“I wonder whether we’re experiencing the death of content. Or rather, the fall of content and the rise of relationships. The value of content as a leanback experience that’s measured in ‘attention’ diminishes, and what increases is the measure of response: replies, interaction, engagement…”
Don’t worry: Tim Exile, the CEO of British music-making-app startup Endlesss, is as uncomfortable with the word ‘content’ as you (hopefully!) and I are.
At one point during Music Ally’s interview with him, we spend five minutes fretting over why we end up saying the word so often, and what might be a better alternative when talking about music, videos, photos, writing and all the other stuff that people are creating in the digital world. Maybe ‘stuff’ is the better word.
Endlesss isn’t a commercial product yet: it began testing its app last year, and remains in beta. However, a buzz is beginning to build around its app, especially with it having been the joint winner (with another music-making app, Jambl) in the ‘creation and education’ category in June’s Midemlab startups contest.
The Endlesss app, which I’ve been playing with since Midemlab in its beta version, is about creating ‘riffs’: short music clips with several layers (drums, bass, notes, FX and vocals), created using the app’s own touchscreen tools, or with your own physical instruments.
However, there’s a strong social element: the idea of collaborating with friends (or strangers) in ‘jams’ where you can create and remix riffs together:
Exile himself sits neatly between the worlds of music and tech: he’s released his own albums and tracks through electronica labels including Warp and Planet Mu, but he’s also built his own instruments and tools, from live processing FX and voice-synth plugins to Flow Machine, a tool for improvising electronic music while performing live.
Now he’s also founded Endlesss, which has raised £200k of seed funding while getting its beta into the hands of a small but eager community of music-makers.
“There is no platform for shortform, collaborative music-making, and this is the opportunity,” is how his Midemlab pitch ran. “Our goal is to build a platform where 100 million active users create and consume riffs, express their identities and inspire each other.”
Talking to Music Ally in late July, it’s clear that Exile is relishing the challenges of nuts’n’bolts product development, while also honing his company’s bigger vision for who’ll use its app, and what that will mean for music more generally.
“We’ve built this really tight community of creators: the kind of creators who make music just for the love of creation, which is amazing. The thing for us to figure out next is how to translate that into something a bit more audience-y, where people rise to the top through skill and talent, and also audience-building,” he says.
“We think we have a really great creation experience, but we don’t really have the TikTok-style incentive, or imperative even, for people to make great content.”
Which is how we get on to talking about the ‘death of content’, and Exile’s belief that how Endlesss’ riffs and jams are shared, remixed, discussed and how their creators and listeners interact around them that will be key to its future, rather than just whether people can make good music with it.
“If you take this to its logical conclusion, all the value is in the replies, the responses. It’s about relationships,” he says.
Endlesss, Jambl and apps like them sit somewhere in the middle of two more-established categories of music-making apps: social, aimed-at-everyone apps like Smule’s apps on one side, and then the professional tools for professional musicians on the other.
Exile thinks music is missing out on something here. “Think about other media. The written word with Twitter; photography with Instagram; video with Snapchat or TikTok. Those things are still careers: you can work in film, be a novelist, be a professional photographer,” he says.
“Those industries haven’t really gone away, but there’s been this second tier with those apps: the playful, short-form, recreational and collaborative side of it.”
“They’re the same mediums technically, but the purpose of the professional industries – film, publishing, photography – is to create lean-back content that people consume, which is always measured in terms of attention. And the playful side of those counterparts like Snapchat and Instagram it’s measured relationally.”
In other words, Endlesss is an attempt to figure out what, if anything, will be the Instagram or Snapchat of music-making: something where people create their own, original music and get value from the interactions around it with other people. Hundreds of millions of people, as his Midemlab pitch set out.
It’s not about making an “on-rails” tool where anyone can make great music, though. “There’s a story that’s always told about TikTok: this incredible mass-market app that completely democratised short-form video creation and sharing. That’s not the case,” says Exile.
“The people who really succeed on TikTok, the dance-challenge videos that rise to the top for example, are by people who have clearly spent some years learning how to dance and move. They’re experts! And quite often, you’ll watch a video of a dance challenge and realise they must have spent two days rehearsing it.”
“So what’s really interesting in TikTok is not the accessibility. It’s the incentivisation, which really comes down to network effects, which ultimately comes down to relationships.”
He clarifies that this isn’t to say TikTok’s power is all about the trained, well-rehearsed people with genuine talent: it’s about how their videos are the seeds for other TikTok users to then make their own versions, and get joy out of the response of their friends.
A recent event held by Midia Research in London yielded some stats about TikTok: 84% of its users have created content on the platform, and 64% do it every week. It’s a long way from the days of the ‘1% rule theory: that only 1% of people using an online service will create content, 10% will interact with it and 89% will simply view it.
Can Endlesss also buck that trend for music-making? That’s the bet Exile is making, along with his hope that ultimately, people making riffs and jamming in his company’s app will also be able to make money from their creations – by building an audience willing to support them financially within the app itself.
“I’m fascinated by things like Twitch and the explosion of multiplayer gaming. Those are relationship economies: the platforms that are really winning are monetising along those lines. Twitch make most of their money from streamer subscriptions: people subscribing directly to streamers,” he says.
“That’s really interesting to us: that’s the blueprint for what we want to do with Endlesss at scale. Twitch allows people to build relationships with each other, and subscriptions are an expression of that relationship.”
“You’re moving away from selling content on a piece-by-piece basis, like the iTunes model, to where you can say ‘I really like this streamer, I want to be close to them and interact with them, so I’ll pay a monthly subscription to support them.”
Exile wants to explore these kinds of features for Endlesss sooner rather than later: the idea of subscriptions to “superjammers” that might give fans the ability to collaborate with them and/or use their riffs for their own music, for example.
Established artists could also play this role – as some other music-making apps have done, Endlesss could partner with labels and artists to sell sound packs and so on. But Exile sounds just as excited about “native superstar superjammers” emerging from the app, just as other platforms from YouTube and Vine to Instagram, Snapchat and now TikTok have produced their own stars.
“We want to allow people to build audiences, but also to make money on Endlesss itself. That’s one of the things that’s been missing elsewhere: if you’re a musician building an audience on Instagram or Twitter, you can’t directly monetise that audience within that platform,” he says.
“It’s one of the gross inconsistencies of the entire creative industry: the platforms for building audiences are not the same platforms for monetising audiences. It seems daft!”
[YouTube’s head of music Lyor Cohen has also been using this argument to suggest that YouTube Music can buck that trend: “the only place in the industry that you can play both in commerce and direct-to-consumer” as he put it to Music Ally in March 2018. But you could also argue that with more artists putting effort into getting fans to follow their Spotify profiles, the audience-building / money-making boundaries are also blurring on that service.]
Exile makes it clear that he’s not getting carried away with any grand visions of the future. Endlesss’ short-term priorities remain product development – including adding in audience-building tools for musicians – launching out of beta onto the app stores, and developing a sustainable business model.
“In the next 2-3 years, we want to be part of people’s creative diet, and also allow the momentum they build up on Endlesss to power things they do elsewhere,” he says.
“It’s a pain in the arse for artists to build an audience and then figure out some way to take that audience from the place you’ve built it to somewhere else. So can we help people to build audiences and generate revenue on the same platform? That’s how we think about it.”