“We’ve built Pump Up The Volume! That’s all you need to know about Stationhead. Our slogan is ‘talk hard’ because a kid and a voice, mixed with some punk-rock music, can really impact the world.”
Ryan Star isn’t your average music/tech startup founder, as shown by this interview taking place in between him playing various arenas in Sweden as a special guest of rock bands Takida and Stiftelsen.
As an artist, Star has had major and independent label deals, as well as self-releasing his music. He was also a popular contestant on American TV show Rock Star: Supernova in 2006, competing to become the frontman of a supergroup featuring members of Motley Crüe, Metallica and Guns’n’Roses.
Ten years on, he’s balancing his touring schedule with launching a startup in New York. “I know it’s a cliché: a musician doing a tech thing. I hate fitting into a mould,” he says. “In the beginning, I didn’t know what I was getting into, but in so many ways it feels like making an album. It’s checking all my boxes creatively.”
What is checking those boxes? Stationhead is an iPhone app that’s been in stealth mode until now. In a nutshell, it lets anyone sign in to their Spotify account, then pick songs for your own radio station that broadcasts round the clock to the world.
“Stationhead is flat-out pirate radio, but with some modern twists to it. It allows anybody, from an artist or influencer to an everyday person, to have their own station. It’s 24-7, it’s live, and it’s in sync for listeners. Plus we’re building a social network on top of where the record industry makes its money,” says Star.
You can jump in at any point to add and remove tracks, and rejig the order of what’s coming up. Every station has its own chatroom, while a prominent ‘On’ button enables the owner to talk live to their listeners whenever they like.
“It’s a really cool pirate-radio experience. We don’t deal with [telecoms regulator] the FCC. We don’t touch the music like Uber doesn’t touch the cars. That’s the brilliance. To kids I say it’s like a live playlist that you can talk over,” says Star.
“I truly believe this can be a great thing for music and musicians. I’m not going to pretend I know what the fuck we’re doing: I don’t know about the rules of startups or what works. We’ve been figuring it out ourselves, from raising money to buying a fucking shredder! But we think it’s hitting a sweet spot.”
He’s underselling Stationhead with those comments. It’s one of the slickest pre-launch apps we’ve seen in recent years. Star hails co-founder and CEO Jace Kay and their colleagues Dan Tirer, Alex Harris and Cody Pizzai’s round-the-clock efforts over the last year for that.
(Music Ally readers can get early access to Stationhead by downloading the iPhone app from this link, then using the code MUSICALLY to get in.)
Stationhead also has $1.3m of seed funding; counts influential digital-music figures Benji Rogers (of Dot Blockchain) and Joe Conyers III (of Downtown Music Publishing) as admirers and sounding-boards; and also has musician Stevie Van Zandt and Vonage co-founder Jeff Pulver as advisers.
The company’s roots are partly in Star’s memories of Christian Slater in Pump Up The Volume, as well as seeing some of the musician-branded shows on US satellite-radio platform SiriusXM – including Van Zandt’s station.
“Stevie has a station on SiriusXM, as do some other friends. The singer from Train, the bass player from Fall Out Boy… They’ve been offered stations. I sit there going ‘They fucking haven’t asked me!’ But we live in a time where we can put these things together ourselves. So that’s what we’ve done,” he says.
Stationhead is using Spotify’s API for its music, which means no direct or blanket ‘webcaster’ licensing. Essentially, if 1,000 people are listening to a station, when it ‘plays’ a track, it’s telling their Spotify accounts to play the song at the same time.
It’s the same strategy as another new US startup, Vertigo Music, although the latter is focusing on live-streaming video with synchronised Spotify music, rather than radio.
(“We have video but we turned it off for now. We don’t want to compete in that video space. In our DNA, voice and music together really speak to us,” says Star.”)
Synchronised Spotify streams are significant in another way. On a traditional radio station, one ‘spin’ of a song pays a certain royalty, regardless of how many people are listening. On a Stationhead station, every listener equals one spin.
“Say Taylor Swift is on this, and she has a million listeners. That’s a big number. If she plays a song, that means 1m streams are instantly generated on Spotify. A million listeners is a million streams,” says Star.
“Shawn Mendes could debut his new album from the tourbus. ‘Hey, I’m going to be talking about my new album tonight’. Instead of having 300,000 people sign up for a janky live-stream that makes no money, they could have 4.5m streams by the end of that hour [based on playing 15 tracks from the album]. And he could play whatever he wanted by his favourite artists and make them money too.”
“The labels win and the artists win, and Spotify wins because this app will be the reason people sign up for Spotify. My friend Todd has 30,000 Periscope fans: he talks on there then shuts down, and they all disappear and no money is generated. If he goes on Stationhead for 30,000 people and plays one of his songs, he’s just made about $200.”
If Stationhead becomes popular, it could provide something that Spotify itself lacks: a network of independent influencers outside the streaming service’s own playlist curators.
It’s been a complaint from some quarters in the last year: that Spotify keeps the curatorial influence firmly in-house, with even the major-label playlist brands (Digster, Filtr, Topsify) finding it tough to break into the upper echelon of powerful playlists on Spotify.
Stationhead and apps like it could provide a new layer of external influencers capable of driving streams for tracks and artists. Which could also be the key to the app’s marketing: imagine if it persuaded an artist like, say, Run The Jewels to launch a station, then promote it (and thus the app) to their fans.
Stationhead is working on more interactivity. For example, the ability for a station owner to tap on a listener’s profile to ‘call’ them for a chat that will be broadcast live on their station.
There is already a feature to ‘bite’ tracks while listening, which adds them to your own station’s playlist. Stationhead will be able to track the analytics for this, identifying stations that get behind particular songs early.
“We’ll have the intel on who’s finding the music first, and who they’re influencing. There’ll be a history when you hit that ‘bite’ button,” says Star. “This is a social flow that ripples out in a really cool way.”
Stationhead has several big challenges ahead of it. First and most crucially, it needs to build its audience: hardly trivial on the crowded app stores.
Artist and celebrity/influencer partnerships could help here, of course, as could marketing help from Spotify in the same way it promoted DJ app Pacemaker in the past.
Securing significant support from Apple may depend on integrating Apple Music’s API first – Vertigo Music is working on this, so it’s entirely possible – while Google Play support may be desirable for an Android version of the app.
(“It’s early days: we’re a team of five. Right now it’s iPhone and Spotify, but we’re built to work with any of the streaming services,” says Star.)
Second, Stationhead has to make money at some point. It has already ruled out interruptive advertising, but brand partnerships and ‘tipping’ (a model used by a number of video live-streaming services including Twitch and YouNow) are all possibilities, with the latter potentially opening up an income stream for broadcasters on Stationhead.
Third, Stationhead has to deal with the challenges of building on a bigger platform. That means treading carefully around the terms and conditions of Spotify’s API, including its rules on acceptable content.
There are restrictions on commercial use of the API too, but most obviously there is the ever-present risk that if Spotify can change its terms whenever it likes, much like Twitter and Facebook have pulled the rug from under some companies building on their platforms in the past.
That’s something for Stationhead to monitor, but for now, the company is focusing on building its product and getting it out into the world.
“I got signed as a musician when Napster came out, so my entrance to the music business was basically ‘you just got here too late, kid’. They weren’t wrong, but I feel this year is the first time we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel with streaming,” he says.
“People are understanding that this can bring money back into the ecosystem and the industry again. My plan was never ‘how do I get rich?’, it was ‘how do we help the music business afford to have mid-level artists?’ For me, this is about giving the kids a voice with the music, and doing it legally, so that artists can benefit too.”