The Sub Pop Singles Club was ahead of its time. Previously, late-'80s music fans had to follow the right zines or visit the right record stores to discover new bands—then physically find the record. But Sub Pop offered this service where fans could sign up with them, the trusted label, then periodically receive curated music at their door. Life as a Sub Pop fan suddenly became easy.
Today it still takes effort to be a fan. Instead of limited access, you face clutter. How do you discover what fits your taste through the all-you-can-eat format of Spotify or Radio? Trust the code behind Pandora or iTunes Genius? Is that early single from iTunes, eMusic, or the artists themselves really worthy of a pre-order? The most dedicated fans will try keeping up with the right blogs or social media channels, but finding music is still an ancient practice at its core. Cultural hunter/gatherers search for clues then pursue their targets.
"The standard record label model is kind of silly, it asks people to wait to make a purchase when music can be delivered very quickly" says Sam Valenti IV, co-creator of a service called Drip.fm that looks to change this approach. Valenti is also founder of Ghostly International, a popular experimental pop and techno label based in Detroit. "A lot of fans didn’t want to be bothered to keep up with different platforms. They were asking ‘We like what you do with Ghostly, but why can’t you just make a service that sends us stuff as it comes out, like a subscription?’"
You can find its music in all the standard channels listed above. But Valenti heard these pleas loud and clear. Along with tech-savvy Ghostly colleague Miguel Senquiz, the duo wanted to create a new way for fans to interact with labels. Ideally, a solution would combine the immediacy of digital with the old school savvy of a label (and Valenti admits there’s some Sub Pop in the concept). They started tossing ideas around as early as 2006, and after years of pondering then honing their development skills, Drip was born.
"The best experience ever was the record store, where dedicated people help you find really great music," Valenti says. "When a clerk or your friend’s older brother would give you a tape, it had so much more meaning than when an algorithm pulls it up for you. We could never recreate that, but Drip has some elements—a release date, the exclusivity, insider knowledge—that at least are in reverence to the record store experience."
Through the Drip platform, users sign up directly with individual labels for a monthly fee ($10, maybe $15; ultimately decided by the label). These outlets then have free rein to act as tastemakers; pushing out new releases, overlooked gems, or fan favorites directly to subscribers (Disclaimer: One example—I would have missed this summer’s great Foxygen EP if not for Drip).
You receive an email alert with each new offering then click through to Drip.fm’s clean, simple interface. Log in to view logos of all the labels you subscribe to, click ahead to see thumbnails of all albums currently available. The music comes in whatever your preferred format—streaming right from Drip, downloaded DRM-free as a WAV or 320k MP3 zip. And on top of that, many labels utilize their Drip space for extras such as exclusive artist interviews, rewards programs, or automatic entry into ticket and merch giveaways.
Just 18 months after the service’s beta launch, Valenti has to put interested labels on a wait list (Ghostly was the only initial member, Dirtybird was first to join in December 2011). He expects to continue rolling out partners through the end of the year, ideally two per month. The lineup already includes some heavy-hitting indies—Mad Decent (featuring Diplo), Domino (Dirty Projectors), Dead Oceans (Yeasayer). Most recently Jagjaguwar (Bon Iver) and Polyvinyl records (Starfucker, Of Montreal, Japanroids) signed on.
The service isn’t likely to see traffic in the Spotify and iTunes stratosphere, but some labels have reported roughly 1,000 subscribers. And it costs nothing for them to participate. So although they forfeit a portion of subscription fees to Drip, a majority of the money still goes directly to the label, unlike many other music platforms.
Judging from metrics so far, subscribers are satisfied—Ghostly has a Drip retention rate of more than 70%, while others top 90% albeit within shorter time periods. Valenti even says partnering labels have told him it’s "becoming a decent chunk of change." Even with the success, he knows Drip won’t replace a lot of the business structures currently in play. But he ultimately sees Drip as a supplement with a lasting effect.
"Drip fits the gap of the superfan, the serious devotee. Maybe they’d only buy one to two records a year, but now they’re actually developing a relationship and getting a whole year of label releases," he says. "Ultimately, the fans should feel like they’re connecting with the labels. The label’s personality should shine through, we’re purely just the place where it happens."