With the interviews I’ve conducted so far, I found a common thread that I’d like to address. The rules for getting exposure as an artist have changed dramatically over the last decade or so. Each of the artists I spoke to stressed the importance of “being heard”, and getting your music out to the masses one way or another. The internet has certainly been a powerful new force in that arena, and has become the obvious first step beyond the record companies, as well as searching out distribution companies on your own. But with the new rules, where do you start? I recommend taking a look at the way Jeff Price, founder of a company called TuneCore, is changing the face of online music from the musician’s point of view! I find his approach enlightening, and most definitely “musician friendly”.
Jake Kot, Editor
Meet TuneCore Founder, Jeff Price
Jeff Price wanted to change the world — in particular the outdated business model of the music industry. The New York-based music industry veteran, who’s spent the better part of two decades giving voice to hundreds of eclectic artists (Pixies, Apples In Stereo, Richard Thompson, Ron Sexsmith, Clem Snide, Nellie McKay etc) via his SpinART label, is now taking the indie aesthetic to a whole new realm with the revolutionary delivery and distribution company TuneCore.
Price began honing the TuneCore concept during his four-year stint at eMusic, where he worked as Snr. VP of Content Acquisition, Interim GM of their New York office and Snr. Director of Business Development. In 1997, via his relationship with eMusic, spinART became the first record label in the history of the music industry to put its entire available catalog on-line to purchase as MP3s. As he watched online music sales grow exponentially, he grew increasingly disenchanted with the business practices of aggregators who, he felt, took far more than a pound of flesh for their role in getting music onto consumers’ computers.
“It made no sense to me on a moral or philosophical level,” he says. “Labels and artists were being told they’d have to give up the exclusive digital rights to their masters for a three to five year term, and each time something sold, they’d would have to pay between 15 and 30-percent of the income as a fee to the aggregator. On the one hand aggregators – and now physical distributors moving into the digital realm – want to control the masters like a label, but unlike a label they do not provide advances, A&R support or help, connection to studios to lower recording rates, provide tour support, front the money, and provide the staff, to manufacture CDs, make posters, buttons or stickers, put together street teams, embark on new media marketing campaigns, design, pay for and place specific print or banner adds, send out mailings to press radio or retail stores, hire independent promoters, publicists and countless other label services. On the other hand, like a traditional music distributor, aggregators also want to take a % of the money generated from the sale of the music. Unlike a physical distributor who earns this % via their services, aggregators do not have: a physical warehouse staffed with 40 people picking, packing and shipping orders. a staff to refurbish returned CDs to make them re-sellable, a 30 person sales force that go to actual physical retail stores around the country and speak to the buyers in those stores in an attempt to get shelf space for the new release, provide access to specific cooperative marketing programs in retail stores to increase profile and sales, price protection where the artist/label does not need to worry about collecting money from the retail accounts in order to get paid, insurance covering the physical inventory in their warehouse and countless other services. I was incensed by it.”
Instead of just getting mad, however, Price decided to change the model of the music industry through TuneCore. He’s fond of comparing his business model to Federal Express — a paradigm of physical delivery services — in that TuneCore is predicated on a simple flat-fee transaction, rather than a Byzantine set of financial agreements that takes a disproportionate amount of rights and revenues for access. A band wishing to market its work through the service need only pay a small up-front charge – usually a one time fee under 30 dollars, — and then begin the process of selling.
“We treat it as a service sector model,” says Price. “I think of it as analogous to Fed Ex. You walk into Fed Ex, say ‘deliver this to I-Tunes,’ and they say ‘okay, that’ll be 25 dollars’ and that’s the end of it. The reason is twofold. From a business perspective, I am providing a needed service in a very cost effective way. It also gives me an edge within the market to take on people who are very well funded.”
Word of mouth has earned the company a litany of raves from satisfied customers — a group as varied as Frank Black of The Pixies, Izzy Stradlin of Guns N’ Roses, Joe Ely, Roger O’Donnell of The Cure, Ziggy Marley, Frank Zappa’s estate, the Bottle Rockets, Secondhand Serenade, and Tapes and Tapes, the last of which have regularly spread the TuneCore gospel in interview after interview. Price says that the service’s appeal stems in part from its wallet-friendliness, but also touts its inherent user-friendliness as a major plus.
“There’s a major difference in the way you’re paid with TuneCore,” he says. “Everyone else pays you in royalty cycles, usually quarterly, so they can hold on to your money and earn interest on it. We’ve created a model where people have 24 hour, seven day a week access to their money, so they can take it out whenever they want. In addition, the TuneCore system allows you to use it to administer your finances as well. Use it to pay who you want, whatever you want as often as you want.
“The system is also incredibly easy to navigate. Everything is laid out in a very simple way, so that it only takes a few minutes for an artist to get his or her music out there,” he adds. “You type in the name of a band, of an album, upload the art and you can upload lossless music files immediately. Someone can put in a CD, upload it, and decide where they’d like to sell it and that’s it.”
Price certainly knows something about trying to get music heard. He founded the New York-based independent record label spinART more than 18 years ago, a span that’s seen the release of nearly 200 albums — including acclaimed releases by artists as varied as The Pixies, Richard Thompson, The Eels, Boo Radleys, The Fastbacks, Echo and the Bunnymen, Apples In Stereo, Clem Snide, Nellie McKay, The Church, The Dears and many more. The label, — the first to make its catalog of releases available as paid MP3 downloads — continues to maintain a rigorous release schedule, both under its own name and in partnership with such grass-roots imprints as Nellie McKay’s Hungry Mouse.
Price’s relationships with SpinART’s artists have been invaluable in TuneCore’s evolution — including Price’s current interest in taking the company beyond being a conduit between artist and consumer in the music-delivery realm. He envisions TuneCore as growing into a one-stop of sorts for artists seeking to take control of their own destinies on a basic business level.
“From day one, I wanted to use technology to take the headaches out of being a musician or label by providing services they want at prices lower than they can get on their own — under a new model,” says Price, who’s gone a long way towards achieving that goal already. “Bands can go to the site to make CDs or T-shirts, which they can do in a number from one to infinity. In the near future, they can have the cost debited from their account if they want. I also realized that with the financial aspect, we have a full automated administrative accounting too through which they can pay their mechanical royalties, buy guitar equipment, and make posters, buttons. I want to take the headache out of their lives without taking anything off the back end.”
Price grants that he’s spoken to many industry veterans who at first could not understand how he can make money by not taking money form the sales of the music. But after a conversation discussing the shift in the model from ownership to service provider, the bells would always go off. The fact that the company has delivered thousands upon thousands of releases via its system in its first year — with hundred of new releases coming under its purview each week — bears that out, as do the sales that’ve been driven through the myriad outlets that TuneCore services.
“Some people have asked me how we expect to make money,” Price says with a laugh. “I point out that Fed Ex has a fleet of airplanes around the planet based on 20 dollars at a time. What’s our overhead? Broadband and server space– that’s it. Our knowledge and connections come free with the service. I think the key to our success, though, is that even though we’re a technology company, we’re wrapped in a music industry shell. Everyone here is involved in music in some very basic way, whether that’s playing in a band, working as a DJ, so there’s a mix of passion and expertise, which I see as a winning combination.”