BEN SISARIO 05/06/12 NY Times
Like any big music company, the offices of TuneCore, a digital distributor in Brooklyn, are lined with official-looking plaques certifying blockbuster record sales.
But rather than the industry’s standard gold and platinum records, they are TuneCore’s own awards for its clients — like a rippled black disc representing 500,000 downloads for Nine Inch Nails — and the first sign of a company looking to challenge music’s status quo.
TuneCore was founded six years ago by Jeff Price, a veteran independent label owner, as a service for artists working under the radar of the mainstream music industry. Without a label, most acts cannot get their music onto iTunes and Spotify, but for $50 a year TuneCore will place any album on dozens of online services around the world and route all royalties to the artist.
That simple model — revolutionary when introduced — has made TuneCore one of the world’s major suppliers of music, and made Mr. Price one of the digital world’s most influential figures. In the United States, TuneCore represents about 10 percent of the 20 million songs on iTunes, and it accounts for almost 4 percent of all digital sales.
“You wake up one day and go, ‘Oh, wow, the customers sold 600 million units of music and earned $300 million off their recordings,’ ” said Mr. Price, the company’s chief executive.
As TuneCore has grown, it has also served as a pulpit for Mr. Price to criticize the ways of the music business. Through aggressive posts on the company’s blog with titles like “How They Legally Steal Your Money,” and occasional outbursts at industry conferences, he has established himself as a particularly vocal gadfly, denouncing opaque accounting systems and sometimes hurling insults at companies he dislikes.
Mr. Price, a trim 45-year-old who speaks so rapidly he sometimes seems to be on fast-forward, says his actions are a form of advocacy in line with TuneCore’s original mission of serving musicians.
“The plan,” he said in an interview last week, “was to start a company that righted a wrong.”
Mr. Price has inserted himself into some of the most contentious issues in the music business, like the legal obligations of streaming services and the complex mechanisms for paying royalties. But his excitable manner — and his tendency to portray business disputes as pitched battles between right and wrong — do not always endear him to his colleagues.
“Typically when you hear people talk about how artists need to get paid, usually some party is posturing for political positioning,” said Michael Robertson, a digital music pioneer who has also fought the industry with his companies MP3.com and MP3tunes. “Jeff has done a fantastic job with TuneCore. But I think his bombastic style drives people crazy and doesn’t always serve him well.”
Mr. Price helped found spinART Records in 1991, putting out music by the Pixies, the Apples in Stereo and others, and learned about digital music through a job at eMusic. By the mid-2000s, with his label winding down, he began to rethink the way artists get their music for sale online. Rather than taking a cut of sales and offering marketing services, as many distributors do, he decided to charge a flat fee to deliver music to retailers and leave the rest to the bands.
“I’m not going to promise anyone they’re going to be a star,” Mr. Price said. “I am going to promise that if you pay me a fee for the service, I will distribute your music to the places you want it to go, and I will deal with all the hassles that come along with that.”
TuneCore can be lucrative for musicians who already have a following or can build one on their own. Major acts like Jay-Z and Keith Richards have used it, and two clients, the rapper Hoodie Allen and the Americana band the Civil Wars, recently hit No. 1 on iTunes after extensive social-media campaigns. But most of TuneCore’s 700,000 acts — as well as the clients of competing services like CD Baby and Zimbalam — have very low sales.
“A real temptation in this industry is to think there’s a quick fix, that all you need is one thing to be successful,” said Travis Yetton, one of the Civil Wars’ managers. “For us, TuneCore was great. They did the service we needed. But if we need them to break a band, then we are doing a bad job, not them.”
Last year, TuneCore expanded into music publishing, which deals with the copyrights for songwriting. Already a daunting business, publishing has become even more complex in the digital age, since songs that can be sold around the world in an instant may still have to filter through multiple layers of international middlemen before all parties are paid. As a result, millions in royalties sit unclaimed around the world; Mr. Price believes that TuneCore’s customers may be owed up to $70 million.
“This is a mighty problem to solve, and not just for the band in the garage,” said Michael S. Simon, the senior vice president of business affairs at the Harry Fox Agency, which processes music licenses in the United States. “Getting royalties for international online exploitation is a problem at every level of the music industry, and many folks are trying to solve it.”
TuneCore’s publishing service offers to register songwriters’ works around the world and collect any money owed, for another annual fee and a 10 percent cut of recovered royalties, which Mr. Price says is necessary given the intensive work. So far, he said, he has signed up 4,000 clients and collected about $41,000.
Recently, Mr. Price has become even more aggressive as an artists’ advocate. In January, after TuneCore releases were removed from Amazon’s download stores in Britain and Europe, he accused Amazon of not paying royalties properly there. Last month, he lashed out against the streaming service Grooveshark, saying that its executives “are immoral and could care less about who and/or what they hurt as long as they make money.”
Mr. Price is far from alone in criticizing Grooveshark, which is being sued by all major record companies for copyright infringement and other issues. But his attack is perhaps the most personal. After his blog post was copied to Pho, an e-mail discussion list about media and technology, he wrote more than 15,000 words in dozens of heated messages defending his stance.
Sam Tarantino, the chief executive of Grooveshark, called Mr. Price’s criticism unfair. He said that Mr. Price had demanded $25,000 for his publishing clients but that according to Grooveshark’s accounting they were owed only $500.
“When somebody comes in and attacks us like this, that’s just intimidation,” Mr. Tarantino said in an interview on Friday. “This space has worked through intimidation and extortion before, and we’re not going to have it.”
When asked for a response to Mr. Tarantino’s statements, Mr. Price wrote — as part of a long e-mail including royalty rate charts and excerpts from correspondence with Grooveshark executives — that he did not know how much Grooveshark owes because it has not supplied necessary data about its streams.
As much as he has been criticized for his tone, Mr. Price has also shown that he gets results. Two weeks ago, he announced that TuneCore’s dispute with Amazon had been resolved and that its songs would be restored. (Amazon declined to comment for this article.) And however tempestuous his public exchanges with Grooveshark may be, the two sides are still negotiating.
“If people don’t take Jeff seriously, they do so at their peril,” said Eric Garland, chief executive of BigChampagne, a media analysis firm owned by Live Nation Entertainment. “They are confusing his personality with his business.”
Sitting in his office in Brooklyn, where he flipped through a slide show of TuneCore’s successes and excitedly sketched charts of how royalties are paid overseas, Mr. Price disputed a suggestion that his public efforts were meant to attract new clients.
“Yes, I run a business; I am not running a philanthropy,” he said. “But I’m not writing those things because I’m trying to get customers. I’m writing what I write because I believe it.”
“Whether I had this company or not,” he added, “I’d still have a big mouth about it.”