Tim Mortensen is placing a serious bet that the record album is alive and well. And the CEO of hot Chicago startup Soundsupply may very well win going away.
Soundsupply is one of the emerging startups reinventing the music industry and shaping the way we discover music. Launched in 2012, Soundsupply bundles 10 digital albums into called “Drops” and sells them for $15 for 10 days on the Soundsupply website (similar to the way TeeFury sells distinctive T shirts for 24 hours at a time, thus stoking demand for a product with a limited shelf life.) The company recently received funding from Lightbank and appears to have tapped into a consumer appetite for digital albums: in 2012, digital album sales increased even as compact discs continued their downward slide, and for the first half of 2013, digital album sales continue to increase, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Soundsupply has created 10 Drops already — and according to Fast Company, artists featured on Soundsupply drops can get rewarded more handsomely than they would on streaming services like Spotify.
And Soundsupply doesn’t cater to the kind of pop stars you’ll find topping the Billboard charts, either; rather, the company hand-picks music from the kind of emerging artists that only your hippest friend has a knack for discovering. For instance, Soundsupply recently collaborated with Cleveland’s Weapons of Mass Creation Fest to offer a Drop of albums and one ebook from artists appearing at the 2013 WMC Fest, including folk/alt country artist Tristen, indie/emo rock band Braid, and alt rockers Signals Midwest and Diamond Youth, among others.
Drop 10, which went live on August 25, features (for 10 days only) another set of alternative artists such as indie rockers Their/They’re/There and Eli Mardock. We’re not talking Drops for Katy Perry and One Direction. And this is where Soundsupply is a force for good: a lesser-known artist like Barrow or Gates needs someone like Soundsupply to find an audience. The Katy Perrys, Jay Z’s, and Justin Timberlakes of the world do not.
Eli Mardock, Featured in Drop 10
Mortensen, who is on tour with his band Into It. Over It., took time to share with me how Soundsupply works and why the likes of Hypebot and TechCrunch have been singing the company’s praises. In the following exclusive conversation, he discusses where his love for music came from and how he lives his passion as both a musician and a CEO. And make no mistake: he is devoted to music and wants to share that devotion with you.
Into It. Over It.
“Whether I’m playing a show or curating a Drop, I want the same result of people experiencing something new and memorable,” he says. He and his team live music, whether playing it, reading blogs, or listening to it, in an eternal quest to discover and share up-and-coming talent with the world.
“Ultimately, we feel that our community of people that buy a Drop are the awesome type of music fans that every band wants,” he says. And he intends for Soundsupply to help those awesome fans find awesome bands.
Music is obviously in your blood. You’re a member of a band and CEO of a music/technology start-up. Where did your passion for music come from, and how did it develop?
I grew up in a really DIY music scene, so playing in band was just as much a social experience as it was an artistic outlet, at least in beginning. My first was (fittingly) a ska band that was way more concerned about having fun and dressing ridiculously than writing songs. My whole social ring of band friends gradually progressed to constantly challenge each other to write more engaging and unique songs until everyone came into their own.
How did Soundsupply come about? Where did the idea originate?
My brother and cofounder, Eric Mortensen, and I used to run a record label called Common Cloud Records. We constantly were faced the challenge of trying to get someone to discover a new album while paying for it. Lately, the idea of music discovery and music ownership had become two complete separate things. Soundsupply was develop to try and bridge that gap a little a find a way for a music fan to experience a new album while supporting and connected to a band in a way that wasn’t currently being offered.
Tell me what Soundsupply does in one sentence.
Soundsupply brings together amazing albums, digitally bundles them up and makes them available for a limited time (and at a ridiculous price) for music fans looking for their new favorite.
Who is your audience?
Music fans of all interest levels. We get a lot of diehards who love the idea of filling up their music library with new music for a crazy price. We get people that treat us as that friend who spends all their time listening to new bands and combing through music blogs to find that one great album to recommend to them. In general, it’s people who want to experience new music with very little effort.
Mister Loveless, Featured in Drop 10
Soundsupply obviously exposes listeners to lesser-known artists. Where do you find artists to curate? How do you make your final decisions on whom to feature?
We pull from a lot of resources, but the best success rate is friend recommendations. We have a lot of friends that play in bands that are constantly traveling around the world and send us great band after great band. We’ve also been really fortunate to have relationships with some of the best indie labels currently releasing music so they keep us up to date on their upcoming artists. At the end of the day, we listen to a lot of music and read a lot of music blogs. We take into consideration a lot of factors, most you’d assume, but we also value things like a heavy touring schedule and reputation within the band community. Hard work is a really appealing trait when we look into working with new bands.
Who are some recent Soundsupply discoveries that have inspired you personally, and why?
As far as inspirational music discoveries, we got introduced to a band called Generationals that has a new record out on Polyvinyl.
They have such a great sound that it’s been on constant repeat around the office and definitely has led us to a newer scene of bands that sonically are making some killer music. Other non-musical discoveries though, would be some of the great music startups we’ve been introduced to because of Soundsupply, including Soundslice, who are revolutionizing guitar tablature online, and our friends who just launched Downwrite, which allows fans to commission their favorite artists to write and record personalized songs for a low as $100. Super inspiring work that pushes us to keep innovating to keep up!
How do artists benefit from your Soundsupply?
Exposure is a big benefit. We see pretty high levels of traffic on the site when we launch a Drop and benefit from a great community of fans that help us spread the word on all the social networks. Financially, the short time period can generate a hefty payout at the end of a 10-day run, plus we pay our bands within a few days of a Drop ending, so the money is ready to spend on a van payment or recording time right away. Ultimately, we feel that our community of people that buy a Drop are the awesome type of music fans that every band wants. Fans that want to know about new music (and own it) and then go see them on tour or track down some of their merch online.
Diamond Youth, Featured in Drop 9
How much of your job consists of expanding your listeners’ tastes versus giving them what sounds familiar to them?
That’s a tough question and would probably depend on the day. Some days, we’re building a Drop that is designed to have that aspect of challenging a user’s taste to see if exposure to a new sound is something they’re going to love. Some days, we’re building Drops around a specific theme or genre and the goal might be to find the very best band within those parameters.
How does being in a band inform your job as CEO, and vice versa?
I think both rely on a lot of the same principles including good communication, willingness to take risks, being good to people, that I don’t really separate them much in my life. Whether I’m playing a show or curating a Drop, I want the same result of people experiencing something new and memorable.
Cowboy Indian Bear, featured in Drop 10
How do you manage a business while touring?
Well, Soundsupply was launched and operated while Eric and I were both working day jobs, so we’ve always been very flexible in how and where we work. Whether I’m at the office or in the back of a van, I can be connected and get done whatever we’re working on that day. Technology is a wonderful thing, in that sense.
You offer album-length music in a time when people are downloading singles — and your band records albums. How can artists succeed with albums anymore?
Like any change in an industry, it puts a strong emphasis on expanded creativity. If a band is truly creating an album that is worth owning, one that tells a great story or is packed with amazing songs, then the problem solves itself. That pressure should lead to better quality albums from the bands that step up to the challenge.
What do you make of artists like Thom Yorke criticizing Spotify? Do you think Yorke is correct to criticize Spotify for its artist royalty rates?
I think there always needs to be dialogue between artists and the community so everyone involved is aware of what is going on with all the parties involved. Now is the time when things are shifting and changing in the music industry to make sure everyone is being treated fairly before too much damage is done.
Radiohead and Thom Yorke are in a different position than a lot of bands, but if nothing else, they’re great at starting the conversation and trying to see what the future of music looks like for bands of all sizes.
Soundsupply is one of many music/technology startups exploding on the music scene. Why are so many startups emerging now?
I think a lot of bands have been trying to figure out how technology can be best optimized for the exposure of their music and we’re starting to see the results of a lot of experiments. I love the idea that the power and creativity of technology could be harnessed by hard working bands to help them get their music into new places and I think people want technology to provide the access and discovery to their music life.
Pity Sex, Featured in Drop 10
What do you think the music industry will look like 5 years from now?
Well, what I hope is to see the interest in vinyl continue to grow. I hope we’ll see more bands (responsibly) harness the power of crowdsourcing to retain the power and flexibility of self-releasing albums. I hope to see more passionate, independent labels pop up and help out deserving artists because it’s becoming easier to release quality music with less production cost and less risk. I hope we’ll continue to see people choose to buy music in a way that best supports an artists and that conversation will continue to happen.
How will we discover music 5 years from now?
The same way we always have, through friends.