How Audiomack Went From Mixtape Destination to One of the Most Influential Underground Streaming Services Around

Courtesy of Audiomack
          

“We’re not intent on becoming Spotify. We’re not trying to become Apple Music,” says co-founder and CMO Dave Ponte. “We’re carving out our own lane, and it’s a discovery streaming site."

In September, Eminem surprise released a diss track aimed squarely at Machine Gun Kelly, called “Killshot.” But while it’s not exactly shocking that a former battle rapper known for his scathing pen game came at another MC on wax, what was a little unorthodox was the place where Em chose to release it: not Spotify, not Apple Music and not Soundcloud, but the six-year-old, youth-focused, free music streaming service Audiomack.

“[Eminem manager/Def Jam CEO] Paul Rosenberg called us up and said that they had a record, that it wouldn’t be out in [digital] stores for a couple days, but that Em wanted it out right now,” David Macli, Audiomack co-founder and CEO, tells Billboard. “It scaled extremely quickly.” That’s an understatement: among Audiomack’s most popular songs in the site’s history, “Killshot” sits at No. 29 with 8.6 million plays in just four months. The only song added more recently than “Killshot” that sits above it on the ranking is Tyga’s “Taste,” which was added six months after its original release last May, and after it reached No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100.

The record was hot on every platform it touched -- “Killshot” became YouTube’s biggest debut for a hip-hop video in its history (where it also appeared Sept. 14, albeit shortly after its Audiomack premiere), was the most-streamed song in the country in its first week of release according to Nielsen Music and shot to a No. 3 debut on the Hot 100 overall, despite Nielsen and Billboard’s charts not counting activity from Audiomack in their metrics. It’s a testament to the platform’s growth, influence and evolution since its early days as a mixtape hosting site in 2012 before riding the streaming wave to a new, more legitimate standing.

“At the time, there were other services out there that charge artists for uploading music, or for advanced stats -- ReverbNation, BandCamp, SoundCloud -- and we saw that streaming was the future,” Macli says about the site’s founding. “The idea was simple: We didn’t feel like it was a good model to charge artists to upload music or to get stats. We felt like that model was shortsighted. We wanted to build a platform where any artist could come in, upload to the site without limits and then we’d make money off the audience via advertising or subscription.”

That early idea put the site more in line with the last vestiges of the mixtape community -- defined at the time by Datpiff and LiveMixtapes and, a little further down the road, SoundCloud -- than what are thought of as the major streaming services today. The mixtapes were released for free, downloaded or streamed for free and didn’t generate revenue for the artists, instead serving as marketing and promotion opportunities in anticipation of a bigger deal.

The site saw some significant early success: Macli and his co-founder and CMO Dave Ponte point to April 30, 2013 -- the day that J. Cole’s Truly Yours 2 and Chance The Rapper’s Acid Rap both premiered on the platform -- as the first, and to date, only, time Audiomack ever crashed. (“It’s sort of a notch [in your belt] for an artist, when you can put a site down,” says Ponte.) Later, Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot N---a,” Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen” and Future’s Purple Reign all either debuted on or gained significant traction through the site.

“With gatekeepers being a huge problem for emerging artists to stand out, since the beginning of recorded music, we reduce, if not alleviate entirely, the barriers to getting in front of an artist,” says Ponte. “I think it’s easier than ever now for an emerging artist, but it’s still very difficult if you want another platform to get people to give you a try. We enable artists to find their audience. We’ll surface the music and get it in front of the right people.”

Another boost for the site: Macli also founded DJBooth, a well-respected hip-hop blog that had gained influence separately from Audiomack, and helped to bring the streamer both credibility among the artist community and familiarity among its target audience of young hip-hop fans and artists. “Audiomack is the place where, if an [established] artist shares their music, all the young artists that are just starting their careers can see that and be on the same platform,” says Macli. “They don’t need to call up a distributor, they don’t need a label deal, they can just upload and say, ‘Now I’m on the same trending list as J. Cole, as Future, under Young Thug.’ And we actually listen to everything that’s submitted to us, fortunately or unfortunately.”

Therein lies the other secret, not just to Audiomack’s success, but to its loyal fan base: the constant surfacing of new and emerging artists and tracks that powers the site’s home page -- and occasionally drives Ponte crazy. It was Ponte’s idea to have the main feature of the home page link to a Now Trending chart, which he keeps updated “every hour, every minute,” and which, with his team of almost 10 curators, he has used to expand the site’s focus beyond hip-hop into Latin, reggae, afrobeats and more, without the major-label agendas that are weighed for other services’ playlists. “In an overly saturated industry, Audiomack has established themselves as an artist-first renegade,” 740 Project founder Rahim Wright said, crediting the site for helping to break Migos’ “Bad and Boujee,” which eventually reached No. 1 on the Hot 100. “Plenty of people suggest they do it for the culture, but Audiomack really is moving music forward and breaking artists, for the culture.”

Over the past year, Audiomack has surged into overdrive, having seen its daily users jump from 400,000 to 1.5 million, according to stats provided by the company, largely driven by improvements to its official app, and passed 1 billion monthly plays. It also took steps to become, for lack of a better term, more “official,” having struck licensing deals directly with several artists as well as with companies like EMPIRE, 300 Entertainment, Mad Decent and Foundation, among others. And they have significant partnerships with the likes of VH1’s Save the Music Foundation, with which they partnered alongside Zaytoven’s Zay Area Foundation for a grant for the Atlanta public school system worth $22,000 that includes a grand piano and 10 workstation keyboards, as well as other music materials.

Most significantly, Audiomack has also rolled out two major initiatives aiming at getting the artists on its platform paid: the Audiomack Monetization Platform (AMP), which combines all revenues and distributes to artists by stream count, and which has signed up more than 1,300 artists on an invite-only basis since its debut last year; and a new premium subscription tier, which costs $5 per month and removes ads for users, offers hi-fidelity streaming and quick-download buttons for users, offering more functionality in addition to just removing ads. So far, since its August 2018 debut, the premium tier has racked up more than 10,000 subscribers, with the income generated from subscriptions helping fuel higher payouts to artists than just ad-only revenues would.

“As Audiomack has grown in its audience and its influence, record labels really recognize that this tool and this community can have a very tangible effect on the artists they want to succeed,” says Charlie Kaplan, Audiomack’s director of product management and growth. “And there’s no way that can’t be an incredibly positive, mutually helpful partnership.”

“We’re not intent on becoming Spotify. We’re not trying to become Apple Music,” says Ponte. “We’re carving out our own lane, and it’s a discovery streaming site. We’re focusing on new artists, emerging artists and a lot of older artists who are still making dope music who want to get new fans, too. I think we can become big, and a lot of our stakeholders believe that, but I don’t think it’s going to be replacing Spotify. It’s a different type of service.”

“I think the most powerful thing we can build is ways that a follower on Audiomack really means a follower of an artist,” adds Macli. “We’re trying to find ways where, if you discover a new artist on Audiomack, that artist is going to be able to reach out to you directly in a way that is actually going to get a response, whether it’s a new song, merch, tour, I’m in your town -- that’s what we want to move into. Because we realize that artists don’t make the majority of their money anymore from recorded music, they make it from other things. So how can we give you a more direct line to your fans?”

From newcomers to A-list MCs with diss tracks to get off their chests, that direct line is fueling Audiomack’s future.