It's an idea that's been kicking around for years - that maybe people don't want to subscribe to music in general. Maybe, in cases of extreme fandom, they want to subscribe directly to the artists they love, without all of the layers of record labels, distributors, online music stores, and so on. The fan pays, the fan gets, done deal.
We touched on this concept with our idea for true artist radio, and we've seen labels such as Temporary Residence experimented with offering subscriptions to a limited run of curated content, but somehow, nobody has offered a scalable artist subscription until now.
Distro.fm, the brainchild of Kyle Marler, is a non-profit start-up currently seeking funding on Kickstarter, hopes to eliminate every possible middleman between artists and fans, by offering the chance to subscribe to everything a band does for somewhere around $10 per year.
Before we get to the interview, here's a quick summary of this promising new service:
- Non-profit middleman for direct music subscriptions
- Wants to be embedded everywhere as an option for when fans want to commit to something they've discovered on Pandora, Spotify, etc.
- A new hashtag-like symbol will refer to distro on T-shirts, the web, etc. It looks like ^slowdance^.
- The idea behind distro.fm might seem a tad idealistic, but the founder is a lawyer and musician who has thought this through (see interview).
- The band must send every song, remix, live recording, work in-progress, and other rarity to those fans. Nearly 100 percent of that money will filter through to the artists.
"Too much of the money being exchanged in the music marketplace is going to intermediaries that have nothing to do with the creation of music," wrote Marler to Evolver.fm. "Any fees that we charge for payment processing will only be the bare-minimum required to cover operating costs. No yachts for CEOs."
It's a simple web app with a clean interface. Subscribe to one of the relatively few bands or venues using Distro.fm so far (Atlas Sound, Cake Shop, Deer Tick, Lucky Dragons, Oh My Rockness, Phish, Santo's Party House, Slow Dance, Tall Firs, Umphrey's McGee, and more - all listed below), and you'll be able to stream and download their music from a simple iTunes-like interface. So far, bands aren't charging for these subscriptions.
Distro.fm (direct link) might sound like a utopian pipe dream, but Marler is a lawyer who knows what he is talking about. Lawyers are not inclined towards pipe dreams, as we confirmed in our exclusive, somewhat entertaining interview (edited for length and clarity but still fairly long).
Eliot Van Buskirk, Evolver.fm: So, what is this thing?
Kyle Marler, Distro.fm: There are two big takeaways here. One is that we're using a subscription model, instead of a digital music retailer model like iTunes or Amazon MP3. Sometimes people get confused when I say "subscription platform," because Spotify is a subscription-based platform, but you're not subscribing to an artist. That's the model we're using. You pay to subscribe to an artist, and for the next year, you receive whatever music they want to send you. Distro acts as a hub where bands can collect subscribers, upload songs, and automatically send it out to all their subscribers. That transaction is made as easy as possible.
The other big takeaway is that we're running as a non-profit organization, so that means we're keeping all of our costs as low as possible, and trying to get outside - like, foundation support, tax-deductible private donations - we're trying to approach it with a different model where it's not controlled by external shareholders. The stakeholders are the people who are actually using the platform - keep costs low and have a community-based approach.
Evolver.fm: Where have you guys been? I've been writing about this stuff for 14 years, and it's been one middleman taking over for the next. I've also been thinking that people might want to subscribe to bands, and not necessarily all the music in the world. Is that the idea here?
Marler: Yeah, that's the idea. I'm not saying Spotify doesn't have a role to play in the modern music marketplace - I think it's great as a music discovery tool, and if I ran a label, I'd probably have some of my artists' songs on Spotify, so that people can discover them. I'd probably put their music on retail - if people want to buy their songs from iTunes, I wouldn't stop them from doing that. I'd try to have the bulk of my material, plus extra goodies, on Distro.fm to encourage people to subscribe directly to the artists on my label. That way, when the user's year term is getting ready to expire, you can contact those subscribers and say, "Hey, you're subscription's about to run out, how about you resubscribe? Wasn't that an awesome year? Didn't you appreciate that music?" That way you can get a more reliable revenue stream than just putting out an album every year-and-a-half and hoping that the same people buy the album. It's more of a connection.
Evolver.fm: You touched on something I'm wondering about here, which is how this thing will ever take off. You recommend putting some of your stuff in Spotify, and I think bands definitely have to put at least something everywhere, but this would be where they put all their eggs, I guess, whereas that used to be the CD. But can bands really pull this off? If I like a band, how would I ever find out that they offer a Distro.fm subscription? Everybody knows to look on Spotify and iTunes, but this seems like a potential, not-insurmountable challenge.
Marler: We have a few different tools in the toolbox. One is network handles. If you go to the network search field on Distro.fm, you'll see that two carets [like ^slowdance^] pop up. When you see the two carets, you can recognize that that's someone's Distro.fm network handle, sort of like a Twitter handle. If a band has that on their T-shirt or stickers or whatever, you can recognize it very easily. Also, we're hoping that bands will take the lead in terms of promoting their Distro network on social media, and we're making that as easy as possible - it's just distro.fm/[your name].
We're also hoping to get Pandora and Spotify integration. When you hear a band using a discovery tool right now, you have options to buy the song. But if I hear a song on Spotify, I might prefer to go to Distro.fm and subscribe to that band directly. We're hoping to have Distro platform marketing from Spotify and Pandora.
Evolver.fm: So you're hoping - and you might be right - that Spotify and Pandora aren't competing with you, so they'll be like "Fine, this is just like putting in an iTunes link." Have you approached them?
Marler: I have had preliminary conversations with Pandora, but it seems like we're at too early a stage for them to really grasp what it is we're trying to do. But the point of Pandora, in a way, is to help promote artists, so if artists want to promote only their Amazon MP3 link or their BandCamp link, you'd hope that Pandora and Spotify would want to help the artist utilize a non-profit platform. Hopefully that will be an easy sell for them, but people can be pretty protective of their sites.
Evolver.fm: One reason they do it is referral fees. Amazon, iTunes - they all pay Pandora and the others a fee for sending customers their way if those people end up buying something. I was just reading that Gawker has seen great success with referral fees too; they made 70 grand in a month without even trying. Are you thinking about a referral fee? I bet music discovery services will want one, if Distro.fm scales up.
Marler: That would make sense. I guess it would be up to the artists and labels [whether to pay referral fees to online radio and other discovery sites]. But it would be great if we could find a way to integrate that. Any way that a band can funnel their traffic to them, instead of to iTunes. I've noticed that a lot of bands will have music on iTunes, but if you go to their website, they'll funnel you to Bandcamp, because that's where they're only losing 10 to 15 percent of their revenue, as opposed to the 30 percent that they're dropping in iTunes or Amazon MP3.
If we can figure out more ways to funnel people to Distro.fm, if that is the platform that bands want: "If you want to show support to me, go here and subscribe to us."
Evolver.fm: It's amazing, I was just looking at an old slide from when I saw Steve Jobs present the iPod (right), and he had this chart and he had calculated that the price of storing one song on a hard drive at that time came out to 30 cents. That could be where he got that 30-percent number, I think, and hard drive prices went down to the floor, and they just left their percentage right there. It's kind of amazing.