Friday, November 20, 2015

With #UberBigBreak, Uber Breaks Into Yet Another Sector Of The Music Industry

Written by Cherie Hu — Aside from revolutionizing transportation, ride-sharing service Uber has played an increasingly active role in music, most recently by increasing opportunities for artist development and networking.

In partnership with Warner Music Nashville, Uber launched an initiative called #UberBigBreak last Tuesday that connected Uber riders with senior music executives in the city. Using the promo code “BIGBREAK” within the Uber app, aspiring singer-songwriters could request a ride to an in-person audition with representatives of Warner Music, the Country Music Association (CMA), the country-music website Rare Country, and other high-profile companies.

The partnership is a symbolic breakdown of the conventionally high, opaque barriers to entry in mainstream music. Through #UberBigBreak, the connections that many artists would otherwise work for years to attain became accessible at the touch of a button. More notably, however, this is also a signal that mainstream music is still lagging behind in terms of internal innovation, as Warner Music had to rely on external technologies to facilitate internal processes.

Although the concept of the Uber-Warner partnership is revolutionary, this is certainly not Uber’s first collaboration with music companies. The startup has previously partnered with Music Midtown and Live Nation to facilitate onsite travel at music festivals, in addition to hosting exclusive live concerts for Uber riders with artists such as Kygo. In addition to positioning itself as a key partner in the concert space, Uber has also strived to make music a central part of ridesharing as a whole. The company’s partnership with Spotify (which turns one year old this Friday) enables riders with Spotify Premium accounts to control the music playing in their Uber car’s speakers from their phones. There is already much speculation for what the future of this partnership will entail—for instance, upon entering an Uber car, riders could listen to automated Spotify playlists based on their pick-up point, destination and overall music preferences.

To understand the historical significance of #UberBigBreak, it is worth juxtaposing the Uber-Warner partnership with a separate but similar comparison frequently made in the media, namely that between Uber and Napster. Both Uber and Napster used technology to disrupt and overturn established infrastructures in their respective industries, to the delight of their customers and to the outrage of the government. The most evident difference between the two companies is that Uber is still enormously popular and successful, while Napster was quickly shut down by authorities (although it has since relaunched as a streaming service).

One important reason for this discrepancy is that Uber, along with other high-performing companies in the sharing economy such as Airbnb, has nailed the integration of social codes into its business rhetoric. In other words, Uber and Airbnb have aligned their platforms with the ideals of transparency, accountability, and job creation and flexibility, promoting maximal empowerment both of individuals and of the larger community.

On the other hand, Napster’s only “social code” was making the illegal sharing of music more convenient for listeners. The service caused both economic and emotional distress to virtually everyone on the other side of the industry, including artists, labels, and record stores. In a similar vein, the salience of social codes in music streaming—the slightly less economically damaging successor to piracy—is hotly debated. Although popular services like Spotify are arguably invaluable for increasing artist exposure, there are frequent criticisms that streaming models hurt indie and emerging artists or pay artists overall unfairly.

In light of this struggle to merge technological innovations with social codes, the music industry has thus begun to look for solutions outside of itself, using other widely-adopted services like Uber to empower the industry’s neediest players. The result thus far seems mutually beneficial; while creating the impression that major labels are now more proactive in increasing opportunity for aspiring musicians, #UberBigBreak also increases the appeal of Uber’s platform by extending the ideal of job creation far beyond the ride-sharing ecosystem to music, and potentially to other industries as well.

Apart from the music industry’s potential reliance on external technologies to increase their appeal to artists, the only limitation I see in #UberBigBreak is that it shifts power disproportionately to Uber riders, without taking into consideration the potential needs of the drivers. Uber must ensure that job creation does not come at the expense of worker satisfaction; in fact, the company has faced growing criticism from its drivers about low wages and poor working conditions.

A personal encounter of mine from earlier this year points to why Uber’s industry- and location-specific initiatives like #UberBigBreak should more explicitly leverage the talent of drivers in the future. I spent January 2015 in Los Angeles (another entertainment capital of the world), participating in the Harvardwood 101 career exploration program and subsequently interning with A&R at Interscope Records. All of my incredible experiences with Harvardwood and Interscope could fill up an entire second article, but one unexpected gift from my stay was the in-depth education about the entertainment industry that I received by talking with my Uber drivers, most of whom were aspiring actors. It was through my conversations with them that I was exposed to the often grueling, sometimes rewarding, perennially unpredictable journey of working in film and TV. What struck me in particular was the diversity of these stories; one driver spoke to me excitedly about how he landed a role as an extra on Glee, while another driver seemed much more dejected, talking about his impatience for his “big break” and questioning the worth of his diligence.

These actor-drivers could have benefited from an initiative similar to #UberBigBreak, applied to a different location and industry, namely Los Angeles and film/TV. After all, the entertainment ecosystem as a whole is one not only in which connections matter more than anything else for career success, but also in which these connections would otherwise happen entirely by chance and out of one’s control.

In this vein, the looming marriage of Uber with the entertainment industry is strikingly indicative of the lives that emerging artists lead today. They not only output creative work, but also are multitaskers and attentive entrepreneurs—whether in taking on several smaller jobs to self-finance artistic pursuits (e.g. Uber driver, Airbnb host) or in utilizing the latest technologies to seize previously inaccessible opportunities.

#UberBigBreak has signaled both Uber’s insight into the demographics of its riders and the mainstream music industry’s growing willingness to embrace technology as a catalyst for artistic opportunity. By explicitly extending such opportunities to all of its stakeholders, including drivers, and by expanding industry reach beyond music to film, TV and related sectors, Uber could become a vital networking tool in the increasingly entrepreneurial world of entertainment, and could hopefully inspire more internal technological innovation within entertainment companies themselves.

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