Grooveshark’s Sam Tarantino: How One Music-Tech Shark Got His "Groove" Back
After the death of his co-founder and a company ending lawsuit, things were looking bleak for Grooveshark originator Sam Tarantino. Here he discusses how he came back from the lowest point in his life to work at Chromatic FM.
Guest post by Britanny Hodak on Forbes
When a five-year-long, $17 billion lawsuit brought by the major record labels forced Grooveshark co-founder Sam Tarantino to shutter his nine-year-old music streaming company and lay off 140 employees, he didn’t think things could get any worse.
“We were so close to making it,” he says. “If the lawsuit had gone the other direction, we would have been worth tens of millions of dollars overnight.” Instead, the company was gone—while industry and consumer publications alike were rife with Shark headlines and meme-worthy illustrations, dozens of foreign pirate sites began cropping up trying to capitalize on Grooveshark’s notoriety. “Once [the domain] was out of our control, every time they would shut one down from some Eastern European country, another one would pop up from Latin America,” Tarantino says. Universal Music Group, who gained control of Grooveshark.com in the settlement, redirected the true domain to a ticket-buying site.
Two months after what Tarantino thought would be the lowest point of his life, things got exponentially worse: Tarantino’s best friend and co-founder, Josh Greenberg, was found dead at 28. Music bloggers were quick to speculate the death as a suicide, although a coroner’s report ruled he died from natural causes. “The baseless speculation and rumors made things even worse,” Tarantino remembers. “People who had never met Josh and didn’t know anything about him were so quick to jump to conclusions. It made things even harder on friends and family.”
At this week’s FORBES Under 30 Conference, Tarantino delivered a stirring keynote address about what he calls the worst year of his life, and offered a hint of what will rise from the ashes of his first company. —which, with $60 million in revenue on only $3 million in venture funds and a monthly user base of 35 million members, dwarfed the early success of its later-rival Spotify before its shuttering.
Although part of the settlement required Grooveshark’s founders to admit wrongdoing (they were even required to suggest readers “learn more about legal streaming services by checking out Why Music Matters,”) the founders always maintained the Digital Millennium Copyright Act precluded them from the legal requirement to license music. “Despite best of intentions, we made very serious mistakes. We failed to secure licenses from rights holders for the vast amount of music on the service. That was wrong. We apologize,” the statement read.
“I hit rock bottom after Josh’s death,” the FORBES 30 Under 30: Music alum says. “I was really depressed for months. I couldn’t get out of bed, but I couldn’t fall asleep either. It was awful.” Tarantino’s grief was compounded by a sense of failure over Grooveshark’s demise. “I felt like I let everyone down,” he says. “My greatest fear was realized, and on top of that my best friend was gone.”
After taking several months to reflect on his options, he made a decision about what would come next: he would go ahead and launch Chromatic FM, the company he and Josh planned to launch together. Tarantino describes the new company as “human-powered radio.” And, as a radio service, Tarantino will not be required to deal with the onerous direct licensing requirements that ultimately became Grooveshark’s undoing but instead work through the long-established statutory license radio rules.
“Chromatic FM is a platform for tastemakers and listeners to connect with real people making radio shows,” Tarantino explains. “In just a few taps, broadcasters can start their own channels and listeners can interact with those channels in real time.
This time, success is personal for Tarantino: “I’m doing this for Josh’s legacy. For our legacy,” he explains. “I haven’t shared this publicly yet, but Josh designed the logo for Chromatic FM. It was one of the last things he created, and that’s part of what makes this so special.”
Tarantino admits that fear is still a stirring factor as he begins to work on his new venture. He and a small team of former Grooveshark employees moved to Denver, Colorado, to begin work on the product earlier this year. He says the support of those team members—those whom he believed he had failed—was critical in helping him overcome his temporary depression and focus on jumping into something new.
“The fear is always going to be there. But, even if we fail, so what? We’ll just keep trying,” he says, noting that fear and failure are part of every startup story—and in fact every innovation story—from the Wright Brothers to Apple and every company in between.
Tarantino says he reset his inner narrative of “I can’t do this without my co-founder. I’m the business guy and Josh is the tech guy.” He taught himself to code (“It was hard, but it was rewarding) and his new inner narrative is, “I can do this. I’m doing this for Josh. And I’m not alone, because in every line of code I write, he’s always with me.”
Tarantino, whose emotional address earned a standing ovation from FORBES Under 30 attendees, is currently raising capital for Chromatic FM. He says he hopes to launch a beta version of the product early next spring. While the new venture remains to be proven, one thing is clear: this battle-tested shark is back in the waters and ready to swim again.
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