Srinija Srinivasan in conversation with Adam Yukelson

Srinija Srinivasan is former Editor-in-Chief at Yahoo! and co-founder of Loove, a developing music venture designed to demonstrate how commerce and technology can be guided by artistic values rather than letting our culture be led by market values.

Srinija Srinivasan is former Editor-in-Chief at Yahoo! and co-founder of Loove, a developing music venture designed to demonstrate how commerce and technology can be guided by artistic values rather than letting our culture be led by market values.

You founded Loove with Josh Roseman. Talk briefly about the background you each bring, and what brought the two of you together?

Josh Roseman is a lifelong creative musician, trombonist, band leader, composer, producer - he has been on the vanguard of creative music in New York City for decades. He’s just an uncanny observer of things, and he’s made his life’s work not just to create music but to observe, in the micro and macro, what creates the conditions for thriving creative culture, and what inhibits it?

I’ve been steeped in the arts as an amateur, patron, supporter, and also steeped as a witness on the front row of the dawning and subsequent explosion of the tech industry as we know it. From these distinct paths, Josh and I came together and discovered a host of shared values, questions and concerns that we wanted to model solutions for. So LOOVE is our attempt to do that.

So what is Loove?

The pithiest way I have to describe what Loove is really about is: what would farm to table music be?

With the benefit of building on the decades of that narrative, to take the metaphor: my seven-year-old self raised in the veritable heartlands of Kansas really didn’t know where food comes from. My seven-year-old self really believed food comes from Safeway, not soil. Intellectually, I might have known you grow stuff. But that didn’t translate to the apple tree in the backyard is food. Apples don’t come from trees; those are hard to eat and they’re not bright and shiny red. Apples come from Safeway.

So it took movements of slow, local organic foods and farm to table ethos for me to understand a way bigger story That in fact I play a part in and have agency in and I am consequential to. So we need to tell way bigger stories.

With regard to music, what is the bigger story we need to tell? In the short quarter-century in music, which is something I care deeply about, we’ve seen and in fact we’ve co-created the decimation of the 20th-century music industry and erected in its place, in the name of democratization and power to the people, a data trading industry. Meaning: where does all commerce flow in music in the 21st century? It flows through Apple (iTunes), Google (Youtube) and Amazon Music. These are tech companies, they are not music companies. Whatever you feel about the sins and abuses committed by the “evil, bad” 20th-century music industry, they were music companies, at least. They were interested in what creates the conditions for music, and how to support and promote music.

I come from the tech industry. I recognize the value it can bring. But it has no business being the arbiter of our culture. And we co-created that condition in the name of “democratization” or “power to the people” or convenience when in fact we’ve just replaced one crappy middle man, the studios, with another crappy middleman, the advertisers! So now it’s not an A&R person at a big company deciding where to invest and find new art, but it’s what’s going to sell more Geico ads? What’s going to captivate my attention on the Geico ad.

So I know we understand this, but tech is like any other power we wield: it’s only in our values and intention that we determine whether our power is a force for good towards mutual flourishing or for ill toward domination and separation. So I often say: for all intents and purposes we’ve seen technology on capitalism. We haven’t seen technology on humanism.

There was this brief minute that I was privileged to be in the middle of, before the web was a thing, before there were capital markets, before there was an unbelievably fast consolidation of wealth and power. There was this minute where we actually saw this renaissance of what could tech be on humanism. But it doesn’t matter, because it was immediately and utterly squashed out of existence.

But I know that and I’m not forgetting that, and we can do that.

Loove isn’t just about music, then, is it?

Loove is in part an inquiry about capitalism and whether it can be compatible with humanism.

I chaired the board of a non-profit organization called SFJAZZ, so I’m deeply appreciative of the role the non-profit sector can play. I’m just really concerned that we increasingly relegate the things that we value most highly and most deeply to be taken care of the outside of our markets. Then what is the point of our markets? What are they for? Why would we allow them to have such outsized power in shaping our culture?

So, is it possible for art and culture to intersect in a way that’s humane and sustaining? Surely instead of employing human capital to serve market values, we can employ market capital to serve human values. But the way we practice capitalism, just as the way you see in the food industrial complex, it systematically breaks down whole systems into their seemingly constituent parts in seeking, eking out some profit by cutting out the fat or inefficiencies between those parts. But that thinking ignores the deeper creative reality of the arts. It precludes the possibility of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. When we ask questions like, “how do I eke out more from the system than I put in”, we co-create our destruction. When we ask, “what is my role in contributing to a bigger whole?” we participate in something generative.

You’ve certainly helped us see a bigger story. So coming back to Loove - tell us about some of the parts and how they add up to a greater whole?

If you wanted to introduce this farm to table story to a seven-year old, it would help to have a farm and table and actually demonstrate the whole end-to-end.

So likewise, at Loove, we have a music studio, we have a venue and label. The studio is production, the venue is presentation and the label is distribution. That’s the music end to end; the farm to table. While operating either a studio, or a venue or a label would be infinitely worthy endeavors, it’s not systemic. It doesn’t address the systemic questions. We’re really interested in addressing the overall system. So what we’re really about is offering a set of tools in the form of web-based software. Tools that enable the studio, venue and label to operate in a radically transparent, holistic collaboration. And that involves telling a much bigger story so that producers, artists and audiences - the key roles required - so that they all understand their roles and have a framework in which to participate in those roles with mutual appreciation and trust through accountability.

I’ll share a few concrete examples to ground this.

In the production realm, we’re building tools for a series (our name for a label) to invite collaboration with an artist, and to have clear processes to contract with that artist. For instance, we’re asking: what are fair contracts and templates? How can contracting be a turnkey process that is trusted, in a way that inspires informed, enthusiastic mutual consent instead of the prevailing paradigm of both sides lawyering up in a terribly defensive posture to protect against things, instead of working toward things?

Taking it even further: how can the key terms of that contract be transparent, not only to the parties involved but to the eventual audience too! This way people can see, when asked to invest in a project, what kind of budget was involved? What kind of investment did these producers make? When did this series recoup? What kind of profit does the artist reap a share of? That is, a fair share as agreed on by the terms of the agreement that we all can see. So these transparent profit shares are the model.

In the presentation realm, that agreement-related information is some of the content we can tell people to give a sense of what a project is about. But what about all the rich editorial content? In the 20th century we had liner notes. What are the proverbial liner notes for a 21st-century album? We could go crazy on this front! Certainly editorial information about who these people are: what’s their relationship to one another? What’s the vision and mission statement for this blood, sweat and tears they’re putting out in this world?

And finally, on the distribution side, to track the money. The beauty of a digital environment is that you don't have the opacity of the old guard 20th century, in which you don’t know if the artists are ever going to get paid. In a digital environment, it’s all transparent. You can actually track the proceeds for any project and have reporting on a project’s financial status. An audience member who is investing can know: where is my investment going? How is this ultimately helping the series invest in future projects, and helping the artist reap a fair share of the profits in perpetuity?

I once heard Theaster Gates say, “making a thing is cool, but what’s really cool is making the thing that makes the thing.” Loove is about making the thing that makes the thing. We’re about creating the conditions to facilitate movements in the arts.

Why do you feel it’s so important to facilitate movements in the arts, specifically?

Art is our most potent expression of our collective imagination. And we need imagination to manifest new futures. I like to say that art is the greatest technology humans have invented to move us to co-create a more humane future. Every social movement has its soundtrack. It’s no coincidence. Art isn’t just the fruit of cultural movement. It leads us as a teacher and guide. At Loove, music is our fruit but it’s also our teacher and guide for how we can employ commerce, aided by technology to serve culture rather than dominate culture.