In this interview, we catch up with an amazing TechZulu Spotlight alumnus, Joey Flores, CEO of Earbits, a hand-curated music discovery engine that allows its bands and artists to advertise and promote their own material, events, announcements, contests, whatever. Earbits provides value to the listeners with awesome new music without non-pertinent commercials about California cheese, car insurance, or whatever; and provides value to the musicians by giving them an additional voice. We really enjoyed what their company has been doing and hope you like what Joey has to say.
What was the original inspiration behind Earbits? Was there anything in particular that really drove it home for you guys to implement the idea?
I’ve been working in the online advertising business for about 13 years handling everything from affiliate programs and banner ad campaigns, to search engine optimization and Google Adwords. The last serious job I had I was managing about $60 million in affiliate marketing revenue on a wide variety of campaigns. Somewhere during that time I put together a 10-piece funk, jazz and hip hop band with my close friend, Yotam Rosenbaum. We started playing shows around town and ultimately recorded an album together. We were invited to play with double Grammy winners Arrested Development and got great reviews, but when it came to marketing our shows and our album, we found that the tools out there for artists were a disaster. Plenty of companies have helped solve the problem of distribution for artists. You can sell CDs, downloads, ringtones, t-shirts, stickers, and more. But sell them to who? Most of the marketing tools out there are designed to market products with visual and text advertising, which doesn’t work for marketing music. Most of the tools for bands are social marketing tools that require a lot of time tweeting, posting to Facebook, coming up with viral tricks, or leveraging your existing fans to get out and spread the word. If I can speak frankly, good bands don’t want to do that. They want to play music and shows and have life experiences that give them inspiration for new music. You can’t do all of those things if you’re spending all of your time tweeting. So, one day Yotam and I were driving to San Diego and stuck in traffic and he asked how we could offer musicians the same sort of advertising services that I was used to using in my day job. After a dozen bad ideas we stumbled upon the concept for Earbits, a radio-style marketing platform where bands bid for airtime just like on Google Adwords. By the time we got to San Diego we were rabid with ideas about how to turn radio into a music advertising platform, and we talked about the concept constantly for two more years. Finally, last year, we decided that this platform needed to exist and that we were willing to risk everything to make it happen, and the company was born.
Do you mind letting our readers know what your previous venture was before Earbits? Growing a company from $19M to $48M is no joke!
My last “venture” wasn’t really mine. I was the second employee at a startup affiliate network called Affiliate Fuel here in Los Angeles, handling business development. When I started, I was one of the only people signing up affiliates. I ended up becoming Director of Business Development for about 4 years managing a great team of reps, which led to the company being acquired by Experian. After a year under the Experian umbrella the original founders were ready to move on and enjoy their spoils, so Experian put me in charge of the network. We got aggressive, tried some new things, got a bit of help from the parent company’s brand and leverage, and managed to increase annual revenues from $19M to a trend of $48M before I left two years later.
We love the fact that all the artists and music are hand curated by your team. Is there any particular music genre you especially like working with artist-wise?
If you mean are there any genres that Earbits prefers, no. We think all good music ought to find an audience and we look forward to trying to find a home for every good album. We have a team of people who curate the channels and manage the artists and labels. Each of them specializes in the genres they work in. Roshmond “Sum” Patten comes from RIME magazine and is a killer Emcee with his own band, The Milky Way, and was recently featured on a new Malkovich track called What I Know. He handles all things Hip Hop, R&B and Soul. Scott Feldman works for the hit FX show Sons of Anarchy, which is known for its killer rock soundtrack. He also produces and writes for a number of Los Angeles-based artists and he handles all things Rock and Pop. Yotam Rosenbaum is in charge of the whole department, comes from Berklee College of Music, and while he specializes in Jazz, he pretty much has his hands on everything. We have a couple more part-timers who have their own areas of expertise, and the rest of us are just huge lovers of music who like everything from metalcore and death metal, to classical and, well, Ben likes a lot of Tom Petty.
(If you can disclose), what’re the next steps for Earbits?
Right now we’re focused on acquiring a massive listening base. We’ve built some great ways for artists to get value out of being on Earbits, but the number one thing that we need to drive value for the industry is a big audience of highly engaged listeners. We’ve seen killer growth recently from our partnership with Facebook and a lot of great press, but we’re ambitious and looking forward to taking over the world any day now. In the meantime, we’ll be raising funds in January and we have some great plans for how to apply those resources toward new features that I think our listeners and clients are all going to be very excited about.
From the up.Start LA panel you mentioned a lot of great benefits of being involved with the Y Combinator accelerator program. Do you think your company could be where it is today had you gone a different route?
No, I don’t think we’d be where we’re at right now without Y Combinator. But then again I don’t think we’d be where we’re at without our friends and family, our other investors, our incredible team, or the bands and labels who have taken the time to work with an unknown company pitching a lofty vision. Everything we’ve done and every lucky outside factor that’s pushed the ball forward has been a crucial part of getting us this far. So, YC is just one of the many fortuitous opportunities we’ve had – but yes, it’s a really big one.
Please tell us how integral music has been in your life.
Oh man, when I was about 10 years old I was at a friend’s house and the One video by Metallica came on. From that day forward, even though I wouldn’t pick up drumsticks for another decade, I was a drummer. I thought about them all of the time, played air drums and listened to every last note. I remember listening to my walkman on the long drive to Nebraska every summer…specifically the year that G N’ R Lies came out by Guns N’ Roses. Music has been such a huge part of my life, even before I ever played music. Then, when I was about 20, a string of weird events led to me owning my first drumset and for the next 3 years I played 4-7 hours almost every day. Drums are just the most amazing release for me. Then, for Yotam’s and my album I didn’t play drums, I took my experience from the slam poetry scene and turned it into hip hop. Getting on stage and putting my own thoughts out there for everybody is just an amazing experience that I can’t describe. It’s terrifying and exhilarating all at once. Other than that, I mean I saw my favorite band last year 4 times in 4 different cities, and those were probably the 16th-20th shows of theirs that I’ve been to. The most painful thing for me as a musician, though, was making what I thought was a great product and then finding that it might never be heard by very many people. I know that far better musicians than myself are experiencing that every day. Solving this problem has become my mission. Guys like Yotam and the other killer musicians I know should not have to work so hard to find an audience. They have a great product and I’d say my whole life, both musically and professionally, has led to now, and helping musicians with great products break through the noise. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the rest of my professional career.
What do you think of the recent explosion of electronic music in the states? Is it a good thing that every Joe Schmoe with a midi keyboard + Ableton can be considered a legitimate musician? (kidding of course)
I think that it’s awesome because a big barrier for a lot of musicians, historically, has been the cost of making good music, and the dependency on finding the right band to play with. Now, kids everywhere can get a small midi keyboard and relatively inexpensive software, and, in many cases, create music that’s indistinguishable from the pros. That’s a great thing. That being said, there is something very magical about spending years learning your instrument, writing songs, exploring people to play with, finding that perfect band that you fit into, and creating something magical. There something about seeing it live, completely naked in terms of the things that can go wrong in the live environment, and the things that can go right when you hit that zone with your band. I hope electronic music thrives, but God I hope other forms of music continue to thrive, too. I can’t live in a place where every drum noise came out of a computer, and I think the perception of what good music is needs to stay well rounded.
We’re really loving the clean site layout. Did the design team look to an particular influences to craft the look and feel of the platform?
Thanks! Our design has a long history. We started with a great design from a good friend, Kristin Moore, who was the very first person to help make Earbits a reality. But when we learned more about what our customers wanted, we definitely took inspiration from others. TheSixtyOne was the first, in my opinion, to bring music to us with nothing but big gorgeous band photos to stare at. The still-cleaner design of About.me was also an influence. And based on these, Ben Bryant came up with the initial layout. From there, we auditioned several designers and, although we used a bit from each of them in the final design, the prize goes to our designer Nic Lembck for making Earbits as slick as it is. Honestly, I think Earbits is the best looking music site out there and Nic is the man to thank for that.
Is there any reason why Earbits has stayed grounded in the Los Angeles area?
This is where we all lived before we started Earbits and there just hasn’t been a good reason to do it anywhere else. We have a great network of people in the Valley and San Francisco thanks to Y Combinator, and we have more labels, bands and live venues in Los Angeles than we can shake a stick at. Between having all of those bases covered and the fact that today was 67 degrees at the tail end of November, we really don’t see any reason to go anywhere. Silicon Beach forever! ;)