EDM.com had a chance to sit down with Orfium Music CEO Chris Mohoney for an in-depth conversation on how Orfium was built, its most appealing features and offerings, and how it's setting completely new standards for the streaming industry.
You’ve compared Orfium to a Smartphone while comparing other platforms to just the smartphone’s clock, flashlight or camera. In other words, Orfium is the only platform that can do it all.
What do you think artists will be the most excited about with Orfium?
What should be most exciting is that we are really listening and are here to solve problems and empower artists. Anything that we are currently missing is going to be built. When someone writes into our support desk, we respond quickly and thoughtfully, not with some canned automated response, and we actually take action and follow through quickly. When an issue is reported we fix it right away. Many improvements we’ve made have actually been based on user feedback and we always follow up to thank them for their contribution and let them know that we have implemented their request. We are empowering artists by providing flexibility and freedom of choice. With no long-term contracts, no upfront costs, and the unrestricted ability to opt-in/out of any individual service on any track at any time, it should be a refreshing change of pace from restrictive package deals and controlling contractual relationships.
On the surface level there are big features such as the ability to conveniently access every possible digital monetization and rights management service via a single upload gateway. There are also many convenient small features that make a lot of sense such as the ability to tag multiple artists on a track so that it will appear on both of their pages, the ability to access all your music in one place, as well as many others.
What do you think listeners will be most excited about with Orfium?
I think listeners will be most excited about being able to have both the social interactivity and underground music access that they get with SoundCloud with the discovery and playback functionality that Spotify provides on a single platform. Though we have much of the functionality there, we still have a lot of work to do and a lot more music to get on the site but we are making improvements every day. Being an open platform, it is inevitable that we will receive a lot of music of all different styles and qualities so it is important that we find ways to make the best music bubble up to the top based on the user’s personal tastes regardless of whether the artist is famous or unknown.
You have designed Orfium in order to solve problems for all parties of the music industry. Can you break this down for our readers?
Orfium is first and foremost focused on providing tools to empower artists because the more choices artists have and the greater their power to sustain themselves independently, the more it forces supporting services to add value, which makes it less likely for artists to be unjustly exploited.
Also, the benefit Orfium provides artists is not to be at the expense of anyone else, but rather the goal is to increase the total benefit to all parties. Some of the major problems include the proper division, accounting and transparency of royalties, how rights are to be managed and who owns them, dealing with unauthorized derivative works and copyright use, pairing artists with opportunities including access to new fans, talent developers, licensing, distribution, and other revenue opportunities.
There are many incomplete services out there that solve some of these problems, but it is very inconvenient to have and manage multiple services simultaneously, and we intend to change that. Since Orfium aims to solve problems for the industry as a whole, that means all industry roles must be supported and therefore will require different sets of features and tools for each. Record labels can use Orfium to upload, promote and distribute music on behalf of their artists as well as search for unsigned talent to connect with. Distributors can also supply and promote music on behalf of their clients, and their clients can have that music automatically fed into their profile pages.
Writers and publishers can license and manage their rights to music and automatically have their share of royalties paid to them, and publishers can use Orfium to search for new music and talent to sign. We also have plans to offer specialized accounts for curators and tastemakers, and since we already have an event-posting feature, we also plan to provide tools to accommodate event companies and event promoters as well.
One of the biggest problems you are tackling is the takedown epidemic due to automated copyright claims. You have found a way to make rights holders less likely to file a takedown, can you explain how you did this?
YouTube was really the pioneer of the method for managing and monetizing unauthorized copyright use by abstracting the monetization rights from a piece of content and assigning it to the original rightsholder. On Orfium, we are using a similar model to handle unauthorized remixes by assigning the right to collect all earnings the remix generates to the original rightsholder. We use a digital fingerprint to detect and match significant samples from the original track in the remix. The main difference between Orfium and YouTube in this regard is that YouTube pays out 55% while Orfium pays out 80%. Generally rightsholders are happy as long as they are getting paid and though they still have the option to issue a takedown, they are far less likely to do so if keeping it up remix will generate royalties for them.
SoundCloud was really the biggest music platform to have major takedown problems. This is likely because they did not maintain proper metadata records on its music and did not have a system in place to monetize individual pieces of content. Instead, SoundCloud generated money by charging artists for access (this is something we think is completely backwards and will never do). Therefore, since SoundCloud had no means to accurately track and generate royalties to original rightsholders, the original rightsholders resorted to issuing takedowns. Also SoundCloud failed to implement an elegant system for disputing erroneous claims which caused a lot of frustration.
How do you think your model of royalty distribution when it comes to remixes, bootlegs and edits will impact the music landscape?
The recording industry has a history of fighting demand going back to the mp3 and file sharing and in both cases missed out on an opportunity to channel demand into value. I think our model is going to help channel demand into increased value while also increasing artistic freedom and creativity. Some artists support remixes, others are against it, but our model accommodates both by giving them the option to decide whether to allow the remix to stay up for free, monetize them and keep all of the income, split some income with the remixing artist, or block it. Considering how popular remixes have become, I also wouldn't be surprised if future legislation, possibly far in the future, creates a new type of remix license in the same spirit as compulsory licenses for cover songs.
One complaint we saw from a commenter about all platforms in general that are geared towards independent or up-and-coming artists is the simple fact that there ends being a LOT of content to wade through (sometimes a lot of low quality content) and a lot of content that may not be properly tagged or categorized. What are your thoughts on this?
This is definitely something we are aware of and are working towards a solution. Recently we added a new developer to the team who is a PhD candidate in computer engineering and did his thesis on recommendation algorithms. We are working on accurate personalized recommendations to help the best content bubble up to the top and the worst get pushed to the bottom based on the individual user's taste. The algorithm will naturally reward uploaders who properly tag and categorize their music and penalize those who use improper tags by analyzing the performance among listeners who are usually engaged by the tags used.
How exactly are you able to create a sustainable model with a 80/20 artist/Orfium split, a significantly higher artist payout than any other platform?
First, since Orfium is not just a retail platform but also provides licensing, distribution, and rights management services, the potential value it can generate per upload is much higher than other platforms and that will give Orfium a sustainable advantage. Second, consider that in general for Ebay and Amazon the splits are 90/10 and 85/15 respectively, and those splits are sustainable. Orfium does cost a little more to operate due to the heavier bandwidth and storage costs of audio files, however these prices are coming down and should continue to do so into the future. Storage is actually already extremely cheap as it only costs around $15 per month to store 50,000 songs so most of the increased cost is actually due to bandwidth. However even bandwidth is getting less and less expensive at a remarkable rate. For around the same price my Internet speed today is 200 times faster than what I had ten years ago.
I don't see any reason to indicate why 80/20 could not be sustainable even for a plain retail service. Any music platform that cannot sustain an 80/20 split either has too much debt, complicated contract liabilities, or overspends its money, all three of which are likely caused by an attempt to force growth.
You have a background in music copyright and computer programming. Can you tell us about these roles and how your knowledge and experienced informed Orfium?
Orfium’s aim is to offer an elegant and simple interface, coupled with a powerful underlying system that handles all of the complexities of music rights. The foundation and architecture of Orfium was designed from the beginning to support all digital music rights so that we could offer both a clear monetization strategy and not have our user experience disrupted by excessive takedown requests. Solving the problems we are working on really requires cross-disciplinary knowledge in both music and programming.
You can generally tell when one or the other is lacking in other platforms because music professionals who start tech companies without programming experience tend to build overly complicated and cluttered platforms that often feel outdated. On the other hand, programmers who lack music industry experience will build beautiful but incomplete platforms that lack in their service and monetization offerings and have missing metadata that causes problems managing copyrights.
On the music side I was previously an administrator for YouTube’s content ID system and managed over 6 million sound recording (label/artist) and composition (writer/publisher) assets. I also managed a sync-licensing library with over 400,000 recordings. Through this I became familiar with the nature of the variety of music rights including how they originate and become monetized. I also learned about audio fingerprinting and how such technology can be used to automate the generation of royalties from unauthorized use of digital music.
I should also mention that my co-founder Drew Delis graduated from Pepperdine Law with an emphasis intellectual property, licensing, and music rights. On the computer programming side I had taken numerous courses since high school and at the University level. Though I actually graduated with a bachelor and master in accounting I ended up in a job managing development team as the head of product at a music-tech company. Since then I have been self-learning web development through online resources as well as textbooks that I find in MIT course syllabi. Through experience, I came to understand the importance and know-how of maintaining the complex musical asset metadata that is essential in order to both clearly manage music rights as well as have the ability to provide all types of digital monetization services. My programming experience made it easy to communicate with precision to our developers who are very talented programmers but depend on my guidance, since they don’t have the same level of music industry experience.
On top of a high artist payout, how are you hoping to attract artists to your platform or how are you going about educating them on Orfium?
I think some artists will be attracted by all of the features offered and the unique experience we have created by integrating them. It's actually pretty cool to see artists making use of the tagging feature for collaborators, which works kind of like when you get tagged in a photo on Facebook and it appears on your wall. I've also seen artists making use of the event posts with the performers tagged as well as the remix tagging features that allows a remix to be featured alongside the original track and vice-versa.
However I think wiser artists will be attracted to our philosophy, which I feel is missing from too many businesses in general that are hyper focused on profit and not solving problems. If you consider that we built Orfium as a small team working from our apartments with no outside investors, and compare its quality to platforms run by huge corporations with massive engineering teams and tons of institutional money, there should be no reason not to believe in what we are currently doing and what we will be able to do when we do have more resources. I really believe it does begin with our philosophy and that's what provides us with the insight to recognize, contemplate, and make decisions about problems and their solutions. In fact there are few things I enjoy more than having a discussion about philosophy going back to ancient Greece, contemplating timeless concepts, such as justice, which I feel can only be understood analogically like a transcendental number such as Pi, which always has another digit and therefore eludes all attempts to capture it with a strict definition.
How are you attracting fans to the platform? You have mentioned “building more features that make discovering and sharing music easier and more enjoyable” - can you tell us more about them?
The features essentially break down into four basic forms, 1) search, 2) browse, 3) share, and 4) recommendation.
When a user knows what they are looking for they can use the search engine, which also includes advanced filter options including by genre / subgenre, mood, instrument, vocals, and license. Most users probably stick to genres / sub-genres and moods but the other options are there, mainly to help people looking for music to license, though anybody could use them.
When the user just wants to rapidly sample a lot of content at once, the browse feature is most appropriate. The browse interface is similar to Netflix where tiled content is displayed in sliding carousel sections organized by various categories with an endless scroll of these sections. There are many mutations of the browse page, for example you can browse by a particular category in which case you will see sections pertaining to the subcategories, and if you browse by subcategory you see sections pertaining to the mood tags. I often use the browse functionality to check out recently uploaded music in various categories that I like.
There are also many user-to-user sharing possibilities. Users can follow other users and get their content in the homepage feed or from their profile pages. Users can also repost content to their profile. Playlists can be made private or public and if public they appear on the creator's profile feed and the home feed of their followers. It is also possible to follow another user's playlist which saves that playlist to your personal library.
For recommendations, we are still working on many of the features, but they will be interwoven throughout the site. For example, the page of a track will show related tracks and the browse page will have a personalized recommendation carousel. There are also the top charts which is a sort of recommendation based on popularity. In general almost every page will probably have some type of algorithmically generated recommendation on it.
What other things can artists and listeners look forward to seeing in the future as Orfium grows?
There is a lot coming but just to list a few, official podcast and DJ set / recorded performance support with embedded track lists, radio stations, groups, music videos, analytics, publisher accounts, and geo-based music discovery.
What are some of your favorite genres or artists?
Here's an embedded playlist with a few of my favorites. Enjoy!