'More Songs, But Not More Streams': Former Spotify Executive on the Future of Music Technology
Sam primarily covers entertainment and media for dot.LA. Previously he was Marjorie Deane Fellow at The Economist, where he wrote for the business and finance sections of the print edition. He has also worked at the XPRIZE Foundation, U.S. Government Accountability Office, KCRW, and MLB Advanced Media (now Disney Streaming Services). He holds an MBA from UCLA Anderson, an MPP from UCLA Luskin and a BA in History from University of Michigan. Email him at samblake@dot.LA and find him on Twitter @hisamblake
dot.LA sat down with Will Page, former chief economist of Spotify, and Ed Buggé, partner at leading L.A. entertainment law firm Hertz Lichtenstein Young & Polk, to discuss the future of music tech. The two explore livestreaming post-pandemic, the growing glut of music fighting for attention and potential new streaming regulations.
Assume the pandemic is over and we're all waking up to whatever resembles business-as-normal in the world of music and tech. What jumps out to you?
Will Page (WP): Live Nation's stock price has already reached its pre-pandemic peak, suggesting the market's mood is that we're indeed well on our way back to normal. But all the advancements in livestreaming won't go away once live music returns. The question is, how do they coexist?
Ed Buggé (EB): The sense of what's "normal" in music and wider media is constantly being challenged and disrupted, with the pandemic accelerating much of that change. That's what's so exciting about where we are now: There won't be a return to old ways of doing things.
Returning sectors like live concerts will coexist alongside new developments like the increased volume of livestreaming, which proliferated as artists used them to connect with fans during lockdown. Which livestreaming companies thrive once things normalize will depend on the quality of their tech, including VR and AR components that offer fans an immersive experience worthy of their attention in a world where physical shows are once again an option, (and) how well they enable artists to reach audiences on a previously unprecedented scale.
Will Page was Spotify's chief economist.
How does music's battle for attention look coming out of the pandemic?
EB: Competition for attention is only going to increase as post-lockdown life returns. Livestreaming and live concerts is just one example. There will be more songs, as independent distributors and service providers continue to grow. Social media, gaming and fitness industries will likely increase their power to dictate viral hits. And artificial intelligence will keep shaping music discovery and listening experiences – including "lean back" listening while other activities command our attention.
WP: Audio streams flattened in the second half of 2020 - that's a trend worth watching in 2021. We can expect more subscribers and more songs, but not more streams. The constraint of attention — only 24 hours in a day — will keep biting as kids game, teens TikTok and adults podcast.
Given that constraint, what's your take on whether 2020's flurry of investment into music copyright will continue?
Ed Buggé is a partner at L.A. entertainment law firm Hertz Lichtenstein Young & Polk.
EB: Publishing catalogues are now firmly established as an asset class. The eye-catching prices being paid for them, with some acquisition multiples above 20-times annual earnings, is a long-term investment relying on the assumption that hit songs will continue to command attention for decades. Given the competition between potential purchasers right now, it's a great time to be an established songwriter with a catalogue to sell.
WP: I think there's too much trajectory logic at the moment. It's worrying that some people think that as the pie gets bigger, a given catalog's share of the pie will remain the same. There are too many variables (and not enough equations) for past performance to be a good indicator of the future. The next cohort of listeners could have a completely different demographic, geographic and cultural makeup from the last.
How can talented musicians get ahead of the curve when it comes to technological trends and position themselves for success?
EB: In such a crowded marketplace there needs to be something remarkable about what you are doing. The music, your story – the creative needs to stand out.
Once you've leapt that hurdle, the artist teams that will stay ahead are those who are prepared to embrace change. At the start of the year, breaking tracks through TikTok or gaming collaborations were innovative strategies; now they've quickly become established methods. That's the pace of change that we are seeing at the moment. So the question is - what's next and how can you be a part of it?
WP: Here's one example: I'm obsessed with the 'early access' model in gaming, where you monetize a new game whilst it's still in development. Minecraft is an early example, but to date, it rarely happens anywhere outside gaming. I think that may be about to change. Music can't afford to disappear into the studio for two years any more. It'll need to pivot and monetize whilst still in the studio.
The British government is currently examining whether the streaming economy needs reform. How might that ultimately ripple into the broader world of music-tech?
WP: This is a big one. Expect contagion as many more major music markets are called up in front of their respective governments in 2021 as politicians seek to establish (a) whether the streaming model is fair and (b) if it's not, whether intervention is merited. What's been made clear is there's a problem with the 'trickle down' economics of streaming. The UK government has a first-mover opportunity to explore ways of fixing this.
EB: With the pace of change in music and media, you inevitably have a legal and regulatory framework that has to play catchup. If the British government looks to enact legislation to alter the economics of streaming in favor of the artist, then it may act as a standard that regulators in other territories follow.
WP: Radio and television are heavily regulated, but streaming is not. The U.K. is taking steps to work out the 'if' and 'if so, how?' and the U.S. should be tracking developments here closely.
Beyond what we've covered, what else will you be watching for in 2021 music tech?
EB: Technology will continue to enable an increasingly direct relationship between artists and their fans. For example, providing access to exclusive content, physical and virtual merch drops and livestreaming concerts, as well as the ability for fans to communicate more directly, both with artists and with each other.
WP: Kevin Kelly (co-founder of "Wired") penned his 1,000 True Fans essay back in 2008, predating the launch of streaming. Now, it feels like we're subconsciously revisiting it. After all these years of success in music streaming with Amazon, Apple and Spotify, it's still largely impossible to directly pay for your favorite artists, nor can you communicate with them. You're seeing companies like Twitch make impressive moves into this space; MixCloud is also fostering direct relationships with curators. There's going to be more of that in 2021. Fans want to express their love to their artists directly, not via a platform.
Finally, what's in store for the Los Angeles music tech world in 2021?
EB: In L.A. we're seeing a wave of media and technology startups that will continue to disrupt and drive change in the industry. The high activity levels across fundraising and M&A also seems set to continue, as new players enter the market and incumbents focus on future-proofing their business models in such a fast-evolving landscape. There are few more exciting places to be right now.
WP: I'm not a native of Los Angeles, (as much as I want to move there), but what always strikes me about the city is the diversity of its people: Little Tokyo, K-Town, Tehrangeles, even one or two fellow Scots. Yet what I still don't see is media serving these expat populations. This is a universal problem and it leaves money on the table. I'd be hopeful that we'll see a new startup solve for curating to the diaspora in 2021.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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Though Silicon Valley is still very much the capital of venture capital, Los Angeles is home to plenty of VCs who have made their mark – investing in successful startups early and reaping colossal returns for their limited partners.
Who stands out? We thought there may be no better judge than their peers, so we asked 28 of L.A.'s top VCs who impresses them the most.
Mark Mullen, Bonfire Ventures<p>Mark Mullen is a founding partner of Bonfire Ventures. He is also founder and the largest investor in Mull Capital and Double M Partners, LP I and II. A common theme in these funds is a focus on business-to-business media and communications infrastructures.</p><p>In the past, Mullen has served as the chief operating officer at the city of Los Angeles' Economic Office and a senior advisor to former Mayor Villaraigosa, overseeing several of the city's assets including Los Angeles International Airport and the Los Angeles Convention Center. Prior to that, he was a partner at Daniels & Associates, a senior banker when the firm sold to RBC Capital Markets in 2007.</p>
Dana Settle, Greycroft<p>Dana Settle is a founding partner of Greycroft, heading the West Coast office in Los Angeles. She currently manages the firm's stakes in Anine Bing, AppAnnie, Bird, Clique, Comparably, Goop, Happiest Baby, Seed, Thrive Market, Versed and WideOrbit, and is known for backing female-founded companies.</p><p>"The real change takes place when female founders build bigger, independent companies, like Stitchfix, TheRealReal," she said this time last year in <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/greycrofts-dana-settle-on-closing-funding-gap-for-female-founders-2019-12" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an interview with Business Insider</a>. "They're creating more wealth across their cap tables and the cap tables tend to be more diverse, so that gives more people opportunity to become an angel investor." Prior to founding Greycroft, she was a venture capitalist and startup advisor in the Bay Area.</p>
Erik Rannala, Mucker Capital<p>Erik Rannala is a founding partner at Mucker Capital, which he created with William Hsu in 2011. Before founding Mucker, Rannala was vice president of global product strategy and development at TripAdvisor and a group manager at eBay, overseeing its premium features business.</p><p>"As an investor, I root for startups. It pains me to see great teams and ideas collapse under the pressure that sometimes follows fundraising. If you've raised money and you're not sure what comes next, that's fine – I don't always know either," Rannala wrote in <a href="https://www.mucker.com/more-funding-wont-magically-fix-your-startup/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a blog post for Mucker</a>. </p><p>Mucker has a portfolio of 61 companies, including Los Angeles-based Honey and Santa Monica-based HMBradley.</p>
William Hsu, Mucker Capital<p>William Hsu is a founding partner at the Santa Monica-based fund Mucker Capital. He started his career as a founder, creating BuildPoint, a provider of workflow management solutions for the commercial construction industry not long after graduating from Stanford. </p> <p><a href="https://www.fastcompany.com/3048173/the-unexpected-and-hard-earned-lessons-from-a-dot-com-flame-out" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In an interview with Fast Company</a>, he shared what he learned in the years following, as he led product teams at eBay, Green Dot and Spot Runner, eventually becoming the SVP and Chief Product Officer of At&T Interactive: "Building a company is about hiring correctly, adhering to a timeline, and rigorously valuing opportunity. It's turning something from inspiration and creative movement into process and rigor."</p> <p>These are the values he looks for in founders in addition to creativity. "I like to see the possibility of each and every idea, and being imaginative makes me a passionate investor."</p>
Jim Andelman, Bonfire Ventures<p>Jim Andelman is a founding partner of Bonfire Ventures, a fund that focuses on seed rounds for business software founders. Andelman has been in venture capital for 20 years, previously founding Rincon Venture Partners and leading software investing at Broadview Capital Partners.<br><br>He's no stranger to enterprise software — he also was a member of the Technology Investment Banking Group at Alex. Brown & Sons and worked at Symmetrix, a consulting firm focusing on technology application for businesses.</p> <p><a href="https://dot.la/la-venture-podcast-jim-andelman-of-bonfire-ventures-2648143780.html" target="_self">In a podcast with LA Venture's Minnie Ingersoll</a> earlier this year, he spoke on the hesitations people have about choosing to start a company.</p>"It's two very different things: Should I coach someone to be a VC or should I coach someone to enter the startup ecosystem? On the latter question, my answer is 'hell yeah!'"
Josh Diamond, Walkabout Ventures<p>Josh Diamond founded Walkabout Ventures, a seed fund that primarily focuses on financial service startups. The firm raised a $10 million fund in 2019 and is preparing for its second fund. Among its 19 portfolio companies is HMBradley, which Diamond helped seed and recently <a href="https://dot.la/hm-bradley-2649022900.html" target="_self">raised $18 in a Series A</a> round.</p><p>"The whole reason I started this is that I saw there was a gap in the funding for early stage, financial service startups," he said. As consumers demand more digital access and transparency, he said the market for financial services is transforming — and Los Angeles is quickly becoming a hub for fintech companies. Before founding Walkabout, he was a principal for Clocktower Technology Ventures, another Los Angeles-based fund with a similar focus.</p>
Kara Nortman, Upfront Ventures<p>Kara Nortman was recently promoted to managing partner at Upfront Ventures, making her one of the few women – along with Settle – to ascend to the highest ranks of a major VC firm.</p><p>Though<a href="https://upfront.com/thoughts/announcing-upfronts-new-co-managing-partner" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> Upfront had attempted to recruit her</a> before she joined in 2014, she had declined in order to start her own company, Moonfrye, a children's ecommerce company that rebranded to P.S. XO and merged with Seedling. Upfront invested in the combination, and shortly after, Nortman joined the Upfront team.</p><p>Before founding Moonfrye, she was the SVP and General Manager of Urbanspoon and Citysearch at IAC after co-heading IAC's M&A group.</p><p><a href="https://dot.la/moving-from-the-passenger-seat-to-the-drivers-seat-upfronts-kara-nortman-named-managing-partner-2648493740.html" target="_self">In an interview with dot.LA earlier this year</a>, she spoke on how a focus for her as a VC is to continue to open doors for founders and funders of diverse backgrounds.<br></p><p>"Once you're a woman or a person of color in a VC firm, it is making sure other talented people like you get hired, but also hiring people who are not totally like you. You have to make room for different kinds of people. And how do you empower those people?"<br></p>
Brett Brewer, Crosscut Ventures<p>Brett Brewer is a co-founder and managing director of Crosscut Ventures. He has a long history in entrepreneurship, starting a "pencil selling business in 4th grade." In 1998, he co-founded Intermix Media. Under their umbrella were online businesses like Myspace.com and Skilljam.com. After selling Intermix in 2005, he became president of Adknowledge.com.</p><p>Brewer founded Santa Monica-based Crosscut in 2008 alongside Rick Smith and Brian Garrett. His advice to founders <a href="https://crosscut.vc/team/" target="_blank">on Crosscut's website</a> reflects his experience: "Founders have to be prepared to pivot, restart, expect the unexpected, and make tough choices quickly... all in the same week! It's not for the faint of heart, but after doing this for 20 years, you can spot the fire (and desire) from a mile away (or not)."</p>
Eva Ho, Fika Ventures<p>Eva Ho is a founding partner of Fika Ventures, a boutique seed fund, which focuses on data and artificial intelligence-enabled technologies. Prior to founding Fika, she was a founding partner at San Francisco-based Susa Ventures, another seed-stage fund with a similar focus. She is also a serial entrepreneur, most recently co-founding an L.A. location data provider, Factual. She also co-founded Navigating Cancer, a health startup, and is a founding member of All Raise, a nonprofit that supports and provides resources to female founders and funders.</p><p><a href="https://medium.com/@John_Livesay/when-google-bought-my-startup-81f1ee21488c" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In an interview with John Livesay</a> shortly before founding Fika, Ho spoke to how her experience at Factual helped focus what she looks for in founders. "I always look for the why. A lot of people have the skills and the confidence and the experience, but they can't convince me that they're truly passionate about this. That's the hard part — you can't fake passion."</p>
Brian Lee, BAM Ventures<p>Brian Lee is a co-founder and managing director of BAM Ventures, an early-stage consumer-focused fund. <a href="https://dot.la/brian-lee-los-angeles-venture-capital-2645125301.html" target="_self">In an interview with dot.LA earlier this year</a>, Lee shared that he ended up being the first investor in Honey, which was bought by PayPal for $4 billion, through investing in founders and understanding their "vibe."</p> <p>"There's certain criteria that we look for in founders, a proprietary kind of checklist that we go through to determine whether or not these are the founders that we want to back…. [Honey's founders] knew exactly what they were building, and how they were going to get there."</p> <p>His eye for the right vibe in a founder is one gleaned from experience. Lee is a serial entrepreneur, founding LegalZoom.com, ShoeDazzle.com and The Honest Company.</p>
Alex Rubalcava, Stage Venture Partners<p>Alex Rubalcava is a founding partner of Stage Venture Partners, a seed venture capital firm that invests in emerging software technology for B2B markets. Prior to joining, he was an analyst at Santa Monica-based Anthem Venture Partners, an investor in early stage technology companies. It was his first job after graduating from Harvard, and during his time at Anthem the fund was part of Series A in companies like MySpace, TrueCar and Android.</p><p>He has served as a board member in several Los Angeles nonprofits and organizations like KIPP LA Schools and South Central Scholars.</p> <p>"Warren Buffett says that he's a better businessman because he's an investor, and he's a better investor because he's a businessman. I feel the same way about VC and value investing. Being good at value investing can make you good at venture capital, and vice versa," Rubalcava said in <a href="https://moiglobal.com/alex-rubalcava-interview/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an interview with Shai Dardashti of MOI Global</a>.</p>
Mark Suster, Upfront Ventures<p>Mark Suster, managing partner at Upfront Ventures, is arguably L.A.'s most visible VC, frequently posting on Twitter and on his <a href="https://bothsidesofthetable.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">blog</a>, not only about investing but also more personal topics like weight loss. In more normal years, he presides over LA's biggest gathering of tech titans, the Upfront Summit. Before Upfront, he was the founder and chief executive officer of two software companies, BuildOnline and Koral, which was acquired by Salesforce. Upfront backed both of his companies, and eventually he joined their team in 2007.</p><p>In a piece for his blog, "Both Sides of the Table," <a href="https://bothsidesofthetable.com/finding-an-investor-who-is-in-love-with-you-d0badf1a3998" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Suster wrote about the importance of passion</a> — not just for entrepreneurs and their businesses, but for the VCs that fund them as well.<br></p><p>"On reflection of the role that I want to play as a VC it is clearly in the camp of passion. I really want to start my journeys only with people with whom I want to work closely with for the next 5–7 years or more. I only want to work on projects in which I believe can produce truly amazing change in an industry or in the world."</p>
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