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How A Vinyl-Obsessed DJ Duo Built A Brand On Great Taste In A Brave, New, Indie Music World

It’s not easy for analog souls in the streaming era. But Chances With Wolves is finding its fans—and Pandora and Spotify are here to help.

How A Vinyl-Obsessed DJ Duo Built A Brand On Great Taste In A Brave, New, Indie Music World
Kenan Juska and Justin Cox

Kenan Juska and Justin Cox, the guys who make up the popular Brooklyn DJ duo Chances With Wolves, like living in an analog world. For their weekly two-hour radio show on East Village Radio, they dig up rare vinyl records of music—a lot of soul and reggae, though their tastes reach far and wide, and it’s not uncommon to hear, say, Cher belting out right after the African psychedelic group Ofege—creating haunting, atmospheric remixes. They also spend a lot of time in their cars on the road, DJ-ing festivals and parties. While they do have an online presence—Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, andSoundcloud—they mostly spend their days spinning physical records and interacting with people in the world beyond the Internet.

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As a tech journalist hot on their tail, I’m completely baffled. The vast majority of the people I usually interview are available around the clock through a range of digital channels—social media, their website, texts—but these two barely respond to email. After several weeks of randomly calling Juska, he finally picks up. He’s just come back from Utah, where he was performing at the Summit Series. Now, he’s quietly sitting in his car, patiently waiting for his baby finish his nap; he says that if he whispers to me in dulcet tones, we can chat on the phone, but if the baby wakes up, he’s going to have to jet. I jump at the opportunity. Chatting with Juska feels all the more satisfying because I’ve been chasing him so long.

Discovery, In A Time Before Google

For Juska and Cox, who are in their thirties, the concept of the chase is central to their appreciation of music. They spend their days scouring the world for hard-to-find music from the past that really stirs their soul: this stuff isn’t on Spotify or Pandora. But there was a time, not so long ago and before the Google search box, when this was just how music worked. In order to find artists that spoke to you, you had search them out. While pop music was easier to find, since it would get played regularly on mainstream radio channels, locating indie bands took a lot of effort: you had to be at the right clubs or seek out the right record stores.

Juska is a little bit nostalgic for those days. There was beauty in that search. “When I was 12 or 13, there was a guy who used to sell records on the corner of my street,” Juska recalls. “I bought my first Clash record from him. I brought it home and I thought to myself, I love this. It’s touching a nerve in me. I need to know more.” But back then in the 90s, you couldn’t just Google the band. Juska knew his friend’s older brother had a band T-shirt from The Clash, so he sheepishly sought him out. “He wasn’t the nicest guy,” Juska says. “But it was this whole process of trying to find out more. There was something so human about it—you would find out about music from the people in your life.”

Growing up in New York, Juska spent his late teens sucked into the hip-hop scene that grew out of one radio show on WKCR and centered around one record store called Fat Beats, that is now defunct. “These were hyperlocal scenes,” Juska says. “There were analog ways of tapping into it.” If you were interested in a new music genre that was bubbling in another part of the country, you might learn about it in a magazine or jump in a van with your friends to see shows in different towns; you could then order records by mail when you got home. When you were lucky enough to find other people who loved the same music you did, there was an overwhelming sense of satisfaction: you’d found your tribe.

At the same time, Juska realizes there was a downside to the old-school approach to discovering indie music. “Just imagine how much we missed,” he says. And from the perspective of the musicians, Juska points out that it was much harder to make a living, since finding the right audiences for your tunes was such a belabored process. After playing hundreds of shows at small clubs, you might still not sell enough records to make it as a full-time musician. Streaming sites have changed the game for indie musicians, and while there is something less romantic and personal about discovering a band on a Spotify or Pandora playlist, there are huge benefits to this approach.

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Kenan Juska, one part of the DJ Duo, Chances With Wolves with one of his baby twin boys.

The Nostalgia Business

Tim Westergren, who co-founded Pandora in 1999, relates to Juska’s nostalgia. He himself was an indie musician at one point and then went on to have a career producing music for emerging artists on independent labels. But he noticed that many musicians in smaller bands had to abandon their music careers altogether when they reached a certain age, because it was just not possible to support a family on revenues from playing a small shows and selling a few records.

Tim WestergrenPhoto: Alex Wong

“If Pandora was around when I younger, I’d still be in a band,” Westergren says. “I have a lot of nostalgia for the analog life of a musician and a life that consists of performing. There’s nothing like being in a room—even with a couple of hundred people—and really killing it. Technology makes it possible to do that for a living.”

Westergren developed Pandora, in part, to expose indie musicians to new audiences. Through algorithms, the platform tracks the songs and bands a listener enjoys, then suggests other music that might be a good fit because of similar musical qualities or what other people with similar tastes have liked. But given that music is so subjective, there is an important human component to this process as well. Pandora hires 80 musicologists to code songs and identify the aesthetic of each new band in order to connect it to other similar music

Recently, Pandora has created a way to feed this knowledge back to the more than 125,000 bands whose music is played on the site, to help them in their efforts to understand who their audiences really are. Last October, Pandora launched a private data dashboard for musicians: it contains a heat map that shows where in the country their fans are and tracks their most popular tracks. This allows musicians to identify where to play live shows and what singles to put out. Over the years, Pandora has come under fire for the low royalties they they pay to musicians, and is currently battling several lawsuits from major record labels. Last year, Digital Music News reported that a million streams on Pandora only yields $60 in royalties to the artists. This new dashboard could improve relationships with artists by giving them access to data that might help them with their marketing efforts.

Another way that Pandora is creating alternative revenues streams for artists is by driving fans to live shows. The platform has 79 million active users around the world to tap into. “We’ve been able to fill venues in small clubs in Portland or 2,500-person auditoriums in the Santa Monica pier, all based on messaging people on Pandora who are self-identified fans of that music,” Westergren says.

One success story comes from the band Odesza, an electronic duo from Seattle who are currently playing shows in the U.S. and will be doing a bigger international tour later in the year. Their music doesn’t often get played on the radio but they have managed to grow a sizaeable audience on Pandora. They’ve partnered with Pandora, giving the company a chunk of tickets at each location to sell by reaching out to Pandora users in those areas who might be interested in attending. This approach has been so successful that they have sold out, and have had to add new shows.

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“We rely a lot on word-of-mouth,” Harrison Mills of Odesza explains by email. “As for marketing our music to new listeners—whether it’s a show poster or an online banner ad, you’re hoping that the artwork sparks an interest in your music or that someone recognizes your name. When we’re marketing our shows in specific regions on Pandora, we know that we’re reaching potential fans because they’re choosing to listen to our music. So far it’s had a huge impact on our upcoming Fall tour. They’ve been selling out their allocation in minutes.”

Spotify, another music streaming giant with 75 million active users around the world, is also working to help independent artists connect with new audiences. While Spotify listeners have the option of just listening to albums they are already familiar with, the company is investing heavily in creating discovery mechanisms to expose lesser-known musicians to new audiences, according to Steve Savoca, Spotify’s VP of content and distribution. When you listen to a particular album or band, Spotify offers links to other similar artists.

Steve SavocaPhoto: Scott Gries

There are also thousands of playlists on the platform, created by individuals as well as Spotify itself, that are designed to cater to both musical preferences and mood. “We’re driving billions of discoveries, turning users on to things they’ve never heard before,” Savoca says. “We do that algorithmically but also in a human way, by having editors who program music across the service.” Savoca explains that having human editors is even more important when dealing with smaller, independent artists, since there are fewer data points about them and a smaller fan base.

Spotify also just announced Discover Weekly, which it describes as a “weekly mixtape of fresh music.” Every Monday, Spotify will offer two-hours of personalized music recommendations to users, based on what similar fans are enjoying. (It takes time for Spotify to understand an individual’s taste, so it take several weeks for new users to get their first Discover Weekly playlist.) Much like Pandora, these efforts to expose audiences to new, lesser-known artists is a way to offer value to musicians in the midst of criticism about how little Spotify pays in royalties. Taylor Swift, for instance, famously withdrew her music from Spotify last year in protest of how little musicians are able to make on the platform, which is as little as $0.006 to $0.0084 per stream.

While Pandora and Spotify work very hard on their music discovery systems, part of their goal is to make finding new music feel serendipitous to the listener, to capture part of the magic that music fans experienced when they found a new band before the digital era. “This is the migration of that experience from the record shop to a great playlist online,” Savoca says. “That sense of ownership is very important to listeners. They want to feel that they stumbled into this music and that they brought it to themselves.”

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Stockholm Calling

Which brings us back to Chances with Wolves. Juska and Cox haven’t put their remixes on any streaming services, and for now are content with growing their audiences through radio shows. These days, however, you don’t need to tune in at a fixed time to listen to their sets—while the show is live on East Village Radio‘s channel on Dash Radio on Wednesday between 4pm and 6pm, you can also listen to archived shows on Soundcloud, and to Chances playlists made by Spotify users.

While these platforms make it easy for audiences to connect with their music online, Juska says that the experiences that thrill him the most are the in-person ones. The duo loves doing live shows and watching people dancing along to the music they’ve created. They also love hearing from fans to explain that their music serves as ambience in their own daily pursuits, whether that is running a tattoo shop or doing woodworking. In the analog world, it is easier for artists to connect with their fans this kind of intimate way than in the digital world. Streaming platforms offer plenty of data, but this transforms fans into data points and numbers, which is a far cry from doing meet-and-greets in record stores or performing in small bars.

But Juska sees the benefit of bringing Chances With Wolves to new audiences with digital music services. He and Cox are slowly working on an album which they plan to release in the next couple of years, and they are open to using any of the streaming services available to distribute their music. And they’re excited about the brand new audiences from around the world who will learn about their sound. Juska has already seen this happen in a small way through fans in different countries listening to their radio show on Dash. “We received an email from a guy in Stockholm who is a cyclist and listens to our music when he trains at night,” Juska says. “There was this other guy who listens to the music while he builds a house in the woods with his father. There are all these beautiful images in my mind of people doing beautiful and productive things around the world with our music as ambience.”

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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