Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Bop.fm CEO on Creating a Universal Platform For Music Services

Alex Pham/Billboard

The founders of Bop.fm, a new company that lets listeners share songs with friends regardless of what music service they subscribe to, don't profess to be experts on the music business.

What Shehzad Daredia and Stefan Gomez do know a great deal about, however, is data -- how to bend it, massage it, clean it up and make it harmonious across services.

Daredia and Gomez, who launched Bop.fm on Dec. 7, have wrestled with large, complex data sets in their previous positions at Kayak, BillShrink and Foodily Inc. Their San Francisco-based start-up is their first crack at the world of music metadata -- which is known for being particularly headache-inducing.

Their service, which Daredia likes to call "Kayak for music," lets users share a track with any friend -- on any service -- via a universal, Bop.fm link. On the back end, Bop.fm aggregates data from music services such as Spotify, YouTube, SoundCloud and Rdio, as well as iTunes, Amazon and Google Play download stores. It automatically sniffs out which services a listener has and plays the song via that service -- without them having to register with Bop.fm. An example of how Bop.fm works can be heard on Rap Genius, which uses the service to automatically detect what music services its visitors have and uses that service to play the song they want to hear. The tiny, four-person company is backed by $100,000 in seed funding from Y Combinator and four other venture investors.

In the near term, the company hopes to make money from referral fees generated by sending listeners to subscription services and online music stores. In the long run, the two want to build up a comprehensive database on music listening and making it available to marketers and retailers.

We recently spoke with Daredia about his company's approach to music, what they found frustrating and why they choose the sector in the first place.

Billboard: From your perspective coming with experience from other verticals, what do you see are the three biggest problems with music data?
Shehzad Daredia:One, there is no universal identifier for a song. Books have ISBN numbers that enable different retailers to easily refer to exactly the same title. Music has no such unique identifier. Hence, tracks in Spotify or iTunes are difficult to accurately match up against tracks in YouTube or SoundCloud, for example. Secondly, the ecosystem is set up to silo data rather than liberate it. Because the on-demand streaming services operate on a subscription model, they are motivated to keep consumers' library and playlist data within their platforms and prevent its free export so they can retain the consumer as a subscriber. This limits consumer choice and often prevents new users from signing up for these services in the first place, knowing that their data would be held captive and they'd have to start over with building up their library. And thirdly, the nature of licensing creates additional dimensions against which music data fragments itself. Since music licensing occurs on a country-by-country basis, the data itself gets splintered by country. That leads consumers in different countries to have different access to music. Sharing music between friends breaks down here because a given song in say, Spotify, is actually associated with dozens of different tracks -- each with its own country restrictions.

Very complex. But you guys are used to that. How does music data compare to, say, hotel bookings or carrier plans?
The travel industry has global distribution systems (GDS) such as Amadeus and Sabre, as well as data providers such as ITA, who are responsible for organizing and linking travel information across retailers. No such categories exist today within digital music, and hence music services end up creating their own taxonomies that are incompatible with each other.

Do you see solutions from other industries that can be applied to music data?
Unfortunately, every industry has a different structural composition that prevents one approach from being blindly applied to another industry. That said, we have experience creating vertical search engines for 11 different industries, and music is now their 12th. Our core competency lies in parsing, indexing, normalizing and deduplicating semi-structured and unstructured data and then building a compelling user experience on top of it.

Why did you choose to get into music?
We didn't deliberately set out to "do a music startup" per se, even though we both are passionate about music. Many of our friends cautioned us against getting into music because of the pitfalls faced by so many music startups. It's also very difficult to acquire users and monetizing them. But we started Bop.fm anyway because we were frustrated with the fragmentation within digital music today and two particular pain points it created for people: 1) the need for users to switch between multiple different applications to consume all of their music, and 2) sharing music reliably with friends required them to be on the same service and/or in the same country as you. We wanted to create a unified streaming experience that was both comprehensive and interoperable - allowing users to have all of their music in one place and be able to easily share with friends, wherever they are. Music is a unique medium because we consume it daily, on repeat, and we actively seek to discover new finds and share them with our friends. It only makes sense to try to make that experience as seamless as possible.

Did you get pushback when you pitched investors on a music start-up?
It's tough, but not impossible. Many investors have an allergic reaction to music start-ups because they've seen so many crash and burn, whether due to the high costs of licensing or the historically litigious nature of record labels when they're threatened by a new model that circumvents them. However, we created bop as a win-win-win for users, music services, as well as artists and labels. Users get all their music in one place and the ability to seamlessly share across music services. Music services get a performance-based marketing channel for acquiring new users. And artists and labels get healthy, paid, legal adoption of music, in a way that promotes monetization instead of piracy. Our investors recognize our distinct set of value propositions across the ecosystem and have supported us because of it. One of our investors, Tom Ryan, the former head of Digital at EMI, has been quite valuable to us as we've shaped our strategy.

How are artists responding to Bop.fm?
Artists and labels have responded very positively. They love how the playback on bop occurs through officially licensed sources that usually monetize for them. Spotify, Rdio and Deezer generates streaming royalties. YouTube playback generates ad revenues. And iTunes, Amazon and Google Play downloads generate purchase revenue. They also see value in using bop.fm as a tool for promoting their new releases, since a Bop.fm song link replaces the need for them to post dozens of other links. A single bop link allows any user to stream, watch, or buy the song, regardless of country, device or music service. It's just a simpler and more effective mechanism for engaging their fan base.

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