Ramen Music Has It All: Except a Huge Subscriber Base

Some Free Advice for a Startup That Seems Like It Would Be a Hit

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In the little box at the bottom, it says I'm a consultant, so permit me to consult. It's about a startup brand that has it all: Good content. Value added. Simple technology. A big social component. Low price. Essentially no apples-to-apples competition. Virtually zero overhead.

Yes, Ramen Music has everything.

Except success. So let's do some, ahem, cheap noodling to see if we can stir something up.

The business was founded in Vienna a year ago by Sudara Williams, who is a British singer-songwriter who grew up in Hawaii and lives in Austria building interactive web applications. (You know, the stereotypical England-to-Hawaii-to-Vienna path we see all the time in the web app/independent music world.)

Williams' idea was pretty simple: to publish a diligently curated online anthology album every couple of months featuring talented but hitherto unrecorded indie acts. The songs would be chosen by a jury and annotated with the equivalent of liner notes and delivered six times a year to subscribers. They'd pay a nominal sum for the subscription, and be free to share any track -- or any issue -- with anyone on Facebook or anywhere else. "That's not only fine," he says, "we encourage it. You can just copy and paste the link. It gets the track in front of as many people as possible. It's a core concept."

The other core concept: a big chunk of the proceeds divvied up among the starving artists -- most of whom have never earned a thin dime from their self-produced recordings. Williams figured $2,000 a track was reasonable. And, verily, the grand vision has materialized. Seven issues have been produced. Checks have gone out to artists, whose musical journeys have also been documented in Ramen text, and the FLAC compression format runs circles around the typical mp3.

The slogan: "Good music done right." The result: Ramen has 350 satisfied subscribers worldwide.

Not 350 million. Not 350,000. Three five o, period. At last report, nobody at iTunes or Sony Music was climbing out onto a ledge. And each act showcased on Ramen is starving by only $150 less. Williams has pocketed nothing.

The question is , why? As best as I, in my dotage, can figure out, the problem is not the music itself. The Ramen catalogue is eclectic and interesting, but in no way inaccessible. Most of the songs could very easily be commercial. Here's the most recent issue. Judge for yourself. I also don't believe the central concept is flawed. Yes, it's easy enough to gather free indie music online, but also time-consuming and very much a hit-or-miss proposition. The ability to harvest dependably cool tracks in one fell swoop should be a selling point. And the price -- currently six issues of an average 14 tracks each for $29 a year -- is pretty nominal. On iTunes, if that music were available, the cost would be $84 -- and sharing would be illegal.

So what has it done wrong? I see a few things:

  1. Ramen has two built-in constituencies highly motivated to sharing the issues amid all of their social circles: the subscribers and the musicians themselves. There must be a mechanism for encouraging them all to do what should really come naturally. Ramen cannot succeed if their customers and vendors aren't also their evangelists.

  2. That mechanism probably should not hinge on freebies -- unless the freebies consist of branded swag that itself spreads the word. Ramen thus far has truly missed an opportunity by treating subscribers as subscribers, as opposed to members -- a rarified elite offered the privilege of rare access. That access, by the way, should include the ability to connect and stay connected with the acts themselves. "I'm with the band," and all that .

  3. As such, the Ramen logo should be easily cut-and-pastable on Facebook -- and linking back to the website -- as a badge of freedom from The Man. It is for musical iconoclasts, people whose tastes and judgments might be informed by a jury of smart people they respect, but not by some soulless label with headquarters in Hollywood, New York and London. The cup-of -noodles logo should be on buttons and t-shirts all over the social web -- with the legend "Occupy MTV ."

  4. Oh, which gets to the final point: The Ramen slogan is among the worst ever conceived. "Good music done right?" It sounds like Muzak meets Betty Crocker. "We've totally failed on choosing something decent," Williams concedes. "We just can't nail it."
Maybe you can. I'll entertain suggestions in the comments section below, but let me prime the pump just a little, just to get the conversation started. Ready?

"Expose yourself."

Bob Garfield, now a consultant, has reported on advertising, marketing and media for 28 years.
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