StartUp Podcast: Dear Music Fans... (Season 3, Episode 4)
May 13, 2016 5:54 AM - Subscribe

When a group of college kids in Florida set out to change the music industry, they did not anticipate quite how disruptive they would be. Their mission was a noble one: bring an end to online piracy by offering cheap, convenient, and legal access to music. Their execution, however, was less than thorough. And when you’re dealing with protective music labels, forgetting to dot an “i” or cross a “t” can mean being one lawsuit away from the swift and unceremonious death of your company.

This is the story of Grooveshark, the people who built it and the relationships that were tested during its rocky road to growth—and its eventual demise.
posted by noneuclidean (10 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The show's host was restrained enough to not push them harder on why, despite their good intentions of compensating artists, they never bothered with ASCAP or broadcaster licensing or anything beyond just hiding behind DMCA loopholes. They came of as real industry parasites to my ears. At least torrenters have some ideology of free media to justify their actions, but trying to monetize on that, and then lying to users about compensating artists is just wrong. One of the few times I was rooting for major labels in a lawsuit story.
posted by p3t3 at 7:06 AM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I may have spoke too soon in my previous comment, after seeing on the Gimlet subreddit, a former Grooveshark employee was claiming their attempts at paying artists were more substantial than the podcast made it sound, and they were in fact paying ASCAP, BMI, etc. I would have liked to hear more of those details in the story, but maybe the terms of settlement prevents them from getting into too much of it?
posted by p3t3 at 7:49 AM on May 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

I've been binging on Start Up and have just caught up. This (and the previous episode) were amongst the weakest to date. I'd have liked to have heard a little about whether (if at all) Grooveshark being out of the Silicon Valley mainstream made a difference in how they operated.

I also wondered about the unquestioning agreement that the reason that the staff stayed on when the company was believed to be broke was because they believed in the company's mission. I wonder if that was just a convenient lie to tell oneself but the real reason was fear of change and the sunk cost fallacy.

Three rather bro-ish episodes in a row, though. I miss the Dating Ring days; it was refreshing to have women in the lead, as well as to accompany a company over several months.

But most of all, I agree with those who pointed out in earlier episodes of the podcast that the ones about Gimlet itself are by far the best and most insightful.
posted by tavegyl at 4:25 AM on May 14, 2016

I thought this episode was great! It's really valuable hearing stories of startups failing in ugly ways like this. Particularly the personal feelings. Stories like this are daily gossip for me and my friends in the tech industry but it's all whispers and rumor. Nice to have journalism on the record.

As for GrooveShark itself, what a bunch of dolts. Their contempt for intellectual property was part of the spirit of the age, but IMHO largely indefensible. There are huge problems with the music industry and the way artists are compensated, but "lol we'll stream it without paying anyone" is not OK.
posted by Nelson at 6:37 PM on May 14, 2016

I love this show but I couldn't get through the episode. I couldn't keep the characters straight, the host was only so-so, and I just didn't find the narrative compelling. Their business model seemed pretty doomed to fail from the beginning, right?
posted by radioamy at 7:21 PM on May 14, 2016

I'm not even sure you can call it a business model. Some kids saw the mp3 filesharing explosion, had a very naive idea on how to monetize from it, and smooth-talked a few investors. No surprise that the Music Industry would crush them, but I guess there are some interesting points in studying these sort of quasi-legal companies. I'd lump them in with the Rapidshares and MegaUploads of the Internet. It might be interesting to look at all of those together, but it's hard to call them "startups" or even wish any goodwill on companies who exploit loopholes to sell other peoples' IP below cost. Maybe Grooveshark had more of a business model than this but if so, the podcast didn't get there.
posted by p3t3 at 8:13 PM on May 14, 2016

I think we've forgotten how different the norms were around file sharing and copyright in the 2000s. Grooveshark seemed like a perfectly reasonable business to a lot of us when it was founded. I mean we used to have people arguing that Napster and friends were entirely legitimate, that we should just be able to copy any music we want for free without paying the creator at all. Grooveshark at least had a nod to wanting to pay the creators.

It took a long time for the discussion to shift to where we are today in the US. Folks still listen to unlicensed music all the time but feel a little guilty about it, like jaywalking or speeding. And now we have lots of convenient licensed options for music that are either cheap (Spotify) or free with ads (Youtube, etc). Also it feels like the music industry has mostly given up and makes its big money off concerts, etc. The copyright wars have shifted to video.

I'd love to hear a historical podcast that talks about the early anti-copyright culture and how folks look back on that era now. Cory Doctorow would be a natural interview subject.
posted by Nelson at 10:21 AM on May 15, 2016 [5 favorites]

I suppose it's a bit of an aside from the story StartUp is telling, but I'd be curious to hear more about how the platform was actually supposed to work.

They upload music from users' libraries, somehow decide which version to return in response to a search request, and then somehow decide which rights holder is supposed to get paid for it?

How does that work, exactly? Some sort of voting system to weed out bad and mislabeled tracks? Are they just accepting embedded ID info, or are they actually analyzing the audio to make a match? Figuring out who should get paid for a transcoded live recording track labeled "Summertime" seems like a really hard problem, even if you have the cooperation of record companies. For that matter, figuring out what to play when I type "Summertime" into a search box is an equally hard problem. It's hard not to wonder if the whole goal from the beginning was simply "become big enough to license material from record labels" rather than a genuine attempt at legal sharing of user-sourced material.

Personally, I'm much more likely to sympathize with straight-up copyfighters than these guys. Telling your funders and paid members you're paying for material and then not actually doing it is even shadier than the nonsense record companies pull. That said, claiming $150'000 damages for each uploaded track from a user-content host is nuts.
posted by eotvos at 5:04 PM on May 15, 2016

I think we've forgotten how different the norms were around file sharing and copyright in the 2000s.

This is a really good point. I was struggling to remember the evolution, because I think a case could be made in their defense about the values of the time, but if they launched in 2006, they were really at the tail end of that wave. Date-checking with Wikipedia:

- Napster in their least restricted form (before Metallica sued and won) was 1999 - 2001.
- FastTrack based p2p like Kazaa, Morpheus, Grokster all launched around 2001, had several lawsuits in the following years, and most stopped or changed when the Supreme Court sided against them in 2005
- launched in 2002, and began its radio streaming service in 2006, the same year Grooveshark started. They were apparently partnering with EMI by 2006 on some software, and were winning various awards in '06-'07.

Grooveshark were definitely tapping into the copyleft ideology, but it seems they were a few years behind the curve. I feel like by the mid to late 00s, the LimeWires and Napsters of the world were seen as becoming scammy, spammy, adware, and the free music sharing was moving to private BT trackers and becoming more secretive ( was shut down in '07). I'd also love to hear some podcasts really delve into that whole period though.
posted by p3t3 at 6:32 PM on May 15, 2016

I remember listening to streaming radio stations around 1999.

This episode struck a chord with me. Probably because I spent some time after college at a company whose ethical behavior I questioned. That company no longer exists.
I've also been part of the kind of young coworker community they described (we have reunions every couple of years). It's very valuable.

Man, that is a tragic ending though. That is rough. I can so clearly imagine something just like this happening to us.
posted by bq at 3:59 PM on May 17, 2016

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