Corporate music disruption
Madison’s music scene continues to inspire digital music innovation — and vice versa.
Max Fergus, CEO and co-founder, Live Undiscovered Music
Photograph by Shawn Harper
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From the pages of In Business magazine.
For the youthful team of Live Undiscovered Music, the 2018 Forward Festival, an eight-day celebration of technology and entrepreneurship that’s held across Madison, will serve as a launching pad for its new technology. Not only has LÜM (pronounced Loom), a music discovery and streaming platform, accepted an invitation to hold its launch party on Aug. 17 at Monona Terrace as one of the main events at Forward Fest, but CEO and co-founder Max Fergus has, rather appropriately, been asked to speak at the event’s Aug. 22 disruptive evolution showcase. As a startup, LÜM might not yet be as disruptive as drones or the “internet of things,” but given the charms of music, it might not take long.
LÜM is set to become part of a group of local companies that have developed digital technology to address longstanding shortcomings with the distribution of music. Whether Madison can legitimately be considered a digital music hotspot or is still trying to become one, there is no question the city is home to innovative new and established music companies that have developed unique digital technology.
The economic development benefits of a lively music scene have been demonstrated by New Orleans jazz, Nashville country, and Seattle grunge. While Madison does not have an identifiable sound, it does have a vibrant live music scene, thanks in large measure to the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, plus the emergence of new music venues such as Breese Stevens Field and the Sylvee, and a history of local music legends such as pop/funk drummer Clyde Stubblefield and jazz/rock icon Ben Sidran.
Somewhat lost has been the development of digital music companies. We interviewed several new and established local companies that operate in this space, and all were in agreement that Madison is poised to see even more business development in the years ahead.
Mobile app developers have been working to develop the technology in time for the national launch of LÜM’s iOS streaming platform, which will be preceded by a beta program for artists and fans. For an organic, homegrown application, this is pretty heady stuff, but while disruption is a distinct possibility, LÜM is really focused on how people engage and absorb musical content. Its music discovery and streaming platform will focus on making connections between up-and-coming artists and devout music lovers with the hope of creating a global digital talent pool for live entertainment.
By developing a platform based on social media networking and streaming, one that enables user-to-user and user-to-artist engagement, CEO Max Fergus and his staff hope emerging artists can earn a good living and their fans can enjoy music without having to wait for entertainment executives to tell them who the next great stars will be.
Fergus is not really trying to disrupt the corporate music business model, but he acknowledges LÜM’s potential to do so. At the moment, he says large players such as YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Music focus on the top 1% of corporate and mainstream music, and they make the barrier to entry for streaming astronomically high for artists.
Meanwhile, LÜM is not only concentrating exclusively on drawing emerging artists to its platform, but it’s also looking at the next generation of music fans — Generation Z and younger millennials — and how they interact with content. “The reason that LÜM could be disruptive is because we have streaming meeting the social aspect of music,” Fergus notes. “Music is supposed to be very social in its nature, and we are now connecting emerging artists with their fans and their communities by putting a streaming network on a social platform, unlike using AI and predictive technology like larger platforms do. We’re focusing more on the human interaction and the digital monetization with human beings.”
Fergus adds that a lot of people assume that his startup is trying to compete with corporate and mainstream music, and that’s not really true. The company is trying to create a platform that not only fixes the financial problems in the music industry, but also addresses problems associated with music promotion for emerging artists and music discovery for the next generation of fans. “I wouldn’t necessarily say we’re competing with any of these platforms,” he states. “They don’t even attempt to tailor their platforms to emerging music promotion and emerging music discovery. It might be something that they want to do, but currently they are not doing it in a way that makes me think we’re even competing with them.”
Nevertheless, LÜM co-founder Will Ploch believes the aforementioned large players have left themselves vulnerable to disruption. “There is no music application that is built on the social network,” he states, “so when you think of the bigger players, streaming isn’t their main focus. There isn’t a place for fans, artists, and venues to connect and a way to circulate that music and distribute it in a way that facilitates music discovery.”
Even though the company’s founders and staff have strong Madison ties, they gave some thought as to whether Madison was the right place to build this platform. The group includes engineers and computer scientists that had full-time jobs in other places, but given all that is happening locally in the music, technology, and entrepreneurial spaces, they opted for the Capital City. LÜM recently moved into the new Spark Building, which is a hub for innovation with entrepreneurial resources, and it views Wisconsin and Midwestern colleges and universities — as well as high schools — as deep reservoirs of passionate music fans open to discovering new artists and relating to them in a highly connected way. They will be the brand ambassadors that offer testimonials and create a viral effect, which LÜM views as vital to its success as it grows and scales over time.