Startups

Startup profile: Fab.fm – ‘The path for us is towards tastemates’


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Fab.fm is a recently-launched website that helps people create music playlists using a Tinder-style interface.

Users start by typing in an artist, and are then presented with a succession of similar tracks as artwork that can be swiped left to reject it, or right to add it to the playlist – which when finished, can be exported to Spotify.

We were impressed with the site – which works well on mobile devices too – so we talked to CEO Jon Vlassopulos to find out more about Fab.fm, which is a spin-off from his company’s main app Fabric.

“My daughter just had her birthday, so I gave her my phone on the way to her party and started her on Katy Perry. She built a playlist and by the time we arrived, it was ready!” he said.

We’ve started with something that’s fun: you start with an artist, and let people get on with it.”

Vlassopulos has been “in and around” the music business for a while now: formerly a business development exec at Bertelsmann, he went on to work in digital-media roles at AT&T Wireless, Endemol, and mobile agency Skyrockit – which created music-remix service Romplr – while also investing in a range of startups.

Fabric is an app for creating “want-to lists” for films, TV, travel and music – a Pinterest for entertainment, you could say – with Fab.fm a spin-off from its music features.

We tried not to go back into the music business, but it was unavoidable when there was an opportunity with all the music services,” said Vlassopulos.

“We’d already been leveraging swipe in our main product: we had music, movies and TV, and we had four directions: swipe up to love it, down to add to queue, right if you’d done it, and left if you hadn’t. And we realised the end result for music could be a lot more immediate than for TV and film.”

Hence Fab.fm: no up or down swipes, just left and right to reject or approve songs and build a playlist. The team hope it’ll encourage more people to create playlists rather than simply listen to those curated by others.

“Our ambition was that it would sit above the music services,” said Vlassopulos, noting that the Fab.fm team have been involved in various music launches down the years involving negotiating rights, with all the headaches that brings.

If we sat on top, we wouldn’t have to hold any rights: we could provide value to people who were discovering and sharing, and pass them to other places to consume,” he said.

“And the path for us is towards tastemates. Previous networks – social networks – were based around people, and we feel that the bigger those networks have got, the less valuable they’be become: you’re connected to more and more people who have less things in common with you.”

“On Fab.fm, the idea is more about tastemates: people who share your tastes. The more you use it, the playlists that you’ll see will come from those tastemates – and we’ll show your percentage compatibility with them.”

Fab.fm is “meant to be a side-project”, but Fabric’s team has found itself spending more time on it in recent weeks. They’re also mulling potential business models.

“We’ll have a community discovering and sharing, and we’ll integrate concert links and merch and things like that. We’ll have iTunes links in there next to the tracks pretty soon: we already have affiliate deals in place with Google and Apple and Amazon,” said Vlassopulos.

“And our hope is that if this becomes a place where people are hanging out and chatting – we already have messaging in the core Fabric app – advertising will become a natural extension. And we could have branded playlists: native advertising. Chevy’s Road Trip Songs and things like that, which don’t feel too nasty from a consumer’s perspective.”

Fab.fm is planning to integrate more streaming services in the coming weeks and months, and has hopes of becoming a middleman between the various services – helping people send their playlists to friends who aren’t on the same one as them.

Fab.fm is also working on its recommendation algorithms: which determine which songs to suggest for swiping. Currently, the team are using Spotify’s open API, some data from Last.fm, as well as its own editorial nous.

“It’s not NASA-level, but there’s some thought that has gone into the algorithm,” said Vlassopulos.

Vlassopulos hopes the net result will be to open up playlist creation to a wider audience. “The philosophy from Jimmy Iovine and Apple is that there’s the creator and there’s the listener: a few people who are entitled to create, and then all the rest of us who are entitled to listen to these great creations,” he said.

“We felt that’s not true. It’s like with Instagram: there were professional photographers and the great unwashed, but then the great unwashed were blessed with a fun tool to create too.”

“Other social platforms have proved that we as humans love to create if given the right tools, but it was so painfully hard to be creative around music.”

Fab.fm has some interesting investors and advisors. In the former category, there’s talent agency WME; former Rdio CEO Drew Larner; former UMG exec Ted Mico; former Sony Music digital boss Thomas Hess, and ex-BMG and Nokia exec Liz Schimel. Another UMG veteran, David Ring, is an advisor.

“I wanted to bring in people who’ve fought the battles before, have the relationships and know the pitfalls, to get a bit more wind in our sails,” said Vlassopulos.

“All of us had these ideas kicking about: we refuse to give in to this notion that music isn’t interesting to invest in and everything is going to die and go under. That’s not true.”

That’s a reference to past claims that investors – whether VCs or angels – have cooled on music as a category due to the demands of licensing. Vlassopulos said that fundraising ambitions may be more modest for new music startups, but this may not be a bad thing.

“It doesn’t involve as much investment, because there are open APIs and a lot of people are getting more and more savvy on development tools,” he said.

“Hopefully if the global angels can see ideas that are interesting, with a modest amount of capital they can get off the ground and find their audience. Maybe they don’t become billion-dollar companies, but they can feed an audience and they can sustain themselves.”

Stuart Dredge

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