Tim Westergren has been agitated for almost three years.
He helped usher in the future of digital music in 2006 when he launched Pandora, a groundbreaking internet radio service built on its genomic recommendation algorithm.
But when the former CEO and founder left in 2017, it was in the middle of a major upheaval. Pandora had grown to become a public company that generated almost $1.5 billion in revenue that year, but its shares had plummeted 35% as audiences migrated away from online radio to on-demand streaming from Spotify and Apple Music. In an effort to keep pace, Pandora added a new tier, Pandora Premium, that allowed the ability to play specific songs—great for listeners, but terrible for smaller artists.
By shifting its focus from radio, Pandora went into direct deals with labels and limited its relationship with SoundExchange, the nonprofit responsible for collecting and distributing royalties for online radio, satellite, and webcasts.
In short, Pandora was neglecting the very group of people Westergren, a musician himself, was aiming to serve.
“The big piece of unfinished business for me at Pandora was, ironically, the artists,” Westergren says. “When I founded Pandora, the purpose of it was to build a discovery engine for lesser-known musicians. I wouldn’t say we lost our way, but we got sucked into the music industrial complex vortex.”
Now Westergren is hoping to make it right with his new venture: Sessions.
Sessions is a global live-streaming platform for artists where audiences can leave tips in the form of virtual gifts, shout-out requests, and more. It’s a model that’s been replicated in gaming platforms like Twitch and Caffeine, but hasn’t really been applied to the music scene in the same way. Platforms like Patreon have come close in terms of creating a way for fans to support artists directly, and Facebook, off the success of Instagram and Facebook Live performances during the quarantine, announced just this week that it added a Live Donations button within Instagram and Messenger Rooms, a new feature that allows Pages to charge for live events.
But instead of paying a membership for individual artists or trying to break through on the world’s largest stage, Sessions, which is free to use, is banking on the mix of discoverability and micro-transactions to support a wide range of artists.
The platform bears some similarity to a form of entertainment—and the model of fans paying artists directly—that’s already popular in China. Tencent Music, which is the giant digital music spin-off from the country’s dominant social-media super app, includes the live-streaming platforms Kugou and Kuwo, which in 2019 saw a 32.9% increase in revenue ($740 million USD) and a paying user base that expanded by 21.6%.
As the company’s self-proclaimed “evangelist” and investor, Westergren and Sessions cofounder and CEO Gordon Su are aiming to create a global middle class for artists through the platform. Like Nike champions athletes, Westergren and Su believe Sessions can do the same for musicians.
“The end of my time at Pandora broke my heart. I left that company with a broken heart,” Westergren says. “This dropped in my lap from God. It’s literally what I wanted to do next.”
Can Sessions replicate the China’s live-streaming boom? And if it’s successful, can Westergren keep Sessions from becoming Pandora 2.0.?
After leaving Pandora, Westergren spent a year at the venture capital firm Khosla Ventures. One of the entrepreneurs he met with was app developer Gordon Su.
Su had created the popular monster catching game Battle Camp and had moved into the music space with Beat Fever, a rhythm action game akin to Guitar Hero.
Westergren began working with the company and became an integral figure in its 2019 rebrand to Next Music, a platform that incorporated the original game but leaned more into being a “virtual music festival” featuring artists from around the world playing at any given time.
“We could’ve continued to pump out games and that would’ve be fine financially, but that wasn’t necessarily rewarding,” Su says. “Music felt right for us because it was much broader than a specific game.”
Next was the framework for what would eventually become Sessions. While a few features remain the same, Sessions is a more targeted and streamlined vision of where Westergren and Su want to push the music industry.
“One thing [Westergren] posed to us, which was a big inspiration, is [that] there’s something wrong in the world when a talented 22-year-old musician is more likely to make a living being an Uber driver than playing music,” Su says. “That doesn’t seem right.”
A mission for the middle class
According to a 2018 survey from the Music Industry Research Association, the average musician in the United States earns, at most, $25,000 a year. Of those surveyed, 61% said their music-related income was insufficient to meet their living expenses.
It’s a reality that 25-year-old Michigan-based singer-songwriter Mio Bischoff faced after graduating college in 2017. Choosing to follow her passion over a more practical career, Bischoff says she hustled her way into countless bars and coffeehouses but had next to nothing to show for it.
“Some days I had three gigs in one day and what did it amount to? I wasn’t even making minimum wage,” Bischoff says. “I was scraping by and relying so much on my family. I was embarrassed. I just wanted to be proud of what I do.”
In 2019, Bischoff came across an ad for Next Music offering musicians $20 to play live online for an hour. It was below her normal rate but, strapped for cash, she signed up.
“I started gathering more supporters, and it just started to snowball,” says Bischoff who was also selected to test Sessions in beta. “Not only am I making a living, I’m comfortable. I’m able to expand. I could never afford anything before. Now I have multiple guitars and I have my very first audio interface. I released my first single in years. For years, all I had time to do was scrounge gig to gig. All of a sudden I’ve got time, I’ve got resources, I’ve got connections.”
Artists brought onto Sessions are paid a fee. On top of that, there are opportunities to win bonus prizes, as well as the all-important tipping component.
To be the champions they saw themselves as, Westergren and Su needed to figure out how to start changing the culture around tipping, particularly in the United States.
That meant looking to the gaming industry—and China.
From the addictive days of Candy Crush to Fortnite hauling in $1.8 billion in revenue last year, gamers have shown they’re willing to pay a lot for a little instant gratification. Tencent Music has proven in China that gamifying live-streamed music can turn a generous profit. Of course, platforms like Twitch and Caffeine have tipping capabilities and host more than gaming streams. But its market is still largely for gamers. The intersection of digital tipping, live-streaming, and just music hasn’t really hit U.S. culture like it has in the East.
“Many people I talked to are of the opinion that it won’t take off here in the U.S. because there is no such cultural behavior,” says Rui Ma, creator and cohost of the Tech Buzz China podcast. “But I don’t really think it’s just a cultural thing.”
What Ma feels is crucial for a platform like Sessions to work is doubling down on the gamification aspects. At the heart of any game is interactivity: Audiences respond to being able to control what they’re watching—better still if what they’re watching is happening in real time.
“Chinese live-streaming tools aren’t really set up for live-streaming—they’re set up for purchase,” Ma says. “A huge part of their product design is around consuming in-app.”
That’s exactly what Sessions is doing.
To make it feel less like a one-time action and more like a part of the overall experience, Sessions is leaning into its past as a gaming company. As “Mojis” (aka your avatar in Sessions), audiences can buy virtual gifts for an artist, as well as pay for shout-outs and song requests. Artists can also earn money through bonuses based on their weekly rank, which is determined by a gamified points system involving collecting stars and completing missions.
Bischoff says that since the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s seen a dip in her normal income, mainly as the company has cut back on bonuses.
“That said, I’m obviously still making much more money than I would be otherwise,” she says, “especially with how I’ve had to cancel all of my gigs during lockdown.”
While there’s no fully escaping the fallout from COVID-19, a platform like Sessions is coming at a time when musicians need income and new ways to connect with their fans remotely.
“We don’t think of it as tipping. We think of it as becoming a patron of someone. And that’s about establishing a relationship,” Westergren says. “It’s not walking by the guy playing on the corner and dropping 50¢ in the guitar case and walking on. It really has to be much more integrated into the behavior on the platform, and you have to create a fertile environment for that kind of relationship to form.”
To help facilitate that relationship, Sessions pairs each artist on the platform with a “coach” to help with audience engagement, marketing, social media, troubleshooting, and so forth. Su also mentions that it’s actually a requirement for artists to play for only about half of their set. The rest of the time they’re encouraged to interact with the audience.
“The monetization comes out of the artists developing an intimate, personal relationship with the audience and each individual fan,” Su says. “That can only happen if they’re not playing music the whole time. Music communicates in ways that words can’t. But words also communicate in ways that music can’t. You really need both to connect with the artists.”
And it seems to be working.
One of Sessions’ highest-paid artists is a Romanian pianist who’s earned as much $700 in a single session. Westergren mentions that she’s actually at the point where she’s hired a small staff as she’s increased the number of times she goes live a week, with an audience spanning everywhere from her home country to the United States and beyond. Having that kind of reach becomes even more important considering income on a global scale.
Westergren feels that it’s within Sessions’ scope to be a viable mechanism for wealth redistribution at scale.
“Playing in New York City for $10 is not a huge amount of money, but put it into the pocket of somebody in Nigeria or Eastern Europe—that to me is culture shifting,” he says.
“This is important for the emerging artists in the United States. But there are no emerging artists in Iran,” Su says. “If you’re an artist in Iran, you have zero chance. So on a global basis, like the next 20 Justin Biebers are going to come from this app.” [Bieber was discovered on YouTube at age 13.]
The Pandora problem
Sessions sounds good in theory, and artists have seen early success on the platform—but it’s all been in a controlled beta.
As Sessions rolls out into the real world, Westergren knows, more than anyone else, how good intentions can mutate in the name of growth. “I worry for the future to be honest,” he says. “Subscription businesses are destroying music, and they’re destroying musicians. And, unfortunately, Pandora has become part of this now. Music is a commodity. It’s a means to drive advertising revenue or subscriptions. There is no fundamental alignment between the artist and the business. You look at Spotify: They’re going into podcasts. They’re investing in AI companies that will create music—and there’s nothing evil about it. It’s what you do if 70% of your top-line revenue goes to royalties and you’re a public company.”
It’s worth noting that Spotify has also branded itself under the altruistic banner of helping artists. In a 2018 interview with Fast Company, Spotify cofounder and CEO Daniel Ek said, “Our company mission is to have more than a million artists to be able to live off of their art . . . . We’re trying to provide the tools to enable all these different constituents to do better business on our platform.” Since then, however, Spotify rebranded itself as focused on audio and has been more vocal and aggressive about podcasting than music’s middle class.
“They’re a distributor of music, and the goal of any distributor is to cut out the suppliers,” Su says. “It’s obvious that in the future with Spotify all the music on the platform, over time, will be private label, meaning either Spotify-owned artists or, even better, AI, which is a terrible future. That’s why they design everything around playlists. When you design everything around playlist, you’re not choosing to listen to an artist—you’re choosing to listen to a mood.”
To avoid falling into any similar situations as what happened with Pandora, Westergren says the team at Sessions has been exploring having an advisory board with veto power.
But for now his most potent safeguard for keeping Sessions’ mission on track is just his lived experience. “I’ve lived the entire arc of a company. I think the most powerful protection we have is the combination of my own experience and that my motivations have evolved,” Westergren says. “I admit a lot of the mistakes [I made at Pandora], but I want to get it right. It’s not, ‘I want the brass ring! I want to take a company public!’ I’ve done all of that. I really want to do something that I’m proud of 30 years from now—that goes through all of this and is still noble.”