It’s rare in music tech for a disrupter to emerge so rooted in the core values of the electronic music community, yet, in a nutshell, this is exactly what new software tool Aslice is.
Born out of a real need to address disparities within dance culture, the software offers a financial bridge to electronic music producers who frequently miss out on both the big paychecks of top-tier DJs and royalties from collection agencies. Aslice is on a mission to create a fairer ecosystem through software that enables DJs to effortlessly capture their playlist data and voluntarily offer a small portion of their gig fee (the amount is variable, but 5% is suggested) directly to the producers of the tracks they play.
The American company’s innovation works through gathering information captured on USB during a DJ set and then uploaded onto Aslice’s laptop software afterwards. It dispenses of the need to scrawl out half-remembered sets and go through the finicky process of uploading tracklists on the DJ's side, and instead acts as its own collection agency, using metadata and algorithms to match and attribute tracks to their owners through public databases.
According to the 2019 IMS Business Report, DJs made a total of $1.1billion from touring. Yet research published by the UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO) indicated a mere 0.4 percent of artists across all genres in the UK make a living from streaming royalties. Add to this, streaming giant Spotify’s recent heavy investment in non-music related activities such as military AI and celebrity podcasters and you have a landscape where producers frequently fall to the bottom of the food chain.
If Aslice feels refreshingly altruistic, a lot of this is down to the pedigree and commitment of founder, Zak Khutoretsky aka DVS1, who has long used his prominent position as a globally renowned DJ and producer to address the needs of electronic music communities. “Aslice,” he says, revealing the company name origins, “is a slice of the pie.”
Khutoretsky, who first emerged out of the 90s midwest rave scene in the US, could be considered an activist for preserving true club values, significantly with his 2014 essay highlighting the battle between art and entertainment and the importance of no-camera policies in clubs. Then, in 2019, Khutoretsky launched the initiative S.O.S (Support Organise Sustain), hosting panel discussions and seminars aiming to counterbalance the increasingly business and industry-dominated values of dance culture. If anything, Aslice feels like a natural successor to this committed lineage, from essay to discussion to real-time action.
“At the end of 2019, I was getting ready to make my kind of typical end of year post saying 'I have a great life as a DJ. Thank you to everyone for coming to the gigs and hearing me play and also for supporting my labels’.” Khutoretsky explains the genesis of the idea. “But I felt awkward making that post and I decided to instead make one thanking everyone for the music I get, for the producers who send me unreleased tracks."
“Because my DJ skills are one thing but the music I get from people is really the other half of my success. So I asked myself: How can I support the artists? Finally, I called my longtime assistant, label manager, and good friend Sebastian and said: I have this idea now that I'm playing mostly digital, I have all my playlists, all my tracklists, and I keep seeing a couple of hundred names of young producers who are sending me music, who are not getting paid. So I asked him to send 200 artists 50 dollars each as a thank you. Sebastian replied that it’s a great idea, but that it’s going to take a lot of admin time to figure this out. So we discarded this idea for the time being – until the pandemic overwhelmed all of us, and the whole scene shut down.”
It was during this uncertain period as nightlife shut down when Zak returned to his studio in Berlin and decided to go head first into it - arranging a focus group comprising, he estimates, about 50 artists, publishers, producers, agency people, big or small, unknown or known, to shape the idea. He then mortgaged his house, hired a development team and recruited Ethan Holben (former Global Head of Red Bull Radio and Vice President at Yadastar) to serve as the CEO. “And we started building Aslice over the last almost two years.”
The disparity between DJ and producer earnings has widened over Khutoretsky’s timeline. “I’ve been DJing for over 25 years now,” he reflects. “At the beginning, producers who put out records when vinyl was the only medium, you could sell enough physical copies to earn a living even if you just put out a record every so often. And then over time with digitalisation, the ease of putting out music took priority over how you actually got paid to create or produce or anything.”
Yet it’s not merely that the producer’s role has been financially devalued through digital means, either through the accessibility of making and releasing music, or the unliveable rates offered by streaming services like Spotify, who currently pay between $0.003 and $0.005 per stream. The existing performing rights societies (PROs) that are set up to distribute royalties, too, are ill-equipped to support global dance communities.
“One of the biggest feedbacks I've seen since we launched the public beta is people saying, ‘but why aren’t collection societies solving this problem?’ The collection societies already exist.” Khutoretsky explains, yet recent figures from AFEM (Association For Electronic Music) suggest that, at any given time, 40% of the Beatport Top 100 is not eligible to get royalties, as the tracks are unregistered with PROs. “We point out to them that this problem has existed for 40 some years now and those entities that exist to fix it, aren't fixing it.”
The reason for the ineffectiveness of existing collection societies is down to what Berlin based music tech expert, Kalam Ali, co-founder of start-up IN X SPACE, casually and with a degree of humour describes as ‘The Helene Fischer problem,’ referring to the German singer who reportedly earned $US32 million in 2018. He says: “If not claimed, money from PROs goes to the top artists at that moment.”
“The issue is,” Ali explains, “that you've got money coming in through either a venue paying a fee or ticket sales on the door and tracks being played from a music producer in a club context. And by law, the venue is giving back some money to PROs to pay those music writers.”
“It’s an established system, that works when you go to Glastonbury, when you go to any concert at Wembley or any big event, where venues have paid for these licenses and they pay out based on a standard model however, inside the clubs, this data is impossible to record, so whatever money's being collected is just going into a pool and if it's not claimed, it goes to artists based on radio airplay or streams.” Hence, the artists already in the spotlight are more likely to receive money in the pot from PROs than underground electronic music producers.
Club music differs from commercial music in both functionality and intention. Club tracks are by nature, designed to facilitate an experience for a community in a specific context and not to be (infrequent crossover examples aside) pushed into a commercial marketplace of radio play and maximum PR. Noting that club music isn’t built with the same visibility in mind as the music of Helene Fischer, a system like Aslice could benefit producers whose work isn’t designed to be received by a commercial audience.
“It comes at the perfect time,” underground DJ and producer, Monovsn, says. He came to hear of the software through a social media post in which DVS1 had been playing his music. Monovsn explains: “in this post-pandemic global climate, everyone is more aware, especially in the electronic music scene. It’s the time to leverage on that. it's a good moment to tell this to the big artists that they can do their fair part and support who makes the music for their sets.” In 2019, the top 10 DJs alone account for $273 million of the $1.1 billion dollars earned by all DJs combined. If Aslice is to succeed, it could be down to the patronage of big-name DJs - notable supporters of the software include Richie Hawtin, dBridge and Surgeon.
“Imagine if a producer didn't have to DJ to make a living,” Khutoretsky says, “if a producer could earn enough money from producing, then the DJs could stay relevant as DJs and producers could stay relevant. And if a producer is good and they can be compensated and they can spend more time in their studio, they're gonna become better producers, release more music, supply more DJs, And that ecosystem gets a lot healthier, not only financially, but also opportunity-wise.”