Kanye West is back on Twitter for more rants. Water is wet.
This time around, though, he’s talking about issues that are hard for the music industry to ignore, in a way that leaves few stones unturned. On September 16 — a frenzied day for music-business Twitter — West tweeted over 100 individual pages (thank you Dani Deahl) of his recording contracts with Island Def Jam and Roc-A-Fella Records, dated between 2005 and 2016. Yesterday, he followed up by laying out a proposal of music-industry “guidelines” that included the removal of blanket licenses, a shift towards one-year, short-term licensing deals and an 80/20 royalty split in the artist’s favor. And today, he proposed forming an artist’s union.
Many industry commentators have rightfully pointed out that aside from his contract details, 1) nothing West has pointed out is actually new, 2) some of his guidelines are unrealistic to pull off without collective action and 3) and he may have even put himself at a legal disadvantage by being so transparent with the terms of his own deals. That said, many of West’s critiques around artist equity, transparency and leverage parallel the key pillars behind recent initiatives like The Show Must Be Paused that have put unprecedented pressure on music companies to be more accountable for their actions, or face the consequences.
Amidst all this buzz, though, I personally think there’s too much of a focus on how to improve existing recording contracts, and too little imagination of what other models might be possible for growing artists’ careers outside of the incumbent label system.
This brings me to the topic I want to focus on today. On September 15, West claimed mid-rant that he spoke with Katie Jacobs — founder and general partner of Moxxie Ventures and board member of Vivendi, Universal Music Group’s parent company — about the possibility of creating “a ‘Y combinator’ for the music industry so artist[s] have the power and transparency to to [sic] be in control of our future … no more shady contracts .. no more life long [sic] deals.” The tweet got excited replies from powerhouses in the tech world like Sam Altman (former president of Y Combinator, now CEO of OpenAI) and Alexis Ohanian (co-founder of Reddit), and the nickname “Ye Combinator” soon emerged from the noise.
In case you don’t know already, Y Combinator (YC for short) is a startup accelerator that has funded over 2,000 startups over the past 15 years. Aside from now-ubiquitous tech companies like Stripe, Airbnb, Dropbox and Reddit, YC’s current cohort and alumni include several companies like Twitch, Genius, The Ticket Fairy, Jemi and Gigwell that have direct interests in the music, entertainment and culture industries.
YC makes its terms transparent on its website: A $125,000 investment in exchange for 7% of the company, through a post-money simple agreement for future equity (or SAFE). There are two YC cohorts a year, lasting three months each, in which startup members get access to the accelerator’s extensive alumni network, weekly speaker sessions and office hours, vertical-specific founder communities and other benefits. Each cohort also concludes with a flashy Demo Day that consistently draws hundreds of investors in person (and many more online, especially this year).
One implicit point that West makes in his “Y Combinator for music” proposal is that record labels don’t fit the bill. Indeed, a common misconception is that labels are to artists what accelerators or VC firms are to startups. This comparison makes sense in that both labels and VCs tend to take higher risks with more capital on artists/founders that are relatively unproven in the marketplace, while also embracing a high-volume, portfolio approach to diversifying their risk. But the similarities stop there: A record-label advance is not an equity investment, it gives the label a financial interest in only one specific revenue stream in the artist's entire business (for the most part) and the outcome often makes artists feel less entrepreneurial, not more.
That said, West’s idea is far from original, as many versions of “Y Combinator” for music already exist outside the traditional label model.
Music accelerators began to emerge in full form in the early- to mid-2010s. Some, like Techstars Music, Abbey Road Red and Project Music, service founders of music-tech startups; others cater more to emerging artists looking to embrace a founder mindset in their careers. I reported on this trend for Music Ally back in 2016, and the playing field has widened significantly since then — ranging from formal, focused accelerator programs to more freeform incubators, residencies and coworking spaces, all serving the increasingly influential artist-entrepreneur archetype.
A non-exhaustive list of examples:
[Note: Some people would categorize songwriting camps, rap camps and independent music distributors like UnitedMasters and Stem as the equivalents of a Y Combinator for music. I disagree with this analysis because 1) startup accelerators need to focus on business models, not just on product development; 2) songwriting camps run by major labels benefit major labels, instead of providing an alternative path to success; 3) distributors are mostly self-serve SaaS platforms, not more focused educational programs.]
- The Rattle (London, UK and Los Angeles, CA, USA)
- Zoo Labs (Oakland, CA, USA)
- Backline Accelerator (Cleveland, OH; Milwaukee, WI; Detroit, MI)
- REC Philly (Philadelphia, PA, USA)
- Th3rd Brain Accelerator (Los Angeles, CA, USA; ran until 2018)
- Assemble Sound Residency (Detroit, MI)
- Heavy Sound Labs (Los Angeles, CA, USA; part of startup studio Science Inc.)
If you click through these accelerators’ websites, something you may notice is that they are not necessarily catering to the aspiring Kanyes of the world. Instead, many of them have the goal of cultivating self-sufficient, local music communities in cities that might otherwise be overshadowed by major industry hubs like New York, Los Angeles and Nashville. Many of these accelerators also intentionally encourage their artists to use startup terminology — e.g. prototyping, testing, customer development, design thinking — as a tool for crafting a self-directed music career beyond just getting signed to a label and hoping for the best.
This lies at the heart of what I see as the main limitation of West’s discussion of “Y Combinator for music,” which was ultimately framed within the relatively more conservative context of improving major-label deals. If you take the concept of “artist as entrepreneur” or “Y Combinator for music” seriously, you can’t approach the problem just from the vantage point of making existing label contracts better; that immediately presupposes a business model that doesn’t have to be etched in stone. Instead, the discussion should be more about changing the entire decision matrix altogether, such that an artist starts to question whether they even want to sign a standard deal in the first place. Anything less falls short of the idea’s imaginative, progressive potential.
The financial gulf between music and tech
When thinking about what “Y Combinator for music” can look like, one immediate red flag that needs to be addressed is that music and tech are vastly different businesses.
Major artists and entertainers can build up enviable business empires by diversifying their brand beyond music into beauty, fashion, alcohol and other verticals. But by many investors’ standards, even this massive amount of wealth ends up being relatively paltry and slow to come by.
Let’s look at West as an example. According to Forbes, West’s business interests in music and fashion make him one of the wealthiest celebrities in the world, with a net worth of $1.3 billion. But he only got to this point after grinding nonstop in the music business for nearly 25 years. Similarly, Rihanna has a net worth of $600 million, but she worked tirelessly over the course of the last 15 years to get her career to this point. Beyoncé’s net worth is $400 million, and she’s been in the business for 23 years.
Measured against Silicon Valley’s expectations, these growth rates and market caps would be considered meager, even abysmal. For comparison: West name-dropped Airbnb and Dropbox in his tweet about Y Combinator. Airbnb is 12 years old, and is already valued at $18 billion (which is only half of its peak valuation of $31 billion three years ago). Dropbox is 13 years old, and is currently valued at around $8 billion. In other words, Airbnb and Dropbox individually achieved more than 6x the value of Kanye West’s brand in just half the time.
This is an apples-to-oranges comparison — and that’s exactly the point. Building a celebrity brand is a fundamentally different business from building a tech platform. In being inextricably tied to human talent, celebrity brands are harder to scale, grow much more slowly and end up being much smaller in size than SaaS and marketplace products of comparable fame. Hence, simply copying and pasting the Y Combinator incentive structure for emerging artists is arguably inappropriate, and runs the risk of even more churn-and-burn on the artist side without laying out clear expectations for a different kind of growth and development.
This financial gulf also holds true when you expand your view to music corporations, not just celebrities. The market value of the world’s biggest recorded-music company (Universal Music Group at around $34 billion) is only 1% that of the world’s most valuable tech company (Apple at $1.9 trillion), and nearly 25% lower than that of the world’s biggest music streaming service (Spotify at $44.5 billion).
In general, investors still view music as a relatively small niche compared to other entertainment sectors like film and gaming, and especially to other industries outside of entertainment like software services. Major music corporations are trying to compensate for this value gap by holding mutual stakes in streaming platforms; celebrities are also investing in tech startups to have an individual upside in Silicon Valley’s growth. Note that the everyday artist, unless they own stock in Warner Music Group or Spotify, is essentially nowhere to be found in this financialized picture.
It’s hard to argue against a more even distribution of wealth between the millions of artists around the world and the handful of media and tech corporations that command eleven-figure valuations off the backs of these artists’ works. Indeed, in his Twitter rant, West addresses this issue in a rather capitalistic way (emphasis and punctuation added): “I am the only person who can speak on this because I made multi billions outside of music — no musicians make billions inside of music — I’m going to change this.”
That said, I wish West took more time to address the vast majority of artists — hell, the vast majority of people, period — who will never be billionaires. Among the modern generation of music distributors and music-tech startups, there’s increasing discussion about growing the “middle class” of artists and enabling them to live sustainable, healthy lives off their creative work without feeling like they need to chase outsized growth projections. A truth that West neglects in his public discussion is that if the music industry is to be more equitable, you don’t need to make billions of dollars to be deemed “successful.”
In general, the music and tech industries both tend to suffer from the same myopic view of success in entrepreneurship — whereby case studies from the top 1% of the top 1% of companies are treated as the rule, rather than as the exception that they truly are. While celebrities’ growth trajectories are certainly illuminating and informative, an education in music entrepreneurship that paints these stories as the “norm” will automatically set emerging artists up for disappointment.
This brings us to one last fundamental question:
What is the end game?
While YC has transformed how early-stage startups get their footing, the program also arguably serves the incumbent investment world by grooming startups for the next level of more traditional VC deals (Series A, B, C, etc.). Moreover, the notion of a lucrative “exit strategy” (i.e. a big IPO or acquisition by a larger company) being the primary north star for many startups has only become more intense in a world of accelerators, not less.
If we made a Y Combinator for music, what would that “next level” look like for artists? Is it still to “exit” to a traditional label deal, or potentially to arrive at a totally different business structure altogether around an artist's work? Is the goal simply to have more leverage against incumbents in deal negotiations, or to decrease reliance on incumbents as a whole and build a fruitful, independent business on one’s own terms?
Interestingly, recent history has suggested that independent music companies who claim to be a “one-stop shop” for the next generation of mainstream, culturally influential artists actually have a hard time keeping them from major labels’ grasp. Amuse couldn’t keep Lil Nas X. UnitedMasters couldn’t keep NLE Choppa. Human Re Sources couldn’t keep Pink Sweat$. In all of these cases, the best opportunity to go to the “next level” was to partner with an incumbent.
West’s stance on what this “next level” actually looks like in his perfect world isn’t clear. For one thing, West’s solution for “freeing artists” seems to rely mainly on improving major recording and publishing contracts. That is not a startup accelerator — that’s an arduous political debate that requires decades worth of collective action. Moreover, the fact that he discussed this idea with a Vivendi board member implies that an initial iteration would be additive, not disruptive, to a major label’s business. For instance, a company like UMG would likely invest in a YC-type set up as a self-serving A&R funnel, upstreaming the most promising talent directly from each cohort to a more standard deal (major labels invest in independent distribution businesses for a similar reason).
I’d like to think that West’s idea of “setting artists free” can have room for multiple different kinds of careers, not just a slightly better or more efficient version of the dominant model. I’d like to see a Y Combinator for music focus on the more than 40 different revenue streams that artists can potentially make from their work — spanning the likes of direct-to-fan memberships, grants and teaching, not just recording, touring or merch — and on the wide range of company structures and fundraising strategies that can support a profitable, “middle-class” artist business. In the tech world, organizations like Indie.vc and Zebras Unite, and movements such as “Exit to Community,” provide a potential blueprint for how to prioritize sustainability and profitability while exploring alternative financing models for startups such as revenue-based financing and equity crowdfunding. (A lot of these alternative models are already underway in music, but not with the endorsement of someone like Kanye.)
Journalist David Sax's recent op-ed for Bloomberg, "It’s Time to Reclaim the Meaning of the Word ‘Entrepreneur,'" rings strongly here:
“For too long, we bought into the notion that all we needed to do was create and support the entrepreneurs building the biggest businesses, assuming the trickle-down of money, jobs, and innovation would benefit everyone. But a healthy economy needs a full complement of enterprises: the high-tech, rapidly growing companies and midsize manufacturers; the MBA-educated innovators disrupting markets; and the small businesses run by minorities, immigrants, women, and seniors that make our neighborhoods vibrant. Silicon Valley talks a lot about the ‘ecosystem’ for startups, but we need to remind ourselves that the healthiest ecosystems are diverse. They need microbes and ants — not just elephants.”
To borrow Sax’s analogy, West is, in multiple senses, the elephant in the room: A problematic celebrity figure whom many of us are reluctant to talk about, and an ultra-wealthy entertainment magnate who is the exception, not the rule, in the vast ecosystem of artist success. Arguing for artists’ freedom and rights without acknowledging the sheer diversity of career paths in the industry runs the risk of feeling like Tidal’s 2015 press conference — shiny, but tone-deaf.
This is all to say: When you hear "Ye Combinator" or "Y Combinator for music," I encourage you to dream harder about what might be possible. In a way, West’s tweetstorms and their resulting debates serve as a litmus test for the kinds of solutions that people in the industry want to have come to life. I invite you to take this test yourself: What end game do you see? ✯