An electric guitar sits in a corner; books on music and business line shelves. On one wall, Notorious B.I.G. smokes a cigar next to printouts of business-savvy phrases: “Simplicity Quality Empowerment,” “It’s all about the customer” and “Unsigned music doesn’t suck” — the mantra of The Next Big Sound.
This office-slash-apartment on Orrington functions as the center of operations for the four founders of TNBS, an unsigned music networking Web site. They’re not white-haired businessmen or music industry execs. They are: Alex White, who graduated from Northwestern last year, and Northwestern seniors David Hoffman, Samir Rayani and Jason Sosnovsky.
“When I tell people I’m starting a company, people don’t really understand,” White said. “They’re like, ‘Well what do you mean?’ Or like, ‘That’s crazy’ or ‘That’s really cool.’”
White has always been fascinated by music and business. His dad is a professional cellist. He has played guitar in bands, and he worked in recording studios during high school. The summer after his freshman year at Northwestern, he landed an internship at Universal Records, where the idea behind TNBS began to germinate.
“It was a phenomenal learning experience. I saw firsthand kind of how they develop their artists, and how the talent-scouting process worked, and what they were concerned about, and what they really wanted to know.”
White sat in on a focus group run by L.A. Reid, Jay-Z’s boss, and worked down the hall from top music executives. He fantasized about creating his own label and thought others might enjoy the opportunity, too. This became the guiding principle of TNBS.
On the site – thenextbigsound.com — unsigned music artists can upload their work, and users (called “moguls”) can “sign” up to ten artists and gain points based on how successful the artists become. It’s like playing the stock market, but with musicians instead of businesses (which is probably a safer bet these days, anyhow).
Since the site launched six weeks ago, the numbers have exploded: as of last Monday, the 27 original artists had become 227, and 40 moguls grew to 1000, with hundreds of new users signing up each week.
As White and Hoffman worked out of their office last Sunday, they let the site’s random music player stream. “We just saw these guys play at the Beat Kitchen last week,” Hoffman said as some mellow rock came up on the player. “CD release party. They’re called Color Radio. I really like this song.”
The founders take an active interest in the bands on the site, and they’ve found some groups by hearing them play in person, White said. “We’d just go to live shows and go up and talk to the bands afterward.”
“Just hang out with ‘em,” Hoffman said.
Heading into town together for concerts is a common occurrence for the founders. Being friends, not just business partners, has made for a better experience, especially since the business start-up process requires spending so much time as a group. Over the summer, they lived together and worked 12- to 20-hour days, tweaking the site and the company details.
“We joked that we haven’t killed each other yet because we’re good friends,” Sosnovsky said.
The founders did know each other before setting up the business: Rayani was the account executive for A&O Productions, where White was president; Sosnovsky is a member of ZBT, White’s frat; and Hoffman and White took a class together.
But their relationships as business partners didn’t solidify until they took Professor Troy Henikoff’s class on entrepreneurship last year.
“I had the nugget of the idea, but we really fleshed it out, got the ball rolling in Winter Quarter,” said White.
The class allowed students to develop a business plan and bounce their ideas off of other students and the professor. At the end of the class, students presented their projects to a panel of venture capitalists and other professionals from the business world. For the TNBS team, this presentation led to some very important business connections.
Among the judging panel, “There was a level of interest that I had never seen before,” Henikoff said. After the presentation, the judges personally approached White, Hoffman, Sosnovsky and Rayani with suggestions and potential business contacts. “They didn’t do that with any of the others, but there was something unique they saw about The Next Big Sound.”
The founders spent Spring Quarter raising money and hitting up venture capitalists to make the company launch possible. They received a grant of approximately $25,000 as part of iVenture10, a program set up by technology investment firm IllinoisVENTURES, LLC, to encourage computer and web-based entrepreneurship. After receiving the money, the rising seniors decided to drop their summer internships and pursue the company full-time, and White gave up a job he had landed in New York City.
They worked intensively out of Champaign, Ill., over the summer. “That was the best thing that happened to us,” Rayani said. “It really accelerated our growth.”
The site finally went online in mid-summer after recruiting bands and moguls, mostly from the Northwestern community. “It was a hard sort of chicken and egg problem,” White explained, “because if you don’t have any music, no one’s going to come, and if you don’t get people on your site, the bands aren’t going to want to be on there.”
Now the site has enough users for the founders to begin exploring ways to turn a profit. For the time being, though, the only source of profit is t-shirt sales.
“We don’t have any money coming in,” Hoffman said.
“And that’s the uncertainty of it,” White added.
“It’s pretty standard of this kind of operation,” Hoffman said. “Nothing out of the ordinary.”
They did, however, manage to sell sponsorship of the site’s online randomized music player for the month of August.
The player is one of the site’s key features. Northwestern grad Erik Osmond, a member of rock band The Meeples and former member of French Horn Rebellion, said he likes “being able to randomly listen to the bands, the ease of use of their player, and the accessibility of their music.” But he would also like to see a more in-depth search engine, and he thinks the randomized player tends to favor more popular bands, which it does: White said the first two or three songs that get played when you visit the site are always by well-liked bands in order to give the visitor an idea of what’s hot.
French Horn Rebellion band member Rob Perlick-Molinari, who graduated from Northwestern last year, said he would recommend the site to other bands for gaining exposure, but “I’m just not a fan in general of online community type things. When you’re on the Internet, you’re just talking to people on messages and not actually talking to them.”
TNBS has no message-sending capabilities yet for artists and moguls to communicate, a feature which longtime mogul Lucas Artaiz — who got on the mogul bandwagon early, since he’s in the same frat as White and Sosnovsky, and was in the class where the TNBS idea took shape — wants to see added. He said he likes the mostly-random music player. “It’s a really good way to access music you wouldn’t otherwise come across,” he said.
White said the team will continue to adapt the site based on user feedback. Most recently, they’ve decided to add a newsletter feature which will keep moguls posted on news from their signed artists.
And they’ll continue to check out bands, signed and unsigned. Even amidst the frenzy of starting TNBS this past summer, they made time for the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, as any good enthusiasts of the lesser-known bands would.
“We all went,” White said. “Company trip.”