What if artists owned the means of distribution and promotion? That radical question launched Audius, the decentralized music protocol and largest consumer-facing blockchain-based app running today.
Audius was designed to put control and ownership into the hands of creators and fans, building a community and an ecosystem where ideas flowed from those using it.
“We want to give power to the artists who are making the system valuable and we realized that meant we had to give ownership to artists using it,” explains CEO and Co-founder Roneil Rumburg. “In any reasonable view of the world, what makes UGC platforms like YouTube and Soundcloud valuable is the content. Who’s making it? The creators. The tech isn’t the value, the content is, and we knew we had to reorient the system to valuing it appropriately.”
Born from disillusionment with existing UGC and streaming platforms, Audius’ founders wanted to preserve all the best qualities of the music communities they loved while giving new opportunities to the artists who made the music happen.
“We were power users of Soundcloud and then later of Spotify,” says CPO and Co-founder Forrest Browning. “We were building these castles out of sound, but then we’d come back and half the songs were gone. You can’t build a robust community when the music’s always disappearing.”
Rumburg and Browning were the kind of super fans who cared about and needed that community. Rumburg avidly collected music, doing deep dives into new genres and compiling extensive playlists and libraries, the kind of user who discovers there’s a limit to the number of songs certain streaming platforms let you like. He and Browning both loved Soundcloud for its artists and the innovative new interactions — from mashups to remixes — they inspired among fans.
Tired of watching the music they loved evaporate due to licensing or metadata woes, they decided to create a new system that would prevent this problem. What’s more, they imagined a world that rewarded artists more adequately for their work. “We wanted to make the data transparent via artist-controlled rails,” Rumburg notes. “And with the cost of distributing music close to zero, we didn’t see the need for all the middlemen.”
They decided that blockchain, paired with a user-friendly, familiar interface, could accomplish their goals of permanence, transparency, and empowerment. Both Browning and Rumburg had impressive tech backgrounds to match their passion for music. Browning had built consumer apps and mobile games before raising several million dollars for an enterprise software startup that eventually sold to VMWare. He was named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30. Rumburg had been working in cryptocurrency and blockchain for years and helped Kleiner Perkins start a new venture fund.
Though they had the tech down, Rumburg cautions that, “The tech is a small piece of the puzzle.”
The community of artists and fans Audius hoped to cultivate was more important. Thanks to its token, AUDIO, its community has a clear way to contribute to and shape Audius. The token, which has no value outside the platform, helps incentivize positive contributions and behavior, and has inspired some innovative initiatives among Audius users. For example, users proposed a portion of the community treasury of AUDIO be used to give grants to encourage everything from festival founding to playlisting and remixes by creators, administered by a group of avid creators and users.
Audius also allows users to propose and create new features. There was an enthusiastic contingent on Audius that desperately wanted dark mode. The Audius team had other priorities to tackle first, so a user built it himself. “The community spoke to us by going out and doing it themselves. They knew best what they wanted,” muses Rumburg. “We want them to act on what’s best for the community, not wait around for our permission.”
While the co-op model of ownership and governance marks a significant change in the way music is distributed and enjoyed, the truly exciting part comes with the new types of interactions the tech unlocks for Audius’ highly creative user community.
“When we think about artist-fan relationships, we see the tech is a means to an end. It’s not about the token; it’s about the cool new features because of the crazy tech behind the scenes,” says Browning. “It’s about tapping into all of the cool things people miss about Soundcloud and creating new ones, ways that help you engage the superfans who want exclusives or behind-the-scenes content or every single rough mix you’ve ever made.”
“The root is artist empowerment. The downstream effect we believe will be better artist monetization in the long run,” says Rumburg. “But you can’t get there without the power and freedom to make things useful.”