Max Snow is the CEO and founder of Backtrack, an app for music sharing and discovery. A freshman living in Epworth Residence Hall this year, he developed Backtrack as a high school student and launched the new app last week. The Chronicle’s Jenna Zhang spoke with him about Backtrack and starting college.
The Chronicle: Where did the idea for Backtrack come from?
Max Snow: Backtrack originally started as a string. So originally we had the radio that was similar to Pandora and we had the same type of features as Spotify, such that we have access to twenty million songs. We created our own social interactivity aspect.... But really what happened was we get lucky with a lot of investors.
We have two investors who are in the music industry.... Throughout the last year, I traveled to Sundance [Film Festiva], South by Southwest, Cannes [Film Festival], and in a week I’m going to be leaving for Toronto for six days—that’s where we’re actually officially debuting the app. But they set us up with meetings with CEOs and chairmen of all the major record labels, management companies of literally everyone, and it was basically the consolidation of everyone’s opinions of the current state of the music industry where we got the idea that the best app right now—to avoid licensing but still benefit the industry—was something that actually connects the industry.
What we learned was that, as of today, there’s a fragmentation between the major labels, but between the major labels and independent labels. And if we can actually connect them with artists, it would not only result in the circulation of more revenue but the launching of numerous careers.
TC: What were the big challenges to getting Backtrack started and going?
MS: If we go back to 1997, that’s when young Sean Parker created Napster. Now the irony about that is that he wasn’t just shot down for free music.... The music industry detested him because it was a change. It was the first change from CD to digital. And it’s ironic because even today with the current royalty rate system, the music industry still uses something called analog royalty rates, which is what they used for CDs, so artists make no money when they’re signed to really any label. And it’s digital distribution now, so they don’t have to do as much work. It’s not even comparable.
But the point is that they don’t like change. So we’ve talked to Sony, Warner Brothers, XL Recordings—but even if we talk to small record labels in Czechoslovakia, it’s the fact that they have to...change the way that they currently review A&R submissions, which is review the way that they sign new artists. And any type of change for any type of corporation serves as a kind of impediment and obstacle that people want to put off for as long as possible.
TC: Have you received any sort of similar resistance with Backtrack?
MS: We actually created a spreadsheet of over 13,000—a lot of time on my hands in high school—we created a spreadsheet of over 13,000 artists, managers and labels. The thing with labels is that Backtrack is actually considered a 180 in the music industry. There’s something called DIY labels, so self-distribution, which is now becoming the new paradigm of the industry, but we’re kind of saying "No." The shooting down of Napster really destroyed the music industry’s reputation, because they were rigid and obstinate that CDs and physical distribution was the way to go.
But with us, we really want to empower the labels and kind of galvanize their dying reputation. The level of greed that existed over a decade ago is kind of gone, and that was one of the reasons why the industry has gotten such a bad rap. But if we can shine a new light on some of the labels so we can re-empower them. Then there are certain novelties and amenities of having labels that self-distribution just isn’t worth the attempt.
TC: Is this an ongoing project?
MS: We just launched last Friday. Everything up to last Friday has been development and planning. So last week, it was really our big outreach with the 13,000 producers, managers, and labels. Throughout last O-week and forward, I get maybe about 130 emails per day. It’s horrible. We’re always calling people because they’re interested and an email doesn’t really cover it. As I did, in about two weeks... I’m heading off to Toronto, that’s where we’re officially debuting Backtrack.
TC: What does your playlist look like?
MS: I’m a true independent lover. I love Arcade Fire. I guess that’s an injustice to say I love independent—I love everything. My playlist could go anywhere from Arcade Fire to [Harry] Nilsson, who’s a 1960s legend, he’s amazing, to Metallica. It’s all over the place. My life, the short 18 years that I’ve been on this earth, has incorporated every element of music.
TC: How did you decide to come to Duke?
MS: One thing I really loved about Duke, which differentiated it from other schools, was that it had a lot of focus on exploration, especially because I’m a Trinity student. This is extremely time consuming—I have to be a college student, but I also have to do this [work on Backtrack]. We’ve made a lot of arrangements and deals with people. More importantly, it’s the fact that there’s a lot of different options, there’s not one set curriculum to accept.
One of my classes is Germany’s response to the Holocaust and Nazism through film. I don’t know if any other college in America would offer a class as abstract but focused as some of the classes I saw during the registration period. So I mean, it’s that type of optionality, and the furthest thing from a dearth of imagination—and I felt as though, when I was choosing classes, that there was always more to choose.
TC: What are you looking forward most to at Duke?
MS: I came from an extremely small town of about 80 kids in my high school.... So when I got started, getting out of the bubble is unbelievable. And it’s cliché to say that "Oh, I’m looking to make new friends," because yes, I’m looking to make new friends and try new things, but more importantly for this year, I’m trying to get the experiences I’ve never been able to have in my small town.
TC: Do you have any future projects in mind?
MS: We have smaller projects that we intend to launch upon reaching certain milestones. One thing I’ll discuss is [what] we call the Backtrack incubation program, which is a subset of Backtrack only for Backtrack members.... What it is, is artists who don’t want to use Backtrack services to find their own manager or label can apply for the incubation program, and we’ll connect you with our network of Sony, Warner Brothers, Universal and labels from all over the world. More importantly, we’ll actually distribute your music. Basically we’ll get their career started. So that’s one project of Backtrack, it’s a project I intend to launch later this year.