Paolo Fragomeni can play half a dozen instruments and owned around 4,500 LP records and a thousand 45s at the peak of his vinyl collection. When wanderlust took over, he digitized his entire library into about 50,000 portable MP3s that he could take wherever he traveled. The music industry has become increasingly populated by streaming services that offer a similar ability to listen to music anywhere, but the lack of ownership concerns Fragomeni. In the age of Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, and Tidal, the self-professed music collector saw an opportunity to cater to listeners like himself who want to own their music.
Alongside co-founder Aprile Elcich, he created Voltra, a digital music player and store that promises artists who sign up directly with Voltra will receive 100 percent of the revenue from the streams and purchases of their songs.
Voltra is a response to the growing dominance of streaming services in the contemporary music landscape. Spotify currently boasts more than 50 million subscribers, while Apple Music reached 20 million subscribers at the end of last year. Yet Fragomeni, whose previous startup venture Nodejitsu was acquired by GoDaddy in 2015, believes there will always be dedicated connoisseurs who are interested in actually owning music.
“There’s a pretty significant population of people who collect and own music, and I think that product space was a little bit neglected,” he says. “As music lovers, we really wanted to have a product that was totally focused on music ownership.”
Voltra’s desktop and mobile players — currently in beta testing — are free to download. Any users with a Voltra account can choose to either buy songs immediately or try out a new song with Voltra’s “stream-to-own” feature. It allows users to listen to an entire song once for free and then pay a small fee for each consecutive listen. After the 10th play, the track is fully paid for and officially owned by the user. Though artists and labels are able to opt out of the stream-to-own option, Fragomeni says the majority of Voltra’s catalog will be available with this feature.
For Fragomeni, this model offers listeners a low-cost way to figure out if they enjoy a particular song while also ensuring that artists earn money off the songs that get played the most. Eliminating the 30-second free preview is a particular point of pride for Fragomeni: “Thirty-second previews actually suck, because you might totally miss this really awesome guitar solo at 1:10, but that got cut off from the preview, so you never decide that you’re going to buy that song.”
Voltra users can also purchase a premium membership upgrade for $10 a month. Premium members still pay for individual tracks, but they also receive access to the Voltra Audio Archive, which automatically backs up the listener’s music files to Amazon Glacier storage. Fragomeni views the premium option as targeted toward “users who are invested in owning music and want a secure and long-term music archiving solution.” This emphasis on lasting storage contrasts with subscription-based streaming services, where canceling your account comes with the risk of losing personally curated playlists and listening history.
Fragomeni views Voltra as having an “ethical mission” in which “it’s really important for us to create a relationship between artists and listeners.” To accomplish this, Voltra encourages the discovery of new music for its users to own. Fragomeni describes Voltra’s music player and store as “symbiotic,” since the app generates song recommendations for users based on the music they already own.
Voltra aims to strengthen two facets of this artist-listener relationship: If music ownership is Voltra’s priority for listeners, sufficient compensation is the company’s goal for artists.
Both Fragomeni and Elcich have spent time playing in bands, and they continue to surround themselves with musicians. With the peer-to-peer opportunities of the internet age, Fragomeni recalls that the pair began to question why there were “so many middlemen taking a cut from artists who are trying to sell their music.”
So the co-founders decided that artists who sign up directly through Voltra would receive 100 percent of their earnings, since the company doesn’t deduct a commission from their song profits. This applies to artists who sell their music directly on Voltra; with labels and distributors, Voltra takes a cut of ten percent. It’s also free for artists to upload their music to Voltra’s store. Voltra — which is not ad-supported — earns additional revenue from its sale of Pro Features to artists, labels, and distributors for five to ten dollars a month, offering musicians additional perks like customizable sales reports or a public artist page on the Voltra site.
“The ultimate ethical objective is to try to have the artists be paid.”
Fragomeni cites his view that artists — particularly independent artists — are not earning enough revenue from popular streaming services as one of the inspirations for his company’s business model. As Voltra prepares to launch publicly, songwriters and their representatives are currently appearing before the Copyright Royalty Board to argue for an increase in their per-stream earning rate from companies like Alphabet, Apple, Pandora, and Spotify.
The Voltra team points to data from the artists’ rights blog The Trichordist, which claims that a musician can earn 99 cents after only 10 streams on Voltra, compared to 226 streams on Spotify, 134 on Apple Music, and 146 on Google Play. Spotify’s average payout per stream reportedly ranges from $0.006 to $0.0084, which is split among the the music's various "rights holders,” meaning that 226 streams would yield about $1.50, of which the artist would receive some portion. Resonate, a “streaming music cooperative” that began development last year, offers a stream-to-own system that is similar to Voltra’s — Resonate listeners fully pay for a track after nine plays — though Resonate deducts the standard streaming service commission of 30 percent of revenue, according to Forbes.
“I feel like it’s weird that [Voltra’s business model] is novel,” Fragomeni says, “but I really believe that it’s possible to have a sustainable business with really cool premium services where the ultimate ethical objective is to try to have the artists be paid.”
According to Fragomeni, about 5,000 participants have already registered in Voltra’s beta test, and the store offers nearly 3 million tracks. (For comparison, Spotify currently features more than 30 million songs.) Voltra aims to go live after reaching 10 million tracks, with Fragomeni tentatively projecting a launch date in late May.