Tuesday, April 14, 2009

This Is The First Song For Your Muxtape [An Interview With Muxtape Founder Justin Ouellette]

Muxtape CEO Justin Ouellette was kind enough to sit down with me and answer a few questions a few months back. I ended up profiling him as a media entrepreneur, but this little Q&A is a nice introduction to his mindset, his past and his pet project.

So, as I've read, the idea for Muxtape came to you when you were DJing in college?

It's not like it came to me fully formed but it got me thinking about music on the internet in general. The technology moves so fast, even in the last five years. So much more is possible. I couldn't not do it, basically. There was just too much potential.

What brought you to New York City?

I always dreamed of opportunity, fame and fortune. I moved here without a job, just the general idea of doing something in the visual arts. I was working as a photographer for a while and transitioned from that into being a web developer and eventually got hooked up with Vimeo.

From there, how was Muxtape developed?

I was definitely doing a lot of creating on the side. When I started working there, there were so many way more talented programmers than me and I got a lot more interested in it. It was one of many side projects, but there was definitely a sense that it was special and kind of cool and different. There was a hunger -- I think there was a need that was just waiting to be filled. A lot of people were waiting for something a lot like that and just didn't know it.

How important is the minimalist aspect of Muxtape's design?

It flew in the face of a lot of the other designs at the time. Also being limited to twelve tracks and not being able to search for the site. These are things we take for granted but are actually throwaway features.

But Muxtape had no marketing when it first launched, is that correct?

I definitely had people watching me already because of the stuff I had already done. Creative Ventures has a reputation of its own for being interesting. A lot of the right people were interested and I had the ear of all the right people. We didn't do any marketing, but it was something a lot of people had been waiting for.

When you created Muxtape, did you have a larger vision for it as the future for bands and labels alike or was it more of a fun project?
We were definitely thinking about the larger picture and so were bands. Musicians started using it that way right away without us saying anything or recommending anything. Anything related to audio was up on the site.

How did you plan on making money?

We didn't really have any ideas except slamming it with advertising and that's what would have had to happened eventually.

And then what happened with the RIAA?

As it was going on, people just assumed that the record labels didn't know about it or something. That wasn't the case at all. They knew within a couple of days. The heartbreaking part about it was that I had engaged in these really intense licensing talk with all of the big labels and then all of a sudden there was a takedown.

The day before it was shut up down I had no idea it would be gone the next morning. There had been a handful of takedown notices that I had complied with - randomly, people focusing on leaks. But it's pretty standard and then I started working with the labels and then they just stopped calling.

But I didn't think it would be shut down, even myself. I was looking into some really expensive changes. It would have been really easy to let that machine keep running but I was looking forward.

What was your mindset after the takedown? Were you really crushed?

Yeah. Well, yes and no. I was relieved more than anything else because I could see it heading a space where I had less control over it. The more you play into the status quo -- the labels wanted ad revenue, they wanted editorial say, and marketing promises. And it was just more and more disappointing. So, when it came time to walk away I was relieved because whatever I made afterward, even if it didn't make as much of an initial splash, there would still be my vision and my control.

Will Muxtape be one of many tools or do you see yourself as competing with sites like MySpace?

Well, certainly. MySpace is the one that I feel the most. Muxtape is a lot different than everything else but MySpace is just such a behemoth and nobody even likes it. It just fills a need. People feel the need to be on there because there are no alternatives. People tell us it's foolish to go against something so big but my position is, if it's ever going to get better we have to make something that is better.

What is better about what you're doing?

I can make a list. A mile long. A lot of things. I think that MySpace is too huge of a context. Bands are so concerned with their image as they should be as artists. But we're offering for you to truly control your presence. Every other site that does this is focused on advertising or features that don't really mean anything but my main focus is putting music in a context that is best to hear it.

From a more practical standpoint, we can do a lot of things you can't do on MySpace. It's a social site that has had music shoehorned into it. With us, it'll be much easier to sell downloads and merchandise all in one place. Also, to manage how that music is heard.

Our position to bands is that we can't promise to make you famous, but no one can. That seems to be the million dollar question. Bands say, "Okay, we can be on the internet but how are we going to make any money?" And our answer is, well, there are a lot of answers to that question but step one in that process is exposing your music to as many people as possible. We'll get your music out there and systematically have control over where it goes.

What do you say to a band that asks where is the money going to come from?

You're no worse off than you were before. Instead of being screwed by a record company taking 95% of your royalties, you're still not making very much money on sales but you can cut out the middle man. In spite of having a hard time making money, you have a lot more potential to make money. Being able to expose yourself as wide as possible and reach a lot of ears just wasn't possible before.

I don't think buying music is going anywhere. At one point I thought it was just be untenable to have a system where you pay for music. But I don't think that's the case. Lots of people are comfortable with the idea of paying for music. It's not an issue of saving money, it's just a convenience thing. People will pay if the convenience comes along with it.

People are much more likely to buy things if it's presented to them in a context that shows there is some work and some effort going into it. With MySpace, it really cheapens it. It's a poor step toward trying to finance anything if it just looks like selling through MySpace.

Is a record store no longer the right context for people to buy from?

It's just not the first point of entry. You used to go into a record store and find a lot just by flipping through records. There was a lot of discovery happening. But it's not a good model for that for obvious reasons. But having music right there and presented with photo, videos, art, a background story and seeing other people into it, to have that right next to it...

Do you buy music?

Oh yeah, I buy lots of music. I love packaging. Another side effect of this is that people are really appreciating physical packaging more. The things that are out there are really special.
You were once a photographer. Could see yourself going back to just shooting?

I like that I don't have to live and die by it. That's a good thing.

Where does your income come from without ads?

A mutual investment in the site funds my salary and Luke's salary.

How would you react to a large-scale Google-sized buy out?

I wouldn't do it. I'm really not in it for the money. I really enjoy pursuing my own vision more than anything and it's important to me.

Even down the line?

I'm not depending on it at all. The more I can resist that, the better. I want to prove that you can do something like this without taking on millions of dollars that you don't even know what to do with. If I had millions now, I wouldn't even know what to do.

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