Curation is a buzzword the mainstream music industry may only understand through a narrow lens despite the popularity it has gained in the past decade. The etymology of curating comes from the Latin word curare, which means quite literally to “take care.” In the 14th century, a curator was a “spiritual guide” and member of the clergy tasked with protecting the parish. In the late 1970’s, a curator became widely known as the person in charge of managing a museum, gallery or art exhibit. Over the years, the role of curator has transcended beyond the church and art worlds, gained notoriety to those bestowed such a title and finally, taken a seat at the head of the music table.
When music services started to implement curation-based recommendation technologies, their platforms suddenly became more accessible to wider audiences – from casual listeners to superfans – creating a more suggestive listening experience and a subsequent category of passive listeners. Music streaming shifted a users’ experience from solely seeking out specific songs or albums into a continuous stream of suggestion-based music tailored to their specific and previous musical selections. Paired with the massive adoption of smartphones in the mid 2000’s [powering much of the new lean-back listening category], the globalization of music and its clearly defined genres, the advent of recommendation-based experiences pushed music into a wider global category.
In 2005, music intelligence platform, The Echo Nest, launched and went on to power music recommendations for iHeartRadio, SiriusXM, Rdio, and Spotify – who eventually acquired the company for around $55 million in 2014. In 2013, Athena Yasaman Koumis joined The Echo Nest as a QA / Curation intern quickly moving into a Data Curator role, where she learned how music recommendations were made at scale and how they impacted an artists’ visibility in listener-facing applications.
At The Echo Nest, Koumis learned how to curate cultural data crawled from the Internet, contributed to a cultural knowledge base of how artists were described by themselves and others and examined the complexities of an artist’s sound, style, geography and how they were related. Providing training data for audio analysis programs to understand some of the more subjective qualities of music – for example noting if a song had “energetic” qualities, Koumis saw first-hand how various streaming platforms employed The Echo Nest’s music data in unique ways to create and curate very different music experiences for their listeners and how those experiences affected artist and music discovery.
“Curation is the creation of contextualized listening experiences through the selection and presentation of musical works,” says Koumis, who is now Head of Music Discovery at Catalog, a blockchain-powered, music discovery platform. In 2014, when Spotify acquired The Echo Nest, Koumis’ role shifted to lead a newly created full-time data curation team for Spotify and the underlying cultural data powering recommendation features like the Fans Also Like list and Discover Weekly. “At the time of [The Echo Nest] acquisition, I was a heavy Soundcloud user and music blog reader, which served as my primary methods for discovering new artists,” explains Koumis, “I assumed this would naturally shift to Spotify, however after spending time diving deep into the playlists available at the time, I realized they primarily consisted of major label acts I was already familiar with, whereas I preferred to listen to music from independent artists and labels that were not getting editorial recognition or support.”
Koumis and some of her colleagues took matters in their own hands during Spotify’s annual Hack Week in late 2014, where they devised an experiment to crowdsource curation by tapping into the ears of a dynamic cohort of Spotify users who had a recent history of finding new artists before the majority to see what other artists they were also listening to that were relatively unknown. After applying some light editorial judgment on top of this crowdsourced curation, the team produced an unofficial playlist dubbed “Fresh Finds.” The experiment was successful and Fresh Finds was converted into a public playlist after being widely adopted internally by 300+ employees at Spotify.
Fresh Finds went on to become a go-to discovery source for unknown artists by millions of consumers who used Spotify worldwide and created new opportunities for many artists within the traditional music industry. “Artists would go from having less than 100 monthly listeners to 20,000 – 100,000 or more essentially overnight through Fresh Finds – and for almost all of these artists, it was their first ever official playlist placement,” says Koumis. “Many [artists] told me that the days after landing on Fresh Finds, they received multiple inquiries from labels and managers that wanted to work with them, and the placement started to open all kinds of doors that were previously inaccessible.”
By the end of 2018, Koumis parted ways with Spotify, disillusioned with a centralized business model and system that largely benefitted the most popular artists. Just ahead of the pandemic, Koumis joined Twitch in an Artist Partnership role excited about the platform’s ability to generate more meaningful revenue streams – where median viewership for an artist making $50,000 a year requires just 183 fans on Twitch, whereas it takes about 250 streams for an artist to make $1 on Spotify.
The vast differences between highly centralized platforms with larger audiences like Spotify or Apple Music and decentralized community-centric platforms built on the blockchain are what make the distinction between the Web2 and the ultra-buzzy Web3 space. With the centralization of business models, audiences and data infrastructure that serve as the basis of web2, the inevitable extraction of cultural capital from artists and subsequent inequitable compensation are nearly impossible to decouple. The foundations of centralized businesses were not built with the collective in mind.
There are several players in what some call the Wild Wild West music Web3 space who are making it possible through tokenized digital systems (NFTs – non-fungible tokens or unique digital assets) and community-run organizations (like DAOs) for independent artists to earn a living from their musical works. There is a distinction to be made between independent or unsigned artists and major label artists, as the majority of major label contracts prohibit artists from monetizing their music as NFTs [at least without the label taking a cut] – much like De La Soul’s contract with Tommy Boy Records, which did not account for potential future monetization formats like streaming services at the time the contract was signed in 1982. Musicians tallied up $83 million in NFT sales last year, of which independent artists make up 70% of that revenue according to Water & Music – a research organization started by seasoned music technology journalist Cherie Hu.
NFT music startup Sound.xyz, which raised $5M from Andreessen Horowitz last December, has been powering unique music NFT drops focused on artists and music collectives across R&B, electronic and hip hop. Mint Songs, a music NFT marketplace for Web3 artists creates tools that let musicians turn their music assets into NFTs that they can sell or give away to fans. Nina, whose “product is their Nina protocol, not artist’s music,” is a blockchain-based way to publish, stream and purchase music. With new technology however, new problems can emerge. In January, OpenSea, a non-music focused NFT marketplace with a music section revealed that over 80% of its free NFT mints were plagiarized, spam or fake. As HypeBot’s Bruce Houghton writes “while the potential for these wonderful [Web3] advancements exist, there still needs to be a rulebook.”
As with every new development, an array of vulnerabilities and opportunities crop up – and with Web3, the benefits for artists and communities outweigh the risks for many. “Web3 presents the opportunity for artists to truly own their relationship with their community without a platform owning it,” says Koumis, “with everything being on the blockchain, artists have a direct connection to their supporters.” To date, Catalog has enabled artists to earn the equivalent of $2.7 million (transactions are rendered in Ethereum), with one producer, Oshi, making 6 ETH (nearly $20,000 depending currency fluctuations) in just a few hours from four of his old songs.
Billed as a digital record store and music community, Catalog, which uses the Zora blockchain protocol, is starting with key foundational principles built on trust, community and the reshaping of how music is valued. Born out of the Soundcloud generation where discovery was a central value proposition, Catalog was started by Mike McKain and Jeremy Stern, co-founders who wanted to build a better listening discovery experience that supported artists in new ways. In 2018, the two built Loft Radio, a 24/7 live radio station with 4000+ users in 100+ countries with a built-in micro tipping feature. After taking a step back from Loft Radio, the Mike and Jeremy were determined to reshape music into a more decentralized model long before music NFTs were around. Ahead of going full force on the creation of Catalog, McKain took on a product design role at MakerDAO, a Ethereum-based stablecoin project and Stern – a software engineer, worked with Octo, an IT firm that contracts heavily with the Federal Government. Catalog was founded just last year and to date, has raised $2.2 million seed funding led by cryptocurrency-focused investment firm 1confirmation, which is backed by Peter Thiel and Mark Cuban.
“The idea in this space that Catalog is moving towards is becoming a user-owned platform – the people who contribute value should have a say in the project they are all helping to create,” says McKain. Building models that decentralize curation to avoid creating a system where the lowest common dominator gets to dictate taste, the Catalog community will get to decide what gets promoted on the front page with more features on the way.
Realizing the missed opportunity to acknowledge and reward the early supporters of the anonymous Fresh Finds playlist, Koumis was driven to explore ways to do just that in Web3 with Catalog. “Web3 is ushering in an era of collective ownership through decentralization, which will allow artists the opportunity to meaningfully partake in the value creation they generate online through their music and other forms of self-expression and have a say in how a platform, project, or DAO [decentralized autonomous organization] operates.”