In 2008, five FBI agents showed up at the home of Californian Kevin Cogill to arrest the 27-year-old. His crime? Cogill had leaked nine songs from an unreleased Guns N’ Roses album, which the band had been working on for more than a decade.
Since the music industry has gone digital, new security issues continue to arise. Artists and producers often share music by emailing or texting files, but struggle to limit the audio to prevent their work from getting stolen or leaked. From Radiohead to Beyoncé, artists have been trying to avoid the risk before their planned release date by resorting to surprise album releases.
“The surprise release isn’t a method of choice, but a necessary last resort. When you click send, you are sharing with everyone,” says Saji Girvan, CEO of music sharing app Plug. Plug differs from other players in its ability to limit how people can experience your music — from how many times they can play the song, to who can play it and where, and even on what device.
“Thirty years ago a radio DJ would say, ‘hey, tune in at 8:00pm, I’m going to play the new Michael Jackson.’ You would have millions of people sitting by their radios waiting to get this special experience of hearing that music that they wanted right from the artists that they loved,” says Girvan.
“That doesn’t happen anymore because you cannot control what happens when you send a DJ your music. We want to create an environment of aggressive transparency.”
The startup’s co-founders Girvan, Ryan Haslam, Paul Katzman and Chinua Umoja are all Atlanta natives that met — and bonded over their love of music — while attending Grady High School. After college and a few years spent building careers across the country, they came back to Atlanta to solve this pain point plaguing the music industry — digital leaks and piracy.
Plug allows artists and audio engineers to put restrictions on how their song can be listened to by using an integrated silent audio watermark, a inaudible, recipient-specific digital signal processed within the audio frequency. “If I send a song to 100 people, each and every one of them has their own signature on that song,” says Girvan.
The platform can limit how many times a song recipient can listen, over what date range, within a specific geofenced area, whether it can be downloaded, and more. The app can also limit how the song is listened to, allowing the receiver to only listen to through a phone’s speakers, with no auxiliary ability, for example.
“The reason why music exists in ubiquity digitally, is because you can re-record music from the sound card, have a laptop or a desktop and you cannot stop that process without physically dismantling the device,” says Girvan.
“[Plug] renders your phone into basically a modern boombox, allowing the creator to have full control over the nature of how people listen,” he says.
Beyond music sharing, Plug is also meant to be a comprehensive tool for artists to gather feedback from marketing agencies, fans or publishers. The artist can share new tracks with a label’s marketing team so they can start working on deliverables, or share sneak peeks with fans.
Each song gets its own customizable interface where the artist can edit the display, add a promo poster or possible album cover.
Girvan shares that rapper 21 Savage, one of the select artists currently piloting the app, has been using it for the past eight months as a one-stop-shop to access his work, wherever he is. Since Plug doesn’t store anything on its database, his work remains safe while being easily accessible.
The Plug team has their eye on music experiences led by brands as possible revenue streams. For example, they could set up a geo-fenced track to be listened to only by attendees of a music festival. They could even set up a themed rideshare ride on your way to your destination, sponsored by a brand.
“The idea behind that is that we wanted to make the platform dynamic, compelling, changing and fresh while creating a monetization opportunity without creating a disruptive environment for the user. The user is being set into the environment of the promotion, whether that’d be from the artists directly or from one of our partners,” says Girvan.
The app currently offers a monthly subscription model for heavy data users, and they’re also testing in-app advertising as another option.
Girvan unveiled Plug’s beta at this year’s A3C Conference & Festival. The team is looking to close out their seed funding round of $750,000 in the next three to four months and hopes to use the funds to further finesse the app and aggressively market to artists, music engineers, and producers.