A few years ago, developers Garrett Dodge and Ketu Patel were working on a mobile app called Fido Factor, which helps dog lovers find canine-friendly parks and stores. But then one night at a bar Patel realized there was a bigger problem that needed solving.
“One of the things that Ketu had noticed was that when you’re using a jukebox, it’s kind of a pain in the ass to walk across the bar and go use that while your friends are still hanging out and having a good time,” says Dodge.
Today, Dodge is CEO of Rockbot, an Oakland-based “social jukebox app,” which allows customers to request and play music at retail stores, restaurants and cafes. Patel is Rockbot’s Chief Technology Officer.
Rockbot is actually two apps—one for business owners, the other for customers. The app for owners allows them to create a playlist for their business, either from scratch, or with one of Rockbot’s music streams. Stores are legally required to pay licensing fees for music played inside the shop, although many small businesses don’t. Others subscribe to services like Muzak, which provides light background songs. Rockbot pays music licensing fees so that businesses can stream songs, giving shop owners a legal alternative to playing a Pandora stream (the Oakland-based company’s website says its music streaming service is not meant to be used in stores) and a less soft-rock oriented experience than Muzak.
Dodge says that Rockbot is more interactive and customizable than other options. Business owners can choose from a wide swath of music—over 7 million songs—that Rockbot makes available. The company also categorizes songs into genre playlists, like hip-hop or indie rock. Other playlists have themes. Typically, Dodge says, businesses will run Rockbot from a TV screen in the store, restaurant or bar. The screen displays the current song’s title and artist, as well as upcoming tracks.
The other Rockbot app, for consumers, lets patrons vote for songs to play at the establishment. Songs come from a “catalog” determined by the business owner, which can be much larger than the playlist—like a well-curated old jukebox, Dodge says. Patrons can use the app on their phones to “vote up” songs they like, so that they will play sooner, as well as to make requests. Essentially, customers who download the app can help DJ the music, without getting up from their table or barstool.
Rockbot is a response to “all the different ways in which music in businesses or other public venues kind of fails,” Dodge says, because it lets customers hear the soundtrack they want in their favorite stores instead of “some playlist thats made at corporate.” Imagine, he says, a Panera “full of young people working on their laptops, and the music is just playing Michael Bolton and Celine Dion on repeat.”
He’s critical of the Muzak some stores play (“You have a mix of music that’s driving the staff crazy”) and the digital jukeboxes, which because they source their music selection from the Internet rather than a curated collection of records, have wide but sometimes inappropriate selections (“Now someone’s in that dive bar and they’re playing Justin Bieber”). He’s especially critical of what he calls “drunk idiot behavior” — “You can play the same song over and over again. You can play the whole album straight through. You can be generally obnoxious in many different ways.”
So far their start up, located in a fourth-floor suite near Lake Merritt, has received $1.2 million in seed funding from Google Ventures and other investors. The office, which houses ten employees, is unassuming: there’s a handful of liquor bottles on top of a mini-fridge, A’s memorabilia around the office, plenty of laptops on desks, and Dodge’s dog Captain, a Vizsla, roams around. Dodge says the company moved into their current office in March, migrating from San Francisco. It was a natural step, Dodge says. He lives in Berkeley, and Patel, a graduate of UC Berkeley, has lived in the East Bay for years. “And there’s a lot of music start-ups in the East Bay, like Pandora and MOG,” Dodge says, referring to the radio and music subscription services. “It’s a good spot.”
Businesses subscribe to Rockbot’s service, paying $25 per month to use the app. There’s no contract, and businesses can choose to buy hardware from Rockbot that connects the music stream to a television, or use their own equipment.
Dodge won’t say exactly how many downloads the Rockbot app has sold on either the consumer or business ends, except that it’s in the “tens of thousands.” Dodge also won’t say how many businesses have adopted Rockbot. Until recently, he says, the company relied on interested business owners to contact them. They’re ramping up sales, though. Rockbot has clients in San Francisco (where Dodge says there are “about 15”), Austin and New York City.
Right now, there’s just one Rockbot client in Oakland, sports bar 3000 Broadway. Manager Johnny Luong says his customers “love it.”
“There’s no cost to them, and they use it on the phone,” he said. Luong said 3000 Broadway’s customers tend to play R&B, Top 40 and “some old school music” that the bar has set up on its Rockbot catalog. He especially likes a feature that allows him to advertise specials on the TV screen that shows what song is playing and which ones are coming up.
Dodge and Patel began working on Rockbot in May, 2010. Patel had an early version of the app working in their first full week, and six months later they launched the service at Bar Basic in SoMa in San Francisco. “We just sort of wandered over and said ‘Can we throw a party and set this up?’” Dodge says.
Rockbot is designed for cafes, restaurants and, especially, bars—which presents a challenge other app makers may not have to deal with. The start-up’s programmers try to “make sure drunk people can use our app,” Dodge says. Programmers have made buttons bigger and shinier, to smooth out the experience for when “it’s both dark and people are drinking,” Dodge says.
But the biggest difficulty for Rockbot’s technical team, Dodge says, is the number of platforms their service must be able to run on: Roku, Google TV, iOS and Android, among others. Multiplied by two—for the business and consumer apps—and there can be lots of fine-tuning.
Last Thursday, just a few hours before Mayan calendar enthusiasts predicted the apocalypse, Dodge and his co-workers were listening to an “End of the World” playlist, which was coming through an office TV. George Michael’s “Faith” percolated through the office speakers as Dodge described his business.
Dodge says that he’s discovered music through Rockbot, mostly the hip-hop and electronic music that he enjoys. He says that Rockbot is different because it’s more social that other streaming services: at stores and bars with Rockbot, Dodge says, when you’re listening with your friends “you’re having that music discovery and social experience together.”
This post was updated on April 11, 2013 to reflect the fact that the company, formerly known as Roqbot, has changed its name to Rockbot.