The simplest way to describe Pulselocker is ‘Spotify for DJs’, although that’s an over-simplistic description, given the ambition behind it – the company’s blog suggests it’s more “a little bit of Netflix, and a little Dropbox, sprinkled with a generous dose of Spotify”.
It’s a subscription-based digital music service that enables DJs to browse its catalogue of dance tracks, add favourites to their lockers and download them to use with DJ software like Traktor and Serato.
It’s currently available as an invite-only beta in the US, Canada and UK, with plans to charge users between $9.99 and $59.99 a month depending how big a locker they want.
Music Ally sat down with Pulselocker’s CTO Ryan Walsh at Midem, where the company was pitching as part of the Midemlab startups contest.
“The market for DJ music is massive: there are 24m active licences for DJ software,” he said. “And if you look at [dance downloads store] Beatport, the average revenue per user is roughly $204 per year. Put the two together, and if everyone was spending at Beatport level, we’d have a $4.9bn market.”
The point being that we don’t. Walsh suggests that a lot of DJs – particularly those at the more amateur end of the market – are getting most of the music they DJ with from pirate sites.
This is where, in theory, Pulselocker comes in: a service that its founders hope will cannibalise this piracy much more than it will suck business away from the existing stores like Beatport and Juno.
Its software works on Macs now, with a Windows version on the way in the first half of this year. When subscribers download tracks, they can only be played within the Pulselocker application, or in partner tools like Traktor.
One thing Pulselocker has found from its beta tests is that demand stretches far beyond just brand new tracks. In fact, DJs are just as keen to dig into the archives, it seems.
“It’s not just about the brand new stuff, especially for larger labels,” says Walsh. “If you think about northern soul, funk, ska, reggae… People are DJing that stuff again. If you walk down the street in The Mission, most stuff you hear is rock music. There’s a lot of back catalogue that labels can re-monetise.”
As for indie labels, Walsh hopes they’ll see Pulselocker as a great marketing platform for breaking their artists out, especially as DJs start making and sharing playlists on the platform. This, of course, could also provide valuable data for labels.
“If you’re an indie label, for example, and you distribute a track on our system, I can tell you not only how many lockers it’s in and how many people are using it, but also where they are. I can tell a manager ‘your track’s getting played in DJ sets here, here and here. Tour there and people will know who you are’.”
When Pulselocker was first announced, I talked to friends and colleagues who make electronic music about the idea, and found several were wary.
Their main concern: whether a subscription-based service for dance music would have a destructive effect on track sales for independent artists in particular – those whose main music income comes from sales, and who may not have live or merchandising revenues to fall back on.
It’s the same subscription-payouts versus a la carte sales argument that’s been reverberating around Spotify and similar consumer services. Walsh is forthright in his response.
“Everyone compares us to Spotify, and while we provide a similar service in terms of technology, we’re very different in terms of approach,” he says. “Our subscriptions are more expensive, and that reflects the premium content and premium product that we’re offering.”
But he addresses the issue of cannibalisation head-on. “We’re focused on independent music first, although we also have agreements with all the majors. We come from that industry, and we could never create a solution that would kill a huge revenue source for the independent music industry, because essentially we’d be killing ourselves by doing it,” he says.
“I do wonder how many artists really are still living on their income from sales of master recordings though. None of my friends are: they’re all touring; spending a lot of time promoting themselves to get into a video, commercial or any type of sync deal; or they’re going vinyl.”
Walsh also suggests that for now, Pulselocker will be an additional revenue stream for electronic-music producers that complements stores like Beatport and Juno, rather than replaces them. “Juno and Beatport are catering to a customer base that has very refined tastes,” he says.
“I know when I go to Beatport, I want minimal techno from this label, this guy, this remix. And on Juno with their Discogs deal, I want this track from this year. You can get very specific stuff. But for a kid who’s just got a controller or downloaded software to DJ and likes something they heard in the club, there’s no good way to find that.”
That hints at one area of future development for Pulselocker: it could become as much a discovery service where DJs swap playlists and track tips, while labels track songs as they appear in setlists around the world.
Still, Walsh returns to the importance of new digital business models in this area, suggesting it’s as much about long-term planning as over-simplistic sales v subscription payouts calculations today.
“Downloads are going to go away, because the average age of a consumer of downloads is going to continue to rise,” says Walsh.
“Once it hits 35, that’s right around when people’s music listening falls. All of a sudden, if kids are getting it from Spotify, downloads are going to just tail off. For DJs in particular, what happens then? If there’s no way to monetise it, it’ll all be just theft.”
In the meantime, Pulselocker is continuing its efforts to work with the makers of DJ equipment and software, to get its service integrated into more tools ready for that generational shift.
“Every DJ equipment manufacturer is aware of two things,” says Walsh. “One is that the tablet is the device that will drive DJing in the next 5-10 years, if not an even smaller and easier device. And two: having content accessible in a freeform and exchangeable way in their apps is something that is very valuable to them.”