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Is this artist-owned platform the future of music streaming?

Is this artist-owned platform the future of music streaming?

The community focus of Audius looks set to give the music industry a much-needed shake-up

It’s possible now to access nearly everything that’s ever been recorded in exchange for a small monthly payment. Whether you’re subscribed to Apple Music, Spotify, or Tidal, music consumption has never been so convenient, and never before has such a vast amount of content been so readily available.

While this may seem like an impossibly good deal for consumers, this model results in power and wealth being concentrated among just a few tech companies, while payouts for artists pale in comparison – Spotify does not disclose publicly how much it pays per stream, but analysts have calculated it at about £0.0024.

The Swedish streaming platform regularly makes the news for the wrong reasons. Recent examples include founder Daniel Elk suggesting that artists need to release music more often to get paid more, and the announcement that artists can now pay to algorithmically boost content, a move that was widely criticised by artists and fans. Spotify made the announcement just a week after the American Union of Musicians and Allied Workers called on the service to pay artists a minimum of $0.01 (£0.0076) per stream.

However, a new artist-owned streaming service is hoping to give the industry a much-needed shake-up, and offers an alternative model where musicians are rewarded fairly, and where fans take on more of an active role. Enter Audius, the brainchild of Stanford computer science graduates Roniel Rumburg and Forrest Browning, who co-founded the company in 2018.

The platform made a splash last month when it gifted its top 10,000 users – including artists, fans, and developers – tokens that would essentially grant them ownership of the platform itself and allow them to vote and make changes to its structure. Could this more community-focused approach be the future of music streaming services? We caught up with Audius co-founders Rumburg and Browning to find out.

Can you introduce us to Audius?

Roniel Rumburg: Audius is a digital streaming service that connects fans directly with artists and exclusive new music. That directness is the key difference between us and other streaming platforms. As an artist, you can distribute what you want at a price you choose. And then from the fan perspective, you’re getting access to music that is often shared on Audius before it is elsewhere.

Forrest Browning: A lot of stuff that we see on Audius are more like live works, whereas content on Spotify is more like an archive. So artists have been putting up works in progress, maybe even calling on their community to do remix competitions of new songs, and potentially they’ll release those remixes alongside their own material. There are all sorts of collaborative ways that fans and artists can interact that you don’t get on more established platforms.

Is the interface set up as a cross between a streaming service and a social media platform?

Roniel Rumburg: Similar to that, yes. The best comparison in terms of what it looks like would be SoundCloud, but we would like to think it’s a lot better. For us, there are a lot of issues with a Spotify type model where the artist publishes the work, but can’t necessarily get feedback or interact with their fan base. We’re trying to capitalise on what SoundCloud, years and years ago, did very well, which was that community aspect.

What inspired you to create the platform?

Roniel Rumburg: We both happened to go to this summer camp in California in the mid to late 2000s, and we’re both fans of electronic music so we started hanging out, and sharing music. And we’re also both into engineering stuff, so we were like doing projects together on our computer science degree at Stanford. We started to see a lot of our favourite creators becoming disenchanted with SoundCloud or getting kicked off the platform in some cases, things like that. As fans it became a bummer, there were a lot of tracks that we liked that had disappeared. 

Forrest Browning: Then we thought, ‘how can we create a really long term safe home for music where artists won’t get the rug pulled out from under their feet?’ It seems like every platform that has come and gone loses all this really interesting, fantastic music when the platforms go away, like when MySpace lost a huge amount of the music uploaded to it so we were like, how can we create like a permanent artist owned home for music? Our company could go away and the platform would keep working. That was really the genesis of the idea. 

When did Audius come to exist?

Roniel Rumburg: We launched the first version just about a year ago. And the past year has just been this crazy whirlwind culminating in the release launched this Audius token. It really is this community ownership thing that has gotten everyone so fired up, like they, I think artists for the first time I feel like with Audius, they have a seat at the table. And they have an opportunity to influence and support and grow the underlying platform and actually benefit from their own efforts in doing that, rather than being treated as a resource to extract value from as they often are on other platforms.

What is an Audius platform token and why did you introduce it?

Roniel Rumburg: An Audius token gives users the right to vote on changes that happen on the platform. Whether you’re an artist or a fan, it lets you actually vote on any changes that are made to Audius. Our only role here was to build this open source set of tools and give them out to the community. We aren’t capable of making changes without the community deciding that they want those changes to happen, which I think is a really neat thing. We’re already starting to get the first rumblings of folks wanting to submit governance proposals and things like that. And yeah, we’re just really excited to see what the community does with all these tools.

How did you decide on the top 10,000 users who were gifted tokens?

Roniel Rumburg: There’s a formula that we published, 75 per cent was derived from free plays, and the other 25 per cent was like a mix of how many people followed you, how many things you’ve posted, how many playlists you got favorited, and things like that. So in a nutshell, it was basically how much you were kind of like a power user of the network. It wasn’t just artists, it was like artists and fans. It’s not just us creating these playlists that determine who breaks out or who explodes on Audius, it can be done by the community in this grassroots sort of way. And so that’s even reflected in the airdrop, where, you know, the vast majority were artists, but then there was a pretty considerable portion that were like curators, or just power users.

Why should people switch from Apple Music, Tidal, or Spotify to streaming on Audius?

Roniel Rumburg: I think the biggest reason we’ve seen listeners make that migration is because they’re finding content on Audius that they haven’t found anywhere else. We also have the highest quality streaming of any free service, we get 320 kbps, which is what you get on the Pro tier of Spotify or something like that, but it’s all free for any user. 

Forrest Browning: I think the primary driver is that you can follow the artists you feel most passionately about and a lot of times will find exclusive content. I touched upon that earlier when I’m talking about remix competitions, and thinking Like that, I think we’re just starting to get a huge percentage of our catalogue that, you know, artists haven’t published elsewhere, or they are kind of like, you know, publishing for their superfans, if you will to get feedback perhaps before it gets distributed more broadly. This is kind of like the place superfans sign up to follow their favourite artists and see things that maybe can’t be published elsewhere.

What kind of artists are using Audius?

Roniel Rumburg: So right now, our distribution is pretty heavy on electronic, and to a growing extent hip hop. Hopefully, a few months down the line, we’ll have wider distribution. The last week has been crazy, there are people who I spent my childhood listening to like Skrillex for example who just happened to sign up recently and uploaded some music to the platform, it’s really exciting. 

How does the revenue system to artists work? Is this going to be a subscription service?

Roniel Rumburg: There was this one time distribution of tokens, a couple of weeks ago, and then in the next six months or so, actually, we’ll be rolling out a deeper suite of monetization tools. Probably forever, or probably for a while, almost all the content on Audius will remain free. There’s a lot to unpack here, but essentially, it’s all up to the artist how much they want to monetize, a bit like YouTube. And if they do decide to monetize, 90% goes to that artist directly. They can even set their own streaming rate here which is which is quite cool.

“There are all sorts of collaborative ways that fans and artists can interact that you don’t get on more established platforms“ - Roniel Rumburg, Audius

I saw a few people post on Twitter about exchanging the tokens through various loopholes of cryptocurrency to eventually cash out as real money. Is this possible?

Roniel Rumburg: Yeah, so unfortunately, like, legally we can’t comment on those areas. 

What do you guys make of Spotify’s recent decision to let artists pay for algorithmic boosting of their music?

Roniel Rumburg: It’s basically payola dressed up with a different name. Just like in the old days when record labels would pay DJs for air time. In Audius, the community would literally have to vote to do something like that. And I don’t think any artists in the country would ever choose to do something like this, right? The only true way to solve that is for like, artists to have control of their own means of distribution. 

What do you ultimately hope to achieve with Audius?

Roniel Rumburg: The coolest part about this being a community owned and operated network, there really is no endpoint. So long as there are people in the community that want Audius to continue to operate and add new features to, it will continue to evolve in whatever ways the community would like it to.I think a lot of people kind of tend to be sceptical of startups, because they’re like, ‘oh, they’re gonna get a million users and then sell the company to Google’ or something like that, right? But the way this is designed, that’s literally not possible. I think that’s one of the most exciting parts of this, right, is that this is, this is not our baby. It’s like, the world’s baby now, you know, and, and it’s up to the broader music community to decide where and how this evolves.