The Brave (And Profitable) New World Of Curation-As-Business

A small Portland, Oregon music agency called Marmoset is becoming a solution for Hollywood producers to find indie bands with real grassroots cred. Here’s how they’ve turned their musical taste into a $2 million-a-year business.

The Brave (And Profitable) New World Of Curation-As-Business

A small music agency from Portland, Oregon, Marmoset, is quickly becoming part of the solution for many independent bands trying to actually make money off their music. The problem many bands are running into is that despite substantial plays on Spotify or decent album sales, they still aren’t able to sustain making music for a living. The most profitable way for bands to earn their keep is to license their music to film and TV producers for commercial use–but most licensing platforms don’t speak in terms that Hollywood understands, making it nearly impossible for a small band to get discovered by them, even if their sound is a perfect fit.


But increasingly, there are exceptions. Samsung’s Galaxy S3 ad featured music from a small band you probably haven’t heard called Kye Kye. Sleeping At Last is another independent musician that regularly has his music featured in commercial work. Most recently it was his cover of “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” used on the show So You Think You Can Dance. That television feature boosted the song to #2 the next day on iTunes’ Rock charts.

The music in these ads may seem like background, but commercial producers are relying increasingly on up-and-coming indie bands to lend their spots some creative cred. Services like Marmoset, which supplied the Kye Kye song for Samsung’s commercial, help Hollywood discover these bands, and in turn, help those bands make money.

The company creates deals with hand-selected artists and helps them get their music placed in ads, television, and film. If one of the songs from nearly 300 artists they work with isn’t good enough either, they also employ their own composers to create custom scores. Founder Ryan Wines, who once ran The Dandy Warhols’ record label, and cofounder Brian Hall, are attempting to offer a one-stop shop for hip, youth-credible music for film.

“We’ve found the challenge with every other music licensing platform that exists is they speak in the language and vernacular of music nerds, instead of speaking the language of film geeks,” says Wines. “We like to think of Marmoset as the Rosetta Stone for filmmakers, connecting and translating the music industry to the filmmaker and motion picture worlds.”

The musical talent comes from the fair 50/50 that the company offers. Hall, the company’s creative director, has also been integral to fostering local independent composers by working with each one-on-one, teaching them the intricacies of writing music for film. For small bands, Marmoset can be a huge meal ticket; the service landed a Super Bowl campaign with Bud Light in their first year in business, and after three years, are already approaching $2 million a year in revenue.

“If you take a step back and look at history of humankind, all the way back to before Christ, and really research things in-depth to find the time period where tons of artists were getting super rich making music–you’ll find it was only for a teeny, tiny, tiny blip on the timeline,” says Wines. “And if you remove that exception and treat it more as a random anomaly, you’ll find music has been more of an art in the classic sense and definition of art and you’ll find most musicians throughout the history of humankind have been blue collar artists at best.”


Wines says that artists today are stuck on the past–an anomaly in time in which a few musicians got filthy rich. “Today’s independent artists would be best served to erase their memories and hit the reset button on things,” he says. “Forget everything you know and everything you thought to be true. Stop talking to the old guys about the good old days. Make no assumptions and ask lots of questions.”

The company just spent the last eight months working on a new interface that will be central to the way they reach filmmakers big and small. Nearly half of development time was spent hand-tagging and categorizing roughly 10,000 songs for the filtering system that’s used to find the right song for any ad campaign or film. During the initial categorization process, the team would regularly sit together, listen, and re-listen, to align themselves for the sake of consistency–something Wines says is the highest priority for a company doing what they do.

This is curation as a business. “One of the two mandatory weekly meetings is called ‘The Listening Hour.’ It’s led by our senior music supervisor and producer, Ron Lewis, who is literally a living and breathing encyclopedia of music, not to mention an accomplished musician–he was a member of the Fruit Bats, the Shins, the Grand Archives and a laundry list of other, more obscure indie bands. The staff goes to a lot of concerts on the company’s dime. When you make a living off your taste, it pays to listen closely.

[Image: Flickr user Kevin D]

About the author

Tyler Hayes is a Southern California native, early technology adopter, and music enthusiast.