LÜM takes its lumps
Test-driving the much-hyped music app developed in Madison.
For several weeks, I've been fiddling with Live Undiscovered Music, a new iOS app developed by a team of young entrepreneurs in Madison. (I was in the beta for the iOS version prior to release. Android and desktop versions are still in the works.) LÜM, as it's officially abbreviated (I don't know why the umlaut is there—perhaps there's a metalhead, or a New Yorker copy editor, on staff), offers a combination of streaming music and social-media interaction, with the goal of getting people to check out independent artists in their local communities and beyond. Ben Solomon, one of LÜM's co-founders, says as of Wednesday that the app has about 500 artist users and 2,000 consumer-side users. (One of the company's founders, Max Fergus, posted in the app's newsfeed on Tuesday that there are "so many talented artists on LÜM it is hard to comprehend.")
The pitch to users? A streaming platform that's less cold and algorithm-driven than Spotify. The pitch to artists? Here's a handy promotional tool. The pitch to investors is the same as usual: the company will be selling the data it collects, and, according to a recent Capital Times story, selling ads and tickets.
Getting people in the local tech or music community to talk on the record about their impressions of LÜM has been tough—people don't want to pick on a group of young entrepreneurs launching their first big venture, and both of these worlds are small. Some expressed concern about the company's apparent lack of diversity, and whether it will become another platform that doesn't generate income for the artists and users who populate it. Also, in all the rather credulous local press coverage of the app I've seen thus far, few reporters seem to have actually bothered to kick the tires on this thing, even though the company was happy to share early access with journalists. (Fellow media people including myself: If Madison's going to turn into a real tech town—which I'm not so sure is even a good idea—we need to be more diligent about being hands-on with what developers are pitching.) Milwaukee Magazine described LÜM as having an "anti-music-corporation stance," which is a silly thing to say about people who are launching a music corporation, however young or well-intentioned they may be.
So I've spent some time sifting through my own impressions and getting what feedback I could from other would-be users. What's it like to actually use the app? How does it do in reaching its stated goals, and do those goals make sense?
LÜM's founders rightly point out that the model of streaming music is broken as a way for artists to make money. If you follow many local musicians on social media, including successful ones like hip-hop producer DJ Pain 1, you've no doubt seen posts of streaming royalty checks for comically, insultingly small amounts of money. Reclaiming recorded music as an income source for musicians is a big, far-off goal, and since tech got us here it may as well try to help us out. Meanwhile, lesser-known artists can get on Spotify, but it might not help them too much when it comes to building an audience. These services aren't really set up to connect people with artists in their backyards; in a way, that idea just seems antithetical to the way people listen to music online.
However, there's currently no way for musicians to make money directly through LÜM—the entire value proposition for artists is that they can attract new listeners and leverage those listeners to make money somewhere else. Solomon says that a future update of the app will have an analytics back-end for artists.
LÜM also says it wants to focus "solely on up and coming music," but that means different things to different people. What kinds of cutoffs will it establish? If the platform takes off, will artists who blow up on it then be shown the door? (Asked in an email how LÜM will determine which artists can use the platform, Solomon writes: "We allow any artist who feels they are on the rise and want more exposure to join the app. Any time an artist feels like they have grown too large for our platform, they are free to leave it.") If a critical mass of artists and listeners adopt LÜM, the app will have to strike a balance between making people discover new stuff and letting them enjoy the stuff they already like.
On the app, you can browse a newsfeed of tracks, events, and written posts from artists and fellow consumer-side users. Users can follow artists and fellow listeners, add tracks they like to their personal library, and rate tracks. You can also browse geographically filtered "Highest Ranked Locally" and "Trending Locally," or browse those same things with a national scope. Users can also browse a feed of local events.
The actual playback when you're listening to music is very good—solid audio quality, no interruptions from audio ads, though I found it a little tricky to sequence my actual playlists a la "up next" in Apple Music. The downside of the interface is that it crams way too much information and too many options into the finite space of an iPhone screen. The array of buttons and functions available is just confusing in a way that it isn't on Facebook or SoundCloud or any other prominent platform. For instance, the buttons for rating a song and adding a song to your playlist both involve plus signs. There isn't currently a search function, but Solomon says one is coming within the next week.
Of course, this is early in the game and an app like this can improve very quickly. My request? Give us, say, one-third as much options and info on any given screen. Listening and browsing in the app would be more enjoyable with less clutter.
The selection of artists making their music available on LÜM seems pretty thin right now, though I was pleased to see Chicago MC and onetime Madisonian Rich Robbins, Madison power-pop band Heavy Looks, and Madison trap artist King Retro's profiles on the app. (However, it seems like artists are allowed to have profiles on there without adding actual tracks, which seems like a weakness.) I also can't get a clear sense within the app of how many artists overall are on it and how that breaks down geographically. That information would help both listeners and artists thinking about how and whether to use it. That said, there's a "local" news feed distinct from a user's "following" newsfeed, which can make the discovery aspect a bit easier.
Being locally based, LÜM had an opportunity here to recruit from Madison's rich community of musicians to help the app launch with a splash, but really doesn't appear to have done so very aggressively. Most of its outreach seems very campus-focused—there's an upcoming event at the Kollege Klub where DJay Mando will play and LÜM users can get $1 Long Island iced teas.
So far, the "Events" feed on the app has been sparsely populated. The events that do show up have information about time, location, date, genre, and links to buy tickets. There are also links in a given event to LÜM profiles for artists on the bill who are using the service. Users can share the events on their own feeds, but it might be helpful to add some kind of "RSVP" function. Currently, artists and venues submit events to this feed. I'm also wondering how LÜM is going to maintain and populate this feature if it can't convince enough people to submit events. Having run a couple of different local events calendars, I can say that rounding up this information is harder than it looks. Event feeds from third-party companies can be unreliable and have massive blind spots; events get canceled; acts and times and venues change.
I welcome the idea of an app that helps people find new music, and especially the ability to filter for local artists. I'm going to keep playing around with with LÜM, because it could be just a few app updates away from a much more smooth, enjoyable experience. But for now, I'm just not yet sure where it fits in with all the other stuff I use to listen to and find out about music. I use the Bandcamp app and browser client (I mean, a lot), Apple Music, press downloads that usually just end up on my iTunes and phone, LPs, CDs, streaming radio, occasional reluctant forays onto Spotify, browsing about on SoundCloud (less and less, though), and sometimes go down random YouTube rabbit holes, plus tracks and playlists streaming on publications I follow. That's already kind a scattered pile of listening habits that—if anything—I'd like to simplify, rather than add to. (Good luck, me!) LÜM hasn't convinced me to drop any one of them just yet. Perhaps LÜM's social-like, "gamifying" features are supposed to draw me in, but they really aren't all that robust and I'm not sure that anyone was actually asking for them.
I also don't buy that the competition for LÜM is SoundCloud or Spotify. The real competition? Bigger players trying to find a happy medium. Especially Bandcamp, which makes it easy for artists to sell music and fans to buy it, has a great no-nonsense interface, allows you to follow friends and see what they're buying (I've found a lot of good music this way), and lets you search for artists in a given geographic area, albeit through an imperfect tagging system.
Which brings me to another key component of LÜM's premise: The idea that there's a lack of platforms where people can discover lesser-known music in the digital/social media world. What? Bandcamp, SoundCloud, Facebook, and other apps all have their flaws, of course, and I agree with LÜM's founders that the broader economy they're a part of cries out for better solutions. But if you really care about digging around for unheralded artists on your desktop or phone, the problem today is a problem of plenty.
If you're a musician looking to reach new audiences online, there's kind of an overwhelming amount of digital tools to choose from, and it actually takes a ton of work to make the most of them. If the artists aren't making money off of one of these tools, someone is, and the artists and users are doing the real work of populating them. I'd imagine that for LÜM, tweaking the interface will be the easy part. The hard part will be figuring out why, exactly, it has lasting value to artists and listeners, and just what kind of role it wants to play in the music industry's turbulent future.