On Monday, a streaming music service called Aurous, which has been called the "Popcorn Time for music," launched in alpha form. In a matter of hours, the service had been downloaded more than 47,000 times, and the small team of people who run it were scrambling to make sure everything stayed functional. "I'm pretty exhausted," Andrew Sampson, the service's founder, told International Business Times. "The site's under a lot of stress."
The next day, the Recording Industry Association of America, which serves as the recorded music industry's legal guard dog, filed suit against the service in Florida, where Aurous is based, for committing "willful and egregious copyright infringement," calling it "a flagrant example of a business model powered by copyright theft on a massive scale."
Willful or not, Aurous has launched at a pivotal moment for recorded music, with more and more people embracing music access rather than ownership, artists bracing themselves for a world where downloads may dry up along with physical album sales, and everybody fighting to see through a thick cloud of opacity.
The 20-year-old Sampson spoke with IBT by phone on Tuesday morning, shortly before the RIAA sued him, about the place he sees Aurous taking in the growing market for streaming music, how he expects it will benefit artists, and what will come next for him and his small team. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
International Business Times: This year there's been so much talk about streaming services, and so many new ones have launched. What does Aurous bring to the table?
Andrew Sampson: I see it as a cord-cutter's way of going about things. In the same way people no longer have cable, they'd rather have Netflix, I see Aurous as being the cord-cutter's home of streaming services. To pay $10, $12 a month, and the price is always going up, and then you're still losing content, doesn’t make sense. Apple Music loses licenses, Pandora loses licenses, Spotify loses licenses, and so you're losing the content you're most wanting to get. That's where Aurous steps in. It allows you to have control over the music you want to listen to. You can listen to content you already own. You can discover new stuff across the Internet. We just want to make it very easy for people to enjoy music.
IBT: You frame it as a cord-cutting thing, but a lot of the cord-cutting services people think of aren't free. People pay for those services. You've said Aurous is going to pay artists using a service called ProTip. Could you explain how that's going to work?
Sampson: The way ProTip works is basically it tracks what you're listening to and what you're watching, and allows you to support content creators. I'm not affiliated with ProTip in any way. If you have a favorite YouTuber, and they have a bitcoin address, for every minute you watch their videos, that starts adding up tips. And after a certain time period, you can cash out your entire tip to that creator. If you watch an hour of their content, you can send them $15, or something like that. That's similar to what we're going to do. We're going to integrate the same source code they're using to track what users are listening to. We're not going to be tracking people, but we'll be able to track what people are listening to. They'll be able to choose if they want to support an artist, and after a certain threshold, the money goes out.
IBT: Last month, you had some choice words for Spotify about how much they pay songwriters, and plenty of people have complained that many streaming services pay artists and songwriters in a way that doesn’t accurately reflect what they should be paid. Would it be fair to say that you were motivated by that?
Sampson: There were three reasons I built Aurous. The first was that I found all the major players, Spotify and Pandora being the two that I've used, to be completely unreliable. I travel a lot for work, and I love listening to music while I'm on the plane or while I'm driving. Pandora will work half the time, and then they'll push an update. And then there's Spotify. My biggest issue with them is they lose licenses all the time. So I'll get a pretty nice playlist together that becomes pretty iffy because they can't maintain that service. Those are the major two reasons, but the other one was I wanted to make a music player that I could have control over, where if I want to make a change I can make a change, and I don't need to rely on a third party. I wanted everybody to have full control over a music player. That's something you don't see a lot of other users being able to do.
IBT: So it sounds a little bit like you feel like what's out there in the market isn't serving people.
Sampson: I find it inadequate in 2015, when technology is so rich. I find them all to be lacking in some way.
IBT: I have to imagine that when you started building this you had to consider that someone -- the RIAA, a rights holders organization -- would come at you and try and shut you down.
Sampson: Of course. When I started getting serious about this, I had to have these conversations about whether I was willing to step onto a minefield with the RIAA and all these other people who will threaten to sue me for everything I have because I used a song without their permission.
IBT: Did you talk to lawyers or anybody beforehand?
Sampson: The entire platform is designed around a discussion I had with my legal attorneys.
IBT: So you feel like what Aurous offers does not violate copyright law as it exists.
Sampson: As it is, we stream content from the original licensed sources. The way we use peer to peer, it's more of a content delivery system. Not so much finding the content but finding the content where it originally was. If someone was to search or upload a song to Soundcloud, for example, and it's their song, and someone searches for it on our platform, it'll get added to our network. And once it's on our network, that way when somebody else will search for that same song, and it's on our network, they can get it right off the peer-to-peer Aurous network, rather than having to go back to the Soundcloud API, which would waste more bandwidth. We can share millions of millions of songs in a matter of seconds, rather than requesting it over and over again.
IBT: Have any rights holders contacted you?
Sampson: I've gotten messages from BMI and other license holders who wanted me to license content, but I had to explain to them what our app was, and they said, "Okay, never mind."
IBT: You've said that this will be DMCA-compliant.
Sampson: It works the same way Google does. Google indexes millions of sites a day. We have, I think, 7,500 spiders actively going across the network right now. We're going to watch the content. That's what a rights holder's responsibility is, to make sure their stuff is protected. We're also going to make it easier because we're building a content ID system so you can track your song and your content in our service. If you sign up, and you want to say, “You know what? I don't care if my song's on your platform, but I want to see the analytical data of what people are listening to, so I can maybe turn those people listening on YouTube into paying customers." You’ll be able to do that.
IBT: A lot of the conversations about streaming have been framed around how these services do or don't serve artists. What is the Aurous pitch for artists?
Sampson: A lot of it is stuff I just mentioned. We are creating a platform called Aurous Gold, which will allow artists to make their own pages on our networks, which will enable them to not only put their music on our service, they'll be able to target their listeners directly. Imagine that we have 100,000 users online every single day, and a lot of them are listening to Taylor Swift. Taylor Swift can now put a message out live to them directly to tell them about her new tour, or a new band. Anything she wants to show, she can. If she wants to push out coupons that give them 20 percent off a T-shirt or ask them to donate to a charity. We're going to give artists the tools they want. I don't ever see piracy as a money issue. It's more of an access issue. A lot of people don't even have access to these platforms that are legal. There's a lot of music that's blocked in foreign countries because of licensing terms. That's why people turn to third-party applications like mine, or straight-up piracy. Aurous is going to allow artists to target those people that have the money, that want to spend it, but don't have the means to.
IBT: So what does the next three months look like for this service? What's next?
Sampson: The next three to four months is going to be finishing up the desktop platform entirely, getting it stable, getting it into something that can compete with Spotify. After that we'll build a mobile platform for Android, iOS and Windows phones. After mobile's done, we're going to set up Aurous Gold, the content ID system, and work to bring things full circle.