The Next Big Sound exposes new artists to all listeners

Christina Chaey

When NU grad Alex White and current seniors David Hoffman, Samir Rayani and Jason Sosnovsky came up with the idea behind the music networking site The Next Big Sound six months ago in an entrepreneurship class, they knew it would be hard. They knew there’d be criticism, they knew they’d need money and they knew they’d be a small start-up in an industry dominated by giants like MySpace and Facebook.

And two months in, much of this is true. There is criticism, they most definitely need money and they are a very small company in a very, very big market.

They’re still going.

The Web site – thenextbigsound.com – allows users to create their own record labels, under which they can sign up to 10 up-and-coming artists that create profiles with four-song demos and brief bios. Listeners, or “moguls,” are awarded a certain number of points for every artist they sign. Users continue to gain points based on how many others sign an artist after they do. The more points moguls gain, the more roster spots open up as they access higher levels and continue to sign new artists.

“The whole idea is that you can take an active role in the music discovery process,” said White, SESP ’08 and a former A&O Productions chairman. “We track how users sign artists and we identify the people who have talent scouting ability … You also get to find tons of new music just by randomly listening to music on the site.”

Since its official launch at the beginning of August, The Next Big Sound has gained more than 250 artists and close to 1,300 moguls, Hoffman said.

“We’re really focusing on building a strong product and a strong community,” Hoffman said.

The company is currently not generating any revenue, though they have signed a committed investor and are talking to others, Hoffman said.

“You can quickly see how many areas there are to worry about,” White said.

In addition to winning “Best Undergraduate Idea” in inNUvation’s NU Venture Challenge last spring, the team was one of several that received $25,000 each from iVentures10, an intern program for students looking to start web-based companies that is sponsored by the venture capital firm IllinoisVENTURES. They spent the summer developing the Web site at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where they were provided with mentors and office space to help them execute their ideas.

The team intentionally launched the site in its very early stages to test some of its functions and start gathering feedback, White said.

Response to the site has been mixed.

“I think it’s definitely a good tool for these bands to use,” said Rebecca Lopez, head of Chicago promoter Betta Promotions. “Internet-wise, it’s another good one out there that they can use to help promote their bands and get exposure.”

It’s hard to argue with the site’s intent to create a place for people to discover rising talent, said Brian Zieske, an independent Chicago music producer who has worked with artists like The Academy Is… and The Hush Sound. The problem is getting bands to sign up, he said.

“There’s no incentive for good bands to go to the site and sign up,” Zieske said. “There’s no prize for being there. I don’t think that it’s enough for artists when there’s a bigger ocean out there on MySpace and Facebook.”

According to Zieske, there’s a fundamental problem with TNBS’s setup because it reflects a major label system that doesn’t look out for artists.

“It’s a game,” he said. “The mogul is looking to win, so they’re not necessarily signing good bands and sticking to them and not representing them over the long term.”

Several people also noted the site’s limited networking options prevent users from connecting.

For instance, there is no opportunity for direct contact between the artists and their listeners, which is a must if the project is going to succeed, said Jonathan Ifergan of Color Radio, a Chicago band that is on the site.

“It’d be nice to be like, ‘Hey, thanks for signing us,’ but we can’t,” Ifergan said.

Although TNBS tries to offer something unique, Hoffman admits that the industry is very competitive.

“It’s difficult to rise above the noise,” said Hoffman. “We spend a lot of our time focusing on building something that is meaningful to people’s lives.”

Hoffman and his coworkers have many changes planned for the site, some of which would address user criticisms. White, who passed up a consulting job in New York to work on TNBS, said he considers the project his full-time job.

The team would eventually like to engage in partnerships that will result in “tangible results” for bands that use the site, White said.

“We’re working on developing value proposition for the artists at this point,” he said. “We’re talking with bands and talking with music industry people about creating the best possible reward for bands that do well on the site.”

The team is considering incentives like recording services and representation for artists who succeed on the site.

One feature the team would like to add is an option for artists to send messages to the users that have signed them. Eventually, they would like to extend the messaging option to users as well.

“We’re just in the beginning stages of this product and so we have massive amounts of changes and new features and improvements,” White said.

Regardless of whether or not immediate changes take place, TNBS is another opportunity for bands to promote themselves, Hoffman said.

“Artists out there should be putting their music everywhere they can – on our site, on all our competitors’ sites,” he said. “The more people that know about it, the more fans they can have and the more successful they’ll be.”

Even Ifergan agrees that exposure is the most important factor in a band’s success, something he’s experienced firsthand.

“Anything that comes up to us that’s free to join online and that offers exposure, we will sign up for, only because you never know who’s going to be on these pages.” Ifergan said. “It’s almost like you’re spreading your seeds, hoping that one of those seeds is going to grow.”

Hoffman said ideally he’d like to work on TNBS as long as possible, though how long that will be depends on how successful the team is in reaching the milestones it continually sets for itself.

“I knew it was going to be difficult,” Hoffman said. “It absolutely has been, but the important thing is the amazing amount we’ve learned through this process, and how unique that is.”

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