Rollo & Grady Interview // Anthony Volodkin

Rollo & Grady Interview // Anthony Volodkin

After many late nights browsing the Internet and music blogs for new music, Anthony Volodkin started work on his first incarnation of The Hype Machine. He launched the beta version in April 2005 from his dorm room during his sophomore year at Hunter College in New York City. Almost four years later, the site now generates 1.5 million unique visitors per month and serves as an aggregator for more than 1,500 music related blogs.

Anthony has paired his love of music and computer science background to create what has become one of the foremost filters for MP3s on the Internet. He designed the site to create an unbiased voice for people who want to discover new music. Anthony is now poised to be a major player in the new music business world.

I recently talked to Anthony about the future of The Hype Machine and where he sees the music industry headed.

R&G: What inspired you to start The Hype Machine in April 2005?

Anthony:
The Hype Machine came about from a personal need to find new music. I reached a point in my life where I had not heard anything new. I was familiar with the music that my friends were listening to and things I’d listened to for some number of years. I didn’t know where to find something interesting from a voice that I could listen to and trust. There wasn’t a magazine for me. The content in magazines was all a result of relationships and deals or some other arbitrary connection people had and not so much about the music. New York radio was not that good either, so I didn’t know where to start. I ended up stumbling onto music blogs. I browsed the web and was surprised that people were posting music files and writing about them just because they liked them. It was just what they did for fun. Over the course of a few weeks, I kept staying up late and finding more and more of these sites. I felt there had to be a way to get more access to all this activity. It felt genuine, like hundreds of people were doing this. If combined in some way, this could be the voice I was looking for, the voice that I could resonate with and trust. That’s how the first version of the site came about. It was a tool I made for myself, but it didn’t stay private for long.

R&G: You were still in college when you developed The Hype Machine. How old were you?

Anthony:
I was 20 years old, and attending Hunter College in New York.

R&G: Did you ever imagine that at age 20 you would create an application that could index hundreds of music blogs?

Anthony: I wish I could say I did, but I wasn’t really thinking about that too much. It was more about creating immediate value, and that’s what I focused on most. We have these couple hundred blogs, so how do we present the information that’s going through them in a way that gets people to listen and discover the writers and music together?

R&G: How long had you been programming before you started the application?

Anthony: I was a computer science major and worked in a local New York IT consulting firm, fixing servers and maintaining networks. I definitely have a programming background, but in some ways The Hype Machine was a learning process. Learning how to build web apps was definitely a big part of the process. That’s also what made it more interesting.

R&G: Did you have any help? Any mentors?

Anthony: In the beginning, I just did it. I didn’t talk to many people about it. I just thought the most direct way to get what I wanted would be to start building it and then other pieces would fall into place.

R&G: Did you think you could generate revenue with the site?

Anthony: Well, the hope was that other people’s needs would resonate with what I was building. I also thought it would be able to make money by selling CDs through Amazon and other sources in a typical affiliate system. I obviously didn’t know as much about all that as I do now, but it seemed like a potential way to monetize it. Everything turned out to be much more challenging than I expected.

R&G: What’s a typical day like for you?

Anthony: Hmm. Usually it’s a vibrant mix of many things. There’s usually quite a bit of emailing. Sometimes I talk to the other guys on the team about the products they’re working on. Other times I just build things because I’m still the chief developer of the app. I go to meetings with people who are working on something related to music on the web. It varies. We don’t have an office, so currently I work from home.

R&G: How many unique visitors and page views do you guys have a month?

Anthony: I don’t know the page views off the top of my head, but we have a 1.5 million unique visitors.

R&G: How many unique visitors did you have a year ago?

Anthony: I’d have to double-check, but I think a year ago we had 800,000.

R&G: Were you a fan of the original Napster?

Anthony:
I started using the web towards the end of that, so I didn’t get a chance to experience that as much. When I first tried it, it seemed obvious that it changed and altered how people relate to music. When you started using it, you instantly got a new feeling about media. That was probably the most magical thing about Napster.

R&G: Everyone is trying to figure out how to filter music on the web. When I spoke to Bob Lefsetz, he suggested that you guys could be one of the sites that make this happen.

Anthony: Naturally, I agree with him that filters are super-important. There’s an infinite amount of content available, and it’s growing more and more each day. The different ways you can consume it are growing. You can listen to music on a bunch of sites. You can see a bunch of videos on YouTube. You can do all these different things with media, but you still only have so many hours in the day and so much attention span for digesting all of this. There have to be ways to decide what you want to listen to and watch. I think even just going through friend recommendations can be overwhelming because everyone else is overwhelmed in the same way you are. The most important thing here is integrity. If you have paid placement or have editorial efforts mixed with money, it’s just not clear which pieces are advertising.

R&G: Payola?

Anthony: Not just payola, but on many sites out there you can get placement on the front page for particular acts. I feel like iTunes may do that, sometimes.

R&G: I agree with you.

Anthony: Maybe sometimes they pick them, but sometimes they don’t. I’m not sure what the true story is. The idea is to have something people can trust so they come back. This is why people like MySpace for music. Their friends are the voices they trust. They know their friends aren’t getting paid to put a widget of some band on their MySpace or Facebook page, so when you see a track that your friend likes you know it’s genuine.

R&G: Have you considered filtering blogs that carry similar content or genres of music?

Anthony: Yes, we’ve played with ways to help people filter down the content of the site. We don’t want to focus on genres, specifically, because that will limit the way people listen or explore things. If you just click Rock or Jazz you won’t stumble onto things outside of your comfort zone that you may like. One thing we will be trying soon is creating a filter that excludes content rather than selects it. So let’s say you really don’t want to hear any electronica. You can filter that out and are left with everything else. We’re planning to do the same things with blogs, so that we can pick a few major genres that a blog focuses on, if that’s possible, and allow people to explore it that way, too. That’s definitely on the page, but we’re being careful about how we present this particular information because I think it wouldn’t be as interesting if we just made a directory listing of genres.

R&G: Do you think the Internet is going to be the new radio?

Anthony: It depends. The Internet is, in some ways, becoming the new radio. One of the things I think of when I think of radio is that it’s more refined because of all of its limitations. That’s not quite where we are with the web because of how infinite things are. Anyone can do anything. Some strong voices, like KCRW and KEXP, are emerging on the web that people are taking very seriously. The BBC stuff on the web is pretty cool, too. What they do online by allowing playback of all of their online shows, you can only see this if you’re in the UK, though.

R&G: Some of the old school bloggers think that The Hype Machine hurt the purity of music blogs and took away from an experience.

Anthony: Well, when we launched my intention wasn’t so clear. I didn’t know how to explain why I was doing it or what the point was. I was engrossed in building the very first version. There are only so many hours in a day, so I can understand why people would initially have that response. Over time, we sent a lot of visitors to a lot of these blogs, and in some ways I think it became a way for a broader audience to understand what music blogging is all about. In one sense, it makes a bigger audience available to all these bloggers, which is both a good and bad thing. It definitely changes the dynamics and the way things are working in the space.

R&G: If you send 500 people to a blog and 5 of them become regular readers who tell their friends, and so on, you are bringing value to the artists.

Anthony: I think ultimately if more people end up reading more blogs about music, buying more music and going to more shows, which I think we accomplish, then everything is well.

R&G: There was a rumor floating around that Viacom offered to buy The Hype Machine for $10 million. True or false?

Anthony:
No, that didn’t happen. I’m not sure where that rumor came from.

R&G: I’ve read in several places that you’re in discussions with companies all the time. Is there anything going on that you can discuss on the record?

Anthony: That is true. We talk to people quite a bit because what we do is special and not a lot of people are doing it. We’re in a good place as far as that goes, but the market has quieted down in the past few months.

R&G: Are you referring to VC money?

Anthony: Funding, acquisition markets, all these markets have quieted down for web properties. People are just scared of the unknown and what the ad industry will serve up.

R&G: Your sources of revenue are commissions from iTunes, Amazon and advertising. What other revenue streams do you have coming in to support your staff, and how many people do you have working for you now?

Anthony: We’re a small team. It’s just four of us: two people full-time and two part-time. You listed most of the revenues quite well there. Its advertising and affiliate sales through tickets, music and just about anything that can be sold. Those are definitely the two big sources.

R&G: Which social music sites do you listen to? Are you interested in sites like Last.fm, MOG or Pandora?

Anthony: I absolutely love Last.fm. The way those guys do what they do has always fascinated me. They’re definitely one of the best things out there for social music, even though many others have been released since they’ve been around. I still find it’s the richest music experience on the web.

R&G:
Are there any music blogs that you regularly visit?

Anthony: The one thing that The Hype Machine has done to me is forced me to listen to slightly less music. I do check out stuff at Said the Gramophone sometimes.

R&G: Great site.

Anthony:
In some ways, I find it a gold standard for indie music.

R&G: What happened to the number of plays feature?

Anthony: We focused on the best way to give someone an indication of what’s happening with a particular track. That feature was a little bit hidden because you had to click a fan button and then it would switch the area of the track page. It wasn’t very well executed so we boiled it down to how many people favored a track, because that is a stronger vote for something than just playing it. Some of the bloggers weren’t happy about that because they couldn’t track the progress of the response of the crowd to what they were posting, as well. We are planning to offer that again, so if you claim your blog on The Hype Machine, you can see the number of plays for the tracks you’ve posted. That’s a possibility in the future.

R&G: Are there any new features you guys are working on?

Anthony: It’s not out yet, but the biggest thing we are focusing on is making more tools available for bloggers in order to increase the amount of value that they get from The Hype Machine. As I just mentioned, if they claim their blog, when they log into The Hype Machine they will get extra features. Maybe more analytics, more information about what’s happening on the site with the things they posted. There may be a higher quality feedback loop for them.


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