"Music is criminally undervalued" - How new platform Minm is changing streaming for musicians and fans

Minm

“Streaming is broken for 99% of artists.” So says the striking introduction on the landing page of Minm, a new streaming platform created by two tech graduates based in Dublin and Belfast. Minim’s guiding principle is the user-centric model: that a user’s subscription is distributed proportionally between the artists they listen to.

The manifesto goes on: “For independent artists, their music is essentially given away for free. This is not sustainable.” There are also graphs and explainers of how streaming on major platforms currently works, compared to how a user-centric model works.

Minm charges €5/month (based in Dublin, they work in Euro), 90% of which is split between the artists. Put simply, imagine a user listens to 100 songs in a month. Fifty cents of their subscription goes to Minm. After that, the remaining €4.50 is distributed between the songs, so in this case each song is allocated 4.5cents. If the user listened to 40 songs from artist A and 60 songs from artist B, artist A gets €1.80 and artist B gets €2.70.

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The standard streaming model operates differently. A user’s subscription is added to a pot with everyone else’s. Platforms divide that pot of money by the total number of streams to get a cost per stream. That money is then distributed to labels who share it with their artists (this amount depends on individual agreements) or DSPs which many independent artists use. Essentially, if you pay £10/month for a streaming platform and only listen to one artist that artist does not get whatever is left of your £10 after the platform’s cut.

Minm was launched late in 2021 by two Trinity College Dublin tech graduates, Daniel Cosgrove and Luke Lau. At a loose end having just graduated when the pandemic struck and seeing how the loss of live performances had affected musicians at all career levels, the pair teamed up to create a platform they thought was missing in the industry.

I was first made aware of Minm when I saw singer-songwriter Joel Harkin tweeting about a “streaming service with a grass routes ethos and a user centric payment system”. A short time later I was following in Joel’s footsteps and meeting Daniel and Luke to find out what they were about. After speaking with them I uploaded my own band’s music to the site, and also now pay a subscription as a listener.

I caught up with Luke and Daniel, over Zoom this time, to dig a little deeper into how Minm came about and find out what the plans are for the platform as it passes the milestone of 1,000 uploaded tracks.

Luke describes himself with a laugh as a bit of a “voyeur” when it comes to music, saying that instruments just aren’t his forte. Daniel on the other hand dabbled in Dublin’s vibrant open-mic scene, admitting his studies probably suffered as a result.

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Luke Lau and Daniel Cosgrove

Before going to university, Luke says he was “always a bit of a hacker” and explains one of the first apps he made was a playlist builder, inspired by Apple Music’s lack of a playlist feature at that time. “It seemed easy enough to do,” he says.

Daniel came a bit later to coding and tech. It was only after he built a game with his cousin that he decided to ditch physics for software development. “I got a kick out of making something creative, but also techy. I like when I can combine arts and computer science, that’s why Minm feels like a hobby.”

Things changed for both of them after Covid-19 struck. Luke saw artists posting online about how they were struggling with the loss of gigs. He admits he was unaware of how the music industry worked and was shocked by the number of what he considered established artists posting links to funding pages for support. The growing #BrokenRecord campaign headed by Tom Gray and a Westminster inquiry into streaming also built a picture for the pair of an industry in trouble.

That parliamentary inquiry called for a “complete reset” of an industry where artists typically get around 16% of the royalties. While it might be better than the pirating of music which was rampant in the early 2000s, falling physical sales and the explosion of streaming made many artists reliant on touring, gigs and merchandise sales. Much of that was wiped out by the pandemic.

“It was around then we discovered the state of streaming,” Luke says. “We thought it was shocking that the whole independent music scene was hanging on being able to gig. The main way we listen to music doesn’t actually pay for most musicians’ livelihoods.”

Alternatives to the major streaming platforms have been popping up over the last few years, among them Resonate and Songstream. Meanwhile, more established platforms like Soundcloud and Deezer have been investigating different models of payment for artists, including the user-centric model Luke and Daniel settled on. As Daniel explains, “Luke just built it on the first principle of asking, ‘What would make sense?’”

Two months of website building later, in August of 2021, the pair had a platform they believed would work and set about trying to get artists on board.

Daniel says his experience of working at a startup just after college was crucial in this. “I was working with a company trying to improve how donations work for homeless charities. I wasn’t familiar with how those charities worked, but it taught me market research and how to connect with the right people in the industry. It has brought a lot to Minm. We’re not music industry people and that was the hardest part for us. We have enough experience that the technical side of things is bread and butter for us. The more tricky thing is who do we talk to to find out the next unknown unknown.”

Minm

So began a period of meetings and discussions with artists, managers and industry types all over Ireland to better understand what they needed from a streaming platform. They had a sharp learning curve finding out about the complexities of royalties and publishing in the industry and thought the biggest challenge would be getting musicians to sign up to yet another website.

“We thought it would be a huge admin overhead that nobody would want to deal with,” says Luke. “But with the promise of better returns they were willing to invest the time and take the leap. So building the catalogue has been easier than we expected, the question now is how do we get that to a critical mass and develop an ecosystem so we have bands and listeners powering the whole thing.”

As well as the already mentioned Joel Harkin, Minm boasts an impressive collection of independent talent from across Ireland. One of the first artists to join was Herb Magee, better known as Arvo Party, who uploaded his entire catalogue. As it has grown, the spread of music has become more diverse, with punks Problem Patterns and Gender Chores as well as NI Music Prize winners, Junk Drawer, joining in. Fiachna Ó Braonáin, Emma Langford, Cat Dowling and, Daniel’s latest favourite discovery, Ghost King Is Dead, are also among the recent additions.

If getting independent artists on board has proven easier than expected, getting those artists who are one step higher on the career ladder with management or label influence could prove trickier. Things get complicated with publishing and royalties as more parties are involved and the pair admit their inexperience of how the industry works at that level. Attracting that level of artist could prove the difference in Minm’s long term success though.

Acknowledging that inexperience, Daniel and Luke have listened intently to artists and fans and plan to host town-hall meetings with Minm musicians and users to discuss how best to progress the platform and make it “community driven”. The journey has also led to something of a deep dive into the inner workings of the music industry, as mid-interview Luke dives off screen to retrieve his copy of Chris Cooke’s Dissecting the Digital Dollar, a book that’s something of a bible for those interested in music publishing and royalties in the age of the internet.

“Music is inherently undervalued,” he declares. “People are paying €120 a year for unlimited music! That’s criminally undervalued. We think good music is worth more, and it’s worth a hell of a lot more than a tenner a month. The challenge is convincing people of that.”

They both attribute much of their inspiration and encouragement to Bandcamp and the Bandcamp Friday programme, where that platform waives its admin fees once a month to get more money directly into artists’ pockets.

“We think this is the tip of the iceberg,” Luke says. “Bandcamp in general is living evidence that people will pay more to support artists, but if we were to completely boycott streaming and buy everything off Bandcamp we’d be bankrupt in days. To us Minm represents that sweet spot where you’re paying more for music and you’ve got the access to it to stream.

“It’s conscious consumerism. If people are starting to become aware of what materials are in their toothbrushes, why is that same attention not being focused on the music industry? Nobody ever stops and thinks, ‘I just spent €10 on Spotify, where did that go?’.

“Trying to change people’s mindsets and raise awareness that streaming in its current form is broken for 99% of artists; that’s the problem to solve. We just thought why hasn’t anyone done this before? We haven’t found any answers to that question so we’re just plugging ahead.”

Having attracted some artists and listeners, their focus in 2022 will be building more features into the website and developing an app for mobile streaming. Both Daniel and Luke are critical of the algorithms and playlisting practices of the major streaming platforms. Instead they’ve developed a feature section on the Minm website which they say is “more human”, and they are looking into ways artists can recommend other artists through the platform to encourage a more natural discovery they compare to reading about an artist in a magazine or getting a recommendation from a friend.

“The last thing we want is for people to think it’s just us. Minm is the sum of the artists on the platform and the listeners behind it…willing to make the effort to change a very broken industry. We’re optimistic that things are going to change for the better,” says Luke.

“It’s a fresh slate to try something new that’s different to all the other sites,” they say.

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