TastemakerX has opened its “I HEARD IT FIRST!” music app to the public today. Tastemaker taps into hipsters’ and record nerds’ desires to be the first one to discover a new band and evangelize it to their friends.
For such hipsters and nerds (read: My husband), the app is a quaint harkening back to the days when music discovery wasn’t turning on Pandora and letting technology do the rest, but a time when you had to actively crawl through dusty record bins and swap crappy bootleg cassettes to find new stuff before anyone else. The Web made music more accessible and available and all-you-can-eat. But for the record store acolytes, it killed all the hard work, and with it, the bragging rights.
On the surface TastemakerX is merely aiming to bring that back with a new twist — it’s a stock market-like game where you “invest” in up-and-coming bands and are rewarded when they start to tip. But more broadly, it’s part of a nascent wave of companies trying to do something much, much bigger: Trying to stay out of the startup music startup graveyard that has consumed so many hundreds of companies and hundreds of millions in venture capital.
How? By tapping into the enthusiasm around music, without having to get into the messy business of actually delivering it to people. Think of it like IMDb in the movie world or fantasy sports for sports, both of which suck in users deeply. People page from actor to film to director getting deeper and deeper into IMDb’s content, much like how Wikipedia sucks you into reading a story about Dr.Seuss, then “Yertle the Turtle,” then Hitler, then Charles Lindberg, and then aviation. And fantasy sports is one of the oldest examples of gamification on the Web actually translating to a mass market, non-fad business.
But here’s what’s important: At no time when you are doing either do you actually need to watch a movie or watch a game to enjoy the services. Both IMDb and fantasy sports have cleverly sidestepped all issues around licensing, piracy, cease-and-desists and bandwidth issues. “Fantasy sports people are not watching any of the actual games. They are just watching data,” says Marc Ruxin, CEO and founder of TastemakerX. “We’re trying to take that approach, to add value to the passion versus having to do label deals and trying to sell enough adds to support that huge cost.”
It’s hard to believe there isn’t at least that much passion around music, if it’s there around sports and movies. The question is who will tap that vein in just the right way? TastemakerX is trying to do it by replicating behavior that has existed as long as music has been around: the desire to be the armchair A&R man.
But there are other efforts underway too. You could argue that SongKick was an early pioneer of this by building affinity networks around live performances. And in a way Shazam did this by telling you what music you were listening to, not playing the music for you. SoundTracking helps you broadcast the “soundtrack of your life” but relies on Spotify and Rdio to do the dirty work of streaming actual music. There’s also This Is My Jam, created by former Last.fm employees, which just shares the name of your favorite song du jour over social networks — not actually play the song itself.
And my recent favorite, RapGenius, has built a fan site where you can decode rap lyrics. That’s been one of the more successful of the bunch in tapping into a passion without having to stream the music itself. The over-analysis of the lyrics — which frequently has guest appearances by the rappers themselves or the likes of VC Ben Horowitz — is almost more fun than listening to the song, much like fantasy sports is sometimes more fun than just watching a game. You can play the song — and many of these sites have ecommerce hookups to buy the music — but really that’s the least interesting part of the site.
Given the woes that Pandora — after more than a decade — and Spotify are having building actual profits off of services that are massive runaway successes with consumers, why would you even try to be in the music business if you had to deal with the costs and hassles of actually delivering music? VCs won’t fund you. And iTunes, Pandora, and Spotify are mostly satisfying people’s music needs, so there aren’t many huge consumers problems there to solve.
The question is whether the enthusiasm around music is enough to avoid landing in the much crowded startup music graveyard. It may not be for all of these players, but certainly there’s one or two that will capture lightning in a bottle.
[Disclosure: Our chairman Andrew Anker is an angel investor in TastemakerX.]
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]