“When I was a little girl,” says Kara Madden, “I thought I could be bigger than Britney Spears.” This didn’t make Madden, who grew up on the New Jersey shore, unique — in the late 1990s, lots of girls had the same idea. But she worked toward pop stardom with a diligence that most other kids didn’t have. She studied singing with her mother, a voice teacher; taught herself to use GarageBand; learned to play the clarinet, piano and trombone; and performed in school musicals as well as the marching band.
While studying for a music business degree at Belmont University in Nashville, she interned with the EDM booking agency AM Only, then for John Esposito, CEO of Warner Music Nashville. After graduating in 2014, she moved to Los Angeles, sang on demos and took every co-writing session she could find. She did everything right. And she got nowhere.
A few years after college, Madden, who is now 28, was managing a Jersey Mike’s sandwich shop and making under $10,000 a year from music, singing on commercial sessions for My Little Pony and adding vocal toplines to EDM songs. In EDM, male producers often have considerable power over female singers. She felt disrespected and has said that she was sexually assaulted by one of her collaborators. “I lost that fire along the way,” she recalls. Especially if you’re young and female, “the music industry chews you up and spits you out.”
Madden noticed that many of the producers she knew were using Splice, a cloud-based music creation platform that sells “sample packs” — downloadable collections of vocal hooks, drum sounds, instrumental riffs and other sounds creators can use to build songs. A sample pack doesn’t contain an excerpt from a well-known track, like James Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” but rather snippets, from a snare or bass drum hit as short as a tenth of a second to an eight-bar loop of a guitar lick. They’re like Legos, or individual ingredients for a recipe. For convenience, samples are tagged with a BPM tempo and the key they’re in and have elaborate file names like “PVLACE_MELODY_LOOP_DIENACHT_130_GMIN.WAV” and “MELODIC_LOOP_RIOT_02_145_D#MIN.WAV.”
Splice subscriptions start at $9.99 a month and let users access over 2 million riffs, beats and sounds — all royalty-free, so creators who use them own their work. Most of the platform’s 4 million users are amateurs, but Splice samples have also been used in songs by Justin Timberlake, Justin Bieber, BTS, The Weeknd and Bad Bunny, among others.
In 2017, Madden — whose goes by KARRA as an artist — put together a vocal pack of brief sounds, wordless melodies and concise vocal hooks, like “don’t wanna wake up,” “second chances never work” and “loving you,” and released it on Splice. She figured she might make a few hundred dollars.
A few months later, a friend texted to ask if she knew that her samples were used in “Back and Forth,” a song from star DJ David Guetta’s new album. “That was the first ‘this is insane’ moment,” she recalls. Later that year, at the Electric Daisy Carnival festival, she heard a few DJs using her samples. Then, in early 2019, the British hard-rock group Bring Me the Horizon used her samples on its album Amo, which was nominated for a best rock album Grammy Award.
So far, KARRA says she has grossed “about $300,000” from her KARRA Vocal Sample Pack Vol. 1 and its follow-up, Vol. 2. Just as important, she says, “I took my power back. For so long I had to do what other people said and had no control over my own voice.” Now, in the small but rapidly growing sample pack business, the former Jersey Mike’s manager has become a star.
“The music industry of 2017 wouldn’t have found KARRA in a million years,” says Matt Pincus, a member of Splice’s board and the founder and former CEO of SONGS Music Publishing, which he sold to Kobalt Capital in 2017 for a reported $160 million. “They weren’t looking in the right places for artists with superstar potential,” he continues. “Meanwhile, she was sitting right there.” Pincus first heard of Splice at SONGS during a discussion about the publishing split for rapper XXXTentacion’s Billboard Hot 100 hit “whoa (mind in awe).” When he asked about the song’s unusual keyboard hook, a SONGS staffer told him it came from Splice. “I said, ‘What the f–k is Splice?’ ” recalls Pincus. Then he discovered that nearly every young writer and producer he knew was using the platform “and loved it.”
Pincus has a significant interest in Splice’s success, since he has invested “tens of millions of dollars” in the platform. “In music creation, the next generation of music companies will be about ingredients for collaborations, not finished songs,” he says. At the time of his first investment, during Splice’s 2019 series C funding round, the platform had 250,000 subscribers. By its next major round of investment two years later, that number had more than doubled, and Pincus says the company is approaching $100 million in annual recurring revenue.
Splice’s growth reflects, and is enabling, a massive shift in how songs are written and recorded. The kind of professional music production that once took place in $2,500-a-day recording studios filled with electronics, instruments and session musicians now happens in front of a laptop running Pro Tools, Ableton Live or other digital audio workstation software. For better or worse, Splice can also help eliminate the need for musicians, who can be moody and unreliable, as well as expensive. With a DAW and some sample packs, anyone can be as self-reliant as Prince.
The market for beats and sounds is part of a larger “creator economy” that’s now being recognized as the hot new music business investment. Beatport bought the sample store Loopmasters, investment firm Francisco Partners acquired Native Instruments earlier this year, and Goldman Sachs invested in Splice in February. Splice has plenty of competition, including Loopmasters, BeatStars (where Lil Nas X bought his “Old Town Road” beat for $30) and Airbit. But the financial potential of the sector is so significant that MIDiA Research managing director Mark Mulligan wrote in April that “the music industry now has an additional gravitational force at its core” — besides labels.
So far, says Mulligan, “Splice has managed to establish a market-shaping identity — it’s synonymous with the creator tools space, the same way Hoover is synonymous with vacuum cleaners.” Splice is also moving its part of the industry from a retail model, where creators would pay for particular sounds, to a subscription model, which can draw in more users. “That’s the most important underlying business shift the space is going through — the move from sales to subscriptions,” he says. “Sound familiar? It’s the exact same thing Spotify did to iTunes.”
The sample pack business is lucrative enough that Splice has been able to attract name creators, including Boi-1da, SOPHIE, Just Blaze, Scott Storch and Travis Barker. But the most popular packs are from less famous musicians like Madden, or Vaughn Oliver, a Canadian DJ whose Power Tools kits, released under the name Oliver, have been used in Doja Cat’s “Say So” and Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now.” Ian Kirkpatrick, who produced and co-wrote “Don’t Start Now,” suggests that pop music’s recent disco resurgence can be traced to Oliver. “I wonder how much the direction of pop music is dictated by sample sites like Splice,” he says.
“It opens the doors for literally anyone to become a producer,” says Madden, and that’s only slightly hyperbolic. Rodney Jerkins, a songwriter-producer who has worked with Whitney Houston, Destiny’s Child and Michael Jackson, said during a recent appearance on Clubhouse that his 11-year-old daughter uses Splice to make four to seven songs a day. “In the next few years,” he says, “there will be stories in Billboard like, ‘This kid who had a top 10 smash, he’s 12, and it was because he used Splice.’ ”
Splice isn’t limited to pop and hip-hop. Luke Laird, a producer who has written 24 No. 1 country hits, uses Splice and created his own twangy sample pack. “You can literally find any type of sound,” he says. “I love saying, ‘I wonder what it would be like to get an Afro-Cuban beat and then write something really country over it.’ ”
Some artists dislike Splice because it has become ubiquitous. “I’m probably in the minority at this point,” says Topaz Jones, a 27-year-old rapper-singer, “but I’m turned off by the idea of someone else having the exact same loop as me.” Instead, Jones buys samples directly from producers or from the Polyphonic Music Library.
So far, detractors seem to be in the minority. “This is part of the fabric of pop music now,” says Oliver, whose popular Power Tools packs have been sampled in styles ranging from K-pop to reggaetón. “Every month, I hear my drum beats on a couple of new songs. It’s really cool to be the guy that made the drum loop that went on a bunch of records.”
Splice CEO Steve Martocci describes himself as a “jam-band freak and pretty bad guitarist” who has seen Phish and The Disco Biscuits over 400 times. Martocci, who has an almost goofy level of enthusiasm for helping musicians, grew up on Long Island, graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 2004 with a degree in information systems and started a career in software engineering. Frustrated by how difficult it was to find his friends at concerts, he teamed up with Jared Hecht, who worked in business development at Tumblr, and created the GroupMe group messaging app. They sold it to Skype in 2011 for $85 million.
Martocci founded Splice in 2013 with sound engineer Matt Aimonetti as a tool for musicians to collaborate remotely, until they realized what their users really needed was high-quality sounds. At the time, “there were a bunch of mom-and-pop sites” selling sample packs, says Martocci, and in 2015 he started to turn Splice into a supermarket of sounds.
Finding content was harder than he expected. “Producers said, ‘There’s no way in hell I’m giving away my secret sauce,’ ” recalls Martocci. Gradually, he was able to wear down that resistance by showing them how much money they could make. (Artists get advance payments from Splice, as well as quarterly royalty statements.) Splice initially had trouble finding funding, since venture capitalists were looking for companies that were disrupting the major-label music business. “It was a space no investors would touch,” he says. But his experience with GroupMe gave him credibility, and Union Square Ventures and True Ventures signed on as early investors.
According to Martocci, Splice’s steady growth spiked during the pandemic: Daily downloads increased almost 50% amid “a pretty extreme explosion in new users.” Money has been easier to come by, too. In February, Splice raised $55 million in series D funding led by Goldman Sachs, on a valuation of close to $500 million.
Eventually, “we think we can build the most iconic company in music history,” says Martocci. In June 2020, he hired Maria Egan from Pulse Music Group, where she was president. Egan isn’t a tech executive; her experience is in management, A&R and publishing. She heard about Splice from Pulse client Whethan, who has worked with Charli XCX and Dua Lipa. Soon she was scouting for new talent by listening to the creators at the top of the Splice download charts.
By joining Splice, Egan bet against the traditional music business infrastructure she had been part of. The old star-making system — young artist moves to L.A., seeks a publishing deal and tries to get a foothold — “just felt so antiquated,” she says. “I could see the decentralization of the creative process, and it wasn’t going to be about these 10 producers in L.A. that everybody went to.”
What Egan and Martocci want to build is a kind of operating system for all styles of music creation, which, as the success of K-pop and reggaetón prove, is already becoming decentralized. One of Egan’s goals is to find more Latin, Brazilian and African creators for the platform. One of its most downloaded packs of 2020, Senegal Sessions, was recorded by local musicians in the city of Dakar, and its 2020 producer of the year award went to OZ, a Turkish creator based in Switzerland who has worked with Travis Scott and Drake.
To make the site stickier for novice users, Splice developed the education platform Skills, which offers instructional videos on recording and mixing. Another tool, Studio, helps users find collaborators in the cloud. “When you’re in your flow state and you’re creating music, that’s the most beautiful bliss there is,” says Martocci. “With all our products going forward, it’s about keeping you in that creative flow. The vision of the company is a world of more transcendent musical highs.” He chuckles self-consciously. “It’s kind of hippie-ish, sure.”
The potential for growth is there: There are 4.6 million digital music creators worldwide, according to MIDiA Research, and that number is likely to grow — especially as platforms like TikTok provide a place for amateurs to compete for views and attention and, ultimately, professional careers. “Every day there’s a new 13-year-old ready to create,” says Martocci. (When I mention my 9-year-old son, Egan exclaims: “Get him a Splice account!”)
Martocci says he would consider an initial public offering if it “makes the most amount of sense to hit the next level. But I’m not really interested in selling. I’m setting this up so that a really restless guy like me can stay super entertained.”
By the end of 2020, Splice had paid out over $40 million to artists, a small amount of money in terms of the music business, but a significant amount to creators like Oliver and KARRA. “As Splice brings more kids into careers in music,” says Pincus, “I expect the network effect to accelerate from robust to exponential and the payouts to follow suit.”
For Splice’s top creators, the site is a way station en route to broader stardom. Oliver is working on a third Power Tools pack while also collaborating with Mayer Hawthorne, Chromeo and Yelle. KARRA has decided not to make more vocal packs, although Splice gave her an imprint, KARRA Presents, to market other singers. With the untrammeled confidence of a millennial, she talks about building “my own little empire,” which includes an independent label and the website iamkarra.com, where she sells instructional videos about singing, music management and creating vocal sample packs.
“I never felt a pull to do things the old-fashioned way, like playing in bars. I’m an innovator,” she says. Ultimately, she wants to turn her Splice success into a major-label record deal, because “they are the ones who have the big money to push you to the masses. I want to be a top 40 artist. That has been my dream since I was a little girl, so it’s time to make that happen.”