs on Twitter and at www.mtflabs.net online. This episode was edited by Sergio Castillo. The intro music was by Denitia, this is music by airtone that you’re hearing now, and the MTF audio logo, as always, was created by Run Dreamer, and you’re going to hear that again in just a second. Stay safe, have a great week, maybe send me some music, and we’ll talk soon. Cheers.