If the music streaming landscape were a horse race, Audius would be a multi-colored pigmy unicorn. The young blockchain-powered service may be hard to spot in the dust that trails stallions like Spotify and Apple Music, but it has been steadily making headway since its arrival in 2018. As “crypto” emerged as a pop culture buzz word in 2021, though, Audius grew significantly, rising from less than a million monthly active users in January to five million in August.
On Monday, company execs tell Rolling Stone, Audius will take a big jump forward, revealing a first-of-its-kind partnership with TikTok that lets its artists quickly and directly upload their music to TikTok’s Sound Kit.
“Any artist can take a song they already have on Audius and just export it over to TikTok in one click,” Forrest Browning, Audius’ co-founder and chief product officer, says. While there are already ways to get music on TikTok without help from a streaming platform, the process is “clunky,” as Browning puts it. “Teenagers producing in their bedrooms might not even have distributors,” he points out. “A common way that unsigned artists get their stuff up there right now is by holding their phone up to a laptop while it plays their song, and they add it as background music. It’s not great.”
The timing of this deal’s finalization is ideal for Audius: In July, TikTok shared that 75 percent of its 732 million active users say they discover new music on the app. If the likes of Spotify and Apple Music don’t follow suit soon, their skepticism — or, perhaps, stubbornness — may end up doing more harm than good. And if TikTok eventually decides to monetize the activity of its in-app sounds à la performance royalties, well, we’d be wading into an utterly transformed music industry.
But even without monetization of music placement on TikTok, the potential for exposure, which leads to revenue-generating opportunities, is massive. The 16-year-old bedroom pop producer from Middle of Nowhere, USA who gets signed by a record executive scrolling through TikTok may nab a hefty advance. And even if it isn’t a label, a Peloton instructor — someone with the power to add songs to popular virtual workout playlists — or a music supervisor at Netflix might come a-knockin’. “The artists we’ve been talking to want to find better ways to connect the following they’ve built up on TikTok to other places where they can monetize their work better,” Roneil Rumburg, Audius’ co-founder and CEO, says.
Currently, there are more than 100,000 artists with music on Audius, which attracts a lot of out-of-the-box thinkers, DIY creators, and underground scenesters. Audius might be an indie artist’s dream, but major-label acts are also welcome. (While a major-label act could, in theory, upload their whole catalogue to Audius, that’s not typical — mainly because music executives don’t like to ruffle the feathers of Spotify, Apple, and other industry tastemakers when they already have relationships in place; however, fun side projects, exclusive tracks, demos, and mixtapes are fair game.) Some of the biggest names with tracks on the platform include Skrillex, Weezer, deadmau5, Russ, Mike Shinoda, Diplo, Madeintyo, Odesza, Disclosure, Alina Baraz, and Wuki.
Although the fully decentralized platform, which also acts as a musical social network of sorts, relies on crypto-related technology to operate, that messaging is not jammed down the throat of its users. “I would say that maybe 95 percent of our users have no idea that blockchain is even involved,” says Browning. The Ethereum blockchain is just crucial to Audius’ direct-to-consumer ethos, as it cuts out the middleman and tracks transactions transparently. Audius also supports NFTs, but they’re not in the business of buying and selling; the NFTs on Audius instead act as engagement and social tokens, unlocking goodies and extra capabilities. Executives deny having any plans of becoming a marketplace, explaining that there already are a wide variety of options for that. “For us, it would kind of be like duct-taping Ebay onto Spotify,” Browning adds. “We could do it, but I don’t know if that’s the best use of our engineering resources. We’d rather just partner with solutions like OpenSea.” (Is this “decentralized-crypto-blockchain-NFT” mumbo jumbo overwhelming you? Catch yourself up to speed via our field guide.)
Audius, which beefed up its team from about 11 employees to 22 over the last seven months or so, is hyper-focused on all sorts of growth right now. Prior to joining forces with TikTok, the company did a deal with blog aggregate and chart service HypeMachine to ensure anytime an Audius embed code is posted online, HypeMachine can track it, helping to build buzz. Browning and Rumburg are currently finalizing “a whole bunch” of similar partnerships — with the goal of breathing life back into the blog sector, which has wilted with the rise of playlist culture — and having conversations around hiring more music industry veterans to help with label relations. “We want Audius to be.a central clearing house that can extend its tendrils out to anywhere fans might stumble upon things,” says Rumburg.
No matter how big they get, the co-founders aim to keep their startup spirit alive, stressing that they’re not here to play hardball. “In our view, we are far more pro-artist than the other streaming options out there right now,” says Browning. “We love the cross pollination of ‘stick it on Audius and then go to TikTok.’ While I can understand the Spotify business model, they probably don’t want folks going to TikTok from a monetization perspective. But we don’t really care where your listens are coming from or what we help enable; we’re just here to get as many ears on your track as possible.”