Of the twenty or so digital download sites that we have been exploring,
Epitonic stands out as one of the friendliest and most idealistic of the
bunch. Founded on a deep love of music, Epitonic takes an editorial stand
seeking out the interesting and challenging music for their wired audience
and partnering with labels that represent cutting edge and high quality
artists. Partnerships between Epitonic.com and some of the most respected
and fiercely independent labels such as
J = Jenny Toomey
A = Aaron Newton
J: Who are you?
My name is Aaron Newton. I’m the president and founder of
J: What is Epitonic?
A: Epitonic is a music destination website that features downloadable music content from mostly underground, independent, cutting-edge musicians that have been editorially selected. We don’t take music from the average unsigned band that just happened to record their favorite ditties. We work with well-respected independent record labels to promote their artists.
J: How does Epitonic promote these artists?
A: We have a robust website that has bios and descriptions of each artist including cover art and each artist associated with the record labels responsible for their releases. The music is free to download so you can come here to check out some tracks. You can’t download an entire album but you can usually download a couple of tracks for each artist and, if an artist has several albums out you can usually download a track or two from each release. So the thing that we really offer to the consumer, which is a little different than everywhere else you go, is the ability to learn about and listen to a breadth of independent music that is above the quality of the MP3.com world but also isn’t Britney Spears.
J: I see, and that’s why you are different?
A: Well that’s probably the biggest difference. If you want the real
business reasons why we are different the competitive landscape of music
right now online can be broken down to three categories. The first is
the soapbox for the unsigned artist, which is the MP3.com business model.
The second is the music search engine, like
Now what makes us different from the other content aggregators, who are
J: There is a lot of competition out there. On one hand you are running up against the uber-corporation with unlimited resources to mimic whatever proves profitable. On the other hand you are competing with self-reliant artists who put up their own sites and files so that search-engine sites like Listen.com can direct any interested traffic directly to them without a middleman. How do you intend to compete with these two extremes?
A: Well, the big corporation model, we don’t necessarily intend to compete with them. We intend to be an outlet for them. So when Universal plans to bring its content online and they’re like, “Well, we own Geffen and Geffen has all these Sonic Youth albums but where’s the best place for us to promote this?” they will promote them with us. In the same way that the record labels today don’t only put their records at Tower, they put them at Tower and Virgin and Warehouse and anywhere else they can.
We think they are going to want to market their music online by putting it anywhere they might reach an audience. So the real question then becomes, “How do we plan on making sure that we can reach the audienceÆ’that the audience comes to us on a regular basis?” The answer to that question is, “How do we compete with the other companies like Listen.com?” and the answer there is we think of ourselvesÆ’the core or our mission is all about the discovery of new quality music. It’s kind of the indie rock attitude of, “Hey, there’s better music out there than what corporate rock brings you.”
So our real value to the consumer is that we are going to bring them a selection of music that’s been sifted through by people who really do eat, sleep and breathe music. When you go to Listen.com it’s a different thing. Listen is trying to be everything to everyone. I mean, their market is pretty large but they probably don’t have a super intimate relationship with those customers.
We sift through that music and only bring to market the stuff that we think is aesthetically and economically viable in the same way that a record label does. Our market is smaller, but we have a more intimate relationship with our customers. So when it comes to people like Listen.com, we like them. We were one of their launch partners and we provide them access to our database so they constantly have all of our artists. So in a way, Listen needs us and we need Listen. But when it comes to “owning the consumer experience” we think Listen will have a good relationship with lots of different people and we’ll have a great relationship with a section of that group of people that encompass our demographic of music listenership.
The other big message is that we want to be the source and inspiring factor for the discovery of new music. We think that when you do that for somebody, when you successfully connect a fan with their new favorite band, they will trust you then next time you suggest something. We think we are going to be in a better position to do that for that target group. So if they come to our site and they find some amazing band, they are going to be more inclined to listen to us when we suggest another one to them.
J: If a band wanted to be on your site how would they go about it?
A: Well, because we are an editorial site there is a process of editorial review. We currently have a team of label relations people and this group of people is made up of DJs and people in indie rock bands and so on. Each member of the team is generally responsible for a different type of music. So this person over here is responsible for hip-hop because they are a hip-hop DJ, and this other person is a drum n’ bass DJ so they do drum n’ bass stuff. These people spend most of their days calling record labels and soliciting to them.
We also get tons of submissions from independent artists to our site.
To submit to Epitonic all we need is to be able to hear your music. Someone
can send us an MP3 file, they can send us a link to an MP3 file, and they
can even send us a CD and so on. If you want to submit, you can go to
our website and
J: When you do decide to work with a band do you require that they sign an exclusive digital download deal?
A: Absolutely not. We encourage people to put their music anywhere they can on the web to promote themselves. They do sign a contract with us that grants us the permission to put the music on our site to protect us legally. But that contract is very simple. It’s only about 3/4 of a page long and it’s non-exclusive and it’s non-binding. Artists who work with us can walk away at any time.
We are a consumer-focused site and we think that by serving the consumers needs we’ll grow an audience. We think a byproduct of doing that well is that the artists that we represent on our site will also receive value by reaching those constituents. So if the artist isn’t happy with the way we treat them, or with the results they get from being on our site, we believe they shouldn’t have to stay.
J: Is this all free content, or do you sell digital downloads as well?
A: When we started our website a year ago we looked around and said, “Who’s doing this? We’ll follow their lead.” So we went with the Emusic model of selling tracks. We started trying to sell tracks for 75 cents and 25 cents. The results were less than mediocre, they were pretty horrible, even though we had good content our site and the content keeps getting better and better. Still it was not like there were thousands of people who were banging on our door to buy music. I think as you look at the record of our competitors who also sell digital downloads you will see that they also don’t sell that much.
When this happens there is no value for the consumer because they don’t download the music and find out about new bands. There is also no value to the artists because they are not getting exposure and there is no value to us because our success depends on their success. So we quickly changed our motto to “our music is for free”. Now we have to worry about monetizing the crowd another way. We have to figure that out later.
J: Which is my next question: how do you expect to get paid if you are just giving away music?
A: Let me back up a second and finish answering the question, ” Do we sell anything?” because we do have some music up for sale on our site. It’s entirely up to the artist and the label whether we put it up for sale. So we have the capacity to sell tracks but we make the artist and label very aware that they probably are not going to sell any because the consumer behavior is not to buy downloadable music right now. So ultimately, it’s up to the artist if they want to put their tracks up for sale.
Now, the answer to the next question of, “How are you guys going to make any money?” To begin with, we plan to make money, but we don’t make any now. It’s our belief that smart Internet companies are quick to learn from Old World companies and they are quick to try to develop new strategies for marketing and monetizing an audience. The way we are approaching it now is to say, “Listen, we don’t have all the answers but we are going to try everything we can think of.”
We have a huge demand to be able to purchase CDs from our site. We get email on a daily basis from consumers who are saying. “I love this band I found on your site, where can I buy it?” Unfortunately the independent music market is a fragmented one. There isn’t one distributor that we can then plug in to an e-commerce solution, so we’re working on how to solve that problem and we’re waiting to see if someone else does it before us and then we’ll just partner with them to sell it and split the revenue.
Also, we’ll eventually start doing targeted advertising. We don’t like banners but we think it makes sense to say, for example, that the electronica section of our site is sponsored by the Sony Memory Stick or whatever.
Also, we plan to sell downloadable music, if and when consumers begin purchasing it as well as, perhaps enacting some sort of subscription model.
J: If you are not making any money, how are you supporting yourselves as a company?
A: We’re still very much in a product development phase. We’re more interested at the moment in building a solid site, good relationships with other sites, and solid relationships with our label partners. It’s cliche, but the phrase “increase shareholder value” is the right way to look at it (in the same way that the SIMA group doesn’t recognize that positive value is the right way to look at MP3.com — not cash). If we focused all our efforts on revenue right now, without a sticky site with good content we’d have to blow millions on marketing to get an audience that was disappointed that spent little to no time or money on our site. In the long run, after our site is a bit more robust and relationships with those that supply us content are easier to manage (25% of our resources go to label relations), then we shift our focus from building to monetizing.
If you’re looking for a more real-world answer than that — we don’t make
any money right now. In the beginning we “supported ourselves” off our
own money and our families. Terry and Walther and I didn’t get paid ANYTHING
for about 4 months and when we did, it wasn’t much. Then
J: Now, we’ve touched on subscription before in some other interviews but many people don’t really understand what a subscription model is.
A: A subscription model would be like, “all the music at Epitonic is yours to download for one low price a month.”
J: Like cable.
A: Yes, the notion of directly monetizing the downloadable music. You can listen to the samples and you can read all day long but to download the music you have to be a subscriber. So, yes, that’s still on our plate of things to explore but we certainly haven’t taken that step yet. I would say that that option is one of the less attractive ones because it’s failed at so many other companies that have attempted to do it.
The last option, and this is probably the most promising, is content syndication where there are other websites out there that have consumers clicking on them all day long looking for downloadable music. So you go to a search engine, you type in MP3, you find something and you leave. Well, we are getting phone calls on almost a daily basis now where companies are calling us now and saying, “Listen, we want to syndicate your content. We want to have that Epitonic experience at our site.”
Well if that happens that’s good news for our artists because it means they are getting more distribution, more exposure. It’s also good news for us because not only are we distributing the content and getting more access to more consumers, but we start monetizing the content. In one of the three ways that I’ve outlined, it’s now going to be scaled across the networks of other websites and their audiences. But it also means that we have the opportunity to say to those companies, “Well, we’ll either charge you a rate to syndicate your content or we’ll split the revenue on the ad banners that you show on those sites, or something like that.
This has only happened very recently, where in the last few months we’ve begun to receive all these phone calls. So we’re still at the beginning stages of exploring that as a revenue possibility.
J: How soon do you think we are to moving to a digital download model, or do you?
A: There are two things that will determine this and I don’t know how to put a timeline on them because I can’t really see how fast they are coming:
First, I think the CD that we use today is going to go through some physical changes. I think it’s going to evolve to a point where we still have a physical product but we will be able to do more things with it. A good example is the DVD compression technology. I mean, look at how much you can fit on a CD-sized disc now. That means that if you only need an hour of music and the capacity of the DVD is 15 hours then that means that we now have the capacity to get 15 times smaller and still contain the same amount of music. So imagine that you have a mini-disc player that is the same quality but much smaller. Also, imagine that those formats become recordable so the CD becomes less a product of music and more a method of storage. So you can use the CD to do a lot more things depending on how it changes in size and power.
The other answer to the question of when we move to a fully digital Internet kind of music-oriented society is maybe never. I still personally enjoy having the CD. I’ve found entire albums online in the digital download format and then still gone out and bought them as CDs because I like to support the artist, but mostly because I like to have the product and it is pretty affordable.
Either way, before we can have this online music thing really, really take off, it has to be usable by consumers. It has to be portable. You have to be able to do everything you can do with CDs. That means not only the ability to easily transport this music from a computer to a more portable format, but also it means that the music is now streamable to you from anywhere.
So the way I think about the future — and again, I have no way to predict when this will happen, or even if — but when it happens I want it to be wireless. I want to be able to walk over to my refrigerator and pick a playlist that my friend has made for me and listen to it. I want to be able to stream it wherever I go. It’s sort of a “radio-free earth” type of idea. I have no idea when it’s coming, but I went to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this year, and let me tell you, around every corner was another music walkman, downloadable music toy.
J: Yeah, it seems like one of the benefits of going to something like a universally digital format is that you can then create so many different types of devices that would all use the same content. It wouldn’t be like it has been in the past where you need to pick between options of flexibility or quality based on which format you ownÆ’i.e. cassette vs. vinyl vs. CD.
A: The only thing that scares me more than anything, especially after going to the CES, which is such a clown show. I mean, it’s in Vegas and it’s a huge convention center filled with these consumer electronic prototypes, 99 percent of which you could never imagine actually owning. So I just have to ask myself, how much can we really buy? We’re this country that’s made up of materialists, but how much can we really buy? I mean, I have a cell phone and I have a Palm Pilot and I have nice headphones and I have a decent stereo and I have a thousand CDs and 800 albums and I have a computer at home and a computer at the office. I mean, I know I have a lot, but when you go to something at CES and you start thinking about the digital future, you start going, “wow, how many things can this country really buyÆ’?” But anyway, that’s a side-note.
J: Well it’s an interesting one, because it does really feel like we are in a particularly overwhelming period of consumption.
A: When the barrier to market gets lowered on any sort of commodity you have this drowning sensation as a consumer. I mean, that’s the feeling I get when I go to some place like Listen.com or I go to someplace like MP3.com. It’s like walking into some huge Costco of records. You can’t consume it, there’s too much. There’s too much noise and because the barrier to entry has been lowered. And this is something that got shot down so hard in that SIMA letter that I wrote.
J: Explain what that letter was
A: I put a lot of thought into it. I’d rather just read you the letter. I can send it to you again.
J: Well we can connect this interview to that letter, but for now can you just explain what it was?
A: This really comes back to the Epitonic aesthetic of, “hey, we’re going to be the editorial filter for you.” When the barrier to market for music entry is essentially shattered, which is what MP3 has done (and theirs is a beautiful message, which says, “send me your noise and we will publish it.”) But that beautiful message gets tainted a bit when you start thinking about what that means for the artists. Now instead of some really good band in Chicago competing with the 400 other good bands in Chicago, they have a market that is now essentially international which is good. But they also have competitors who are now international and those competitors are not necessarily great bands. It’s easy for them to get lost.
When you go to MP3.com there is something like 40,000 artists and even if I wanted to there is no way that I could sample each and every one of them. If I did sample every one of them I might go crazy because the quality of so many of these bands is so mediocre, because the barrier to entry is so low. So when you lower the barrier to entry for the music market the end result is that not only does the consumer get lost in the wash of noise but it also means that the “quality artists” are also getting drowned out by all of the rest of the noise. So when you have me in my kitchen recording myself and demanding the same types of royalties as The Jesus Lizard gets, well that’s just not appropriate.
J: Well, do you really mean that? Because if someone is buying a track, any track, don’t you think that artist deserves equal royalty and compensation?
A: Well that’s just it. If we look at the MP3.com model for example: if someone sells a CD on MP3.com they get a way larger percentage of the profit than they ever did selling their records through a record label. The SIMA argument says, “artists should get money each time someone downloads a track.” My biggest problem with this argument is that, first of all, just because I download a song doesn’t mean that I like it. I mean I may download it, listen to it and throw it away. Secondly, when you have a music market out there that exists that nets $16 billion domestic US and you now have to divide that among 14 billion bands instead of 14 thousand, that means that the bands that are really good have the capacity to suffer. It could spell one form of bad news for the existing quality artist out there.
The good news is that there is a greater possibility for exposure. But the key thing there is making that exposure happen. That’s where Epitonic steps in and says, “Listen, we don’t think that this model of ‘there’s 40,000 artists, let’s let the consumer find the good ones,’ is a good idea.” Not because we think we should take that right away from the consumer, but because you can’t consume that much. So we say, “Listen, we’re going to undertake the task of whittling that down. Come to our site and check out 10 artists and you won’t find any garage bands and you won’t find a lot of crap, you may find something you don’t like,” but that’s a different thing entirely.
J: Okay, let me ask you a question about publishing. As an artist it worries me that it doesn’t seem like BMI,ASCAP or the major labels are making sure that artists are going to get paid for digital downloads. What do you think about the issue of paying performance royalties?
A: Well it depends on what labels you are talking about. I don’t see the huge labels saying to themselves, “How are we going to make sure our artists get paid?” They are thinking, “How do we make sure we get paid?” I think one of the big messages there is, “Hey listen, now this has become an international market and one of the big problems is that the older methods of making and marketing music in that monolithic mega-marketing chain approach are very likely to go away. Those chains may continue to be around but they will be significantly less important. The Internet in general hates a middleman so you see chains like Barnes & Noble falling to the wayside to Amazon because Amazon is able to reduce the number of people between the producer of the content and the consumer of the content.
This is also happening to the major labels that are facing a similar problem in that now any band can easily publish their own stuff. I think that their fight to make sure that they continue to get paid is going to be a very difficult one. Another thing to remember here is we can talk all we want about regulating this industry, but that’s just like Congress trying to regulate the Internet. This technology does not just belong to America, nor does it just serve America. So we can make all the rules we want about copyright, the question is how are we going to be able to implement them worldwide.
So stepping back to your original question, “how are artists going to make sure they make money for this thing they work hard for?” I think the answer to that question still lies, first and foremost in making a good band. First they have to be a good band and make good music.
J: I understand what you are saying and that is a good point to emphasize, but it doesn’t really address my question of how artists are going to make sure they get paid for their work. About five years ago I watched an eye-opening documentary on Channel 4 in England about the music industry. It was part of a series and one episode focused on songwriters and publishing and it followed about 6 different story lines over the course of the two hours. One of them concerned the song “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” which is one of the all time highest performing songs in the history of publishing. Well, basically the point of that whole story line was that the kid who wrote the song was cheated out of his publishing, so for the first 35 or so years the royalties for that song did not go to him. It’s an extreme example but an easy to follow one, it underlines the fact that talented artists get taken to the cleaners all the time. Talent doesn’t protect you from unfair business practice.
A: Well, I wasn’t saying that being in a good band is the answer but I just wanted to emphasize that one of the most important things is to make a good product. The reason why I’m emphasizing that is because increasingly the major labels are going to be less important which means the amount of money that you have to promote your music is going to be less important. The quality of the music is going to be much more important. You know like, Ricky Martin — that music sucks but it has the money behind it to make it go platinum. As companies like ours proliferate and people begin to look around they are going to discover that there is better music out there. So that’s what I was saying, but as far as monetizing that…
I feel with regards to the online world vs. the off line world — neither one will ever win. Those two markets will need to work together until a true wireless world exists when every average consumer has the ability to use that type of technology. Until then it’s still a physical world. You still have to put out a CD and promote it well. I don’t see the online world monetizing downloadable music in a way that says buy this track for 75 cents anywhere in the near future, and maybe never. I think that the online world needs to figure out how they can put together a group of music lovers and get them to learn about music and then sell them the physical product.
J: Digital Rights Management exists in concept now. It’s only a matter of time before it is applied. There are several theories on how this will come down. One suggests that once Digital Rights Management is implemented, companies like yours would not be allowed to offer downloads, even for free, without paying an artist some sort of royalty.
A: Well the only thing I can say to that is this: First off, our company doesn’t ever want to be screwing any artist. We want to make sure that the value that they take away from putting their music up on our website is positive. One of the other things that I commented on in the SIMA article was that all these unsigned bands that want some sort of royalty every time they get a download and my message is, “No, that’s not the right way to think about it.” The right way to think about it is this, “I am in a relationship with this online music company and I get positive value out of it and as long as that is the case, I should keep doing it.”
J: So you are saying that even if there is a future in digital rights management where a company would guard those royalties for artists, artists should still sign an agreement allowing you to download their music for free because of the value of that service?
A: The point is that the agreement that they sign allows them to walk away at any moment, which means if we do not provide them with a positive value they will walk away. So with our company, if we ever directly monetize the downloadable music then of course we’re going to share that with the artist in whatever way we can.
Right now that includes that fact that we already split the profit of any purchased downloadable content with whoever owns the rights to that content. In the long run though I think that the answer is that if someone comes in to administer digital download management and they come to us and say, “take this band down or pay us a royalty,” we’ll probably shrug our shoulders and take the band down. We’ll have to because now we don’t have a way to monetize that content. The second we do, of course we’re going to be willing to share that with them.
J: So what’s the best thing about the Internet?
A: The ability to reach an audience. I was in punk bands in high school in Greenville, SC and I was in one that was completely unique. I have never heard another band like it and it was like Math Rock hi-fi and I just wish that more people had heard about it. So the big opportunity of the Internet is that now you have a way to spread your message more effectively. But I don’t think it necessarily changes anything other than you can reach a wider audience. It’s still no substitute to being a great band and working with a really great label. If Touch & Go comes to you and asks to put out your album and you say, “No, I’m going to put it up on MP3.com,” well, that’s a bad move.
The Internet does mean that, as far as promoting your band, you have a sincere advantage over any band 10 years ago.
I also believe the open attitude of the Internet is one of the best things about it. I mean, look at Linux, look at MP3 and HTML and all the open-source technology. It implies that we as a society, and the earth in general, are creating something together. We are creating one thing that says ideas proliferate, that people are no longer bound by geography, and that cultures have the ability to share the things about them that thrive. That’s the greatest thing about the Internet to me.
J: What’s the worst thing about the Internet?
A: The worst thing about the Internet is that it’s a new undiscovered country for commercialism. I think back to 1994 when the internet was basically just a bunch of NASA homepages and a few people who had like a picture of their cat and a bunch of really bad Captain Kirk vs. Captain Picard jokes. It used to be that the “web” part of the world wide web meant something. You went to one site and checked stuff out and there were links there to other sites so there really was this web with direct connections. Now what I think the Internet means to most people is shopping or something like that and that discourages me because I think, “wow, this has the potential to be so much more.” Not that I’m anti-consumer/anti-commercial, but I think in general you just have the capacity for the old business mentality of “I want to own this market” proliferating instead of, “wow I’ve got these great ideas and I want to disseminate them.”