Joel T. Jordan
Joel T. Jordan is the clever and adventurous founder of the premier online music management, sales, and licensing solution, Synchtank. Coming from the background of bootstrapping a successful independent punk rock label and publishing company, Joel was motivated to create a streamlined organizational tool for his existing catalog. That initial creative spark has since developed and grown into an internationally implemented, fully customizable enterprise software. Presently, Synchtank serves over 150 high profile clients including Disney Music, 20th Century Fox, Reservoir Media, Spirit Music Group, Concord Music, BT Sport, Red Bull Media House, Primary Wave, and peermusic. In our inspiring discussion, Joel explains various facets of the robust technology that drives his invention and what market he is looking to dominate next.
What was the primary impulse behind the establishment of Synchtank?
Initially, Synchtank really wasn't a business. It was an answer to a problem that I encountered internally as a music publisher. Around 2008, I had been running a publishing company for about 10 years, as well as my record label for about 20 years, which I'd started with my twin brother, Jason when I was 14 years old.
We had a lifetime of experience between us on how to run a record label and how to run publishing companies, but the one thing we lacked was any kind of organizational tool. There were databases and basic systems like iTunes and Filemaker, and then we had cabinets full of documents and massive spreadsheets where you couldn’t see all the columns and rows unless you printed it out and hung it on the wall. None of them communicated or linked together in any meaningful way to make sense of what we had signed over the past 20 years.
When people came to partner with us, it created even more work. I couldn’t remember what rights we had to any given song, let alone what the song sounded like or where the song recording even was. Some things were still on vinyl, DAT tapes, and formats like mini disks. It was overwhelming as an individual. My brother had since moved on to become an A&R guy, working at Columbia Records and then Disney's Hollywood Records, so I couldn’t rely on his help. I needed a force multiplier to figure out exactly what I could do with my catalog. That was the basic impetus.
I needed to link all of the song information to the recordings in a way that would make sense. A spreadsheet was never going to do that. So, I called my friend, Dave who was the bassist in my punk band in college at Syracuse University. He had become a full stack developer and he always had a natural inclination to teach himself things. I explained my problem and he said, "You need a database,”. I knew that it had to not only work for me, but it had to communicate that I had an extensive body of work to my clients. I wanted it to be able to display all the information needed to fill out a license, state the rights I had, give people a chance to hear the music, and showcase any relevant commercial information. I knew that opportunities would be much easier to grasp if I was able to communicate the value of an artist to a brand for a specific opportunity.
We realized we needed a platform with capabilities like iTunes and Dropbox. It grew beyond an internal process tool. After having done virtually every single job at my label, I had also become a pretty proficient graphic designer so I was able to envision what it should look like. After nine months of developing, we had a product that looked great and operated efficiently. I took it over to my friends at Primary Wave. They were only three years into their business and had been acquiring a lot of catalogs like Nirvana and Aerosmith. I was showing them my catalog, trying to get them to strike a deal, and they were like, “Forget your catalog. What’s this thing?”. That was the moment when I thought to myself, “Wait, this is a business?”. Up until that point, I thought publishers had their act together on this front. I had never seen behind the curtain. In 2010, I landed my first client and that’s when I started getting motivated to help people showcase great music and streamline their workflows. Synchtank is essentially a platform to communicate the vastness and value of your catalog to you and to your partners.
For those who don't know, can you take us through the core competencies of the company? What are the unique features that you provide to your clientele?
Our core competency is that we don't say no to big problems. Some of the business that we've won over the past year is credited to how flexible we are. We haven't created a platform that is strictly one thing or another. It's a content management system at its core, but what you do with that content is pretty limitless. It should be called “Do Anything You Want to Do with Your Music Tank”, but that doesn't fit on a business card. It's not strictly licensing software. That's only one part of it.
We figure out exactly what our client's needs are and then tailor super fast custom solutions for them. Some of our clients are teams of four people, working together in a room, but most of them are multinational companies like Disney, Music Sales, and 20th Century Fox. Massive companies like these have to be on the same page wherever in the world their employees are. We have ways to slice and dice these catalogs, so that they make sense for the local market, giving the appropriate teams access to the material they’re supposed to be working with. We give them access to the information they need at their fingertips across platforms.
It's not strictly publishers or record labels anymore. Our biggest clients are the movie studios. They are all music rights holders. The networks are as well. Every one of them has a need to figure out what they own, how they're using it, and how they're going to make more money off it. That's where we come in. We're not just some off-the-shelf product that fits everybody all the time. It's really about understanding the client's approach and providing the right tools to add value to their business.
We work with huge consultancies like Accenture to fulfill sophisticated builds for large companies. Some of the things that we're building now for our larger enterprise clients aid in analyzing the earnings and reconciling those earnings against assets and against contracts. Our aim is to help companies see where they are earning from their assets and how they are performing. Whether they're trying to find a partner or whether they're trying to see if there are black holes in their catalog, we help them see things that just aren’t possible with flat data.
What was your personal introduction to music making?
I started playing guitar when I was 11. Back in college, my dad was in a folk cover band called The Folksingers that performed Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, and Willie Nelson songs. He lived in Kentucky, and it was a big deal to him, so I was influenced by him. I also started getting into guitar, especially metal players like Steve Vai. I was into the music videos being played on MTV. That was my motivation for learning guitar. I never took formal lessons. I just sat there for four hours a day right after school, playing until my fingers bled. It might have been better if I had some training, but I was operating from the standpoint of, “If you follow your own road, cool shit happens”. When I was 12, I started my first band. Luckily, you didn’t have to be very good, it was more about the attitude. It was a skate punk band. We were terrible but we got out there and did our thing. My parents never said no. They always encouraged us to play music.
By the summer of 1991, I was 17 and playing in a band that had become quite popular. I had learned how to play guitar after six years of hard practice, and I was pretty damn good for being self-taught. That said, we were mainly jumping around onstage, playing hardcore metal stuff. We ended up having the opportunity to go to Europe and booked our own month-long tour. This was before the internet. We didn’t even have a fax machine. It was all arranged on the phone line in our bedroom. No one had any understanding of how big our label was at the time. It was called Watermark and we sold thousands of copies without distribution. When we finally got distribution, it went widespread in punk terms, allowing our records to be sold through retailers. We were carried in Tower Records stores. That was just the beginning.
After running a punk rock label during your formative years, what were the most valuable lessons you carried over from that experience and applied to Synchtank?
I’ve learned that you basically have to be cool with everybody because when you're a kid and you're coming out of the gate, the only currency you have is your reputation. In order to thrive, you have to be helpful and understanding. All of the things that have happened to me in business are connected to the lessons I learned as a punk rock kid. You have to be genuine. One of my favorite Mark Twain quotes is, "If you never lie, you have nothing to remember,”. You never get caught in a mess if you don’t BS people.
Synchtank is far enough along to be able to approach any problem that comes our way but it comes from this resilient DIY ethic from the days of bootstrapping my record label. Everything I did back then was trial and error. I never got an MBA, which is one of my regrets. If anything, I should have learned more about business, but I've learned everything I know on the job and surrounded myself with so many intelligent people with expertise in these areas.
Things don't happen overnight. I’ve made connections with people that don’t flourish, but then five years down the road, someone remembers, “That guy was always cool to me. Let’s give him a call”. Things in business become more serendipitous if people enjoy being around you. You should never have to force something or sell somebody hard on something. If we build someone a race car and then they let that race car sit in their driveway, what value are you really offering them?
Our clients are really a unique set of labels, publishers, music production libraries, studios, and broadcasters, and they have one thing in common, which is that they value technology and they understand that it's going to help them in work more efficiently and become more visible.
In addition to functioning as a content management database, I understand that Synchtank uses a music analysis algorithm, which aids your clientele in successfully categorizing their material. Can you elaborate on its capabilities?
Synchtank adds a layer of metadata automatically, making your catalog interactive instantly. The algorithm scans for things like BPM, tempo, keys, and moods. It will also search for songs that sound similar to each other and create little islands of music, grouping songs in a similar vein together to expedite pitching. You can search for tracks by era, sound-alikes, and specific sonic and audible attributes. Beyond that, you can create playlists within the system manually using the search engine or auto-generate them. Playlists can be sent directly or through an email marketing campaign. It’s all fully customizable to reflect your visual brand. Tracks can be streamed or downloaded in a range of audio formats, and if a client prefers, they can display the works through a DSP like Spotify or YouTube. Labels tend to centralize their playlist strategies and push them off to multiple DSPs, which becomes a revenue generator.
What’s great is that you can have an outward or inward facing system (or both), depending on your business needs. Some people prefer to have a wall garden with internal systems to pitch out of, and others prefer to have an external system that exposes their catalog to buyers. Our clients have the capacity to set specific permissions and restrictions for every single piece of content. They can analyze every way their targets are interacting with their catalog and make better business decisions using that data. We have a built-in CRM system allowing you to keep track of your contacts, your sales, your quotes, your licenses, your pitches, everything. We also have an API integrator for plugging into any third-party software like MailChimp and Salesforce.
Synchtank also has a sync-to-picture editing suite that allows you to audition a song from your catalog with an uploaded video and include that in a pitch. If you're pitching for a giant spot you’ve really got to get the message across as quickly and efficiently as possible. You can’t hit them with PDFs and links all over the place or they’ll move on. We’re able to streamline the communication between publishers and whoever the end point is, whether it’s a brand or a music supervisor. It simplifies and expedites the storytelling process in the clearest, most visually appealing way possible.
We also have blanket licensing and micro-licensing tools that allow clients to automate that process. You can section off parts of your catalog to clear instantly for smaller opportunities. An artist might have one particular song synced hundreds of times, which can generate the same amount of money as one huge placement. There’s often a lot of sales work involved in getting a huge sync. These tools can generate the same amount of revenue with zero effort.
Who have been the most meaningful collaborators in your journey to scale Synchtank into what it is today?
The people who initially understood what I was trying to do and led me to create a business are the ones that have been the most influential to me. One of them is Rory Bernard, who is our chairman now. He came on very early and has taken a hands-on approach over the last eight years as an investor and as a business person. He had the vision to scale Synchtank properly, taking it from a couple guys sitting on a couch and evolving it into the successful company it is today. He’s still a big part of it, acting as the brains behind the operation. I'm merely the evangelist. And then, we have my initial attorney, Ian Penman from New Media Law in London, who was one of the first to see that I was onto something bigger than a simple solution for my own catalog. He knew that something like Synchtank didn’t exist and believed in its potential. Those two guys and my early investors from Preparation Capital were very, very helpful to me.
Do you have any intriguing client success stories you'd like to share?
Absolutely. We have a large classical music client that recently told me that their business is self-sustaining. Before, they were selling through five other platforms, but now they have a Synchtank system which they use for their internal processes. It pays for itself through their micro-licensing activities. They’re pleased as punch because they're able to show their bosses and their partners every single thing that they've done and capture all of this passive income. It’s an incredible story.
Given what’s possible with Synchtank, we’ve seen our clients be more willing to license their catalog for user-generated content and user-centric licensing. By doing so, they’re completely opening up their catalog for monetization. Most rights holders have come to the realization that it’s awesome to have a sales team, but they need something else to back it all up. There are millions of people wanting music for their independently produced video content, and there’s so much money being left on the table by simply striving for million dollar syncs. Our clients have been able to use our technology to grant an incredible amount of micro-licenses. The companies that are thriving are the ones who are using these tools to their benefit.
Whether you're a big company or a small company, controlling your story and controlling your destiny is a little bit more compelling than just throwing things out there and hoping for the best. It’s the clever marketing-driven companies that are the ones that are going to continue to grow. In this twenty-first century, everybody needs a license to create something online.
Do you have more products on the way that you'd like to tell us about? Are there any specific business partnerships that will play a significant role in your next moves?
Absolutely. We have a lot of interesting solutions that are rolling out now or are on the way very soon. We've hired a couple of world-class business guys, one has run business in Europe for Gracenote for the past seven years. His name is Chris Cass. He's now our Chief Business Officer. Over the past year, he’s been helping Synchtank evaluate bigger deals and make our orientation more focused. The other gentleman is named Jim Brackpool, who came to us from BT Sport, which is one of the largest cable operators in Europe. It's like the Verizon of Europe - it's all subscription cable, which features all the premier league football, all the big sports. BT actually built up their music supervision team using Synchtank and the team won numerous awards doing so. Jim obviously comes from a broadcast background where getting things cleared and on the screen with compliance is super important.
We've signed some big deals this past year with broadcasters. One of them is with a well known “cultural news broadcaster and film production company, extremely popular with millennials”. From a music supervision standpoint and from a broadcast standpoint, we’re working on both sides of the coin to create tools for those that are organizing and supplying music, as well as those that license and use music, which are the broadcasters and TV production companies. It’s our goal to bookend the market, if you will, by creating sophisticated tools for both sides - supply and demand. Synchtank’s solution is widely available to any broadcaster or production company that wants to manage every aspect of their business, both creative and administrative, from creating proto-cue sheets to licensing the music used in their productions.
We have also developed an Enterprise Media Solution, which revolves around analyzing the performance of catalog, monitoring which territories the earnings are coming from over time, and so forth. This involves royalties but is more centered around business intelligence and how music performs – we always aim to add value. Synchtank is constantly improving by leaps and bounds because our clients are essentially the ones that decide what is important, though we have some good ideas ourselves, of course. Because we're not tied down by a big corporate structure, we can maneuver very quickly and solve problems that would take eons for a large company to do internally.
In your view, what is the future of music tech? What can we expect to see in the coming years and what role will you and Synchtank play in that landscape?
Wow! We have a pretty bright future ahead of us, which is fantastic. For a long time, I've been banging on about the need for more technological leadership in the music industry because you look at the video industry and what they did, now we’re playing catch up.
The positive is that there are so many new models and so many smart people coming up with things that haven’t been thought of yet. I am constantly blown away and want to be a part of more and more initiatives. People call me all the time and it’s just one brilliant thing after another. In the last six months alone, I’ve met some intelligent entrepreneurs and it makes me feel like we’re just hitting our stride. It’s not even started yet.
It’s funny to think that my cute little program was born at the very beginning of all this incredible over the cliff innovation that’s just around the corner. If you asked me ten years ago if we’d be working with major studios, I would have flat out said no. I can’t even imagine what will manifest in the future. Once you have the credibility and the trust of influential people, there are no limits as to what you can do.
For more information about Synchtank, visit their official site here.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Editing | Ruby Gartenberg, Alex Sicular
Research, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Joel T. Jordan, Emma Griffiths, and Synchtank.