Live – In Conversation: Brian Zisook (Part 1)

Brian "Z" Zisook

Co-Founder & SVP Operations, Audiomack

Brian “Z” Zisook is the Co-Founder & SVP of Operations & Artist Services at Audiomack.

Our guest today is Brian “Z” Zisook who has extensive experience in the music industry surprisingly including conducting over 500 interviews with artists and industry professionals over 13 years. Zisook was even selected to join the Recording Academy as part of their new member class in 2022. Brian’s main gig is co-founder of Audiomack. As SVP of Operations, Zisook leads a team of 10 across three continents, overseeing and managing relationships with over 180 record labels and distribution partners, including Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, and over 80 Merlin members. Before Audiomack, Zisook was the VP and EIC of DJBooth, a New York-based digital music publication.

Preparing for Online Success as an Artist: DSPs & Social Media

#HowWeListen Live: In Conversation with Brian “Z” Zisook took place on Tuesday, February 27th, 2024, live from Chicago

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In part one, Brian explains how he made his way from college radio to Audiomack founder. What were the problems he saw happening to artists around him, and how did he decide to fix some of them? He also introduces his theory about the  “five key levels of fans”.

Marc Brown: Brian, welcome to #HowWeListen Live: In Conversation. Let’s start with where it that you are speaking to us from. 

Brian Zisook: Hi there! I’m in Chicago where it’s presently nearly 71 degrees Fahrenheit, which is unseasonably warm for February, but I’ll take it!

Marc: Are you not based in New York, because of Audiomack

Brian: Audiomack started in New York, and is where the company is based. We have an office and two recording studios there. The story I always tell people is that my wife is from Chicago, as am I. She told me that if I ever made her move to New York, she would either change the locks or leave me. So for the sanctity of my marriage, I’m still based here. I go to and from New York to work. That’s the beauty of the Internet, or electricity, as I can do my job from anywhere. 

Marc: And never have to move to New York?

Brian: No, I’m there every six weeks for a week at a time. That’s the compromise. 

Marc: Now I am even more curious. What’s your background? If your work is based in New York, how did you meet all those people you ended up working with?  

Brian: So I went to school at Illinois State University and graduated in 2006 with a degree in radio broadcasting and journalism. I spent four years doing radio and I wanted another home for the artist interviews I was doing, since it was a college radio station. Unfortunately, there were only probably about 10 to 15 people listening at any given time. I felt like the amount of work we were putting into show prep, interview question writing and editing meant that these interviews deserved a larger platform. I reached out to a gentleman by the name of Dave Mackley, who when he was in school, was also a DJ in college. He had built a website so I sent him a cold email and asked for a platform to stream my interviews. My thought was this would be the opportunity I needed to get the interviews heard by someone larger and perhaps also get a radio gig. Dave emailed me back within five minutes. He ended up reformatting the platform and sort of gave me an editorial playground. We would post all of my interviews, and then slowly but surely, the site grew and grew. Dave ended up quitting his full time job and we became business partners. At its peak, the website (DJ Booth) was averaging over 8 million page views a month and generating over a million dollars in revenue through ads.

Marc: What was the DJ Booth website like? Like what could you find there aside from all your interviews?

Brian: At the very beginning, the platform was a DJ-oriented platform that would publish equipment; turntables, headphones, or mixer reviews for DJs. They also published playlists and tutorials. We felt like it was a very niche market, so we expanded into a full scale digital platform with editorials that went over industry news, artist education, song releases and op-eds. This allowed us to grow what was a very small audience into a more widespread audience.

Marc: So as you finished school you were doing college radio and then you saw an opportunity and fell into this online thing? Is that where Audiomack evolved from? 

Brian: Exactly. So around 2010, we noticed that many artists were haphazardly releasing music online using file sharing services. These websites were never built with the intention of aiding recording artists, they were designed for the transfer of large files. From a user perspective, it was terrible because you had popup ads and malware. From an artist’s perspective, the link would eventually die and you had no data on your audience. It was terrible from both sides. So we felt that pain point and decided the solution was to create a new platform which is where Audiomack was born. It’s a platform that allowed artists to freely upload their music without having to worry about storage capacity or upload limits, and we don’t charge them anything. Our perspective was that if we give them all of these free creator tools and they are successful on our service, then that’s the best marketing that we could possibly pay for. And 12 years later, I’d say that it has paid off.

Marc: It’s interesting because with a lot of those platforms, the idea was that you can do whatever you want no matter how shady it is, and they just make money off of it. Your concept of giving people those services with the alternate goal of trying to support their careers is actually a great idea. I originally thought that it was sort of a SoundCloud type platform, but you have explained the service in a much different way. It started out one way, but it is something very different now. Can you explain where you’re at now?

Brian: Yeah, we have transitioned quite a bit over the last 12 years. So the origin story is that Audiomack was a solution to a common problem that artists were having. At the time our audience was predominantly fans of hip-hop music who were consuming hip hop mixtapes. Since then we’ve grown quite a bit. We have over 200 license agreements with major labels, independent labels and distributors, and we’ve expanded beyond a predominantly US-based audience to a global audience. Today our service is a hybrid, wherein you can either deliver your music to Audiomack using a label or distribution partner, or you have the ability to upload directly to an account that you’ve created. The benefit is that since there are so many artists who start their journey globally, they have no idea what a distributor or a record label is, or are in any position to work with one. These are DIY bedroom artists who are figuring things out using all of the digital tools available to them. On Audiomack, you have the ability to create an account for free, apply for authentication, and then apply for “M” which is the Audiomack monetization program, meaning you can then also monetize your music without a third party involved so there’s no distributor or label taking a cut. We’re positioning ourselves as an option to a label,  at the beginning of your career. On the user side, there’s two buckets of Audiomack users. The first is an Audiomack user who uses our service as a supplemental streaming platform, meaning they might have a full catalog subscription to an Apple or Spotify, but they also use Audiomack because they appreciate our active discovery-driven human curation and the way our platform is designed. The other group of users are those who are in locations across the world wherein there are socio-economic or technological hurdles that prevent them from pursuing a full catalogue subscription service, barriers like hard-cap data plan, unreliable Wi-Fi, limited or no access to credit or debit, or limited disposable income. Those individuals also want to stream music in a formal streaming environment, away from a piracy-driven option.

Marc: You have developed the platform to serve different groups of people who are at different stages of music discovery and distribution, from both an audience and artist perspective. Do you see demand growing for that type of system?  

Brian: Yes, I think a lot of artists at the very beginning of their career would agree that one of the most important things that they can receive is support. We believe in empowering creators who use the service by providing them with tools that they don’t have to pay for. By empowering them and giving them success, they will in turn champion us which will then encourage other creators to use the platform because there’s that trust amongst the creative community. That is exactly the results we have seen, especially with respect to Africa. We are the number one streaming service on iOS, and on Android across most of Sub-Saharan Africa. We’re number one in Nigeria, Ghana, and Tanzania, and in the top two or three in Kenya and South Africa. We attribute this to a few things. Number one, we have people on the ground in these markets who have a cultural connection to the users and the artists, so they understand these markets as different from one another. The curation is being done by people on the ground who have their ear to the streets, so to speak. Another reason for our success is all of the fantastic creator tools that we have built. We have a free creator app and from there you can upload, apply for monetization, withdraw your funds, download promotional assets and more. All of this is free, and most other companies charge for services like these.

Marc: I have hear you speak about the idea that Apple Music is actually a loss leader for Apple – they’re just doing it to sell iPhones. 

Brian: Yes,  with Apple, their interest is in you buying their products. Apple Music is a feature in their ecosystem that they can take a loss on. Amazon, their music streaming service operates much the same way. It is a feature within the Amazon ecosystem, wherein by using their streaming service you’re integrating into their product world. That is not our path, we are not that type of company and we don’t have products to offer. We prioritize the actual service as our bread and butter. 

Marc: What about revenue streams? Is it mostly advertising?

Brian: It’s one of several revenue streams. Yes, there is the ad-supported model, wherein we monetize the user through video and audio ads.

Marc: Very smart. 

Brian: Thank you! We polled our users and the consensus was that people understand that if you’re not paying a subscription fee, you have to pay through some other means which is typically video and audio ads. At what point in the process do the ads show up? This is also important, especially when it comes to listening to music. If you can frontload them, you’re actually generating a higher CPM so it’s better for the rights holder, better for us and better for the user.

Marc: Now that we have sort of set the scene, I actually want to get into your concept of “five key levels of fans”. Now, what exactly are they and where did this idea come from?

Brian: So I spend a lot of time on socials, Twitter(X) in particular, offering advice and educational tips to creators. I’ve noticed, especially over the last six to 12 months, that the words; “fans”, “followers”, “listeners”, “community” and “audience” are all often used interchangeably. What that has told me is that we are conflating one for the other, when all five of these things mean something very different. In short, just to provide a breakdown, fans are folks who are going to support you with their time and their money beyond just streaming your music on a DSP. So they will support you through the purchase of concert tickets, through the purchase of merchandise, or in real life like through meet and greets. Their appreciation extends beyond just pressing “play”. The next group are followers. These are folks who find you entertaining on social media. They might not even know you as a recording artist but they might appreciate your tweets or behind-the-scenes posts. With them there is no guarantee that someone who clicks “follow” is even interested in pressing “play”. A listener is someone who has consumed your music at least once over the previous 28-day period. That consumption could be active, meaning they sought out your music, or it could be passive, meaning your music was contained within a playlist that they happened to be listening to. What is important to note is that there is no guarantee that someone who has listened to you has taken any actionable steps to continue listening to you. The next level is community or the superfans, and that’s the holy grail. They do not just appreciate you as an artist, they appreciate their ability to engage with others like themselves. So community members are as interested in the artist as they are in forming relationships with one another. As an artist, you have to be part of that community, to be the ringleader. Finally, you have audience, which is an encapsulation of all four of the previous groups.