You may not be thinking much about the craft of making mixes, but you absolutely should be. Your perfect mix is the most fitting soundtrack to your life. While you can relate to its complex nuances – like the aspects of yourself only you know – it also gets you in that innate, “it just clicks” kind of way. Discovering it is a game-changer. And Nico Perez co-founded a company to help you do just that.
That company, Mixcloud, is an online streaming service where users can create music mixes, radio shows and podcasts. Content is exposed to users based on its algorithms’ understanding of their preferences. Wired, Harvard Business School, TED Talks and Barack Obama have used the service. Mixcloud’s staff of twelve are located all over the world – from New York and LA to Cambridge and Romania. Most have a background in DJing or running a radio station.
Nico chose to meet at the record store Rough Trade in Williamsburg, sister to the venerable London flagship, which is a staple of the UK’s post-punk music scene. The store’s wide-open warehouse feel is accented by shipping containers suspended high up on its walls. Having biked from his workspace in the Lower East Side, Nico chained up his bicycle and we walked in. We settled into one of the containers to talk about Mixcloud’s development, the online audio content sharing space and, obviously, great music.
How does Mixcloud work and what is its business model?
Mixcloud is an Internet radio platform. We host radio shows, DJ mixes, podcasts, any form of extended audio. It’s free to upload and it’s free to use.
So, what is our business model? How do we survive? It’s mostly built around advertising. We have display advertising on the site but we do a lot of other interesting stuff as well. We do branded content work, helping brands like Redbull host their DJ competition, or brands like Absolut Vodka. We created a mix series for them. Branded content is the direction we want to pursue more and more.
What’s your thesis on branded content?
For us, it’s an exchange of value between the brand, listener and DJ. We want a positive exchange there. We’re not fans of pop-up ads and commercials. The model we want to push forward is that the brand gets involved in the conversation in a very natural way, either curating or showcasing different DJs. Ultimately, as a listener, it’s much more enjoyable to hear the “ad” being created in the form of content.
How much do you care about social media?
We really think social-first. When we talk about our vision for Mixcloud, we talk about rethinking radio from the ground up – keeping some really core components like the curator, the host. But, we want to change the experience of radio being live, 24/7, and that you need to tune into a station on the FM dial. Because people now spend their time on Twitter and Instagram feeds, we built the platform in a way where everything is super sharable. You can embed and share not only the players, but all social profiles across all platforms. That’s been really key for us. The counting of social impressions is built into our algorithm and that affects how something rises up the charts.
I know you’re 32 and you met the co-founders of Mixcloud in college at The University of Cambridge. How did the idea for Mixcloud come into your minds then?
It was actually a personal frustration some of the co-founders and myself had. We had a college radio show and, after college, we were looking for a way to host more radio shows and DJ mixes and things like that. At the time, the only option was basically yousendit.com, zshare or megaupload, or the iTunes podcast directory. We were definitely inspired by the podcast directory, but it’s like it was stuck in 2001 or 2002. Later, inspired by what YouTube did with video, we decided to build a similar thing.
Mixcloud’s been called “the YouTube of radio.” A major critique of YouTube is its very high volume of low-quality content. Do you view that issue as a potential problem for Mixcloud?
You’re going to see a distribution curve. With all platforms, you’re going to see a long tail of content not listened to. But, ultimately, if we do our job that shouldn’t be much of a factor because we’ll help you surface the quality stuff you’ll enjoy. And we’ll get it in front of you. That’s on us.
How will Mixcloud get you the content you’ll enjoy most? How does Mixcloud figure out what a user likes most?
We’ve built what are called “collaborative filtering” algorithms which help recommend the best content for you. It’s similar in some ways to how Amazon recommends you items.
Tidal is heavily in the news right now. What do you think of it?
I would be a bit weary of the media news hype. These platforms are all pretty much offering similar services, so how do you differentiate? User experience. If UI is one thing, all you have left is content. The danger I’m concerned about is – fast-forward five to ten years from now: you’ve got Jay-Z’s tracks only on Tidal. You’ve got Ed Sheeran’s tracks only on Spotify. You’ve got Taylor Swift’s tracks only on Apple’s service. Ultimately, the consumer loses out and I think, in that case, they’ll just go back to piracy.
There’s a big debate going on right now whether music should be free and if these tools are effective in converting people from piracy to a subscription model. I personally feel Spotify’s done an incredibly effective job in moving things on from a piracy model. The danger is it’s easy to move back there so I’d be wary of not thinking about the consumer first.
What’s your biggest concern?
Right now, it’s about staying afloat and surviving as an independent business. Organizations like Spotify and Soundcloud have taken hundreds of millions in funding. Our challenge is trying to build and make engaging products on that level, but with a different budget.
What’s your mission with Mixcloud? If this whole thing looks exactly the way you want, what does that look like?
Democratizing radio: making it social and making it personal. In that vein, building a platform that anyone can contribute to and be a beneficiary of. Making it more social in the sense that you can share it between yourself, your friends and others. Making it more personal: how can we connect you as a listener with the best DJ or presenter out there, for you? That obviously might mean the best DJ or presenter for you is someone in a different country. They might be someone you’ve never heard of, but we want to connect you with them.
What’s your favorite song? What’s your favorite band?
That changes all the time, man. I can tell you my favorite album. That’s “Illmatic” by Nas. It’s the best album ever made.
What do you think people need to hear? If you could command every reader of this article to listen to something, and they’d do it, what would it be?
I’d tell them to go listen to a mix, because that’s what we do. And I would recommend something people probably haven’t heard of. There’s a collective from Argentina called Zizek. They have a bunch of artists with a local Cumbia sound, with a lot of digital elements. They call it Digital Cumbia. Specifically, there’s an artist named Cancha Via Circuito. He’s put out a mix that is an incredible kind of journey through these Digital Cumbia sounds. I often imagine stumbling across a mix tape deep in the Amazon Rainforest and if you put on that mix tape, this is what it would sound like.
Nico also recommends Chet Faker and Oso Leone.