Oftentimes tech startup founders are creating the solution they needed in the past but could never find themselves. That is the case for the founders of Chapel Hill-based NxtNow, a platform that Co-Founder Kevin Thomas said intends to disrupt the entire music industry.
The startup, which completed the Launch Chapel Hill accelerator program last fall, was born out of necessity. Thomas has spent his whole life in music, performing as a hip-hop artist who was signed to Universal Records and Rawkus Records, as well as working as a multi-genre producer.
He knew firsthand the struggle that comes as independent artists based in North Carolina fight to compete with those in major music hubs like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Figuring out how to market and promote oneself and connect with other artists and producers is no easy feat, Thomas said, and he had to go through it all the hard way.
NxtNow was founded on the premise that it shouldn’t have to be this way. So many talented individuals go undiscovered just because of a lack of connections. Artists congregate on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but none of these apps were built for musicians or their needs, Thomas said.
At the same time, music lovers are missing a key way to authentically discover new artists and share music among friends, Thomas said.
When Thomas met Carlton Boyd, now the COO at NxtNow, Boyd ran the music curation website DOPECAUSEWESAID. They realized they saw the same struggle for new artists to get connected, and they could create something to help those in the music industry of the future.
“It’s like, ‘Wait a minute, the potholes I’m stepping in on my path to try to create this for myself, I see them,’” Thomas said. “I can just keep stepping in them and stepping over them and let the next people that come behind me step in and step over—or we can fill some of them.”
Thomas and Boyd recruited the rest of the founding team and started on their path to creating NxtNow.
A key component of the platform is that artists retain control and are able to market and promote themselves, Thomas said.
“We want artists to be in a realm where they feel like they truly have an opportunity to succeed,” Thomas said. “‘Here are the resources. Here are the people that love music. Here are the things that you need. Now, use it however you see fit to do whatever it is you need to do.’”
How far artists take NxtNow is up to them, but it will prevent some of the struggles Thomas faced in his own career.
“You won’t have to compromise who you are, what you create,” Thomas said. “You won’t have to do any of the things that a lot of musicians have had to do and continue to have to do to get their stuff heard, because you will be in control.”
On the platform, artists will be able to send push notifications to let fans know they’re releasing a track that night or use NxtNow’s matchmaker feature to find other artists and producers.
One portal, DiscoverNow, will let users find new music and releases based on your specific region and the prior music you enjoyed. Music fans and artists will be able to connect across all topics and have those “record store conversations,” Thomas said.
Artists will even be able to connect with brands and submit their songs to be considered in commercials. Thomas said the platform will incentivize listeners to promote artists with rewards like free tickets to shows and altogether disrupt the way music lovers find new artists.
Freemium business model
While NxtNow is still in stages of development before launching its MVP later this year, the startup intends to use a Freemium business model, offering certain premium features that artists can pay for, such as sending push notifications. The focus at first is for users to see the value of the app and then find it is something they cannot live without, Thomas said.
NxtNow will also charge brands for access to what Thomas envisions as a “huge American Idol-sized talent pool.”
The process the NxtNow team has undergone in developing the startup requires them to be patient, Thomas said, as new ideas and developments organically occur.
For instance, earlier they wrestled with how Spotify and Apple Music would exist within NxtNow’s app. NxtNow is not intended to be the next streaming platform and it’s not a record label, Thomas said, but it can do all things a record label can do via third-party partners. At one point, they considered building NxtNow as a competitor to Spotify and Apple Music but they’ve decided it works better to build something that complements the services that already exist, sending views where artists already want them.
While Thomas initially focused on immediately raising money and building out the NxtNow product, he wants to laser-focus in on the idea to prevent the startup from spending money too soon on something that will end up changing. He’s realistic that NxtNow’s process will likely take years of making mistakes and learning from them, but it will be worth it when it all comes together.
“It’s got to be everything that we say it’s going to be, and then it’s got to retain people,” Thomas said. “And then it’s got to convert people that are skeptical about using it. If we have one opportunity to do that, let’s make sure we get it right.”
If they build NxtNow correctly, Thomas hopes they will be able to receive the type of VC money he feels they deserve, he said. And that requires careful, thoughtful development, not a race to the finish line.
As NxtNow looks to its future launch, Thomas imagines the platform becoming the No. 1 place to follow upcoming artists and connect within the industry. The need for a platform like this is apparent when you look at apps like Tik Tok, he said, which have inadvertently given rise to a whole new way of music discovery: people sharing the songs they like in the videos they create.
NxtNow intends to take that to a new level with a platform all around music discovery in the digital world.
But it hasn’t always been easy to bring up the idea of a music-centered social media platform in the Triangle tech scene, according to Thomas. While the Triangle tech ecosystem has flourished with B2B SaaS startups, for instance, it can be hard to explain NxtNow’s potential to people who don’t often have dual music industry and tech expertise.
These music ventures can be seen as a risk for investors to place money in, Thomas said.
“To be launching a music disruptor that is social media-based, it’s like a spotted zebra in the Raleigh-Durham scene,” Thomas said.
But from NxtNow’s time at the Launch Chapel Hill accelerator, Thomas said he’s learned how to pitch the idea in a way that makes sense to those who aren’t already keenly aware of the nuances within the music industry.
“What we knew was we had a good idea and it had legs and it was needed,” Thomas said. “Now how to present that idea to people that aren’t music people, that more just think about tech and numbers and things like that, it’s been educational.”
The next step for the startup is to get its MVP out and hopefully benefit from other incubators to get to the next level, Thomas said. Then NxtNow can start becoming the disruptor the founders envision it to be, ultimately allowing artists a new lane for leverage and discovery.