A year ago, Music Ally ran the first-ever interview on New York startup Stationhead as the company emerged from stealth mode. Since that first interview, publications including Billboard, TechCrunch and Forbes have followed up with positive takes on the potential of Stationhead’s app. This week, its team is going through the final stages of design tweaks and testing in preparation for a full-scale, public launch at SXSW.

The concept behind Stationhead is elegantly simple. Anyone with a Spotify or Apple Music subscription can log in to the app and create their own radio station, with music drawn from their playlists and the wider streaming catalogue. The twist comes when they tap a button to broadcast their voice live to anyone who’s listening, as well as patching in other Stationhead users to join the conversation. Everyone’s a radio DJ, capable of putting themselves and their listeners on air.

Screenshot of a station on Stationhead, displaying tracks, number of bits on the playing track, and the emoji associated with the channel

Stationhead doesn’t require direct licensing deals because every stream is being processed from listeners’ own music-streaming accounts – which also means that each stream generated by Stationhead is counted at a paid-tier rate. If a station plays a track to 10,000 listeners, that track generates royalties for 10,000 premium-rate streams across Spotify and Apple. Stationhead’s users can also ‘bite’ tracks they hear on other stations to add them to their own, which creates a journey of sharing that can be traced back, to see who was playing that track first. The app also includes a daily leaderboard of the stations generating the highest volume of streams, listeners and bites; while the app’s search section shows off the recent ‘top-bit’ tracks; songs that have recently debuted on Stationhead; and new releases, featured playlists, saved songs and artists followed by the user.

All this has been written about by Music Ally and others, as has Stationhead’s origin story: musician Ryan Star teamed up with childhood friend and developer Jace Kay after the pair shared a candid catchup about the hard truths of the music industry. Their team has grown to nearly a dozen employees, and attracted growing interest from label and publishing bosses, as well as investors.

Education and conversation lead the way

Hip Hop Book Club's guide to discussion for Migos' 'Culture'
Hip Hop Book Club’s pre-event prompt for discussion on Migos’ ‘Culture’

What you haven’t read about, so much, is the community of Stationhead, which is the lifeblood of the platform. Because it has yet to launch publicly, that community is dominated by industry insiders and diehard music fans, who’ve sought out access via invitation codes before the platform’s public launch. Any label, manager, artists and others new to Stationhead who wants to understand its potential could start by following a station called HIPHOPBOOKCLUB. Students at the University of North Texas have been pairing offline, on campus events around hip-hop discussion with Stationhead broadcasts. Encouraging specific research, discussion topics, and inviting anyone to provide commentary around albums such as Migos’‘Culture,’ this type of program in many ways runs like a terrestrial critical college radio show might. Within Stationhead, though, the reach of this discussion is global, visible to anyone using the app, and generating streaming royalties for the artists whose music features. Broadcasters can also see who is tuning in, and call them to join in the discussion.

Artists are also showing an interest in Stationhead. Last Friday, for example, WuTang Clan’s Rawkwon joined Ryan Star on his own station, and made it clear that he sees plenty of potential in the platform. “I say right now, I tip my hat to Stationhead. When we think of highpowered geniuses that grew up off the culture, it’s only right that… today, we have to understand that we have to have our own revolutionary movement taking place,” said Raekwon. “I call this the underground railroad. Stationhead, the underground railroad… Everybody needs a Stationhead. All of us.” You could see this kind of app as offering mobile-hosted live moments that don’t force users to stare at uncomfortably-lagging video experiences. Or you could see it as a forum for the kind of cultural conversations that radio (and more recently programmed playlists on the big streaming playlists) see as their territory. Is it live podcasting? Conversations between fans and artists? A community for fans to talk to one another? Potentially, all of the above.

SXSW for a Full Launch

Delivering on that potential is the next challenge: if Stationhead can become the buzz startup during SXSW that may help, although past examples (Highlight, for example, or Meerkat) show that the Austin conference’s kingmaking abilities can be oversold. Another possible reason for caution: Stationhead is built on the APIs of Spotify and Apple Music, and thus will be vulnerable to any sudden changes in features and/or policies on those platforms – as has been shown in the past for third-party Twitter apps, Facebook social-games publishers and others. For now, sandbox has some advice for labels, artists, managers, publishers, agencies and brands who are intrigued by the platform: download the app – you can use the invitation code MUSICALLY to register – and claim handles for your stations, whether for artists, companies or even genres. Max Bernstein, founder of music influencer-marketing firm Muuser and an investor in Stationhead, is unsurprisingly bullish. “Independent artist can’t afford not to be early on Stationhead. By the time the majors catch on, it will be too late,” he told sandbox.

“Stationhead is truly democratising playlisting for the first time. Major labels will be disintermediated if they don’t also own the biggest stations.” The prospect of such disintermediation will rely on Stationhead signing up (and retaining) millions of users, of course. But among the startups music:) ally has covered since the emergence of streaming, it’s one of the most interesting in terms of the way it could open new marketing opportunities for labels, including forging a direct link between podcasting/voice activity and monetizable streams. Non-music audio content around music is increasingly important for Spotify and other streaming services, and as this week’s buzz around the emergence of ‘daily news’ podcasts shows, spoken word formats are evolving even as their income from advertising finally shows strong growth.

Early Days But Rich Potential

Stationhead sits within this broader context. You can imagine how the ability to save recordings of broadcast audio might work as a feature inside the app, for example – and even potentially a feature that its keener users would pay for. An audio-show creation platform where every show generates royalties from every listener, every time it’s played. In the sandbox world, we look at every marketing and artist-to-fan communication channel in terms of whether it is informative, novel and relationship-building. Can artists and fans have deeper, two-way conversations, which help those fans move from discovering an artist’s music to following them, ongoing engagement, and shouting about the artist’s music to the wider world. (Or in a nutshell: search / identification, opt-in, loyalty, and evangelism.) As Stationhead prepares for its public launch at SXSW, sandbox thinks the app has the potential to bring something new to a world populated by Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Musical.ly, live-streaming apps and other platforms, trying to help artists engage with fans. Stationhead is, in many ways, the first real instance of the story format that the music industry has seen, and while time will tell how its audience grows, we believe that the time for artists, labels and anyone else who wants to be viewed as a mover and shaker to get in early and start experimenting with Stationhead is now.

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