We’ve all had those awkward Uber rides: when polite chat with your driver runs dry, and you’re grateful for the pop hits blasting out from the radio.
But what if the cab ride home—or to the airport, or your office—was a place of musical discovery: a mini gig venue where you could hear the hottest unsigned artists from around the world?
This is the concept behind Steereo, a streaming service that soft-launched in New York and Austin in March.
It’s already live in 8,000 Uber, Lyft and Juno cabs, and has played songs from 1,000 rising artists in over 250,000 rides. These tracks are organized into Steereo playlists by genre, showcasing everyone from Brooklyn’s pop-soul songstress Enisa, to Nashville’s modern countryman Charlie Rogers, and San Francisco Capella pro Mario Jose (who’s already opened gigs for Grammy Award Winners Pentatonix).
“We want people to be able to consume great music, and not be force-fed the A-list major artists who are on heavy rotation on radio right now,” Jennifer Cullen, one of Steereo’s cofounders, tells Forbes.
Steereo could even be where the next Drake or Taylor Swift is discovered, says it’s Director of Operations. “We let the bands dictate who the new Ed Sheeran will be, rather than whoever the big music labels are putting their money behind.”.
Given that 15 million people use rideshare apps daily, and that the digital audio advertising was $31 billion last year, Steereo certainly has an intriguing business model.
But can it really win big in cabs? A space where Spotify and Deezer have already been—a space where consumers might be perfectly happy listening to whatever’s on the airwaves, or plugging in music from their smartphone?
Cullen who is based in Dublin, Ireland, is one of Steereo’s four cofounders who believe that answer is yes: she says that Steereo doesn’t just solve a real problem for unsigned artists, it incentivizes drivers to get their passengers involved.
It was Cullen’s brother, the singer-songwriter Keith Cullen (now signed to former CEO of Virgin Records, Warner Bros and EMI, Phil Quartararo), who first inspired the streaming-on-wheels concept. As Keith’s manager, Cullen had seen first-hand how difficult—and expensive—it was for him to break into the industry.
“The real struggle for the unsigned artists out there is that there’s so much talent, but also so much noise,” she explains, pointing to the traditional publicist model where it costs anywhere from $500,000-$2 million to launch an unsigned artist in a major market.
Steereo significantly undercuts this cost, charging unsigned artists a monthly fee of $12.99 which allows them to upload music to the platform’s app, see their analytics, and buy “boosts” (these come with personalizable budgets, a bit like Facebook or Youtube ads).
Drivers, on the other hand, are financially encouraged to bring Steereo into their cabs and get riders on board (they are paid per second, and make on average $120-$300 a month, Cullen claims).
Beyond this, brands can also partner with artists through audio messaging, branded playlists, event sponsorship and music licensing, a model that has seen the platform generate revenue since launch, says Cullen.
The idea is that in future Steereo could start to use the data it collects in smart ways.
“The goal for us is to be able to start to see trends, so we can push artist towards labels and say, ‘Look this is what people are really consuming, these are the songs that are really hot right now,” says Cullen.
Musicians could even see where their fans are located and arrange local gigs, she adds.
Breaking into a tough scene
Cullen says she has already faced “resistance” from some because of the sheer novelty of Steereo, and believes the startups journey has been made harder by the sexist stigma that remains in both the tech and the music industry today (in the U.S. hold just 25% of computing jobs, the number of women in tech falls to 17% in the U.K., and there is a broad underrepresentation of women across the music industry).
“We are predominantly led by females, and in the tech industry and in the music industry, that’s perceived as a negative. People don’t take you as seriously,” she explains.
However, where possible, Cullen has tried to turn any prejudice to her advantage. “You’re never seen as a threat,” she laughs.
Having a team straddled across Belfast in Northern Ireland and in New York and L.A. in the U.S. has also brought its own unique challenges. “The time differences are insane,” says Cullen, describing the team’s three weekly meetings, and their efforts to be in the same country whenever possible.
But Cullen says she loves the different cultural elements this transcontinental approach brings: “the typical Irish ‘If in doubt, drink tea’, the aggressive ‘Get it done’ mentality of New York, and the energetic ‘Anything is possible’ feeling of L.A.”
“Combined we all bring something great to the table,” she says.
The future for Steereo
Today Steereo is part of Sparkplug, the accelerator run by global marketing communications company Y&R. Soon it will leave to join Quake Capital’s accelerator in LA, Cullen explains.
The next step for the startup will be the development of a customer-facing Steereo app so that you don’t have to rely on your Uber driver to control what you’re hearing.
Steereo’s cofounders are also focused forging new partnerships to allow music fans to use Shazam to get more information on songs, such as links to an artist’s Facebook, Soundcloud or their iTunes store. And the team is currently closing a $1.5 million fundraise to help it scale, with plans to grow in New York before taking on L.A., London and China (where Cullen has already met with major players like Tencent).
Ultimately, Cullen says she wants people to think of Steereo in the same way they think of other music-tech leaders like Spotify or Pandora or Deezer.
“There’s no denying the future of music is technology-based, but it’s now about finding a balance between art and tech,” she says.
Your awkward Uber journey could be numbered. Who knows, you might even discover the next Ed Sheeran.