As the Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic drapes the world in uneasiness, many of our established economic systems are blinking under the cold light of community-centric scrutiny – including the music industry.
The impact on streaming is still being debated, but the abrupt shutdown of the live music industry – and the disappearance of the income associated with it for musicians – is very clear. That in turn is sparking renewed discussion about the wider financial support system for artists and songwriters.
Artist and Ivors Academy committee member / PRS for Music director Tom Gray didn’t mince his words when recently addressing major label and streaming service executives alike in a Twitter thread about the current structure. “It is time, under the present circumstances for these people to fix the problem if they give a fuck about the ecosystem.”
Startups have a role to play in how this system evolves too. Ampled is one of them, although ‘startup’ may not be the best description. It’s an artist-owned cooperative, which is building a platform for fans to directly support musicians.
Music Ally wrote about its launch in January this year, but now we have spoken to founders Austin Robey and Collin Lewis about what they’re doing. The interview was conducted before the coronavirus pandemic took a worldwide grip on society – in case you’re wondering why it’s not discussed – but some of their thoughts may be even more relevant in the light of developments since.
Why is it a cooperative? “It’s the only way to address systemic inequalities in the platform economy,” says Robey. “We’re fundamentally optimistic. Cynicism is why entrenched music industry incumbents are not qualified to make a company like this.”
What is Ampled, and what’s it for?
Ampled blends platform familiarity (users of Patreon or Kickstarter will get it immediately) with a punky, ‘zine-like look and feel that reflects its grassroots emphasis. Its own description on its website – “100% owned by artists, workers, and community – not vulture capitalists” – sets out its stall to be additive rather than subtractive for the current music business.
Lewis says that Ampled is firmly focused on the needs of artists. “They want something built specifically for them. Musicians have unique needs that are not addressed by platforms: a band has a much bigger overhead than a podcaster,” he says.
Ampled sees itself as more than just a crowdfunding tool. It describes itself as a “relationship platform” – there are similarities here with Patreon, which sees itself as a ‘membership platform’ – with artists in the driving seat.
They can publish unreleased songs, demos, exclusive merchandise and announcements, with supporters paying a minimum of $3 a month to access an artist’s content. They can pay more if they want to, although unlike other platforms there are no additional tiers of rewards – a deliberate decision. “We looked at what made existing models gross and crowdfund-y, and avoided that…”
This reaction against existing fan-funding platforms is a thread running through Ampled. “We’re rethinking the ownership structures of platforms and fundraising in a way that doesn’t give money to venture capital owners,” says Robey.
The reservations appear to be mutual. “They look at us like we’re aliens. There’s a remarkable lack of imagination in venture capitalists… we don’t see eye-to-eye,” he says later.
“VC-minded investors ask us, ‘why is this just for music?’ – they see it as too small of a total addressable market. We disagree: we choose this ‘smaller market’ so we can better serve the people that we seek to serve.”
How does Ampled make money – and who is the money for, anyway?
The original plan was for Ampled to take 15% of each transaction on its platform initially, with ambitions to lower that cut “as much as possible” according to Robey. “That percentage [on other services] is typically a platform fee, but this is different – it’s ownership into the platform.”
Ampled’s plan was to redistribute its revenue share back to the artists, investors and workers who own the company. However, the 15% co-op fee has been dropped for now in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic. 100% of revenues will now go to the artists. In the future, they’ll be able to opt back in to contributing to the cooperative “but only with their permission and consent”.
Ampled may well appeal to grassroots, professional musicians, but could it also attract some bigger names? “We see what Zola Jesus and M.I.A are doing on Patreon as pretty encouraging – the ceiling is not as low as some people think it is,” says Robey.
“And indie labels [with larger artists] don’t have restrictions that stop their participation… We don’t have conversations about burning down the music industry. But can we make it more fair and just – a way of direct support and patronage that artists feel proud about using?”
How is Ampled working with the music industry?
Ampled is by no means an outlier in pairing the co-op model with tech, while in music specifically there’s the example of streaming service Resonate already. Ampled is also ready to collaborate with other companies where it makes sense. “We’re open to working with any outside stakeholders as long as the mission is laser-focused on artists,” says Robey.
Virtually anyone can invest in Ampled, as long as they understand they’ll get no extra powers just because they threw more money in the pot. “One member, one share, one vote and the profits go back to artists. We want to make… a permanent vehicle for artists’ prosperity.”
This isn’t just about individual artists though: there’s an opportunity for independent labels, catalogue owners and promoters to work with Ampled too, as well as other entities in and around music.
“So far we’ve had support from individuals, non-profits, foundations that support building artist equity… and potentially brands,” says Robey. The mention of brands may be a surprise, but he makes it clear that Ampled is thinking hard about how this will work.
“We’re working with artists to create a clear position on this. We recently partnered with the non-profit Democracy at Work Institute to facilitate artist steering committees for these early decisions on how to structure and run Ampled.”
What does success look like for Ampled?
The happiness of this cooperative’s owners – artists in particular – will be the key metric for Ampled. “We want allies and people to champion our cause,” says Lewis. “If they’re not on board with artist prosperity that’s an issue for us!”
In a recent survey of nearly 300 people within the music community, The Creative Independent found that nearly two thirds of respondents believed that streaming is the area of the music industry that needs most change to help musicians to make a living. Collectives and collective action loomed large as one potential path forward.
Lewis wants Ampled’s success to be so obvious it can’t be ignored: “Helping artists to make more music, be more comfortable, and not needing to do as many non-music jobs.”
Robey and Lewis are, as you’d expect, thinking about how streaming could and should evolve in the future. Journalist Liz Pelly’s recent keynote at the by:Larm conference, where she took Spotify and the wider industry to task for the way “the hyper-centralised corporate streaming economy leaves many artists in a state of powerlessness”, adding that in her view “this is not music culture: this is platform culture”.
Lewis says he “100% agrees” with Pelly’s views. “Because of the weight that Spotify can throw around, they’ve backed artists into a corner – they feel like they don’t have choice and freedom. We’re trying to blaze a new path for artists.”
With Spotify about to launch a feature enabling artists to link their profiles on the streaming service to direct-funding destinations, there may yet be an opportunity for Ampled to make the streaming service one of its partners.
In the meantime, it will focus on building its platform, signing up artists, and exploring just how much potential there is in this parallel business world of direct fan support and artist ownership.
Need to know: Ampled factfile
Headquarters: New York
Founders: Austin Robey and Collin Lewis
Funding so far: $100k
Ampled is currently seeking relationships with: artists and artist managers
Contact details: firstname.lastname@example.org
Read Music Ally’s previous startup files interviews here.