As part of our Founder interview series, The Startup Magazine caught up with Salo Sterental, Co-Founder of the SoStereo, a marketing firm that enables brands and artists alike to unlock the marketing power of music. The SoStereo firm that Salo helped build not only streamlines the way Fortune 500 Brands use music on their ads, but also helps indie artists build a musical middle class and earn extra revenues.
Salo built on his background as a music producer and engineer to see the power of music in advertising. In his interview with The Startup Magazine below, Salo discusses how the power of music impacts marketing and brand building and details how he built a company dreamed up in a college apartment to a scaled up marketing agency helping hundreds of companies and artists reach new audiences.
TSM: Describe what SoStereo does in 10 words or less:
Salo: SoStereo helps brands discover amazing music for their content.
TSM: With a bit more detail, what does SoStereo do?
Salo: We help brands unlock the marketing power of music. We give brands and creative agencies an easy and affordable way to access real music by real artists for their branded content and campaigns. The company partners with artists, labels and publishers to make their music accessible for use in ads/content, all while helping artists monetize their music while doing what they love – making great music. Our vision is to “Unlock Access to the World’s Music for Brands & Creators” – think Spotify meets Shutterstock. Our platform and service has been used by iconic brands such as Apple, Netflix, Target, the NFL and many many more.
TSM: What inspired you to start SoStereo? (Share with us what problem you’re solving)
Salo: Zumba Fitness approached Beto (my co-founder) and I with a unique problem. They had been licensing music from major artists, and while they loved the impact those campaigns created, they didn’t always have those kinds of budgets.
We suggested leveraging music from up-and-coming artists and offered up a few songs from little known Colombian artist, Mara, who had a similar vibe without the hefty price tag. The Zumba instructors loved it! And that was really the beginning of the SoStereo mission.
After college, I moved on to a post at BMG while Salo went to Miami to work with songwriters from Sony and Warner. We noticed that many artists were struggling to monetize their work. At the same time, brands and agencies struggled to find great music.
Being faced with the same issues as Zumba a couple of years earlier, either you spend tons of money for major artists or you’re left with commonplace stock tracks, we realized a middle ground was needed. That’s when SoStereo really came to life. We wanted to break down the walls of access to music, and technology was a perfect solution.
TSM: So you are working on the intersection of music and advertising. What are the disruptive factors in your sphere that make it so promising as a business?
Salo: The biggest problem we aim to solve is to provide access to real music by real artists for brands & creators making content across different content pillars – i.e ads, film/tv, branded content, etc. In 2022, were 81% of internet traffic is for video consumption and you can stream almost any song in the world at your fingertips, it makes zero sense that you can’t just as easily find and license any song you want for video content – whether its a twitch stream by a teenage gamer or a national broadcast commercial for a major brand. So that’s the big vision – to solve THAT huge problem, which is intricate and layered.
The more immediate disruptive factor is that just by giving brands access to a limited, albeit growing, list of real artists and combining that with our unique technology tools (such as data-crawlers, AI music auto-tagging, etc.), we are helping brands unlock the marketing power of music in new ways. They can take the music budget they would normally use for tired stock music or original compositions and use it in a more data-driven way to unlock a marketing edge via the specific use of music, i.e if it’s a social campaign in NY, use an artist that’s from NY or a vibe that is very reminiscent of the music culture of the city; use an artist that has a bigger social following that can amplify your campaign to their audiences. Music has power to communicate messages, connect to audiences and grab attention, and, for far too long, the lack of tools in the industry and lack of access to real music has meant that the money brands spend on music for their content isn’t reaching it’s full marketing potential.
TSM: Music is an important tool in marketing strategy. Is it more of a branding tool or more tactical in its ability to tie an emotional message to an advertisement, or both?
Salo: I know it might seem like a cop-out, but this truly depends on the campaign and the goal of the creative. For some campaigns, music will play an integral part in from a strategy perspective – you’re targeting a very specific audience and want a sound or artist that the audience loves. You want to say something without saying something (i.e. voice-over), so you want the lyrics to do the communicating. You’re doing a localized campaign and want a local artist/sound. You want to catch the users attention, so you want a vocal song as opposed to a simple music bed. These are all examples in which music plays a crucial role. But, there are campaigns that the audience is pretty broad, there’s a lot of voice-over communicating the message, and the music just needs to fit nicely in the back, not distract the audience, and be more tactical in conveying an emotion rather than be a driving force.
TSM: On the business side, in your history of launching and scaling SoStereo, what have been the primary challenges in your scaleup journey? Hiring? Quality control? Capital?
Salo: The biggest challenge has been capital. Like other big ideas, everyone tends to shoot you down at first. “Oh that’s been tried and failed before,” “that’s never gonna happen” etc. And with that, it’s harder to get capital. Ironically enough, looking back, all of the ‘thesis’ that we had when we were first conceptualizing, SoStereo have been proven out over the years. So on one hand, it’s great to be validated about our approach to space, on the other, it’s a little disheartening to know if we had more capital earlier on, we could’ve been further ahead. But with that said, the lack of too much capital has helped us run a really tight ship with great unit economics and KPI’s, something that given current market conditions people take notice of. Nothing substitutes running a solid foundational business, and you see a lot of companies that are flush with cash that aren’t as diligent and, when times get tough, they don’t have the foundational business and discipline to navigate through.
TSM: Going back to your early career decisions, tell us what factors influenced your decision to be an entrepreneur?
Salo: I think I always wanted to be an entrepreneur without realizing what “entrepreneurship” was or what an entrepreneur is/does. As a teenager, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in music, specifically as a producer & songwriter. It just so happens that most producers and songwriters are their own businesses – they’re all entrepreneurs. So without even realizing it, that was just the path I was taking.
I also happened to love talking to other entrepreneurs. I was raised in a family where a lot of close relatives or family friends ran their own businesses, and I remember loving hearing about their different experiences – specifically, I loved the idea of building something from scratch, of getting to wear many hats, and of being challenged every day with something new. Those didn’t sound like jobs to me, they sounded fun, like it could never be boring or mundane.
TSM: What characteristics does it take to lead a startup success to a scaleup success?
Salo: I think adaptability is, if not at the top of the list, at least in the top 3. One needs to realize that the processes, efforts, lessons that work for a team of 2 or 3 won’t work for a team of 10. Similarly, what works for 10, won’t work for a team of 50 or 100… so you constantly need to look at your processes, workflows, leadership, and even culture, and adapt to the dynamics of a growing company and team. Even hiring can be thought of as a subset of adaptability whereby at first you’re hiring generalists that can wear many hats because you simply don’t have the resources to hire individualists (people that are great at very specific things) and as the company grows, you need to adapt that hiring.
I would also put culture in the top 3. One of the most underrated jobs of a leader in a scaling organization is making sure the culture doesn’t get diluted. If you have a strong foundational culture, and as a leader you make sure you hire, reward and fire based off of it as the company scales, then the flywheel of strong company culture should make maintaining and strengthening the culture easier as the company scales. Employees hold each other accountable and take responsibility for keeping a strong culture as opposed to it falling solely on the shoulders of the leader.
TSM: How do you handle the challenge of balancing the demands of entrepreneurship with personal life responsibilities and parenthood?
Salo: In a post pandemic world where some of us are still working from home, it’s definitely important to set limits and unplug to a certain extent. It gets easy to always be on in a work-from-home environment, especially as an entrepreneur, so whatever one’s personal limit is, it’s important to set it and be disciplined with it within reason. Personally, I like to have a “close-the-office” type hour barring any emergencies or things with deadlines. This allows me to spend quality time with family before my son is off to sleep. I also like to limit the amount of work on the weekends to emergencies – I think it’s important to unplug and spend quality time with loved ones in order to be recharged. I’ve found that that distance sometimes provides space for more high-level thinking about things rather than the typical day-to-day where one is so focused on executing the work at hand. I also happen to belong to a family of entrepreneurs so casually hanging with family on the weekends is a great time to bounce ideas and, again, provide a different perspective in a relaxed and casual environment.
TSM: What is the most important thing you can tell other startup founders?
Salo: Be tenacious, hungry to learn, eager to knock on doors even if the answer might be no (or no answer at all), and be humble enough to take in feedback – not just hear it but really internalize it. Entrepreneurship is a journey with ups, downs, twists and turns, and you need to be mentally prepared for it – it’s not for everyone, and that’s okay.
TSM: Tell us one thing about yourself that most people don’t know.
Salo: I’m an avid sports fan of all of the Miami teams, and I love to take lessons from sports culture and building championship teams and applying that to our business. To have someone like Pat Riley locally and be able to learn about him and the way he runs organizations is an amazing opportunity.