TechStars TV Seeks Free Music, But Is “Free” A Fair Deal For Musicians?

Techstars-logoAn ever-increasing and somewhat bewildering array of free marketing opportunities on the web are being offered to musicians in exchange for free music. Sometimes that means streaming music on a social network devoted to discovery and other times it means being featured in a media product.

TechStars TV, a web video series connected to the highly regarded TechStars incubator, recently put out a request for free music to be used in the series in exchange for publicity. Given the large amounts of money currently flowing into tech startups, I was surprised that they weren't offering even a minimal licensing fee.

I contacted TechStars TV Director of Video Production Megan Sweeney by email and she assured me that:

"We have a strong following and really work at promoting the bands…we truly care about the music we are allowed to feature."

I decided to take her at her word. So, instead of attacking the offer in a blog post, I've chosen to create a mini-case study of the offer to illustrate how I would evaluate the opportunity. Different offers will require different approaches but given that so many of these opportunities are presented on the open web, a systematic evaluation can usually be conducted with a relatively small investment of time.

The Offer: TechStars TV Seeks Music

Last week the post "TechStars TV Seeks Music" appeared on the TechStars Blog:

"We're currently filming our third season [of The Founders] and we are on the hunt for music to feature in episodes this fall. Our current videos boast more than 70,000 views, offering vast exposure. We love to work with musicians and always provide credit in our video content. Additionally, we're happy to return the favor by promoting your music in various ways."

Megan Sweeney clarified that they are looking for "just a few seconds of music, not an entire clip or song" and, though they are "definitely open to paying for music and have done so in the past", they "viewed this instance as an opportunity to get bands some exposure in the same way we look to get our startups exposure."

The Context: TechStars

TechStars is one of the most prominent tech incubators in the world. It's most strongly associated with cofounder Brad Feld of venture capital firm Foundry Group which he also cofounded. I've only read really positive comments about Feld who is described as extremely supportive of the companies in which he invests.

TechStars includes a roster of mentors many of whom could be described by such adjectives as "rich" and "famous" [in the tech world]. The funded companies who've gone through the TechStars program and ultimately receive funding from a variety of sources have received cumulative investments ranging from $100,000 to $27,350,000 with most well below the high mark but many with over $1,000,000. However, these figures include funds often raised through multiple rounds beyond their days at TechStars.

Not all of them make it but TechStars graduates do much better than most companies coming out of tech incubators and accelerators. These are the companies your free music would help market.

Interestingly enough, though this is clearly a social media marketing approach, Feld states that "phrases like 'social media marketing' and 'marketing spend' rarely surface in discussions [with Foundry Group portfolio companies], and when they do I vomit a little in my mouth." He later clarified that such statements were more about terminology, substance and style than marketing per se.

Evaluating The Opportunity: Direct Contact

I emailed Megan Sweeney and her responses are included at various points in the post. I did make the mistake of including some rather challenging questions about the fact that these videos promoted companies that would likely receive huge amounts of funding compared to that of the emerging artists whose music would help market them. She did not directly address all those questions and the resulting dialogue felt rather stunted and like "pulling teeth."

Generally speaking, one cannot assume too much about an offer based on communication style. However Megan Sweeney appears to be a smart, capable woman who I believe knew exactly what I was asking and decided to stonewall me because she didn't like the angle of my initial approach. Such readings are always a judgement call and that's the one I made. Suffice it to say that it's best not to ask challenging questions but to play nice and focus on the information you need.

Evaluating The Opportunity: The Videos

The TechStars TV request states "our current videos boast more than 70,000 views, offering vast exposure." In an email Sweeney clarified that "The Founders 2010 series got over 70k views as of a year ago over various platforms."

The Founders: Season 1 had 14 episodes. That averages out to 5000 views per video.

All the videos I found were streamed either from Vimeo or YouTube. I randomly sampled videos from Season 1 on both channels. They did list the bands in the closing credits with an associated website. Specific songs used or sampled were not listed in the credits. That seemed to be the extent of the promotion directly connected to the videos.

The videos I checked out had no links to the bands' websites in the text on either Vimeo or YouTube though live links for TechStars and TechStars TV-related sites were sometimes present on YouTube and always present on Vimeo.

One artist who showed up in the credits for multiple videos was Ben Suchy. I searched for "ben suchy" on techstars.com via both the site's search engine and on Google. I found nothing there but upon searching meganleighsweeney.com via Google I found multiple references including The Founders Playlist. At no point did I see a reference to this playlist in video credits or in the text beneath any of the videos I sampled on Vimeo or YouTube.

I should note that linking out from text below videos does occur in some cases on Season 2 including the trailers. However none of the links were live, which totally baffled me. Also, at least three bands were noted in the TechStars TV post requesting music and those links also appeared on at least one related post on Sweeney's site.

Evaluating The Opportunity: Contacting The Bands

I tried contacting a few of the listed bands, though I only heard back from Harper Blynn. I was initially informed by one of the members that they were:"

"not familiar with TechStars TV…And to answer your question, we haven't seen any bump as a result of it."

And then received the followup when they sorted things out:

"A friend over there had asked one of us if she could use our music. So there you have it."

Though I don't think they meant these statements in a critical manner it's also clear that this band wasn't seeking publicity from TechStars TV.  Hearing from additional bands would have been useful. In any situation in which an offer is based on an ongoing program, it's always a good idea to contact people that have already seen it from the inside.

Final Evaluation: Pass On This Offer Unless You Know How to Leverage the Opportunity

Given that the counts for individual videos are relatively low and that the bands are not forefronted effectively, I think this offer is one that most bands should pass up. In addition, Sweeney's seeming resistance made me a bit suspicious but since most of the relevant information was available in other forms, that was not a factor in this evaluation.

However, if you need to base your decision on information that is not publicly available and you do a better job of communicating in a non-aggressive manner than did I, then I would take poor communication as a negative signal.

But this could be a positive opportunity for bands that have an agenda and are proactive. For example, if a band planned to reach out to tech companies for such things as partnerships and sponsorships and was a good match for such relationships (i.e. not on a fantasy trip), I think TechStars TV would be a great place to appear.

That said, the payoff would not be from publicity provided by TechStars TV. All relevant opportunities are most likely to come from the band's own efforts. So bands would have to post the videos on their own sites and reference those appearances when establishing relationships with relevant individuals in the tech community.

I should note that it's quite likely that TechStars TV would add such promotional features as live links below the videos if bands requested them directly. Often bands don't tell people what they want when these opportunities appear, especially if they don't have competent pr/marketing support, and miss out on promotional benefits.

In addition, bands should be posting the videos in which their music appears on their own sites and even putting out some sort of press notice to capitalize on the situation whether or not they are interested in reaching the tech community. You'd be surprised how far you can get with local and sometimes national media by referencing such appearances, especially if you don't have a history of licensing or even of solid media coverage.

Why This Offer Bugged Me

This request for free music bugged me for a couple of reasons. Tech startups are getting lots of money and in their world the recession seems to be a thing of the past. In addition, the most vocal individuals in the tech community addressing music and technology seem to share the message that musicians should forget about selling music and make money through live performances, licensing and other opportunities. So asking for free licensing, which is what TechStars TV is essentially requesting, grates a bit.

Nevertheless, even when someone else is making a lot of money and they want you to do something for free, you should not base your consideration on that giant stack of greenbacks but should evaluate the opportunity for what you can get out of it. If it fits your agenda then go for it. If you find it to be an unacceptable situation, ask for more than is being offered. All they can do is say no.

Hypebot Senior Contributor Clyde Smith (@fluxresearch) maintains a business writing hub at Flux Research and blogs at Crowdfunding For Musicians. To suggest topics for Hypebot, contact: clyde(at)fluxresearch(dot)com.

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  1. Way too many Tech companies have made their bones from the use of music and it’s no surprise to see another trying the same. What get’s me the most about this trend is that musician’s if they don’t earn a living making music will stop making it and we’ll be left with sounds that don’t mean a thing and have no one sayin I’m buying this.

  2. I find your stance a little odd, Clyde. Speaking as a musician, it’s really no trouble to just give them a song of mine if they want to use it: my music’s getting heard by some new people, no matter how small, and you’re helping out someone who wants music for their own creative project in the process. Win win. If you make music, surely you want your music heard? To not do it seems absurd, when there is literally no downside. If I turn it down, they just use someone else’s music, and I lose out on the chance to have even one new person notice my stuff.

  3. And that’s totally your choice. We all have different perspectives and I share mine in a way that I hope also includes some useful information whether or not people agree with my final evaluation.

  4. I should add that a lot of artists start out giving everything away for marketing purposes, fanbase building, etc. and later shift towards a different approach in which some things are free and each opportunity is evaluated based on the specifics.
    For those who want to focus on productive relationships, the above post includes some ways of determining whether or not a relationship will be worth the time it takes to manage it. You’re right, there’s probably little downside in this case but there’s probably not that much of an upside either.
    So are you going to send them your music?

  5. I agree that there may not be much of an upside – the best I can hope for is that maybe a few people hear my music for the first time and enjoy it – for the time it takes to send an email I don’t really mind. I completely agree that the discussion on valuing people’s music fairly is one worth having, in any case. And yes, I’ve sent them my music now 🙂

  6. Thanks for the thought-provoking article. I agree with everything you wrote except for your suggestion that most bands should pass up this opportunity. This offer isn’t really about tech companies, money or clicks, it’s about resumes. Remember, most bands are not just trying to build a fan base, they are trying to sell themselves to the music establishment. If a band is seeking more serious music licensing opportunities down the road, a placement in The Follower could be quite helpful. After all, an acceptance suggests that a music supervisor liked the band’s music. This counts for something, and other music supervisors might take this into consideration. Also, when peddling a band to a record label, a legitimate list of accomplishments – like a song placement – can help. By the way, I especially liked your suggestion that accepted bands send out a press release to attract attention. Super article! I hope a lot of bands read it.

  7. Thank you for this very informative article. Determining what offers are beneficial versus those that are exploitative for independent artists isn’t easy.

  8. I appreciate the kind words.
    However, I don’t think music supervisors operate that way.
    Also I kind of question the logic of record labels taking this into account. They tend to want to see actual signs of a fanbase. If your music appears on a show that’s poorly promoted and there’s no bump in your following and if they didn’t recognize the situation, then they could just as easily assume that lots of people heard it and weren’t interested.
    So there’s that to consider.

  9. It is easy for corporates to exploit upcoming musicians using their work without paying them. But the upside is that musicians then get the exposure they wouldn’t normally have, and will hopefully secure some clients in the future who are willing to pay!

  10. There is no upside to pretending that this company is offering anything to anyone but a free pass for themselves. A service rendered for nothing has no value. Web videos, perhaps I should expect you to work for free this week in the hope that you might get paid someday. Would you accept?

  11. Any offer that does not compensate the Artist with $$$ is, by definition, exploitive. If I asked you to work for nothing in the hope you might one day get paid, would you accept that as beneficial?

  12. Rick, I’ve been doing TV music since the 1980’s and I must say that I’ve NEVER seen a TV show accept anything based on what you describe.
    Music supervisors who accept music for free are not necessarily taking it because the “like it”. They are taking it because it’s free.

  13. Alex, at the rate of progress you describe, don’t quit your day job. A professional, such as myself gets paid. Anything else is amateur hour.
    If you wish to get paid, don’t set the precedent of doing something for nothing.

  14. BRAVO Clyde for doing this. We need more investigative reporting like this. I have shared your article with other groups that I chat with.
    To all those commenting that they see no downside to submitting their music to this company I would disagree and say that there is a definate downside to submitting to this particular “opportunity”.
    That downside is the de-evaluation of your music and the music of all musicians in general.
    It would be one thing if this was a non profit or charity. But this company has tons of money. They can afford a reasonable liscence fee. Submitting your music to a company like this is (in my opinion) basicly saying “My music has little value”.
    I have seen this trend in other areas of the music business. where live gigs that once paid are now in exchange for “Exposure”.
    I have seen this in other areas of the entertainment industry. In the field of Animation there are now film studios that are asking animation school graduates to work on their feature films for free (they call it an internship) in return for the exposure of saying you worked on thier film.
    So to all those reading I offer this word of warning. Be careful how much you give away, or it wont be long till the Movie and TV industries stop paying for liscencing and instead tell you to do it for the exposure too.
    OK, I will get off my soapbox. Thanks again Clyde for doing such a great service to us all.

  15. Techstars does great work. There’s no doubting the impact they have on the start up and tech community. True leaders in the space…
    All the same, I have to apply some of the same critical thinking to this model that they apply to the start ups that seek funding from them.
    If the argument, as stated here, is that they’ll only use “a couple of seconds” of your song, and expose that very brief play to 70,000 video views, that is not a large market opportunity. It’s not likely to produce a valuable return.
    At the end of the day it’s up to the artists. I don’t recommend it but if it’s right for you as a band / composer then go for it.

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