TuneGO launches to help labels discover the pop stars of tomorrow. But will that help save a struggling industry?
In the early rock and roll era, few were better than Don Kirshner at knowing what America wanted to hear.
Nicknamed "The Man with the Golden Ear," Kirshner discovered dozens of hitmakers, including Bobby Darin, Carole King, and Neil Diamond. And while those names may not be remembered as the greatest artists of their time, they sure sold a ton of records.Like a one-man American Idol, Kirshner even helped turn the Monkees, despite their lack of experience, into one of the biggest bands in the world. And while cynics may accuse him of pandering to the lowest common denominator, you can't argue with results.
And so I felt a mix of worry and excitement when TuneGO founder and CEO John Kohl told me he wants to "take modern technology and 're-Don-Kirshner-ize' the music industry." On one hand, the great thing about the Internet is that consumers no longer need Don Kirshners to tell them what to listen to. The web enables fans to discover music that exists off the beaten path, contrary to the pre-digital age when most listeners were subject to whatever packaged pop music the old music industry gatekeepers deigned appropriate for massive distribution channels like MTV and Clearchannel.
On the other, this has historically been an industry driven by the biggest superstars -- Mariah Carey helps subsidize the mean, gritty unknown band that a label takes a chance on. And just as a hide tide raises all ships, the optimist in me wants to believe that more big stars can theoretically lead to more money in the hands of all musicians who sign with labels. In this paradigm, Katy Perry is like the Buzzfeed listicle that grabs 10 million views, helping to pay the salary of the Moscow correspondent. It's a devil's bargain, to be sure. But now that brands are the only ones paying for anything, it may be the only model left.
So like it or not, TuneGO has launched today out of beta to offer what Kohl likens to a LinkedIn for musicians and producers. It plans to enable connections between artists, labels, and streaming services by collecting massive amounts of data on member-artists and assigning them a metric that Kohl hopes will be as much an industry standard as FICO scores are in banking. He believes this will help streamline the artist discovery process for labels, and already he's piqued the interest of a number of established producers who together with musicians have generated a combined $5 billion in retail sales and over 300 million albums sold. TuneGO's advisory and production team for example includes Desmond Child, who helped make hits for Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson, and Bon Jovi, and Ron Dante, who produced tracks for Cher and Pat Benatar.
"The music industry is broken, completely broken," Kohl says. "It's harder than ever for artists to break through, and [labels] don't do the old school artist development that was done with Don Kirshner."
In addition to aggregating social data around Facebook likes, Twitter followers, and YouTube views to formulate the so-called TuneGO Score, the platform also asks musicians to answer a number of questions that wouldn't feel out of place on a dating site, in the hopes of creating "marriages" between artists and labels.
"We have a process that’s more like an eHarmony of the music industry," Kohl says. "We ask [musicians] about their goals, their aspirations, do you want a recording contract... Not all artists want a recording contract."
Labels aren't the only stakeholders looking to discover new talent. TuneGO has also struck partnerships with Spotify, Rdio, and Slacker Radio to provide these services with data on which artists are poised to be the next, well, Neil Diamond or the Monkees (again, TuneGO's not exactly looking to move the culture or artform surrounding music forward. The next Miles Davis or Velvet Underground probably won't be discovered by a platform that assigns what's essentially a Klout score based on financial viability).
"While in beta we’ve been able to secure some tremendous deals [with streaming services] where typically you’d need some more traction," Kohl says, describing how Spotify and Rdio will pay TuneGO a small cut whenever a user listens to a song or artist that it recommended. "There’s no shortage of platforms that can dump on them a whole bunch of content, but we have a vetting process. It’s been curated. We provide that layer, we take out some of the legwork so they get highly qualified content -- filtered, curated content."
TuneGO, which has raised $1.5 million in private capital of a planned $3 million seed round, will also collect revenue from subscription payments, offering its premium service to artists for a price of $14.95 a month. That's affordable, but may still still pose a hard sell for musicians who -- thanks to lower barriers-of-entry, more mouths to feed, and a smaller overall revenue pie -- are seeing less cash than ever before. For artists looking to make music for the masses, however, there may be few better ways to reach the ears of top industry gatekeepers.
"We’ve had over 700 artists that have joined in beta," Kohl said. "I’d say about 50 of them are really good. They’ve gotten the attention of our producers and some of the artists are working creatively with some of our producers. We feel about 5 or so of those have real potential where our producers feel like they could walk them in to some of the music labels."
In many ways, the problems facing the new music industry are the fault of labels, who despite offering artists less than ever before still take home massive chunks of the revenue created by listener streams and downloads. This has left many artists struggling to pay rent while streaming platforms struggle to achieve sustained profitability. Therefore, it's a little difficult to muster support for a service with the primary ambition of solving a pain point for labels. But if TuneGO allows labels to do the work of artist discovery and star development more efficiently, it could create more revenue for the industry as whole -- revenue that could trickle down to the creative middle-class struggling everyday to write music that inspires or comforts or challenges listeners, even if it lacks the mass appeal of Taylor Swift.
But from the Motown Records controversy to today's fights over precious streaming revenue, don't bet on it. If history tells us anything it's that the artist is always the last to be paid.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]