In this recent piece, Cortney Harding investigates what happened to CÜR, a music startup designed to offer streaming and internet radio at a lower rate than its competitors, but which seems to have gone the way of so many startups and spent itself into an early grave.
Guest post by music tech consultant and author Cortney Harding
, I dialed into a video conference with CÜR, a music startup that sat in the basement of a Subway sandwich shop in suburban Connecticut. Amidst a wall of tequila bottles, the company, which aimed to create a lower-priced streaming alternative and had raised more than $20 million in pursuit of that goal, asked for my advice and feedback. Although almost no one on the team had music business experience, I found it comforting that at least they weren’t spending money rashly — unlike Crowdmix, which also melted down in spectacular fashion, CÜR’s offices looked less like Trump Tower and more like a dingy frathouse. While I never wound up working for CÜR, I continued to follow their saga with interest.
Last winter, I dialed into a video conference with CÜR, a music startup that sat in the basement of a Subway sandwich shop in suburban Connecticut. Amidst a wall of tequila bottles, the company, which aimed to create a lower-priced streaming alternative and had raised more than $20 million in pursuit of that goal, asked for my advice and feedback. Although almost no one on the team had music business experience, I found it comforting that at least they weren’t spending money rashly — unlike Crowdmix, which also melted down in spectacular fashion, CÜR’s offices looked less like Trump Tower and more like a dingy frathouse. While I never wound up working for CÜR, I continued to follow their saga with interest.
Even though they scrimped on office space, CÜR was spending piles of money in other places — they managed to burn through the initial investment while only paying the labels $500,000 of a promised $8 million. In May, CÜR brought in industry veterans like Jim Urie, the former President and CEO of Universal Music Group Distribution and announced it had raised another $2 million, but this was too little, too late. According to Music Business Worldwide, CÜR failed to file its quarterly 10-Q SEC filing on August 15, stating that it needed “additional time to complete certain disclosures and analyses.”
Some late paperwork might not be a huge red flag, but rumors started to circulate that employees had been told to start looking for other jobs. Dissent in the ranks of the company is nothing new — after I published “The Music Startup Meltdown” this spring, an anguished CÜR employee reached out to me cold, asking if he should start looking for other work. There are also reports of vendors going unpaid for months, and senior executives at the company stating that it is no longer operating. Additionally, an article onConsumer Eagle reported that the stock of CÜR Media Incorporated registered an increase of 142.86% in short interest, perhaps a sign that investors might be purchasing the stock in order to short it. (In March 2014 the company raised $9.6 million through a reverse merger, resulting in an alternative IPO).
So what exactly happened at CÜR?
It wasn’t like the idea was a terrible one — unlike Crowdmix, which was a feature and not a product, a lower priced streaming service could have had real traction in the market. I saw some initial product demos and while rough, they weren’t bad — and CÜR could have found an audience among teens who couldn’t afford a Spotify account but were OK with not having completely on-demand streaming in exchange for social features.
And while the $8 million price tag from the labels may appear steep, the company did have funding, and labels seemed OK with taking the money in segments. They certainly weren’t spending on office space, as demonstrated above, and most employees were located in suburban Connecticut, where the cost of labor is arguably cheaper than in NYC or LA. According to public data on Bloomberg, former CEO Tom Brophy, who was an experienced CFO before he came to CÜR, was paid $258,300 a year — not nothing, but certainly not an outrageous figure. The COO was paid $178,000 per year, while the CTO made $125,000. Presumably some of their compensation was also tied to stock — which might be cold comfort considering the stock is down from $42.25 in March of 2015 to $1.79 today.
Filings from Q4 of 2015 explain that CÜR spent almost $12 million on research and development of the app, along with $2.8 million in general and administrative costs. That’s a fairly high number for a product that never even saw the light of day — and the version I saw at the top of this year clearly had a ways to go toward being finished.
And even if CÜR was hamstrung by a lack of music business experience as it built the product, it brought in a team of heavy hitters late in the game — men with years of industry experience and contacts who could have turned the ship around. They might have simply stepped in too late, and there were signs they had inherited a lemon — one vendor told me they fought him tooth and nail to avoid paying out a fairly small sum of money he was owed, and I can’t imagine he’s the only one.
Because no matter where the money went at CÜR, it didn’t go the employees, who are now forced to look for other jobs. Senior execs, as usual, will be fine — once you hit a certain point in your career, you’re basically Teflon — and I have no doubt the cleanup crew will be on to new ventures soon enough. But the rank and file employee who emailed me in a panic doesn’t have that luxury, and nor do many of his co-workers and the vendors left high and dry as CÜR collapsed.
It’s perverse fun to Monday morning quarterback the ever more frequent collapses of big music startups, but it’s also gross and tragic. CÜR and Crowdmix’s biggest sin wasn’t making a product that simply didn’t work out at the end of the day — it was gambling with the lives and livelihoods of people who worked there.
We might never know where the money went at CÜR — at best, they simply spent too freely or unwisely to develop a product. But their demise has wider repercussions, as an example of yet another failed company that will discourage investors from betting on other music startups and set the industry back. What they wanted to create could have moved the conversation forward and brought a whole new population to paid music streaming — but instead we’re again left with a two tier system that leaves many people out and deprives artists of another revenue source.
I emailed CÜR for comment but did not receive a reply by deadline.