Let's Discuss Your Project
As a cofounder and head of product for Gimme Radio, and before that VP of product for 8Tracks and Rhapsody, Jon Maples has amassed a ton of wisdom around building experiences for music fans. In his most recent role, he focused on not just any fans, but on diehards of specific genres. It was a different remit compared to those of the big players in streaming music, who focus on building products for the largest and broadest audiences possible. Here, he discusses how to identify a product opportunity, how to keep your own biases in check when making product decisions, and the approach he takes when determining if a new tech trend is mostly hype.
It's three things: It's creating a business case for a product, which means figuring out if it's something that the business can actually make money on. It’s defining what the product is, and a lot of times we talk about this as product-market fit. And the third thing is technically building it, and that's usually two parts. The first part is dealing with technical people who can define the right way to build it. And then it's the design side of it, to make it look and work as well as possible for users. What a product manager mostly does is try to influence people, from the user level all the way up to the CEO.
Yes. So, it's extremely easy to be biased about product, because at the end of the day, we all use products. Why “You are not the customer” is important is because it makes you check your own biases about what you're building. If you are not the customer, then you have to go talk to the customers and gather evidence to figure out what they want.
Yeah, I mean, let's face it, the whole thing about “You are not the customer”—it's something we all aspire to as product managers, and you're never gonna do it. Everybody's gonna fail to a certain extent, because you're biased. So in music, yeah, it becomes more challenging. I don't know how many times I've heard from everybody, from a CEO to a designer to an engineer, “That's not the way I use it.” So if you have evidence of what's going to be successful or not, you're going to create a much better product than if you just simply rely on your own biases.
I think there's a lot of authenticity that you can't really fake. Like one of the first things that we thought about was basically throwing out the playbook on how we design a product and thinking about the culture that we wanted to reach from the beginning, and letting that drive everything. We started with metal, and actually not all metal music, but specific genres of metal that don't get as much exposure, like death metal, black metal, a lot of thrash metal. We really tried to focus on speaking directly to those fans and embracing the culture around them from the beginning.
I think we saw ourselves much more like a streaming service at the beginning, and much less like a fan service. The thing that we really changed over time was focusing on what fans want and how they help the midlevel artists—not top-level, but midlevel artists—make a living, which was through engagement with their most important fans.
I think in music, we’re still trying to figure out exactly what the value is. For NFTs across the board, there are going to be some very interesting approaches. A lot of people are talking about music rights and NFTs: You buy an NFT and you get a share of publishing for a song. That shows promise. But for us, we were really focused on physical merch more than digital merch. So what we wanted to explore was whether we could find ways to match and extend the value of physical merch through NFTs. So we did it for the Deicide box set. And what we were trying to do is test the demand for NFTs to see how many fans actually see value in them.
Yeah, that's a trap. It really is. Because when you're building products in the digital world, people expect you to be all over [trends]. I think there's a couple of things that have to happen. The first thing is going through the basic product approach, where you figure out when it's valuable enough for users. I pretty much try to put the brakes on everything like that from the beginning. And something our CEO and I talked about all the time was when was the right time to do it. There is pressure, not just because it's the new shiny thing, but because investors are expecting you to have an answer for a lot of these things. But it's also extremely valuable to wait and to experiment. It doesn't mean you are against these new trends. It's just that you have to wait to see if the demand develops.
I think it's a fool's errand for anyone to try to fool anyone with AI. People can spot the lack of authenticity, and they don't want something that's fake. Everything needs to be tuned by a human. AI at its best is going to work when it's a tool for other people to use. People say, “Oh AI is gonna take over the world. And we're gonna be able to fire name-your-profession.” I don't think that's the case at all. What I think is it’s going to become a very powerful tool for people who know how to tune it, who know how to use it to accomplish things that would otherwise take a lot of time and a lot of effort.
How’s this for lucky: I first met Philip Sherburne—possibly the preeminent electronic music journalist of his generation—in 2002, because he was friends with my college roommate, and they produced a DJ night together at a local bar in the San Francisco neighborhood where I lived. We’ve been colleagues ever since—first at the alt-weekly SF Weekly, then o.g. streaming service Rhapsody, then Spin, and now Third Bridge Creative, where he’s completed over 11,000 assignments for TBC clients since joining the crew as a founding team member in 2015.
Sherburne is best known for his coverage of electronic music, regularly spotlighting the genre’s most compelling new artists. But he grew up on punk and hardcore, and it’s not uncommon to find him opining about artists like Cat Power or Smog. The guy just loves music, and writing, and both these facts come screaming off the screen when you read him. These days, he lives in Menorca, Spain, with his wife and daughter. It’s no small feat to forge a 20-year career writing about underground sounds, but Sherburne’s managed to make it look easy. Here, we discuss how he did it.
I studied English lit in college, and when I got out I had no idea what I wanted to do. And then I went to graduate school, and I was not particularly enamored of graduate school. I was in Providence, Rhode Island, and because I was a music obsessive, I started doing some record reviews for a local Providence college publication. Then—I think it was ‘98—I pitched the Wire magazine on a piece on Plug Research, which was this label in Los Angeles. And I flew myself to Los Angeles to spend a weekend with those guys. I think the Wire paved the way for XLR8R and then SF Weekly around the same time. And then yeah, just one thing after another.
I guess that was 2002. During that time I was beginning to write; I was working at Ask Jeeves, which is a search engine the older Gen Xers will remember. I was there for the Bay Area’s first big tech boom. And then everyone started getting laid off, and so around the time that I got laid off, I managed to step into a part-time role as San Francisco editor of FlavorPill. And so that covered my rent, basically, and that allowed me to freelance on top of that. And so I was very lucky because from that point on, I had a writing gig that could cover my rent and so everything above and beyond that was sort of gravy.
I think a lot of it is luck, kind of being in the right place at the right time. Like how I just happened to land this one anchor gig at the same time that I was getting laid off from this other job. And I was lucky that I continued to get a succession of anchor gigs like that. There was Rhapsody for many years. Then there was a period when I was living in Berlin, and I had a gig with Beatport. And then I went from Beatport to Spin as a contributing editor, and then I went to Pitchfork, where I've been for the last nine years. So it’s just a lot of luck, being able to get those anchor gigs.
Definitely in my 30s, like mid- to late 30s. For a long time, I didn't have health insurance, and then I got into some credit-card debt too, just because some of that I carried from grad school. And so it was actually in Berlin when I got a semi-decent paying job, and rent was cheap. And that’s when I said “Okay, I need to get this shit together.” And since then saving became a focus. Because it's a precarious, precarious industry, you know?
Yeah, I worry about it a little bit. I think it's something that I’m probably not doing enough to address.
Yeah, there’s that. And I’m growing a garden so, you know, if worse comes to worst… Honestly the stuff I worry about is like droughts and floods and plagues, as much as anything these days, as much as 401(K)s.
That's part of why I want to garden, ya know? I want tomatoes, at least. I'm probably fooling myself though, because I think feeding yourself and your family from your own garden is probably well beyond my skills, but you’ve got to start somewhere.
Yeah, I don't think it's as methodical as it wants to be. But basically everything that looks potentially interesting to me, either a record that I might conceivably review, or at least that I want to consider, goes into a Google spreadsheet, with basic data—artist, title, label, format, release day—and I take all of those and I download all those promos. And then there's the stuff that I come across randomly, on Bandcamp or wherever. A lot of it's just chance and aleatory. Every month I discover stuff that blows me away that I still just get so much pleasure out of writing about, so something's working.
I think the importance of good writing is only going to increase because you look at the ChatGPT stuff and it's a semi-convincing mimicry of human speech and prosody and writing, but when you start looking at it with an editor's eye, you're like, “Wait, but what is it actually saying?”
I don't feel personal, professional anxiety, although maybe I should—like ask me in a year when I've lost all my jobs and I’m making Molotov cocktails in my basement lair with an Edward Albee shirt on—but no, it hasn’t caused me anxiety.
I'm also anxious about what it could do to music because we already see the sort of flood of content that's created simply for playlists, and now throw AI at that. And so what happens when Spotify is suddenly overloaded with AI music?
Yeah, this is going to be like that times a million.
It was like an artist called “Dubstep” with a record called Dubstep and then the songs would be called “100 BPM Workout Mix.”
But it was pointing in that direction.
It’s difficult. I think in some ways, it's kind of organic. Like, I've just found a mix of work that works for me. Pitchfork, Third Bridge, the record label… That's a good mix. I'm working on an essay right now for a major European arts festival, and I'm kind of wishing I hadn't taken it on because I think that my balance is off. It's just one extra thing and it's just on my mind always, and it's like, "Can I hang out with my family this weekend? Or should I finish this thing?" So yeah, you make some choices. But I think the work tends to expand to fill the available time for it. So I also think it's important to make time to do things with your family. My wife and I have started going to the gym three times a week. And it's two hours a day, three times a week, but it's two hours a day that I'm not on Twitter.
I do. I get emails from people sometimes. I think there's one thing that I left out when you asked what made it possible for me to do what I do. Like many other people, I just happened to come up at a time when blogging was—I was about to say viable but not viable because nobody made money off it—but it was just a dynamic, exciting thing. And everybody was blogging and there was this exchange of ideas and it kind of overlapped with mailing-list culture and bulletin-board culture and just all of these people discussing music online. And it became a really good way to become a better writer. You know, I was lucky to come up with all the alt-weeklies, SF Weekly, stuff like that, but also with the blogosphere. And I think younger people coming up now—it's tough because they don't have the alt-weeklies, and blogs aren't really a thing. But I think the most important thing is to be writing, to be practicing writing to be getting better at writing, and then to be pitching outlets. And that's a whole other conversation, How to pitch, how to know who to pitch, where to pitch... but the writing is the first thing, and just practicing. And reading. It’s so obvious that it sounds kind of like a cop-out, but that's the only way to get better.
In the last couple months, there's been so much written about AI generally and large language models specifically (ahem, Time Magazine cover...) that the basic logic of these tools is not much of a mystery. In my layman’s understanding, the way a lot of popular AI apps work is that they’re trained on huge datasets of text, audio, images, etc., and then used to generate new content based on the patterns they've learned to recognize and predict. This result is the impressive applications that’ve captured the zeitgeist: automated translations, generative music and image apps, and of course the lifelike conversations and cogent college term papers outputted by the likes of ChatGPT.
Like everyone else, I've been fascinated by these developments, and it led to the following 3 a.m. thought: If you're looking for an AI to generate content related to music—from an artist biography to a list of songs to more sophisticated requests—to what extent is the resulting content that gets hurled out based on work that I or my colleagues have had a hand in creating?
Perhaps this seems absurd on its face—who would ever claim to have made such a significant contribution to a knowledge base as vast as Recorded Music? But bear with me for a second... For completely unrelated reasons, TBC recently decided to tally up the number of content pieces we've created in the nearly eight years (as of this writing) that we've been doing this work. Get a load of these numbers:
Now maybe you're impressed or maybe not, but that's just the work that our company itself has delivered to clients. What if you consider the collective output of our contributors? Electronic music shaman and founding TBC contributor Philip Sherburne publishes in the ballpark of 130 articles a year for Pitchfork, and has since 2014. Pop savant Maura Johnston — who's created 3,195 individual assignments (!) for TBC since our founding — is similarly prolific, publishing upward of 200 pieces a year for places like The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, and Rolling Stone. These are just two examples of the roughly 300 folks around the world who work on our projects. And those are just the online articles: Several of our contributors are published authors. So yeah, do the math... I don't think it's a stretch to suggest that the work of Third Bridge combined with its contributor network comprises a non-trivial percentage of all contemporary music writing. I'm not saying it's a large percentage, just that it's statistically significant.
There is currently a series of class action lawsuits being filed against a handful AI companies alleging copyright violations, and these could have serious implications on the future of AI-generated content. In the case of a painter like Kelly McKernan, the legal grounding for such a claim is more obvious: People are using a generative AI tool such as Midjourney to request images in McKernan's style using McKernan's actual name. No one's out there asking ChapGPT to "Write a Kendrick Lamar bio in the style of Third Bridge Creative," not least because we nearly always provide our services on a white-label basis, meaning anonymously as far as anyone scraping the internet is concerned. And look, I'm not trying to compare apples and oranges, or suggesting any kind of infringement in our case. I'm merely pointing out that I'm not the only one wondering about the provenance and underpinnings of some of these datasets.
It gets even weirder when I think about how long we’ve been doing this work. Long before Sam and I started Third Bridge, we worked together at a company called Rhapsody, which as Wikipedia will tell you "was the first streaming on-demand music subscription service to offer unlimited access to a large library of digital music for a flat monthly fee." At Rhapsody, we were part of a staff of music experts whose whole job was to catalog the entire universe of recorded music. The colorful history of this group and the way it essentially wrote and curated (and partied) its way to laying the foundation of streaming music is a story for another day, but the gist is we collectively wrote millions of words, programmed thousands of tracks, made zillions of genre and artist associations (which today would be called "tagging"). Some of this data made it out into the ether of the larger internet and some of it remains entombed on some server, and we'll probably never know which is which. But then, who knows how these mysterious datasets that get fed to the AIs are themselves unearthed and organized?
Back in the Rhapsody days, there was this beloved writer named Mike McGuirk, a genius wordsmith and passionate music fan who by his own admission would have remained a line cook had a friend not recruited him to join an early incarnation of the team. McGuirk was one of the most prolific writers we had, who wrote upwards of 30 blurbs a day every day for several years, covering everything from Cher to Lightnin' Hopkins to Florida death metal legends Deicide. And Mike was kind of your '80s-Bill Murray-type irreverent joker, and so every now and then he'd insert either a subtle wink or blatant non sequitur into one of his blurbs, which was certainly not allowed but which we all secretly got a kick out of. One of my favorites is the line he appended to a review of a record by the oft-derided '90s nu-metal group Creed, beautiful in its simplicity: "Wrestling is fake."
Now, I'm certainly no expert in how large language models work, let alone AI algorithms writ large. But based on everything I've just explained, it seems at least possible that me and Sam and the cast of characters we've had the great pleasure of working with these last 20 years have had some kind of hand in shaping the output of whatever music-related request or question someone asks an app like ChatGPT. And if that's true then it seems likewise possible that deep inside the gray matter simulacrum that is this emerging new technology, there exists the sensibility of Mike McGuirk. So if you detect a hint of sarcasm the next time you ask a chatbot a question about Cher, then perhaps that's where it comes from.