Pulselocker, which launched its new streaming and music subscription service today, is described as something of a "Spotify for DJs." But the company doesn't just want to attract DJs, but music fans in a more general way. Last week I demoed the service and spoke to its creators, and from all indications it has some great potential in the streaming, download, and locker service arenas.
Created by Ben Harris (who's also part of house trio Dirty Vegas), Alvaro Velilla and Josh Goltz with a small team of engineers and music industry professionals, Pulselocker allows DJs and music fans to stream, locker, and download tracks, and sync with third-party DJ software like Native Instruments Traktor and Serato Scratch. Unlike its previous iteration, Pulselocker's locker now lives offline on user hard drives.
Why does that matter? In the past, DJs scoured dusty record stores for lost gems, or eagerly awaited the latest vinyl pressings from up-and-coming producers. Or, if the DJ was established enough, they could get new tracks before they hit the record shops.
Of course, online music consumption changed everything. If a DJ was looking for a track, instead of digging through record stores to find it, he or she could simply could download the song through iTunes or Beatport. The problem is that, with only brief demos available, gambling on a ton of new music can add up quickly.
Spotify and other similar services are great for demoing tracks before purchase, but those songs are stuck in the application. DJs can't take them out of Spotify and load them into a piece of software designed for mixing. And Spotify users certainly can't download the tracks.
Naturally, a DJ could demo a track on Spotify (or Soundcloud, or YouTube, or whatever) and then buy it elsewhere. But Pulselocker is betting that by combining the two, and adding the ability to sync streaming playlists with popular DJ software like Traktor and Serato, they'll be able to pull users away. According to Pulselocker CEO Ben Harris (one-third of Dirty Vegas), the service grew out of a bewilderment that the DJ community didn't already have a similar service.
"We were playing out, downloading tracks, and interacting with music in every way that DJs typically do, but growing increasingly frustrated with how technology was moving forward at a faster pace than how music fans and DJs were able to get ahold of music," said Harris. "We felt that there was a more agile and flexible way of getting ahold of music."
Harris pointed to the high rate at which DJs consume music as a prime motivation in Pulselocker's creation. DJs, by virtue of burning through lots of tracks, produce a lot of laptop or external hard drive mp3 clutter. They might dig a 90 second track demo, but when they download the full track they realize it's crap. DJs—and music fans—can always delete the song, but they've still paid for it. That is the beauty of Spotify and other streaming services: dropping a song from a playlist is not equivalent to throwing money out the window. But, again, there is no download function on Spotify, and no integration with DJ software.
Of course, the neophyte DJ would first have to own Traktor, Serrato, Virtual DJ, or some other mixing software. This is an important distinction. While Pulselocker is very attractive as a subscription-based service, to fully unlock its power a user will have to drop some clams on good software. If they're willing to do that, the locker could become a very flexible tool in their DJ arsenal.
Pulselocker insists that it's not simply a tool for DJs. The appeal to casual music fan may seem like a bit of an afterthought, but the company thinks its emphasis on customization will appeal to music fans that feel other services are still a long way from replicating the visceral aspects of music collecting.
As Harris notes, "the album artwork occupies a lot of space" on the homepage, representing the artists, genres, and labels that users curate themselves. Say a user digs house or industrial, their selections will keep them up to date on the genres latest releases.
"There aren't really services that do this," said Fred Han, Pulselocker's director of marketing and communications. "Spotify and Rdio have recommendations, but Pulselocker gives the user a very high-level ability to collect the genres, artists, and labels they want to follow. The homepage would then be automatically populated with this featured content."
Another thing Pulselocker is trying to do is crowdsource new genres that appear in the genre tab. They see this as an alternative to Soundcloud's free-for-all tag and genre descriptors.
"If you go to Soundcloud you can tag any number of genres and it quickly becomes pretty crowded in terms of the level of detail that people include," said Han. "For instance, you could tag 'micro funky house,' but there are only four tracks within all of Soundcloud that reflect that genre—so, we're going with an ultra-crowdsourced way of creating genres."
"If someone creates a playlist with a name, and then another 50 people create playlists with the same name, that genre becomes available," added Velilla.
Currently, that number is fixed. Until 50 people use the same genre in a playlist, it won't become available on Pulselocker. While this will probably introduce some sanity into the micro-genre absurdity, it might not sit well with DJs trying to create their own movement. That decision, however, wouldn't rest with Pulselocker brass, but with its user base. If 50 users cannot be swayed, then so be it.
The end-around, of course, would be for an artist to flood Pulselocker with fans and minions to make their genre legit. Users could also game Pulselocker's social media tool. Users could share their music on Facebook via Pulselocker's social playlist tool, and establish their genre that way, regardless of whether or not it is legit. Of course, I could be making a mountain out of a molehill here, but it'll be interesting to see how playlist sharing plays out, considering it's one of the first times sharing has been so directly incentivized.
The sharing aspect also has interesting implications for DJs, as well. DJs have always guarded their music in order to stand out, but now that sets can be so easily shared, how many people are going to reduce DJing to downloading a top playlist and playing it through their laptop?
Of course, this is already happening now, especially as the EDM boom has inspired more new DJs to try spinning than have in years. Some skeptics might see Pulselocker as a means of capitalizing on the EDM bubble before its inevitable burst. But its creators recognize that EDM's current popularity will hit a wall at some point, and they want the service to have staying power.
How many people are going to reduce DJing to downloading a top playlist and playing it through their laptop?
"Corporate America is really embracing EDM, and these huge superstar DJs are making hundreds of thousands of dollars per gig—how long will it last?" said Han. "The art of DJing has never been more popular, but technology has really lowered the barriers of entry. Everyone wants to be a DJ, and now if you have a laptop and a $100 controller from Wal-Mart, you're in the same position that we were in 10 to 15 years ago with expensive hardware equipment. It's easier to break into that space."
"We feel that DJing is more than EDM, which is why we have a lot of tracks cutting across electronic genres like house, techno, drum 'n bass, but also soul, jazz, rare groove, rock, boogie beat—things you wouldn't play at a massive, 50,000-seat stadium."
The irony is that the Pulselocker vision lowers the barrier of entry by condensing track demo, locker, and download options into one tidy package. With established DJs being only part of the intended user base, PulseLocker could encourage users to become DJs. As with the democratization of other music creation and DJ tools, it's a double-edged sword: with the good comes the bad.
Pulselocker isn't looking to immunize itself from people who want to play DJ. The good and the bad is almost irrelevant. Their real game is in funneling money back to the artists by limiting piracy with its DRM-protected locker folder.
"We pay a royalty rate on the streaming service, which increases when the user goes to the locker stage, and then again upon download of a track," said Harris. "Part of the reason we're doing it this way is because we understand what's happened to the music industry in the last 10 to 15 years. Our service is about putting as much money back into the pockets of artists and labels as possible."
The three-tiered payment model will certainly please artists and labels, but it won't be an instant panacea for the music industry's falling fortunes. The offline locker, however, could prove a game changer if a critical mass of users builds around the service. Pulselocker's creators were wise to take it offline as a dedicated widget. The last thing DJs want are their songs evaporating in a cloud of digital dust.