FIG. 1: Jeff Price of TuneCore (right) with Chuck D. Credit: Nick Loss-Eaton
The Web offers independent musicians the ability to self-distribute, allowing them to bypass record labels, distributors, and other gatekeepers of the old order. One of the best ways to distribute digital content is through online music services, most prominently Apple's iTunes Store, but also Rhapsody, eMusic, Napster, and others. Getting music onto such services used to be difficult, but it has been made extremely easy thanks to a Web-based service called TuneCore (www.tunecore.com), which also offers marketing opportunities for indie artists. I recently had a chance to speak with TuneCore's CEO and founder Jeff Price (see Fig. 1), who also runs the independent label spinART Records.
In brief, what is TuneCore's mission?
The mission is to enable artists to succeed. If you want the philosophy, that's the philosophy. Enable artists and musicians to succeed under a new model that never takes any of their rights — it doesn't exploit them, it serves them.
Describe how TuneCore works.
For the first time in the history of the music industry, you can get worldwide distribution of your music, and make it available for sale in the stores where people go to buy it, like iTunes, which is the third-largest seller of music in the United States and on the planet. For a simple, one-time, up-front flat fee, usually around 30 bucks, you get worldwide distribution of your music, placed into the [online] music stores where people go to buy it, and get 100 percent of the money from the sale of the music, and it's nonexclusive. You can cancel whenever you want.
Do your customers upload MP3 or AAC files to your site, or are there higher-fidelity options?
The format that we currently request is 320 kbps AAC. And the reason we request that is that we did a lot of testing. Each store has its own format or codec that it needs the music delivered in. What we need is a foundation, a piece of clay that can be molded. What we discovered after doing a lot of testing is that 320 kbps AACs really have the most flexibility without losing quality. We even compared it to AIFF and WAV files and so on, and we found that if you take the 320 kbps AAC, you can convert to, obviously AAC, MP3, Windows Media, Real, or any of the other formats, and there is really no sound degradation.
Can you get any artist's material into the stores, regardless of quality, or is there some sort of gate that the artist must get by first in order to get accepted?
The point of TuneCore is to remove filters. So previously, the barrier to entry was that you had to get to a label, the label would sign you based on subjective judgments and opinions, and then provide you the necessary tools, at a cost. The goal of TuneCore is to have no filter. To this point in time, there is not a single one of the hundreds of thousands, if not approaching millions, of songs that we've delivered that's been rejected by any store or service.
How does TuneCore help people with promotion? Can you give me some specifics?
We provide opportunities for promotion by going to places and creating avenues. I'll get specific: Sony VAIO is manufacturing 6 million computers. These are coming out fourth quarter. On those computers will be music from TuneCore customers.
They [Sony] chose. But it provides the opportunity. This is the benefit of being a TuneCore customer. We'll go in through our relationships and what we know, and we'll create these opportunities. We've got this catalog. They say, “Well, we're looking for singer-songwriters.” Great, here's singer-songwriter music, here's a lot. Here are things based on your parameters, because most of them [the third parties] want to pick it.
Can you give me another promotion example?
We did a promotion with BPM magazine, where we had a playlist of 25 songs, giving away 4 free, through iTunes. BPM promoted it in their magazine and on their Web site, and iTunes promoted it and so did we. They made like a quarter million of these free codes, which were tied into their Web site, and handed out plastic credit-type cards. It was exclusive only to TuneCore customers, and there was a quarter million downloads of a playlist of 25 dance/electronica songs for BPM. We're probably in the neighborhood of 80 to 120 artists that have been featured or profiled either on eMusic or Rhapsody or iTunes or Napster. And how do we pick and choose what we're promoting? I wish I could give you a magic formula, but to be very honest about it, I can't. I think this is an important second differentiator between us and other companies. Other companies will say, “We're going to market and promote you and get you on iTunes.” That's B.S. Running a label for 20 years, I understand how to market and promote, and the reality is that if everything is great, then nothing is great. And if you've got 3,000 releases coming out every month, because that's how many labels you work with, you can't say all 3,000 are great, which means most of it is not getting marketed and promoted.
Do you differ a lot from your competitors in terms of how you work?
I view TuneCore differently than maybe the way other people do. The reason is because I know in my head what I want us to be; we just haven't gotten there yet, because it takes time to build it. So what is it, what are we? In the end, what is TuneCore? It's Expedia, it's Travelocity, it's Orbitz. As a traveler, you go to a Web site to take the pain out of being a traveler. You get your airplane out of it, and then there are the other things you'll need that are specific to being a traveler: car rental, vacation package, travel insurance, and so on. So it's one place to simplify. And that was my thought with TuneCore — you go to one place, to simplify. But the radical shift in the model is, it's a music-industry model that doesn't take any rights or revenues from the exploitation of the masters — it's all service-fee based. So you show up for your airplane ticket, which is digital distribution, but maybe when you're there you want to get CDs made, so we manufacture them. Or, you want to get posters or buttons or T-shirts or stickers, and we do that.
If your fees are so small, how do you make any money?
A very valid question. Look at Federal Express. It's probably worth about 40 or 50 billion dollars. That's a company that made its money 15 to 20 dollars at a time delivering packages. I deliver packages, except that I don't have to own airplanes and airplane hangars, jet fuel, insurance, and so forth. I take broadband and a hard drive, and the rest of it is connections and writing the one-time write of the software code, and that's my overhead. The reason why the delivery fee is so low is because it can be. It's the cost of the broadband, and it's the cost of my processing power to convert your music to the format, and then it's delivering it on the other side to the third-party company. So if you think about it, that shouldn't cost thousands of dollars and give me unlimited amounts of money; that should be a simple flat fee. It's just like saying, “Give me your package at FedEx, put it in this envelope that we've made for you, and I'm going to put it in an airplane and fly this airplane to China.” They certainly can figure out the margins, and have a heck of a lot more overhead than we do. But the rest of it is, I hope that if you choose to do anything else on the service side — the buttons, the posters, the stickers, the T-shirts, the musical gear, the equipment, and so forth — that you'll choose to use us to buy it. Because why not, there's your money, you click a button and it's done, and the rate's lower than you can get on your own. And you know what? We'll make a small margin on it. Sure.
Mike Levine is an EM senior editor and the producer of the twice-monthly Podcast “EM Cast” (www.emusician.com/podcasts).