An Instagram for music lovers

As app development explodes on campuses, three Tufts undergrads may have just created an Instagram for music lovers

Published: Aug 31, 2015 06:12:01 AM IST
Updated: Aug 28, 2015 02:43:12 PM IST
An Instagram for music lovers
Image: Jason Grow for Forbes
Amadou Crookes, Gabe Jacobs and Mario Gomez-Hall’s new app is fuelled by fresh cash and plenty of coffee

When Gabriel Jacobs first began coding back in the 3G days of 2008, the ninth grader at New York City’s Dalton School didn’t tell his friends. He was too embarrassed.

Staying up late teaching oneself how to code from YouTube videos was the opposite of cool. After all, Apple’s iTunes App Store had just launched and celebrity­status billionaires like Instagram’s Kevin Systrom and Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel didn’t yet exist.

But within a year Jacobs had created the ultimate cool app for a 14­-year-­old boy. His Fart for Free blew up among teenagers across the country, hitting No. 1 in the iTunes App Store for a hot min­ute and ultimately generating over 4 million downloads. Even before he could tell classmates it was his, they were already using the mo­bile whoopee cushion—with some 16 different fart sounds—to prank their friends.

Fast-­forward seven years and Ja­cobs, 21, is on the cusp of cool again. His latest creation, called Cym­bal, fills a strategic gap in the digi­tal music business, which has yet to create a truly social experience for music lovers. The app, developed with fellow Tufts University students Amadou Crookes and Mario Gomez­-Hall and launched just be­fore their graduation in May, de­scribes itself as “music discovery powered by friends, not algorithms”.

Think of Cymbal as an Instagram for music. The app adopts a simple interface embracing a “less is more” vibe, allowing users to post just one song, illustrated by colour­ful album art. Like Instagram, Cym­bal involves a home feed, personal profile, followers, likes, comments, hashtags and tags. Your Cymbal is your song of the moment—that throwback you’d jam to in your basement in high school, that song your friend’s band just released on SoundCloud. Your home feed, then, becomes an updated playlist curat­ed by your friends, your profile: The soundtrack to your life.

In just a few months the app has been downloaded at least 17,000 times, spreading from the Med­ford, Massachusetts campus to colleges and high schools as far away as Los An­geles. The trio just landed $1.1 mil­lion in seed financing led by New York’s Vaizra Investments and Cambridge’s General Catalyst, valu­ing the freshly minted startup at $6.1 million.

“It was straight-­up finals week,” recalls Jacobs. “We weren’t telling anyone because it’d be crazy when all our friends are studying for f­inals to be like ‘Yeah, we just got $600,000’.”

The founders of Cymbal are part of a gold rush in mobile app devel­opment raging on campuses across the country. Ever since Angry Birds went viral and Twitter and Snapchat produced billionaires, enterprising undergraduates have seized upon the fact that the quickest path to riches is literally at their finger­ tips. Learning how to create an app for an iPhone or Android device is as easy as downloading free software from Apple or Google and slogging through a tutorial. Says Aaron Hille­gass of Big Nerd Ranch, a firm that specialises in boot camps for devel­opers, “It doesn’t take a whole lot of money to develop an app, it takes a lot of energy and creativity.”

Energy and creativity are in abundance among the three bud­ding entrepreneurs who created Cymbal. All told, the trio have so far created 34 apps. Crookes’ iJumbo app, for example, is used by nearly all Tufts undergrads on campus to find out everything from when the next shuttle bus is coming to what is being served at the dining halls.

One hook for Cymbal’s moneyed backers may be the fact that the app doesn’t threaten other music services but instead complements them. In the same way you’d upload an album of vacation photos to Facebook and the best one to Instagram, you create a whole playlist on Spotify and set the best one as your Cymbal. Indeed, the app synchronises with Spotify and SoundCloud. If you discover a song you love, you can add it to your Spot­ify library and like it on SoundCloud directly through the app.

Who pays artist royalties when Cymbal users listen to songs? Not Cymbal, which is free. It merely streams the music from host libraries and piggybacks on the deals they have.

The idea for Cymbal evolved from a music blog Jacobs created as a sophomore in high school called Lower Frequencies. The blog had a simple mission: Review one great song a day. Four years and a thou­sand songs later, Jacobs was bored. He wanted music to be a conversa­tion.

In 2012 he met Crookes in Tufts’ most notorious computer science class, Comp40: Machine Structure & Assembly-­Language Programming. The pair bonded pulling all­-night­ers over homework projects. Mean­while, Gomez­-Hall, a human factors engineering major, was doing the same. The three coders developed a friendly rivalry, competing for spots on Tufts students’ home screens. Go­mez-­Hall’s apps consistently won on the front end; Jacobs and Crookes’ won on the back end.

Last December the three united to transform Jacobs’ blog concept into a social network for song shar­ing. When they launched in beta in March, everyone wanted to be on it. “Every time we added some­one to the beta, we got five or ten texts saying ‘Dude, add me too’,” Gomez­-Hall recalls. “Cymbal was blowing up.”

Gomez­-Hall and Crookes ditched their job offers at Microsoft and Google, and the coffee shop be­came their informal office. After­hours they met in the student cen­tre. “Sometimes we couldn’t book a room in the campus centre, so we’d have to take a call outside,” Crookes says. “It was freaking cold.”

On May 1, Cymbal went live on Apple’s App Store. Within two weeks, the app was on nearly all Tufts iPhones and has since travelled rapidly around the nation.

“I downloaded it four days ago, and I’ve been like freakishly tell­ing people about it because I think it’s really cool,” says Kellie Mardu­la, a rising junior at Boston Univer­sity who is also a DJ at the university’s WTBU Radio. Mardula recently discovered indie band Parquet Courts. “One of my friends ‘Cymbaled’ them, and now I love that band.”

Meanwhile, the trio haven’t had much time to bask in the glow of their graduation. Embrac­ing their nerdy side, a recent up­date added a Venn diagram feature that represents users who have set the same Cymbal so you can discover users with shared musical tastes. They’re hiring developers, and in the fall will move to Brook­lyn. An Android version will soon be released in beta, and a campus ambassador marketing programme is in the works.

Even if Cymbal fails to gain In­stagram-­like success, its 15 minutes of fame will produce long-term divi­dends for Tufts, which now counts computer science as its most popular major.

Computer science professor Ben Hescott is already beaming. “Either someone’s going to buy it, like Apple, or people are going to be talking about it because it’s something they’re using.”

(This story appears in the 04 September, 2015 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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