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Tony Lashley, restoring music to art
Tony Lashley, restoring music to art

Profiles and Q&As

Tony Lashley, restoring music to art

Marine Snow, an experimental new music platform, helps listeners find music, build community, and eventually own a piece of what they love.

Written by Meghna Rao

Photography by Amir Hamja

Marine Snow’s Tony Lashley’s thesis is that you're probably not thrilled with how you find new music. He's willing to bet that the last time you found a new song you were proud to discover was a long, long time ago — and that nowadays, the songs you’re listening to are coming to you passively, maybe through TikTok or chosen for you next on Spotify. Of the many behaviors that web2 has amplified at scale, something like a friend handing you a mixtape of their favorite songs hasn’t exactly influenced how we listen to music online; instead, music discovery has become all about mindless listening, tunes streamed straight from an algorithm.

Lashley emphasizes that one shouldn’t feel guilty for not looking hard — on web2, our ears don’t really have a ton of power to guide us through the landscape. It’s just way easier to sit back and be fed when that’s the default option.

And that’s where Marine Snow, his startup-in-beta comes in.

“I would argue that streaming services today have flattened music identity,” he says from Brooklyn. “They’re all-you-can-eat buffets full of algorithmic filter bubbles. How often do you eat at all-you-can-eat buffets versus restaurants with carefully chosen dishes?”

Put simply, Lashley’s vision is that music consumption can be less passive and more active, less like mindless low-effort evening television and more like a video game where you feel rewarded for digging through bins and finding great songs. “The true yet cliche mission of the company is to have people sculpt strong bonds to and through sublime art,” he says.

When you sign on to Marine Snow, you’re introduced to a video game-like screen, where you can earn new, rare music and meet a community of music lovers. Each Marine Snow song is on the site for 90 days, and Lashley’s vision is that this will ensure that a person’s tastes won’t become stultified, that artists will be perpetually fresh, and that the community of listeners will keep growing.

Eventually, users will pay a monthly subscription fee to get access to the site (though the app is free to use right now), but the other end — how artists interact with the site — is where Marine Snow is most different from its streaming counterparts.

Each artist that signs with Marine Snow gives the company 90 days of exclusivity for a song, meaning Marine Snow is the only place you can listen to that specific song for the period. For this right, Marine Snow pays artists upfront with what is essentially a royalty buy-out (not paying them per-stream, like, say, Spotify). And after 90 days, they’re off the platform and free to go and sell their music elsewhere.

"Marine Snow is niche in the same way that Prada is niche," says Lashley

Most important to Marine Snow, emphasizes Lashley, is curation — it’s not just a spread of artists with no significance other than how many times they've been played. The team picks and chooses songs to surface for artists that they believe will be historically, critically, or culturally important over a long period of time.

Over time, Lashley says that Marine Snow will acquire songs by taking into account what its editors, industry experts, and community members think is important.

“Take Larry Heard,” Lashley says. “He’s an influential figure in Chicago house music and he’s even on the latest Beyonce record. Because he has influence on a myriad other musicians I respect and know, he’s important. And part of our mission is surfacing artists like that.”

You might even make a friend or two on the app in one of the music forums that accompany the music — kind of like meeting a friend at the basement show for your new favorite indie band.

~

Tell us about who you’re appealing to.

The metaphor I use to describe ourselves is Art Basel. People go there for two reasons. They go to experience sublime art they can’t see anywhere else, and they also go there for the community of people who are interested in that art. You can also use the metaphor of a popping club; if the club has amazing music but has no one in it, you'd probably leave. The inverse is also true – if there are a bunch of people in the club but no music, you'd also probably leave.

Marine Snow is designed to appeal to the counterculture, the second city, the second part of every city. Bushwick versus Murray Hill in New York, Hackney versus Regent's Park, Kreutzberg versus Mitte. And if you roll those neighborhoods up, it’s a pretty big audience.

Our philosophy is that music is the most powerful form of identity in a lot of ways. If you were to tell me what musicians you were into, I could probably very quickly learn a lot about you.

Where does web3 come into this? Can’t this be achieved on web2?

We have a few features that can only be built on web3. Eventually, we want to have our community vote alongside experts on the music they consider important, and to have their votes considered equally. We want their subscriptions to contribute to them owning Marine Snow as a platform. We want artists to become owners of the platform. And we want to launch digital collectibles that allow someone to purchase a memento in our "gift shop" after songs leave the Marine Snow "gallery.”

My brain says this is hard to scale.

I mean, I’m interested in growing for sure. Almost every single person on Earth has a relationship to music the same way that almost every single person on Earth has clothes, so Marine Snow is niche in the same way that Prada is niche. Capturing the high end of the music market is actually quite large given the global ubiquity of the market.

Goldman Sachs estimates that 1.2B will be paying for music streaming by 2030. I think 1-5 percent of those people will be interesting in a streaming service that focuses on quality over quantity.

I want all people who can potentially enjoy Marine Snow to use it, but I would say past versions of the internet have placed an emphasis on hyperscale, like a billion users. I don’t want to build a utility that serves everyone. I’m not interested in growth for growth’s sake, like a cancer cell – I'm interested growth to help more people find new friends through music, and new music through friends.

It’s a complex and exciting approach to a pretty difficult problem. Tell us about yourself and your relationship to music.

My family’s from the Caribbean, I have a Grenadian passport. I grew up going there every year from 2 to 21.

Music was how I figured out how I could firmly be Black, American, and Caribbean all at once, it was how I started to unify my identity. I had Caribbean lunches that made me stand out in school when I was very young, but I’d get teased by my family for sounding American when I went back to Grenada.

I remember playing my dad’s Carlos Santana Supernatural CD as a kid until it scratched, and he bought me my own copy of Supernatural, just so I could have one for myself. I’ve been obsessive about music since I was eight or nine.

In fifth grade, my friend Gabe left me this breathless answering machine message saying he’d gotten an iPod. I asked my parents, and they said — of course not, so I started selling my once-not-popular but now-popular Caribbean lunches for $5 at my middle school, three times a week. And I’d just eat the lunch meat out of a friend's sandwich.

My mom was horrified when she found out, so she gave me her last $100 to buy the iPod. I ran out of iTunes money very quickly, and discovered torrenting. I got multiple cease and desists for torrenting so much music. Which didn't thrill my immigrant parents.

Back then, I was finding music on blogs and peer-to-peer sites like Bearshare and Limewire and uTorrent. I remember I found Missy Elliott’s Lose Control a year before it came out on Bearshare. That was the wild wild West.

I was burning CDs and downloading files like crazy. Growing up, my mom was a translator for the State Department and World Bank translator, which gave me an appreciation for global cultures outside of the U.S. There was always international music in my house. And my dad is an electrical engineer who programs cell towers, so I’ve always had an appreciation for tech and coding and text systems.

I mean, in my lifetime, I’ve seen cassettes, I’ve seen CDs. I’ve seen the ability to burn to CDs, which is its own neat thing. I’ve seen USBs. I’ve seen iTunes and being able to buy files, I’ve seen cloud storage.

Music tech has changed a lot and streaming is maybe the longest music tech era in my lifetime. That’s all the more reason why there needs to be new models. Changing how people receive music can change what they listen to in really powerful ways.

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