It’s easy for bands to distribute their music, but hard to market it. They can pay to get their songs in the right places—iTunes, Amazon, and Spotify—but it’s unclear how to get them heard by the right people. Earbits, a Los Angeles-based startup, aspires to turn their radio service into an ad platform where bands can buy airtime and gain exposure for their songs and upcoming live performances.
While the web-music sector is crowded with established services like Pandora and Spotify, Earbits stands out because it focuses solely on emerging artists and provides fans with a compelling way to discover them. The service offers genre stations, which are common, but it has many features which aren’t.
For instance, if you log into Earbits using Facebook, the service pulls your friends into a toolbar and sorts them by who’d most enjoy hearing the song currently being played. If you click on one of your friends, a window opens up, which allows you to post the song to their Facebook wall.
Most interesting, though, are the ways in which Earbits nudges their users to engage more deeply with bands. While you listen to song, you can scroll beneath the fold on the website and find information about the artist, including a bio, discography and tour dates. If you give a song a “thumbs ups”—the way you tailor a station to your likes and dislikes—the service prompts you to tweet the track or post it on your wall. If you’re listening to music on the mobile app and the band is playing a show nearby, it will alert you—and with a one click, you can share the info with a friend.
“We think of Earbits as an artist-centric radio platform,” says CEO Joey Flores. “We’re always looking for ways to connect a band with fans instead of just playing music for someone in the background.” He continues, “People are doing more on our website than just turning it on and tuning out.”
And there’s a good reason for this. On Earbits the songs themselves are commercials, which makes bands the customers, and of course, you—the listener—the product. Rather than encouraging users to click on ads and interact with brands, Flores hopes they’ll discover bands, become fans and buy their albums and concert tickets.
He desires this outcome for two reasons: For Earbits to make money (and keep doing so), it must create enough value for a cash-strapped band to justify the expense—and provide a return large enough that it demands reinvestment. If a band buys airtime to promote a show and converts a handful of listeners into concertgoers, they’ll likely recoup their costs and use Earbits again. Flores also wants this to happen because he—a lifetime music fanatic—believes that a world with more active fans (i.e. music buyers and concertgoers) could only be a better one.
“Don’t just turn on the music and not wonder who it is,” Flores laments.
But wanting something to happen doesn’t mean you can make it happen. The truth is that a majority of consumers aren’t music fanatics and have no interest in doing a majority of these things.
And, as Earbits has learned, even fanatics have limits. Flores and his team have this problem where when they sit around and brainstorm on ideas, the ones that they find interesting oftentimes “don’t get any traction” and ones that they “think are totally stupid” end up becoming really popular.
Earbits has some of the most interesting sharing tools of any music service on their site. They spent lots of time building them only to find out that “like only 3% of people” will ever use the tools.
“Most people scroll right past [the Facebook toolbar],” Flores says, “they don’t even see it.”
This is illustrative. The very innovative feature that music and technology publications will praise Earbits for developing and having on their site ended up being the one fans didn’t care to use.
Many music startups develop features in their products that they “think” fans want without actually testing them or embracing the hard truth that most fans may not want any of these things.
“We used to add a feature [to Earbits] and assume that it created more value [for users],” says Flores, referring the time period before his team read the influential book The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. Rather than making assumptions about the features users want and the value they create, they now utilize the “real metrics” that Ries advocates for—such as active users and user engagement—to determine if a feature is creating more value for their users and whether they should keep it.
Weeks ago, Earbits added a search bar so that users could start a station by typing in an artist that they like—akin to what Pandora and rival services offer—and Flores says user engagement “went down with this feature.”
Before reading The Lean Startup and implementing its teachings, his company wouldn’t have even been tracking that metric. “We would’ve just assumed that adding a search bar would’ve been a good thing,” he says. “Actually, for some reason, it has a negative impact.”
Describing what operating a startup for over a year without any real, important metrics and then embracing them wholeheartedly is like, Flores says the process has “been really eye-opening.”
This sort of awakening is necessary for startups. Music elicits passion in people and some of them grow inspired to create products. These people are often fanatics who see problems to solve in their own lives and feel compelled to create solutions for everyone else. But fanatics aren’t everyone else; their wants and needs are different. A chasm exists between them and casual fans, and they don’t see it.
Fanatics make assumptions about what users want and develop a product, only to learn that most people don’t have these problems and see no value in adopting their solution. As Ries argues in his book, a startup like this achieves failure by “successfully executing a plan that leads to nowhere.”
This is the startup dilemma: A fanatic founder will often perceive a problem as being more universal than it actually is and mistakes his own experience as evidence that a solution should exist. But most people have never had such experiences and can’t relate to the products they create.
A quick survey of the sector reveals that no one is doing quite what Earbits does. Services like Jango and Grooveshark let bands buy airtime and gain exposure, but they don’t nudge fans to attend their shows or share their songs. Pandora debuted a free concert series last year wherein they invited fans to attend a live performance by the rock band Dawes, based on where they live and the likelihood that they’d enjoy listening to their music. But they don’t promote shows within their platform—let alone, allow artists to buy airtime.
Deli Radio, a newly launched music startup, enables fans to create radio stations that play music by bands that’ll be playing shows nearby—the downside being that, since the service is free, bands can’t geo-target fans.
Generally speaking, music services take a hands-off approach to promoting bands. “They’re not making an effort to turn people into real consumers of those band’s products,” says Flores. “You’re always trying to send them to McDonald’s.” Like broadcast radio before it, Pandora’s customers are brands and it sells them a product—exposure to their audience. The music is the bait, and there’s nothing wrong with this. Many business models work like this.
Could Pandora make a better effort to help bands find fans? Of course. But here’s the thing: It’s not clear that casual listeners have a desire for this to happen. For them, a radio service that plays unfamiliar music and regularly alerts them about shows may be bad experience. That’s the reality. Flores is fighting a noble cause—and it’s one worth fighting for. But he’s targeting fanatics with Earbits and even they’re pushing back against his efforts.
“At the end of the day, if you want to build a company that’s good at promoting artists, you build a company that makes money from promoting artists,” says Flores, which is a fair assessment.
But first Earbits must find fans that want bands promoted to them and it’s a tough crowd.