By Anna Lardinois, Startup Storyteller
Milwaukee native Ian McCullough is the creative entrepreneur behind Free Music Land, a peer-to-peer music licensing platform. The company was one of the eight Milwaukee-area startups to receive a $10,000 grant through the MKE Tech Hub Coalition‘s FOR-M incubator program in August.
Known in the music world as Cullah, the founder’s musical journey began when he started piano lessons at age three. His father worked in the computer science industry, so he grew up learning code and participating in family LAN parties. Equally influential was his mother, who played reed instruments as one of the 19 members of the legendary Wolff Family Band.
The Marquette University alum grew up to become both a musician and a computer engineer. He added the role of entrepreneur to his list of careers when he launched Free Music Land in 2021 to help fellow musicians raise their visibility, and ultimately generate revenue, for the music shared on the platform.
When asked about the revenue model of the business that connects content creators with musicians, McCullough said with a laugh, “Free Music Land is really about freeing the music, not necessarily that the music is free.”
“As far as the revenue model,” he continued. “Part of why I was really pleased and excited to be awarded the grant was to develop our new platform. We’ve been hard at work doing that, but there’s a lot more work to be done in order to enable payment processing.”
“Through the help of the FOR-M grant we will be able to integrate a ‘pay what you want’ system, like how Bandcamp does digital downloads, but a ‘pay what you want’ for music licensing,” he said.
“We just take a transaction fee. Our model is peer-to-peer. We’re just trying to get out of the way of people as much as possible and let them collaborate and try to build these tools to encourage the collaboration and empower musicians to have the freedom to choose if they want to do Creative Commons or if they want to do a paid version,” he said. “All the musicians are very ready and excited to try to enable the monetization aspects of things on Free Music Land.”
McCollough, along with partner Steven William Cooper, plan to integrate Free Music Land with the widely used payment planform Stripe for the next version of the product. Eventually, the company plans to move to a Cardano blockchain-based platform. Inspired by the Linux and Apache open-source models, McCullough and Cooper are building Free Music Land with the idea that its development will be a collaborative process with its users.
Today, there are many online locations where creators can find royalty-free and public domain content. McCullough thinks Free Music Land is different enough to make an impact in the field.
“I think the key thing is the actual peer-to-peer aspect of it,” he said. “There’s a lot of places that will require an exclusive license, or exclusive rights to license things, where you have to give up some of your publishing rights in order to (participate) and sometimes even in the case of both masters and the publishing. We’re not really trying to go after stock music. We’re trying to encourage original content creators who create their own music to be able to own their rights. We’re totally non-custodial.”
“We are just the facilitators of these transactions where the peer-to-peer model comes in,” he explained.
“Some other sites will have paywalls or monthly subscription fees,” he continued. “We have no plans for that. We are focusing ultimately on becoming a protocol that is beyond just our website, but something that is more of an underlying technology that could be utilized by any other company that could request an API.”
Application Programming Interface (API) is a tool that allows computer applications to communicate with each other.
“It’s an MVP of a marketplace with just one licensing option,” he said. The next steps are to expand the licensing options and then build out an API,” he said.
McCullough sees the acceleration of user-generated content as a potential boon for the development of the company. Noting the trends on TikTok and Instagram reels, he predicts that as content creators develop a more sophisticated understanding of copyright and fair use rules, music licensing will become increasingly important.
“Synchronization licensing is what Free Music Land is all about,” he said. McCullough explained that anytime music is paired with a moving image, the industry calls that synchronization.
“Sync is something that is going to be a much bigger revenue stream in the future. I think right now it is about 5% of the whole music industry.” He notes this number is on the rise, as more people are building their own videogames and producing their own films.
With all of the opportunity for growth, McCullough remains focused on the reason he began creating Free Music Land.
“The one thing I am excited about is to really empower the musicians in my community with this and that’s part of what brought me to create it.”
Using his own career in music to guide him, “I realized if I’m able to pay my rent from all the back-end monetization that I’ve gotten by giving out this stuff for free, imagine how much it could affect other musicians’ lives if I provided tools for them. The best way to help my community is to use my talents effectively and take it seriously.”
To learn more about Free Music Land, connect with them here.