Looking Back While Moving Forward
A retrospective on Grooveshark.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of Grooveshark, the officers of the company, or their legal council.
As many of you know by now, Grooveshark, a company I once, and in many ways still, consider as close as family, has officially closed it’s doors. I’ve taken some time to reflect on nearly a decade of history, allowing the gravity of the closure to sink in.
For those even loosely familiar with the last 4–5 years of the Grooveshark story, the settlement and site shutdown should come as no shock. For years the company battled charges of mass copyright infringement on a federal level. Myself, along with Sam Tarantino (CEO/Founder), Josh Greenberg (CTO/Founder), Paul Geller, Nikola Arabadjiev, Chanel Munezero, and Ben Westermann-Clark found ourselves defending both the company and our individual reputations in the charges brought against Grooveshark by every major record label in the country — a whopping $16B in potential liability. There are hundreds of insightful articles that have been written over the years outlining the charges, positions taken, history, speculation, and even conspiracy theories. If you are interested in the back story, there are few write-ups I’ve highlighted at the end of this post.
Speaking only from my own involvement in the case and evidence I’ve been witness and testified to, the plaintiff victory, settlement, and ultimate company dissolution came as no surprise. In fact, I’m overwhelmingly impressed that Grooveshark managed to hold the line as long as did. I’m also equally disappointed in the heavy-handed legal strategies used by the record labels to stifle innovation. In no way am I excusing or refuting my or the company’s actions to which I testified. With perspective however, this was not a move guided by any effort to reach a mutual resolution, rather it was a deliberate and aggressive “legal jihad” as once described by Universal Music Group. Despite the many legal blunders Grooveshark made along the way, there was a consistent theme throughout the company — to legitimize and grow in partnership with the industry.
When I joined Grooveshark, the company was about 6 months young with about 10+ full-time employees and a small army of college interns — all crammed into a tiny duplex north of the downtown Gainesville PD station. Who could imagine that just 5 years later we’d be ~150 employees, offices in Florida and New York, and building a product used worldwide by 40 million people every month. On my first day, at the ripe old age of 21, I was one of the oldest guys at the company — the founders barely out of their teens. To this day, I’m still amazed that within only a few years a company of inexperienced and fool-hearted youngsters were able to shake the very foundation of the music industry to the sum of $16 Billion (their number not mine). That alone should highlight how fragile and broken the music industry really was and remains — an industry that for decades amassed wealth, prestige, and influence by exploiting artists and songwriters, by selling overpriced goods to consumers, and by adopting a reactive rather than proactive business model — could be irrevocably rocked by 20 year olds with laptops in Gainesville Florida of all places.
Better than free.
The same naive view of the world that allowed us to take risks, push boundaries, and challenge convention also trapped us in an endless circle of legal stumbles, mismanaged business deals, and flopped negotiations. I recall during our formative years the many conversations had with individuals skeptical of our shelf-life. “How can this be legal?”, “You’re going to be sued out of existence”, “I just use Pandora”, and my personal favorite “Apple is going to crush you guys.” In many ways they were right, but I challenge that the success of our efforts should not be judged on the longevity of Grooveshark, but rather on the irreversible positive impact we had on the world. If you asked any employee 8 years ago what we were trying to do as a company, the overwhelming response would be that we were attempting to compete with piracy by offering a product experience that was “better than free.” We really were a bunch of college-aged kids trying to build a better, fairer, and smarter way to listen to and purchase music. Look around today… How many young people do you know that still download music (legally or illegally) instead of using a paid or ad-promoted streaming music service? I would wager that it is quite small. This happened as a result of companies like Grooveshark not being afraid to challenge the way things were and building something better for ourselves rather than waiting and hoping for someone else to do it for us.
Add one to the wall.
At our office we had what was affectionately referred to as “the wall of shame”. Here we posted news clippings of digital music platforms that had gone out of business — many who fell at the sword of that all powerful Music Industry police force, the RIAA. Without exaggeration, that wall grew so large that we had to wrap around to the adjacent wall. I’m proud to say that today the rate of names being added has dramatically slowed. The industry is warming up to the notion that technology can be an ally not an enemy. The story is not over and a lot of history yet to be written, but today we sadly and proudly add Grooveshark to that list of names on the wall of shame.
I’m overwhelmingly honored to have had an opportunity to be a part of the Grooveshark story. The people behind the company are some of the smartest, most talented, and driven individuals I’ve ever or will ever have a chance to work with. I made amazing friends. We kicked ass. We made mistakes. Most importantly, we made millions and millions of people around the world happy every day.
Thank you Grooveshark family for everything! You will be missed.