Eric Davich is the co-Founder and Chief Content Officer of Songza Media Inc., which offers a free streaming music service and music discovery platform that provides expertly-made playlists for all life’s occasions. Eric started out as a musician and earned his BA in Music with Honors from Bowdoin College, where he was the recipient of the Sue Winchell Burnett Music Prize. He got into the digital music industry after graduating, when he co-ran the music download store Amie Street (acquired by Amazon). Songza gives users the ability to stream thousands of original playlists curated by music experts and has been featured by CNN, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and is 100% free on the Web, iPhone, Android and Kindle Fire with no audio ads and no monthly listening limit.
I spoke with Eric about co-founding Songza and how the music platform works for artists of all shapes and sizes that want to interact meaningfully with their fans and get their music heard by more people. He also shared some advice with musicians about what they should be focusing on as they build successful careers.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk, Eric. How did you get into the music business?
I’ve been a musician my entire life, playing in bands, orchestras and a lot of other groups. I majored in music in college and while there was doing some internships at record companies and for music publications and recording studios.
When I left college, I was trying to make it on my own as a musician and I discovered this great digital download store for independent artists called Amie Street. I put my music on there and after a while decided that looking for work in the record industry wasn’t going so well, so maybe I should check out the digital side of music. And I got in touch with Amie Street. At the time, it was run by a bunch of guys my age who had just graduated from college, and they were living in a house out in Hicksville, Long Island. They were just trying to make this business work. I started working with them in Hicksville, commuting and also working remotely from the city.
Then, the company got an investment from Amazon, and we were able to move into our current office in Long Island City and operate the Amie Street website here. It was a digital download store, and after we had been running it for a while, we started to see a shift towards streaming – not just by looking at the overall trends in music consumption, but in looking at our own personal form of music discovery with YouTube videos, etc. We thought it was much more convenient than to have to download it to listen to it.
So, we started experimenting with a new product we called Songza. For a while, we were running both the download store and the streaming site. In 2010, we decided we wanted to pursue streaming full time. So, we sold the Amie Street brand and amiestreet.com to Amazon. We’ve been running Songza exclusively since 2010. In 2011, we came out with the beta version of our website and mobile apps, which provided streaming music, a library of expertly-curated playlists categorized by genres, moods, activities, decades, cultures and this thing called Record Store Clerk. It was going over really well, and we had some great traction. But the more we showed it to people, the more we realized we could improve it and make the process of getting the perfect playlist for what someone was doing simpler, easier and more intuitive.
After a while of hammering away at how we could make it better, we came up with the “Music Concierge” concept, which we launched in March 2012. We launched the tool first on the Web. How it works is, you come to Songza and, based on the day, time and device you’re using and what we know about you, we’ll present you with a bunch of situations that you could potentially need music for at that particular moment. So, if it’s Friday morning, you might see things like “Music for Studying or Working” (with or without lyrics), “Music for Working Out,” “Music for Taking the Day Off.” You pick one of those situations and drill down into a genre or a category. Then we provide you with three expertly-made playlists from our library that are perfectly tailored to your moment. You can listen to those free with no audio ads and no time limits.
It’s a pretty frictionless experience that you can take with you anywhere and use at any time. On our iOS apps, we even have an alarm clock feature, so you can wake up and hear Songza first thing in the morning. We also have a sleep timer function, so you can fall asleep to Songza. We find people are using the service for many hours of the day and even in some cases, all hours of the day. The Songza tool has really evolved, as has our company, and it’s been exciting for me to see that happen.
I know a lot of artists themselves are signing up for this service as curators. Can you give any examples of artists that you’ve seen use this tool particularly well to enable them to be discovered as artists?
We work with a network of freelancers who make playlists for our library. We also work with a lot of guest curators – everyone from Justin Bieber and Ke$ha, to Mayor Mike Bloomberg or brands like Mercedes Benz and Victoria’s Secret. And we often get the help of undiscovered musicians like Kiana Brown, Walk the Moon and other independent artists. We’re willing to work with anyone who can make an awesome, lifestyle-enhancing playlist that is meant to improve people’s lives.
In some cases, we’ve been approached by artists that just want to do a list of their favorite songs right now. It’s cool to have a list of an artist’s favorite songs, but that’s not something we’re really inclined to feature on Songza. Even if a big-name artist like Justin Bieber puts together a playlist of his favorite songs, there’s not really a great way for us to feature that. But we can work with small, unnamed artists like Kiana Brown, who nobody has really heard of, who could make a playlist called “Weekend Warm-up” that is meant for getting excited to have fun on the weekend and celebrate the end of the work week. We’re able to use that in a lot more ways than we would be able to use a playlist called “Justin Bieber’s Favorite Songs.”
The artists that have had the most success using our platform are those that are making playlists that are related to a universal lifestyle as opposed to just a list of what they like or a way to show off their eclectic musical tastes.
It seems like it would be a great way to connect to a certain niche. For example, if you’re Jonathan Frankenreiter, people may not know you as well as they know someone like Jack Johnson. But you could create a playlist called “Pre-Surf Music” to attract people that might be interested in you. If you’re Kid Rock or someone like him, it could be, “Music for the Trailer Park.” It seems like Songza would be a pretty good way to connect in that way with a very specific lifestyle niche.
Yes. What we find works best and is really the most engaging and useful is when an artist or a brand even aligns itself with the lifestyle and vertical they think is most applicable. So, for example, we worked with Ke$ha, and she made a “Pre-Gaming with Ke$ha” playlist. That makes a lot of sense, because her whole brand is based around partying. So, if you’re a Ke$ha fan, you’re going to be interested in what she listens to while pre-gaming. Even people looking for pre-party music who are not necessarily Ke$ha fans will want to check out what she has to say, because they know she is an expert on partying. She could make even more playlists around the partying vertical and do well, because there are a lot of playlists you could make around partying, i.e., “Dance Party,” “Sweaty Dance Party,” “Drinking at a Dive Bar,” etc. There are many ways she could go to claim that lifestyle vertical and engage with folks in a meaningful way that also gets her brand message across.
You brought up a couple independent artists that have used Songza. Could you point me towards a few examples of independent artists who have done this well, using some specific stats? In other words, are there people who have really grown their brands by aiming their playlists at a certain vertical?
All the folks we’ve worked with are posted on our Pinterest pages. We have one called “Guest Curators” and one called “Brand Curators.” In terms of independent artists, we’ve worked with someone named Alabama Shakes. They made a road trip playlist. It is definitely one of our favorites, because it provides some great music but is also really in line with what the band was trying to promote at the time, which was their tour. The band put together this playlist of classic soul, gritty blues and barroom rock. When you think of Alabama Shakes and their music, you definitely think of that style. It did really well, and we were able to feature it in the Music Concierge as well as in our mobile section.
Are there ways of sharing these playlists offsite?
Yes. People have had a lot of success with sharing songs and playlists on social networks, especially when they ask fans for requests. In addition to pushing tactics that drive traffic to Songza, we try to provide artists with something that will increase their engagement on social networks – things that will get more “likes,” shares and ultimately result in more listening time spent with the artist. If they are able to provide a soundtrack that people will want to listen to for hours on end, instead of just providing something that people will look at and listen to for a couple seconds here and there, the engagement is much more meaningful.
When artists share a Songza playlist on Twitter or Facebook, we encourage them to ask for requests. Recently The Neon Trees made a “Driving Home with Neon Trees” playlist, posted it on their social networks and said, “What song should we add to our ‘Driving Home’ playlist?” And of course, they got a lot of comments with song requests. And what was really cool about what they did was, they responded with a follow-up post a few days later, shouting out to a particular fan who gave a lot of great song requests: “Thanks for this great song suggestion. We’ve added it to our ‘Driving Home’ playlist.” That fan gets validated in a way that says the band is listening to him and wants him to be a part of their experience. And the band still did all the legwork, because the process started with members making the playlist that will enhance people’s lives. The band is just basically saying, “Hey – we’ve created this playlist and done all the work. If you want to add to it and make it your own, we’d love to have your feedback. And if you do a good job, we’ll shout out to you and also add your request to the playlist.”
You’ve had a successful career trajectory as a musician and an entrepreneur. Knowing all you know now, is there anything you would have wanted to tell yourself at age 18 when you were just starting college and trying to figure out whether or not you wanted to do music full time that would’ve helped you avoid some pitfalls?
The #1 lesson I’ve learned both in music and in business is that the primary focus of your life should be making sure your product is of high quality and also useful, not trying to think too far ahead. You shouldn’t be thinking, “How do I make a lot of money doing this?” You will make a lot of money on something you put a lot of time, passion and effort into and that you have really spent a lot of time agonizing over and perfecting. Whatever you are creating should be inspired. But if you’re trying to push a product or music you think is great, but other people are not responding to it, don’t get fazed. Just start over and try again. Don’t be afraid to knock yourself down.
One thing you always hear when talking to entrepreneurs or reading interviews with famous folks like Steve Jobs and others is that they failed many, many times before they hit it big. At Songza, we have certainly had that same experience. And I’m sure we’ll fail many, many times in the future. We just have to be comfortable with that. To anyone who is frustrated and having trouble achieving their dreams, there is always a second chance. You just have to keep iterating and trying again.
That’s definitely great advice. And I personally gravitate towards the “try, try again” theory. And I find that in music especially, so many people are way more concerned with the marketing than with their music, which is backwards.
When you are making music, you can say that the right person hasn’t heard it yet for as long as you want and just focus on making the music better and better. Because if you keep working to make the music the best it can be, eventually the right person will hear it. If your music is undeniably good, it will get out there.
The truth is, everyone is a critic. And everyone has a lot of exposure to tons of music all the time. But if you are doing something that makes someone say, “I’ve heard enough” after 30 seconds, you might want to re-evaluate. Obviously, you don’t want to reinvent your music in a way that makes it feel contrived, but you can focus in on what you’re trying to express and what you’re passionate about expressing and figure out a better way to express it in an honest way. People gravitate towards honesty.
That would be my biggest piece of advice: Focus on being honest and being yourself, doing what you care about the most. If it isn’t coming out perfectly, you just need to dig in a little bit more.
To find out more about Eric Davich and the tools his company is providing for artists and music fans, visit the Songza website.