QTrax, Snapchat, and Self-Driving Cars
Two interesting music/tech news tidbits came across the wires this morning, seemingly unrelated. The first is that Snapchat, which I know is more than a platform for topless teen selfies these days, is interested in partnering with Apple to buy Big Machine. The snarky part of me feels like Evan Spiegel is doing this to hook up with/get back together with Taylor Swift, but the more I thought about, the more it kind of made sense. More on that below.
The other big story is the supposed launch of QTrax (hello 2008!) with a totally free, ad-supported, Facebook style model. Much like Beyond Oblivion, QTrax is best known for throwing awesome parties and never launching, and also for lying about having deals with labels. But now they are promising a release with 30% of equity going to artists and no paid tiers, claiming that Facebook is able to rely completely on ads, and they should be able to as well.
Here’s the flaw in that logic, though: Facebook doesn’t pay any of their content creators. All my photos and posts and funny comments on links are done for free. I also don’t get paid to tweet or post photos on Instagram. I find myself more drawn to my social media feeds than my blog feeds, especially on weekends and holidays, because blogs don’t update that often. This is a good thing in theory — bloggers are employees and should have time off — but if I just want to consume content, my Instagram feed is better bet than my Pulse feed at any given time.
Here’s the sneaky/brilliant/messed up (depending on your perspective) thing about all these companies — they amass tons of content and don’t have to pay a dime. I’m not a great Instagram photographer (OK, I’m actually pretty bad), but there are people out there who are, and Instagram still doesn’t pay them anything. They make money tangentially, from other companies. The most famous dogs on Instagram aren’t making money on their photos — they’re making money doing product placements and appearances. Ditto for Twitter; while they might have thrown some cash at celebs in the early days, they probably haven’t paid out anyone in ages, because they don’t need to. People can just make money by having big followings on Twitter, but if they are getting paid to actually write tweets, it’s by someone else.
So, if we follow this logic, what’s not to say the next step isn’t just using socials to distribute music and using that as a platform to make money doing other things (touring, endorsements, etc)? Soundcloud was arguably at the forefront of this — tons of people were willing to post their music for free and then try to make money elsewhere. The problem was mostly with the user experience — Soundcloud never got as big as any of the other social platforms and never quite became the place for music discovery. Maybe if they’d built in a Pandora-like functionality they could have cracked a more mainstream audience.
Part of what hampered Soundcloud was the fact that they had to deal with a copyright system that hasn’t caught up with the new digital reality. I say this as someone who believes in copyright but also knows that it can stand in the way of creativity. Presenting someone else’s work as your own is obviously wrong, but sampling and remixing are greyer areas, and on a platform like Soundcloud, you can get bogged down pretty quickly.
This all brings me back around to Snapchat and Apple and Big Machine, and why if this deal happens, it could be groundbreaking. There would be no more third parties standing in the way, and the content could flow directly from the creator to the audience, with the artist monetizing off ancillary revenue streams. I’ve long advocated for streaming services to do direct deals with artists, and this could be first in a number of deals between creators and platforms.
Even if the Snapchat deal does happen, things won’t change for a while. Outside the digital music bubble, there are plenty of people still buying CDs and listening to terrestrial radio, and labels still control radio promotions with an iron fist. But kids these days are sneaky, and consuming content in very different ways. A woman who hosts goofy YouTube shows is just as famous with teens as a boy-band star. Snippets of content (seven second videos, 140 characters tweets) are as important as three minute pop songs. Audio quality is a low priority — explain the Pono player to a teenager and they’ll just laugh.
I don’t think QTrax will succeed because, come on, it’s QTrax, and because it’s too early. We’ve got at least another generation before everything turns into wonderful nineties-era DIY dream where we’re all just creating and swapping content on the side, and making money other ways.
The other big recent Apple news is the self-driving car, which I would buy as soon as it came off the lot, because I bet it’ll be awesome. Again, it’s still a ways out, but here’s my hot take on the matter: the self driving car will kill terrestrial radio. Most people listen to the radio in the car because they want traffic reports (which won’t matter if Waze is driving you) and because they can’t do anything else in the car — read, text, etc (or at least, they shouldn’t do these things). Self driving cars mean that you can read the paper rather than listening to snippets of news between songs. It means you can scroll through feeds, or play games, or watch TV or movies — all of which will compete with music for your time. Of all the things that will be disrupted by self-driving cars, including millions of jobs, radio is low on the totem pole — but worth watching regardless.