How Web3 Startup Catalog Lured Former Music Curator Spotify and Twitch

Conservation is a buzzword that the mainstream music industry can only understand through a narrow lens despite the popularity it has gained over the past decade. The etymology of curating comes from the Latin word curare, which literally means “to take care of”. In the 14th century, a curator was a “spiritual guide” and member of the clergy responsible for protecting the parish. In the late 1970s, a curator became widely known as the person responsible for running a museum, gallery, or art exhibition. Over the years, the role of curator transcended the worlds of church and art, rose to prominence among those given such a title, and eventually took its place at the head of the musical table.

When music services started implementing curation-based recommendation technologies, their platforms suddenly became more accessible to a wider audience – from casual listeners to superfans – creating a more suggestive and a subsequent class of passive listeners. Music streaming has shifted a user’s experience from just searching for specific songs or albums to a continuous stream of music based on suggestions tailored to their specific and previous music selections. Associated with the mass adoption of smartphones in the mid-2000s [powering much of the new lean-back listening category]the globalization of music and its clearly defined genres, the advent of recommendation-based experiences have pushed music into a broader global category.

In 2005, the music intelligence platform, The Echo Nest, was launched and powered music recommendations for iHeartRadio, SiriusXM, Rdio and Spotify – which eventually acquired the company for around $55 million in 2014. 2013, Athena Yasaman Koumis joined The Echo Nest, as a QA/Curation intern, quickly transitioned into a data curator role, where she learned how music recommendations were made at scale and how they impacted music viewability. an artist in apps for listeners.

At The Echo Nest, Koumis learned to organize cultural data pulled from the internet, contributed to a cultural knowledge base of how artists were portrayed by themselves and others, and examined the complexities of sound. , style, geography of an artist and their relationships. By providing training data to audio analysis programs to understand some of the more subjective qualities of music – for example noting whether a song had “energetic” qualities, Koumis saw firsthand how various streamers used music data from The Echo Nest in unique ways to create and curate very different musical experiences for their listeners and how those experiences affected the artist and music discovery.

“Curation is the creation of contextualized listening experiences through the selection and presentation of musical works,” says Koumis, who is now head of music discovery at Catalog, a blockchain-powered music discovery platform. . In 2014, when Spotify acquired The Echo Nest, Koumis’ role changed to leading a newly created full-time data curation team for Spotify and the underlying cultural data powering recommendation features such as Fans Also Like. list and Discover Weekly. “At the time of [The Echo Nest] acquisition, I was a heavy Soundcloud user and music blog reader, which were my primary methods of discovering new artists,” Koumis explains, “I assumed it would naturally move to Spotify, but after spending some time diving deep into the playlists available on time, I realized that it was mostly acts from major labels that I already knew, whereas I preferred to listen to music from artists and labels independents that were not getting recognition or editorial support.

Koumis and some of his colleagues took matters into their own hands at Spotify’s annual Hack Week in late 2014, where they designed a crowdsourced curation experiment by tapping into the ears of a vibrant cohort of Spotify users. who had recently found new artists. in front of the majority to see what other artists they also listened to that were relatively unknown. After applying light editorial judgment in addition to this crowdsourced selection, the team produced an unofficial playlist titled “Fresh Finds”. The experiment was a success and Fresh Finds was converted into a public playlist after being widely adopted internally by more than 300 Spotify employees.

Fresh Finds has become a go-to source for discovering unknown artists for millions of consumers who used Spotify around the world and has created new opportunities for many artists in the mainstream music industry. “Artists would go from less than 100 monthly listeners to 20,000 – 100,000 or more essentially overnight thanks to Fresh Finds – and for almost all of these artists, this was their first-ever official playlist placement,” explains Koumis. “Numerous [artists] told me that within days of landing on Fresh Finds, they received multiple requests from labels and managers who wanted to work with them, and the placement began to open all kinds of doors that were previously unreachable.

In late 2018, Koumis parted ways with Spotify, disappointed with a centralized business model and system that largely benefited the most popular artists. Just before the pandemic, Koumis joined Twitch in an artist partnership role excited about the platform’s ability to generate more meaningful revenue streams – where the median viewership of an artist earning $50,000 a year only requires 183 fans on Twitch, while it takes around 250 streams for an artist to earn $1 on Spotify.

The big differences between highly centralized platforms with larger audiences like Spotify or Apple Music and community-centric decentralized platforms built on blockchain are what separates the Web2 from the ultra- buzzy. With the centralization of the business models, audiences and data infrastructure that serve as the foundation of the web2, the inevitable extraction of artists’ cultural capital and the resulting inequitable remuneration are almost impossible to decouple. The foundations of centralized companies were not built with the collective in mind.

There are several players in what some call the Web3 space of Wild Wild West music that allow independent artists to earn money through digital token systems (NFTs – non-fungible tokens or unique digital assets) and to community-run organizations (such as DAOs). make a living from their musical works. There is a distinction to be made between independent or unsigned artists and major label artists, as the majority of major label contracts prohibit artists from monetizing their music as NFT. [at least without the label taking a cut] – much like De La Soul’s deal with Tommy Boy Records, which didn’t consider potential future monetization formats like streaming services when the deal was signed in 1982. The musicians totaled $83 million in NFT sales last year, of which independent artists make up to 70% of that revenue according to Water & Music – a research organization created by veteran music tech journalist Cherie Hu.

Music startup NFT Sound.xyz, which raised $5 million from Andreessen Horowitz last December, has powered unique NFT music drops focused on artists and music collectives from R&B, electronic and hip-hop. Mint Songs, an NFT music marketplace for Web3 artists, creates tools that allow musicians to turn their music assets into NFTs that they can sell or give away to fans. Nina, whose “product is their Nina protocol, not the artist’s music”, is a blockchain-based way to publish, stream and buy music. However, with new technologies, new problems may appear. In January, OpenSea, a non-music-focused NFT marketplace with a music section, revealed that more than 80% of its free NFT mints were plagiarized, spammed, or fake. As HypeBot’s Bruce Houghton writes, “While the potential of these wonderful [Web3] progress exists, we still need a rulebook.

As with every new development, an array of vulnerabilities and opportunities arise – and with Web3, the benefits for artists and communities outweigh the risks for many. “Web3 gives artists the ability to truly own their relationship with their community without one platform owning it,” Koumis says, “while being on the blockchain, artists have a direct connection to their supporters” . To date, Catalog has earned artists the equivalent of $2.7 million (transactions are rendered in Ethereum), with one producer, Oshi, making 6 ETH (nearly $20,000 depending on currency fluctuations ) in a few hours from four of his old songs.

Billed as a digital record store and music community, Catalog, which uses Zora’s blockchain protocol, begins with key fundamentals of trust, community, and reshaping the value of music. Born out of the Soundcloud generation where discovery was a central value proposition, Catalog was started by Mike McKain and Jeremy Stern, co-founders who wanted to create a better listening discovery experience that supported artists in new ways. In 2018, the two built Loft Radio, a 24/7 live radio station with over 4,000 users in over 100 countries with a built-in micro-tipping feature. After taking a step back from Loft Radio, Mike and Jeremy were determined to transform music into a more decentralized model long before music NFTs existed. Before fully jumping into building Catalog, McKain took on a product design role at MakerDAO, an Ethereum- and Stern-based stablecoin project – a software engineer, worked with Octo, an IT company that does large contracts with the federal government. Catalog was founded last year and to date has raised $2.2 million in seed funding led by cryptocurrency-focused investment firm 1confirmation, which is backed by Peter Thiel and Mark Cuban.

“The idea in this space that Catalog is moving into is becoming a user-owned platform – people who add value should have a say in the project they all help create,” says McKain. . Building models that decentralize curation to avoid creating a system where the smallest common dominator gets to dictate taste, the catalog community will be able to decide what gets promoted on the front page with more features along the way.

Realizing the missed opportunity to recognize and reward early supporters of the anonymous Fresh Finds playlist, Koumis was driven to explore ways to do just that in Web3 with Catalog. “Web3 ushers in an era of collective ownership through decentralization, which will allow artists to meaningfully participate in the value creation they generate online through their music and other forms of self-expression and have a say in how a platform, project, or DAO [decentralized autonomous organization] works. »

Victor L. Jones