“There isn’t a design studio in the world today that isn’t playing some sort of radio or music through a radio or device.”
I remember sharing music. I remember making mix tapes on an old stereo: writing out songs on the inserts; messing around with recording levels; then presenting the object to someone, keen to ensure they’d listen to the tape in its entirety. Mix CDs were the same. It felt good to hand over a mix to a newly curious listener, even if that was most of the time my sister.
Curiosity is an important trait for anyone creative, as well as any entrepreneur. This desire to explore, seek out, and move beyond limitations, is usually followed by an urge to share. Why make a mixtape only for yourself?
At WeTransfer, we started a service back in 2009 that was fit for two purposes:
- to help people to share
- help them discover
It was devised as a service for the curious. Within a year, we’d attracted millions of users: musicians, artists, designers, activists, people working in media, marketing, film and TV. These sorts of people naturally embraced the idea of sharing ideas. We just helped the ideas in their journey.
At the beginning, we had a lot of luck. In the years following our birth, the file sharing world started to implode. MegaUpload, run by the king of all internet narcissists, Kim Dotcom, was shut down for promoting piracy and paedophilia. You Send It made the gross error of engaging an advertising agency and heeding their advice to change their name to High Tail. What’s a High Tail? Who would want to have a High Tail? Rapid Share rapidly disappeared. The less said the better. WeTransfer sailed on, promoting creativity and quality, supported by the record industry instead of hunted by their lawyers.
Our vision is and was all about promoting creativity as opposed to promoting piracy.
WeTransfer was bootstrapped. We only ever bartered for advertising and marketing. Our viral growth out-stripped anything we could afford to buy. Initially, our service was free and our hosting costs were huge.
We had always fostered close ties with the music industry. Our friends worked in the music business. The service was built for people like them. But the dream of partnering with AAA musicians to distribute music using our service seemed distant. In 2013, our friends across the water at Bit Torrent partnered with Vice and Madonna to release a short 17 minute film entitled ‘secret project revolution’ through their platform. We watched closely. Attention spiked and waned. Their transparent move to purchase credibility was greeted with disdain by the creative community.
Like many larger companies, Bit Torrent has over the years partnered with artists, filmmakers and celebrities to help grow their business. But does this strategy work? Harvard University, business administration professor Anita Elberse has spent many years analyzing and documenting the power of big bets. She’s examined the blockbuster approach which became popular in the film industry after 1999. Warner Brothers decided to forego working at scale and instead took a long term view to producing bigger films with larger productions and more celebrated artists.
This was the opposite approach to the majority of the tech industry, who take the long tail tactic espoused by Amazon. Bit Torrent looked to be following Anita’s lead. We were envious they had managed to get buy-in to develop this strategy of big bets. Luckily for us the strategy of big bets was typically short term and died.
We didn’t have to ponder which direction to take.
A certain god-like purple figure stepped into our world. The following two years were both peculiar and incredible. We tried to form a relationship with Prince. It died out. And then, surprisingly, it was reborn.
In March 2015, and in his typically philanthropic, jesuit state of mind, Prince convinced Live Nation to allow him to email their entire database a WeTransfer link to download the new album from Judith Hill, the 31-year-old daughter of a Japanese piano player and the star of 20 Feet from Stardom.
This single action started a chain reaction of events.
First, it demonstrated that people were able to copy and paste short links to hosted music files. This action prompted the music industry to use our service more than ever to distribute, not just to help create the music. It revealed an altruistic side of the cutthroat music industry. It inspired others, including Moby, to share new tracks and entire back catalogues of music.
We built a music relations team to help facilitate the legal distribution of music to our growing community. They were creative. They wanted to share.
Fast forward 9 months and 87 music partnerships later. We’d already decided to get more involved with music, to support musicians and to make supporting the arts a key part of our company, our values and our business.
Music now decided to get involved with us. The legendary manager, investor and entrepreneur Troy Carter joined our board. Why? He saw what artists and musicians and writers had seen from the beginning: “This is so much more than a file transfer business,” he said. “Every creative uses and loves WeTransfer.”
As the company grew, we had to professionalize and expand the board. Music is oxygen for creatives. Employing Troy’s links in the entertainment world, we saw once again just how well technology and music fit together.
Working with the music industry is never boring, and sometimes there are startling and tragic consequence. Less than a year after starting to work with him, Prince tragically died in April 2016.
By June that year, we’d partnered with FKA Twigs to produce her Baltimore film. That same month, renowned DJ Gilles Peterson joined to shape the creative direction of the company. We helped him grow the audience for his new radio station ‘worldwide fm.’ From the start, Peterson realized this would be a different kind of partnership. “We share similar values.” he said. “Creativity, originality and the championing of new talent. WeTransfer is culturally very different to any other company I’ve worked with. We are on the same page and share the same goals; namely to help people discover.”
In April 2017 Troy Carter was appointed as entertainment advisor to the Prince trust.
This year, has been one of the most exciting years for us in music. Kamasi Washington, LCD Soundsystem, Kate Tempest, Foxygen, as well as Mercury Music prize-winner Sampha have all chosen to partner, distribute and showcase their work on WeTransfer.
Why in gods name would they do that? For a large proportion of our users worldwide, WeTransfer is a very simple means of getting their work from A-B. When we conduct research, our users say they’ve seen imagery or wallpapers in the background of the site. They had never considered they might be able to access them.
Little do they know that we are one of the only sites in the world where only one thing — an image, an advertisement or story — dominates the entire screen at any one time.
Most do not know that we have an editorial team curating over 13million page impressions each week. They might not suspect we will give away over 7 billion impressions to support the arts this year and that we have 40 million monthly active users.
We live for creativity. We have become part of the creative process. The work-flow. We are motivated to keep discovering new work, artists, musicians and talent each day because we are a team of curious, sometimes oblique individuals determined to help shape an internet that is powered by the notion that ‘less is more.’
Music is the fuel for this creativity. After all, when you’re sharing, it helps to speak the universal language.