TuneUp Media Moves Beyond Music Cleanup Into Sharing and Information Discovery

4/12/11Follow @wroush

Back in 2008, TuneUp Media in San Francisco created a piece of software so cool that more than 3 million people have registered to use it. The freemium program sifts through your iTunes music library and automatically fixes missing or incorrect song, artist, and album data. It also grabs missing cover art from the Web. In other words, it brings order to the chaos you generate when—like most digital music collectors—you throw together tunes you purchased, tunes you ripped from CDs, and tunes you obtained in, shall we say, other ways.

In its three years, the company has helped music fans clean up nearly 2 billion tracks. In the process it has attracted several hundred thousand paying users and hired a staff of two dozen employees.

There are just two problems. Once you’ve used TuneUp to clean up your music collection, you’re done—you don’t really need it again unless your collection grows substantially. Also, the world of digital music is on the cusp of yet another huge transition, from an era when everyone owns their music and stores it locally on a CD or a hard drive or a smartphone to an era when more and more people stream all their music from the cloud.

For both reasons, TuneUp Media is already reinventing itself. Even as its original product continues to win new users, the company has begun adding new social and discovery features, in an effort to stay in front of users even after they’ve scrubbed every track—and, a bit farther down the road, after they’ve switched to the cloud for their music. “Our biggest challenge to date has been pivoting from this notion of being a cleanup utility to the notion of being an enhanced information application,” founder and CEO Gabriel Adiv explained when I visited the company a few weeks ago.

It’s a sobering lesson on the nature of innovation: if you stop to rest on your laurels, you’ll probably wind up choking on them. Fueled by a fresh $6.3 million from IDG Ventures and other investors in its recent Series B round, TuneUp intends to keep moving, by expanding upon a feature called Tuniverse that help users learn more about their own music, as well as other features that let users tell their friends what they’re listening to and find out about local concerts by the artists they like.

“People come in and, first off, they clean a huge ton of music in their collections that’s been messed up,” says Adiv. “After that, it’s not like people will re-clean their collections. That’s precisely why we created features like Tuniverse and concerts and sharing, so once it’s clean there is all this really cool stuff you can do with it.”

Adiv has spent the last decade in the digital music industry. He used to work at Emeryville, CA-based Gracenote, which maintains a huge database of music metadata (song titles, lyrics, acoustic fingerprints for music identification—the works). When the first Apple iPod came out in 2001, Adiv was enchanted—but almost immediately, he saw how it created a new problem. “The iPod absolutely changed the way I consumed music. Portability and accessibility are huge; I was re-engaged with my music collection,” he says. “Amidst that, the biggest pain point was managing 10,000 songs on a single device, as opposed to managing CDs or vinyl. It was a major issue.”

Gracenote was “a pretty phenomenal B2B shop, but they weren’t building any consumer applications,” Adiv says. So he resigned, bought a round-the-world plane ticket, and took six months to think about his next gig. “I decided I wanted to create software that would solve the monotony of having to clean up my digital music collection,” he says.

With a technical partner named Raza Zaidi—who became TuneUp’s chief technology officer—Adiv built a prototype and started showing it to investors. The software solved one of the problems created by the unruly, organic rise of digital music sharing: when tracks get ripped and redistributed, they are often parted from the track names and other metadata that CD publishers have been meticulously providing since the 1980s (and that Gracenote, which went on to be purchased by Sony, specializes in compiling). “The cool thing about [digital music] coming up organically was that it wasn’t inhibited by the labels or those usual barriers to dissemination,” says Adiv. “The flip side was that the labels weren’t there to make the rules, so there was a bit of anarchy.”

TuneUp’s first seed investor was Vince Vannelli at San Francisco’s KPG Ventures. “He talked to his teenage daughters and they said yep, they needed it,” Adiv recounts. Since then, millions of iTunes users have said the same thing—in fact, the software became so popular that you can now find it on the shelves of every Apple store.

With TuneUp, it’s free to clean your first 100 tracks and download 50 album covers. For $20 per year per computer, you can clean up your entire music collection; for $30, the software will keep working for the lifetime of your computer. About 15 percent of free users eventually sign up for a premium subscription, Adiv says. Which, by the way, is a phenomenally high conversion rate—most companies offering freemium services are happy with 3 to 5 percent.

TuneUp appeals to users, Adiv says, for some of the same reasons a high-tech Dyson vacuum cleaner might. “Vacuuming is still a chore, but Dyson gets people really excited about it,” he says. “TuneUp really appeals to this OCD that a lot of us have. Once you’ve seen how it can clean up your tracks, it can become a very obsessive experience.”

But once your collection is clean, then what? Lately TuneUp has started to talk more about “hidden features that we haven’t necessarily been pitching but we think are effective and fun ways to retain our user base,” Adiv says. For instance, from the TuneUp sidebar that appears alongside the iTunes window, users can now get more social with their music. “The share feature goes in, grabs my play count from iTunes, and allows me to post on Facebook what it is that I’ve been listening to—the last five songs, the top artists, the most played, my favorite albums,” says Adiv. In that sense, TuneUp provides the kind of cross-network integration that’s missing from Ping, the social networking system Apple added to iTunes last fall.

Similarly, the Tuniverse tab in the TuneUp sidebar monitors what you’re playing in iTunes and grabs related materials from the Web—think artist biographies from Wikipedia, music videos from iTunes, album recommendations from Amazon, and band merchandise listings on eBay. And the Concerts tab tells you if your artists represented in your music collection have gigs coming up in your area, and lets you buy tickets through Stubhub or Ticketmaster (with TuneUp Media collecting a share of the revenue on every sale).

The big idea is to change TuneUp from a database-cleaning utility into an all-around infotainment experience. Down the road, in fact, the music cleanup utility could eventually become merely the billboard act at TuneUp—a way to get audiences in the door—while the real business happens at the merchandise tables. Cleanup “wasn’t a wedge originally—we just wanted to solve a problem,” says Adiv. “But we realized it was a bit of a wedge, once we started thinking about it.”

And the more people turn to TuneUp for supplementary services around their music, the better the company will be able to weather the coming transition to cloud-based music consumption— when we’ll finally stop buying tracks and storing them locally and simply subscribe to services that store our collections online and stream them to any device. Adiv himself questions how quickly this transition will happen. “While I’m a huge fan of Pandora and MOG, I don’t believe that the local consumption model is going anywhere,” he says. But even in a world where local collections and streaming music coexist, “the key will be for them to play nicely together,” and TuneUp could help with that by providing extra context and sharing options for whatever’s playing on your device at the moment, he says.

Meanwhile, the company continues to market its core cleanup utility, via a quirky marketing campaign that includes a VW bus painted in TuneUp’s signature red-and-white and a series of TV spots featuring hip-hop star Biz Markie. “In our first year, it was all early adopters,” says Adiv. “Year Two, it was hard-core music fans. Now in Year Three, with some of the different marketing strategies we’re using, we’re getting more of the intermediate music fans.”

TuneUp also benefits, in an oblique way, from the increased focus in the tech and investing world on other music companies, including Pandora and Skullcandy, which are both in the process of going public, and U.K.-based Spotify, which recently raised $100 million. “It’s great for us,” says Adiv. “People are going to continue to get their music in many different way—Steve Jobs said it himself, that only 3 percent of the tracks on people’s devices come from the iTunes store.”

The other 97 percent probably needs to be cleaned up and contextualized. That’s why 2011, in Adiv’s view, will be “another growth year for us.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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