Enter: Abe Batshon, a 37-year-old Austinite who grew up just outside Oakland, Calif. In 2008, Batshon founded a digital music marketplace called BeatStars designed to let hip-hop producers sell their beats online without having to negotiate typical licensing arrangements.
Years later, an aspiring Georgia rapper by the name of Lil Nas X was stumbling around on the platform when he happened across a beat called "Ninety," made by an equally obscure Netherlands producer called YoungKio, who had sampled the Nine Inch Nails song "34 Ghosts IV" in order to create it. Lil Nas X purchased the beat from YoungKio for $30. And just like that, two artists who'd been unknown to the world — and even to each other, seeing as they'd never actually met — birthed the song that made them both famous.
Country legend Billy Ray Cyrus sang on a remix of the song months later that became the definitive version.
Batshon, now CEO of BeatStars, had the idea for the product, or at least its prototype, in high school, he said. Back then in the late 1990s, he was an aspiring songwriter, and he hung out in online chat rooms where musicians and producers got together to talk shop and trade snippets of music. Being somewhat strapped for cash, "I would basically offer a sum of money that was affordable to me, whether it was like $20, $30," he said. He didn't care if the producer sold the same beat to somebody else the next day. He just wanted to get his hands on what they'd made so that he could play with it.
"I was just so amazed at what the internet was back then," he said. "It just opened up a whole new world for creatives."
Remember, we're talking late '90s San Francisco here. Not only was the internet taking off, but so was the Bay Area hip-hop scene with names like E-40, Spice 1, Too Short, the Luniz and Tupac, to name a few. "Just kind of seeing that at such a close proximity as a young child is what really drove me," said Batshon.
BeatStars now has more than 1.5 million active users and has paid out more than $50 million in royalties to producers who use the platform. Those producers pay a monthly fee to the site, but retain 100 percent of the sales revenue when artists purchase their music through the platform, according to a company spokesman.
Batshon said the way that music and tech co-exist in Austin is part of what drove him to move there in 2015.
"In the Bay Area, I felt like music and music technology companies weren't really being taken seriously," he said. "And so I said, 'You know, I think it's time to kind of just change energy,'" he said.