We always talk about how various industries are changing such that gatekeepers are history
are the future. One of the most impressive enablers around in the music industry has been TuneCore, a company built up over the last half-decade or so to provide artists with direct access to various digital distribution channels that were previously closed to them. TuneCore, co-founded and run by Jeff Price, had a singular vision of doing everything to make life better for musicians. They didn't take a cut of the royalties -- you just paid a flat-fee to use their service. They had very
clear reporting and payments for artists -- basically the exact opposite of how major labels worked. Most recently, they set out to revolutionize the publishing business, and were well on their way towards that goal as well.
And, because of that, TuneCore, in many ways, surprised much of the industry while upending much of the industry. Many of the core functions that artists previously relied on labels for, TuneCore did better, in a more useful way, without asking the artists to hand over all their copyrights and 85% of their revenues. It became such a standard thing that almost every indie musician I spoke to used TuneCore, and many big-name musicians started moving in that direction as well.
The company was founded by Jeff Price, Peter Wells and Gary Burke a little over six years ago, and achieved some impressive things in that time. Jeff, as CEO, was pretty famous for his outspokenness -- and we've quoted him
multiple times. He was certainly quick to point out all of the fallacies of the old RIAA way of doing business, which upset some of those legacy players, but it was clear from the beginning that what Jeff Price wanted most was to help artists. He, unlike so many, recognized the challenges and the opportunities
musicians faced, and wanted to help get them past the challenges and reach the point of enjoying the opportunities.
I only met Jeff for the first time a few months ago, and saw him one more time after that, but he was one of those people that never seemed to stop focusing on a singular goal: making things better for artists, and helping them embrace what the internet enables. And from everything I've seen and heard, he was amazingly successful in doing so. Multiple artists I've talked to have spoken highly of TuneCore and what it enabled them to do. I didn't always agree with Jeff on everything (though I probably did more often than not), but even when we disagreed, it seemed to be over our interpretations of which way forward would actually be best for the artists themselves.
So I was surprised to find out that Jeff Price (and Peter Wells) have both been pushed out of TuneCore
. I've spoken to a number of people associated with the company, and all of them are shocked and dismayed that Jeff and Peter are gone from the company. I've tried, multiple times, to get the main VC backing the company, Gill Cogan from Opus Capital, to comment on the situation, to no avail. But, many, many people stepped up to speak out strongly on Jeff's behalf. You can read Jeff's open letter linked above, in which he talks about all the company accomplished:
Under our tenure, TuneCore took significant market share away from the traditional major labels. As of July, 2012, TuneCore artists represent over 4% of all US gross digital music sales revenue and have sold over 610,000,000 units of music generating over $310,000,000 in gross music sales. More than four songs a second are sold on iTunes somewhere in the world by a TuneCore artist. Through the execution of the vision and the trust of the artist, TuneCore achieved about 40% of the market share of EMI and 25% of the market share of Universal in regards to digital music sales in the United States.
We were also able to attract artists across the spectrum: from emerging artists to the older legends and the new legends. Artists such as Drake, Soulja Boy, Sonic Youth, Nine Inch Nails, Zac Brown Band, Hoodie Allen, Civil Wars, Lecrea, Boyce Avenue, Kelly, Colt Ford, Ed Sheerhan, Alex Day, Aretha Franklin, Jay Z, Girl Talk, Blood On The Dancefloor, Jason Mraz, Nice Peter, Tiesto and hundreds of thousands more used TuneCore to place number one albums and songs on iTunes, Amazon and many other digital stores, breaking the control of the traditional industry while democratizing it.
I spoke to Jeff to get a bit more background. While no one is willing to say why or how Jeff and Peter got pushed out, it seems pretty clear that this was not what Jeff wanted -- and not what many people involved with TuneCore wanted. Jeff highlighted how everything he's done has been about focusing on the artist, and you can tell that he's worried that the company may no longer be able to do so (though, of course, he doesn't say that directly):
We started the company with a mission and philosophy to make the world a better place for artists. I believe the success TuneCore has had under our guidance is based on never losing sight of that mission and philosophy. Stay true to the DNA of the company and no matter how the market changes you can adapt with a rock solid foundation. As the Founder and CEO I tried hard to instill my beliefs and passion into every aspect of the company, to never let the employees or board of directors forget the mission, the "why" of TuneCore's existence. My hope is the philosophies, vision and mission statement that have allowed the company to succeed are so entrenched that it continues on the path created for it. Serve the musician. Thats how you, the artist, the shareholders, the digital music stores and the consumers win.
The challange becomes when a company loses that vision. Neither Peter or I are even remotely in the league of Apple or Steve Jobs, but you look at what happened to Apple when John Sculley came in as CEO. He changed the Apple vision from making "insanely great easy to use products" to one of "making money at any expense". When Jobs came back and reinstituted his vision Apple soared again. Its the vision that drives the success and revenue, not the other way around. We did everything we could to instill the vision as deeply as we could. We just hope it sticks.
I reached out to Peter, as well, who seems equally baffled by the situation, noting that the company had been doing great, hitting all of its goals (and more):
Astonishing success under the original regime, really--that's been TuneCore these last few months. We fulfilled our promise to create a Publishing side, with a new office in Burbank, CA, and it represents another revolution for artists, the next step along the path we started along when the company launched. Back in New York, things have been fantastic, up to and including a launch of the new look of the TuneCore home page, which Gary, Jeff and I helped shape and which I think is superb. This real success makes me all the more puzzled at very recent developments
Peter noted that he was saddened about losing his own job, but that his reaction to Jeff being pushed out was on another level altogether:
"Stunned" doesn't begin to describe it. Okay, so the company asked me to leave--I can accept that, I'm a founder at heart, the company is no longer a startup, perhaps it's time to move on. But Jeff is the heart and soul of TuneCore, and frankly, its brains. No one knows this space like he does, especially when it comes to publishing. I said earlier that TuneCore was having astonishing success--it is, and that's due to a lot of hard work from a lot of brilliant people (whom Jeff found and convinced to come on board). It's also due to Jeff's vision and leadership. Why on earth would Jeff be asked to leave? Why now, in the face of so many successes, and on the cusp of doing for publishing what he'd already proven he could do for distribution? It makes no sense.
I reached out to some others who were intimately involved with TuneCore from the early days onwards, and they too are somewhat shocked at this turn of events. One of the original advisors to the company, George Howard, who is an executive VP at Wolfgang's Vault, told me that Jeff was astoundingly good at accomplishing what he set out to do with TuneCore:
Jeff is one of the few people who has genuinely moved the business forward. So many people talk about what the business could/should/might be, but Jeff actually had a vision and brought it to fruition with his founding and running of TuneCore. That's the key: bringing something to fruition. Jeff actually gets things done - implementing a vision via his role as CEO. In so doing, he, by creating a system that provided access to thousands and thousands of musicians who had - prior to Jeff's implementation of a vision - been denied access by industry gatekeepers, undeniably changed the music business for the better.
Similarly, Dick Huey, a long-time music business insider, who was an early advisor to TuneCore, seemed equally surprised at the removal of Jeff, and reiterated some of the things he'd been able to accomplish in spite of all the odds:
TuneCore was all Jeff. I remember the dinner where he first ran the idea past me, along with the old company name. I thought the idea sounded radical (it was), I thought there was a fair chance it wouldn't work (I was wrong), and I knew I wanted to be involved as an advisor (I am). Jeff didn't doubt the idea from the outset, and since we started talking about this, I'm not sure I've met a more tireless leader who is more singularly focused on executing on his vision. I feel pretty strongly that Jeff came onto this concept in a moment in time, just at the outset of artists starting to realize that digital distribution could be for everyone, not just signed artists. And he executed, and built what I consider to be a successful, remarkable, and growing business. I believe there are few individuals who could have delivered on this business idea the way Jeff has done for TuneCore.
Huey also went to great lengths to highlight the many, many things that Jeff accomplished with TuneCore that most others wouldn't have bothered with, or wouldn't have even thought to bother with. He detailed how he got Apple to allow TuneCore to be a key entry point to the iTunes store for unsigned (and signed) artists, taking control from the gatekeepers. He talked about establishing better standards for reporting and payment. He talked about all of the many artists that TuneCore helped to be able to make a living.
When I asked Huey if he was comfortable with TuneCore without Jeff at the helm, he didn't hold back on his concerns:
I'm extremely concerned about the direction of the company without Jeff at the helm, as a shareholder in TuneCore, especially given the lack of information available about why he is no longer there. It should be clear from my responses to your questions that I consider Jeff Price to be the man who started or drove every major initiative at TuneCore of which I'm aware. I've heard no announcement of a new CEO, and I'm suspect that Jeff could even be properly replaced, given his unusual and unique combination of outspokenness, deep industry knowledge, wholehearted commitment to the company and to its staff. Jeff made you a believer, and even if you didn't believe, detractors largely respected his vision and commitment.
I've been interested in companies that help enable artists for a long time, and I've seen over and over again that these companies almost always succeed on the strength of their leadership -- a leadership that is committed to going to incredible (and seemingly impossible) lengths to actually help content creators, rather than feeding an old industry that looked to feed gatekeepers. I was surprised when I started to hear rumors of Jeff's ouster, and in talking to a bunch of folks, I've yet to find anyone who seems to think any of this makes sense.
I've spoken to some other people as well and may do some followup on this. In Jeff's open letter, he notes that he and Peter "look forward to continuing to change the industry on a global scale" and hints at something new coming soon. Peter, too, seemed eager to get started on something new, so I get the feeling this won't be the last we hear from the two of them, though I do wonder what will become of TuneCore without their leadership.