Reflections on disrupting the music industry
The year is 1906. You are a sea captain, steering a ship through crashing waves and catching as much fish as possible for tomorrow’s Christmas markets. The usual beeps emanating from your shipboard radio stop, and you hear a different yet familiar sound. Excited, you run down and yell across the deck to your crew, “You gotta hear this, it’s a Christmas miracle. They’re playing ‘O Holy Night’ on the radio!”
A lot has changed about audio consumption since that Christmas eve in Boston.¹ That was the first time music had been delivered publicly, and with it an industry was birthed. Radio gave way to vinyl, which gave way to the tape cassette, CD, and now MP3. By the early 2000s, the success of digital music pioneers Napster and iTunes proved music streaming had great potential, but monetization and copyright licensing still lagged far behind. By 2011, streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, and others were becoming some of the most recognized brands in the world — music streaming was a force to be reckoned with.
In August 2012, I joined a tech company ripe with possibility. I saw music at a crossroads between the conventions of a century’s old industry and the potential of new technology. I felt joining Dubset Media would give me an opportunity to play a part. I hoped we would get acquired, but I never imagined my work would change the music industry. That success didn’t come without its fair share of growing pains and setbacks. It’s my hope that by sharing my story, it will help you make better decisions about your team, your company strategy, and your career. This is my journey, from start to sold.
I remember feeling nervous and excited my first day at Dubset. Located in the heart of ‘Silicon Alley’ in SoHo, New York City, this was a music startup starting to make some noise. That “noise” could be boiled down to three factors:
- Early success: Their first product was gaining traction within the NYC DJ community (a peer-to-peer info sharing tool).
- Timing: Electronic Dance Music (a DJ-centric culture) was seeing unprecedented growth in the US.
- Validation: Well covered by the press and located in a trendy co-working space, Dubset was primed for investment.
Like many startups, joining early meant volunteering to do the job of many, with a team of few. One moment you’re a marketer writing a newsletter and the next you’re wearing a business dev hat, leading a call with prospects about a new project. Startup teams are naturally spread thin because they exist in a domain of uncertainty (what does the future hold for our finances, strategy, etc) and must move quickly to validate ideas in the moment. Dubset was no exception, which meant a never-ending to-do list, constantly shifting priorities, and long hours. But I, like most of my colleagues, was up to the task because we believed in each other and the company.
I spent my first few weeks at the job getting my bearings, involving myself in anything and everything I could. I found out that a round of investing was in closing stages and business prospects were plentiful ー the excitement in the office air was palpable. It was like a dream… which ended up being too good to be true. People on the team started spending money where they shouldn’t, the lead investor backed out, and the round fell apart in front of my eyes. Promises of increased pay could no longer be kept and many of the top employees had to quit.
Things were seemingly falling apart, but a startup journey is never rosy and you can’t have a good story without conflict. This was just the beginning.
Similar to having a rug yanked from under your feet, when a financial floor falls out from underneath a startup, you fall in one of two ways. Backwards, you’ll hit your head and be down for the count. Forwards, you’ll fall face-first but live to fight another day. We had just enough momentum to fall forward, believing in a collective vision that we would change DJ culture forever.
The plan for ‘the round-that-never-was’ was to establish ourselves as a leading music service. Several of those potential investors were still interested, so they gave us some funding. It was enough to give us resources and runway for a few months. I took charge of the product development and worked with a small team of engineers to launch a music streaming service, with a brand facelift. We catered to people who loved DJ mixes and wanted to compete with Pandora, Spotify, Rhapsody, Songza, the kings of streaming at the time.
Since funds were limited, Dubset quickly shifted into survival mode. Experimenting and cost-cutting measures became the norm as we sought market-fit. We canvassed New York City and captured DJ sets with digital recorders, we tried new content verticals, and we talked to a lot of emerging tech companies. (One experiment was particularly cringeworthy: our attempt at crowd funding. Without much of a plan before launch and less of a plan during… our CEO had us cold-calling wedding DJs from Yelp, for hours on end. Thousands of awkward phone calls and zero qualified leads later, the campaign ended well below our targeted goal.)
Then, something happened in 2013–14. Music copyright owners — mostly labels & publishers — started enforcing takedowns of popular DJ mixes and remixes, all over the internet. These once niche pieces of musical content were now getting uploaded and consumed by millions, daily. Copyright owners started to notice this popularity because 1) people were making money off their content without approval and 2) they had no control of the content. So they brought down the hammer. Without so much as a warning, entire DJ catalogs were getting wiped off the internet. Fans became upset they couldn’t find the content they wanted, DJs became frustrated, music services lost users, rights holders still weren’t making money… nobody was happy. Except Dubset. This was exactly the problem we were meant to solve.
B2B to the rescue
Since it was becoming harder to monetize mixed content - brands, hoping to promote it, needed solutions. Dubset could leverage its connections and community of DJs to give that content a stable home (i.e. no risk of takedowns). We’d found a revenue source and some additional runway.
Our team obsessed over making an easy experience for content creators and giving the copyright owners peace of mind. One way we obsessed was to have routine conversations with our stakeholders and delivering on their biggest needs. In a few months, we made it easy to listen via Facebook and Twitter, we offered personalization, reports, killer mobile apps — customers were happy. Shipping requests built up trust with our users, which led to deeper discussions and better understanding of what they wanted. Creators wanted to reach more fans and copyright owners wanted more successful content.
Big picture, there was a bottleneck between supply and demand: a distribution problem. The channels DJs had once used to host their mixes were no longer viable. Dubset had built tech and services to make our music service an option. Tired: making it easy to distribute to our music service. Wired: making it easy to distribute to every service. There was a bigger opportunity than the one we were addressing.
A cog in the wheel
Our new vision was to deliver DJ mixes at scale in a way that gave everyone a seat at the table — creators, labels, publishers, services. We only had to build the “table” first. As we started to share and discuss the concept with stakeholders, validation and support poured in. The industry’s willingness to find a solution gave us motivation.
While business conversations happened ad nauseam, myself and the technical team were heads down. R&D focused on analyzing historical sets of content and data that we owned. We had to build a way to identify every song and its duration within a DJ mix. After several months of ceaseless experimentation, we invented a solution and had our proof-of-concept.
We pivoted quickly to leverage our software. Having a new vision for both business and product, Dubset raised cash and hired some executive muscle. Funding gave us ~12 months of runway to build a marketplace around our identification technology. Our focus had completely shifted away from the consumer side of the business. For the first time in its history, Dubset was a tech business first, music second.
From music-tech to tech-music
Things changed drastically for us.
Externally, conversations shifted tone. Folks thought that Dubset was crazy for wanting to solve secondary licensing at-scale, but supportive because it was a problem that needed solving. We channeled their enthusiasm, using it to build strong relationships and get regular feedback as we built the marketplace. “We are building this for you, what do you need it to have?” Our position was straight forward, which made for fruitful meetings.
Internally, roles and responsibilities transitioned. Dubset had become a B2B2C company: a business providing services to other businesses, who ultimately serve those to a consumer. Our audience shifted substantially and people were forced to take an entirely different approach to their daily routines. Departments were re-organized, placing colleagues under new managers, adjusting their positioning completely overnight. It was an emotional and stressful time, colleagues and people I considered close friends left. Those who stayed trusted that funding was just around the corner, and we’d soon help DJs get their mixes to millions of listeners.
In 2015, we quietly shipped the first version of our marketplace product. We used software tools to monitor customer metrics and behavior from the jump, rapidly releasing fixes and being proactive with customer issues. We’d reawaken our community of DJs; worth-of-mouth spread, flooding our inboxes with requests to join. Blogs and news outlets caught wind shortly after. The industry was buzzing about Dubset and our vision for DJ mixes.
As more opportunities came through the door, saying “no” became one of my most valuable skills. Overcommitting can be tempting to do at this stage, especially when you’re in the spotlight and every opportunity feels like an “easy win”. We learned that lesson the hard way and committed some features to partners that locked us into tech debt for years to come. Still, we made promises and signed up more customers to the platform; the marketplace was growing rapidly.
A critical milestone for Dubset came when we announced our partnership with Apple Music. Now DJs could upload their content and have it delivered to Apple’s subscription streaming service in just a few minutes. As part of the launch, we expanded our product offering to allow both long-form and short-form derivative content, mixes and remixes. Finally our vision had an easier story to tell.
Later we announced Spotify, adding millions of additional listeners to our customer’s reach. We worked with industry-leading artists on their various creative projects, and distributed successful content. Between the technology, the experienced team, and growing number of success stories it was enough to secure funding. We finalized our Series A in early 2017; it was time to scale.
Growing to exit
Our small team was dwarfed by new hires in just 3 months. We had aggressive targets to hit because we needed to become profitable ASAP. The marketplace continued to grow, as larger partners signed contracts and added millions of songs to our databases. All of a sudden we were the popular kid in the class: a disruptive music tech with funding. That invited a lot of possible distractions, like new business opportunities, interesting prospects and services. But we stayed the course, prioritizing scalable technology and removing friction from our customer’s workflows. We also experimented with different content programs, and soon we saw our metrics tick up and up, growing by millions of streams week-over-week. Customers were pumped. It felt like we were hitting our stride as a team of ~50.
We kept up our momentum on the business side signing exciting partnerships with companies like SoundCloud and Pioneer. We had a convincing story to tell the world, but inside things were starting to paint a different picture. Partnerships were getting unexpectedly complicated, such is the case when you have multi-year relationships with stakeholders. Content consumption was hitting a ceiling, you’ll see that happen when distribution is limited. Revenue goals were looking more unlikely everyday, risk is commonplace when you’re a innovative solution. Dubset was plateauing and running out of runway.
When a venture-backed startup reaches this point, you have two paths: 1) raise more money or 2) get acquired. For months, the team worked on strategy and diligence for both options, while the rest kept the business and product moving. More funding would mean bigger metrics goals and an expanded vision. Acquisition would mean a lot of unknowns for the product and uncertainty for the team. Debates on direction dragged on for longer than anyone would’ve liked and team morale took a nosedive. Dubset went from top of the DJ world just a year prior, to feeling stuck-in-the-mud.
Finally, the board gave sign-off and we agreed to be acquired by Pex, a digital rights management company based out of Los Angeles. At that point, I had been with Dubset for over 7 years and was ready to do something new. I left after a successful exit.
If I can help one person make a better decision about their career or company, then I’ve achieved my goal with this essay. Albeit there are several lessons you can take away from my journey, but if you walk away with any, let it be these:
- Be clear about your vision and mission for a company from the get-go. It’s crucial to define those clearly so that your team remains on message and focused as you scale.
- Work for startups you genuinely care about. An authentic message is just as important as an authentic team (for success and sanity).
- Celebrate small wins. Don’t delay gratification until the “big win”. Cheer on the modest or even small stuff and help build a culture of positivity.
- Leadership conflicts will cripple growth. If you encounter one of these situations, either bail or work hard to defend your team by learning how to work best with each leader.
- Companies that have survived in their seed stage for many years will have very complicated finances. Exits will be messy.
I am proud of what we at Dubset were able to accomplish, even if we fell short of our vision. We were part of the 10% of startups that “make it”. Now, I’m building for the next chapter in my life. I’ve begun advising and doing product management consulting for startups and enterprises — focusing on early-stage products. I’m really loving the work. I’m staying curious about emerging markets and new strategic opportunities, while expanding my hard technical skills. On the soft side, I’m getting better at helping people in my network: sharing my experience, how I improve my craft, and interesting things I’m learning.
This is me setting a public intention and making a commitment to continue building, growing, and sharing my learnings in public.
Thanks for reading my story.
[UPDATE — Jul-21] I’ve joined Amazon as a Senior Product Manager, Technical on the Fuse team. Very excited to be joining this team and continue innovating global distribution of digital services.
If you’re interested in learning more about me or getting in touch, follow me on Twitter @rywigs. I love responding to DMs and helping out where I can.
 Reginald Fessenden Conducts the First Audio Radio Broadcast of Entertainment and Music — external link