Michael Robertson is an accomplished technology entrepreneur with a consistent track record of identifying promising trends, building innovative companies, and leading them to profitability and acquisition. Over his career he has raised more than $100 million in private capital and orchestrated transactions with a combined value of nearly a billion dollars. His technical and operational expertise has spanned industries as diverse as digital music, VOIP and Linux.
In 1997 Robertson founded the pioneering internet music company MP3.com, introducing digital music to millions of consumers. His subsequent enterprise, Linspire, was launched in 2001 to challenge Microsoft in the desktop operating system business, and in 2005 he entered the VOIP market with Gizmo5 – later acquired by Google – allowing net users to make free or inexpensive calls over the internet. We invited Michael to tell us about his latest project, DAR (Digital Audio Recorder), and to share his insights on the industry today and the broader impact of technology on the art (and commerce) of music.
DAR.fm is a free service which records broadcasted radio for on demand playback. Similar to how a DVR records TV DAR records audio. (It’s a Digital AUDIO Recorder hence the name.) Unlike a DVR, DAR does not require any equipment. Recordings are scheduled using a web browser and then the DAR.fm servers do the actual recording. After recording
is completed users are notified via email and then they can stream their recordings to any PC, most smartphones, internet radios, Roku and more. They can also download the files.
How many stations are currently participating with DAR? How did you decide which stations to include (or conversely, which to exclude)? Is it based at least in part on user suggestions? Would you like to include more international broadcasters?
DAR.fm has more than 1,000 stations. Currently we support stations that broadcast in icecast or shoutcast format. We recently launched a form so users can submit stations they like which are automatically added to the system. We launched with US-only stations, but users are adding international stations.
What user groups do you think DAR is likely to interest? Are there particular users that you would like to attract?
53 million people a week listen to talk radio in the US. Fans of NPR, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Dave Ramsey, Jim Rome, etc who aren’t by a radio when their favorite shows are broadcast will find DAR.fm very useful for time shifting their content. Much like the DVR freed TV viewers from the confines of the broadcasters schedule, DAR does the
same for radio listeners. DAR.fm includes a search engine with a comprehensive list of talk shows. This makes it easy to find a show, click the record icon and a season pass type of recording is initiated. The system knows what stations broadcast a show, how long it is, and what days its on. All future broadcasts are then recorded for the user automatically. Music fans can select a genre to record and get a pile of music from a cross section of stations to experience what stations are playing.
How are you positioning DAR in the market, particularly vis-a-vis other digital broadcast alternatives i.e. Sirius, Pandora, Spotify etc?
DAR.fm is quite different then all of those. We are not a radio station. We don’t provide any content. Rather we provide a service which brings broadcast radio into the 21st century making it available in a manner that people expect: on demand, interactive (rewind/pause/fast forward) and on any device. We don’t compete with the names above but we do make radio better.
How does DAR stack up in terms of audio quality to other formats? Taking that one step further, what’s your opinion about the effect of formats such as mp3’s etc on the quality of music in general and the listener experience?
Since DAR records online broadcasts whatever bitrate the station broadcasts at is recorded so radio stations dictate the audio fidelity. Most commercial US stations broadcast at 24kbps AAC+ format which sounds remarkably good. Not as good as what you’d buy from Amazon or iTunes but very listenable. Music snobs make a big deal about audio fidelity but FM stereo is good enough for most people.
Some might say that technological innovations such as DAR are fragmenting the listening audience and that we are losing the collective zeitgeist. What’s your vision for this increasingly individualised, user-controlled model, its effect on society and how we communicate?
Anyone who says we should go back to limited choices to retain the “collective zeitgeist” doesn’t understand the value of consumer choice. Let them get steamrolled by the net. The rest of us will focus on building the individualized, user-controlled model!
Does DAR help or hurt the commercial music industry? How should a music marketer/band promote their product in an environment where the mass market is shrinking and there are a thousand niches to service?
DAR can greatly benefit the radio industry which in turn pollinates the music industry. Radio is still the #1 manner in which people discover new music. But radio listening is being replaced by other activities so it needs to be rejuvenated. The DVR has greatly increased TV viewership and satisfaction. Making radio more flexible and on demand with a DVR will have the same benefit and translates to more listeners. Since radio makes money based on audience size this will be a positive for their business. Marketers will have to adapt to this new world as well.
What is the DAR business model? You’ve obviously done very well with prior companies by taking them to, if not maturity, at least to the growth stage and then selling them. Is that the goal here as well?
DAR will eventually incorporate advertising. And because each user creates their own account so we have data about what they’re recording, what they’re listening to and when we can do a much more effective job of advertising.
My only goal with DAR.fm is the same with all my businesses: build value and make smart decisions along the way. I’ve taken companies public. I’ve built profitable companies. I’ve sold early stage companies. A good businessman is dynamic and as long as you’re building value then good things will ultimately happen.
Do you, or do you plan to, collect any information about your users’ listening patterns that can be used for advertising or data mining purposes?
Yes. Built into the system is basic user behavior data.
What inspires you to innovate and create new products – are you excited by the technology, by the music? What drives you?
Innovation which enables progress is what drives me. Change means there’s an opportunity to build a business. Although several of my companies have been music related it doesn’t have to be music. My last company was Gizmo5 which was a voice over IP company which I sold to Google. Before that I was involved with a Linux company.
One of the things you are perhaps best known for is challenging copyright law, as you did with mp3.com, which provided users with the means to copy tracks. What’s your current thinking regarding the effect of these new technologies and others (filesharing) on the ability of artists to make a living from their music? How much do you think artists should be paid for what they do?
This is an impossible question to answer like how much should a basketball player be played? Kobe Bryant makes $25 million per year (more if you include endorsements). Meanwhile I play in a weekly Saturday pick-up game where we pay to play. No matter how much I try.
it will be impossible for me to make a living playing basketball. Is that unfair? Should we mandate that technology be used to insure that I can make a living doing something I love? It’s hard to make a living in any endeavor and an artistic one is no different.
I don’t challenge copyright law as much as defend consumers and give them new ways to use technology. The record labels are looking out for their corporate interests and usually that means squeezing consumers and using copyright law to achieve higher profits. I can appreciate that. I’d do the same if I was CEO of a label. But that’s not the
intended purpose of copyright law. The goal is to promote the progress of science and the useful arts—that is—knowledge. Hopefully my endeavors do that.