Residents of Memphis in the 1980s might recall a neighborhood youth who was handy with arts and crafts, who even sold his handiwork to friends and neighbors. He must have exuded a certain unassuming confidence. His father was a sculptor and his mother a social worker. As he grew up, you might hear this same kid talking about something called the “internet.” And even then, Gebre Waddell was imagining ways to share his handiwork.
“All my life I’ve wanted to run a business,” says Waddell. “As long as I could function, I’ve had a business in some way. I used to make little crafts that I would sell around my neighborhood. Then in my teenage years I would make websites — in some of the earliest days of websites. During those days you would dial in to a bulletin board system, before the America Online days.”
Cut to 2018, and Waddell’s prescient familiarity with the digital realm is paying off. Indeed, his company, Soundways, is poised to radically transform the way we experience digital music, by bringing the focus back to the players who make it all happen.
Imagine our habits of music consumption today: as you scroll through your favorite streaming app, one track among forty million choices strikes your fancy. But outside of the artist, or maybe the label, do you know anything about it? Producers and guest singers might get a mention just after the song title, but unless it’s a band with a bona fide band ethos, chances are you’ll have to excavate online to find who wrote the music, who recorded it, who played on that recording, or who arranged the orchestra on the LP that provided the sample for the hook.
The days of LPs and their acres of space for art and album credits are gone, at least for your average listener. At first they were replaced by cassettes and CDs, which merely meant the credits shrank, and those media had their day. But now music floats in clouds, barely graspable before it melts away, and liner notes have evaporated. It’s robbing the music industry’s craftspeople of both recognition and income: In the music business, the two usually go hand in hand.
It was a problem that Waddell was acutely aware of, even a decade ago. By then, he was already a respected author and engineer in the the field of audio processing, and had headed his own company, Stonebridge Mastering, for years. Being immersed in the world of musicians and industry techs, he began toying with ideas for embedding credit information in the sound files themselves, as they were being created. “I had the concept in 2009, in my earliest notes. I keep an inventor’s log for patent purposes. I started the customer discovery in 2010, but I paused it.”
He had to wait for the industry to catch up with his thinking. Some years later, a consortium of record labels, streaming service providers, and other music business players agreed, in principle, on the Recording Information Notification (RIN) standard for embedding credits in sound files. Even then, nothing was done. Someone with the technical and marketing know-how had to step up and actually create the software.
Although Waddell’s previous products were focused on studio-only software like keyboard sample libraries and audio mastering suites, he and Soundways chief technical officer Connor Reviere decided to design their own approach to the RIN standard. Waddell’s inventor’s log was dusted off and they resumed the work he’d put on pause.
By 2017, they were ready to launch a prototype. Their first customers were not the average consumers of online musical content, but its producers, who had the greatest vested interest in getting credits right. The prototype was seized upon by studios and others in 64 countries, and built significant buzz. Earlier this year, Waddell and company rechristened their prototype “Sound Credit” and geared for its general release. In August, the platform was up and running, and well on the way to becoming the industry standard for archiving credits, liner notes and album art.
The Sound Credit platform focuses primarily on the professionals who make the music happen, and taking up as little of their time as possible. “It takes about 30 seconds to set up a song’s credits once you have the profiles loaded,” says Waddell. Once entered, the credits are archived on the Sound Credit platform. Eventually all streaming services should connect to it directly, enhancing the listener’s knowledge of the tracks they love, and keeping accurate numbers for all those with a stake in a music track’s success.
It’s such a game-changer that Soundways has attracted some major-league attention. Just this summer, the investment group Revolution, well-stocked with some of the biggest tech investors in the world, awarded Soundways $100,000 in a competition between hundreds of startups in the interior of the U.S. “The investment support and the symbol that made, not just in the investment community, but to our potential business partners, has made this a magic moment,” says Waddell. Indeed, Soundways received a matching grant from local investor firm Innova soon after the nod from Revolution. And as for its adoption by consumers? With characteristic understatement, Waddell smiles and simply says, “We think it’s gonna be a pretty rapid uptake.”