Looking around Envato’s marketplaces, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that the designers and creators are actual people. With little information at our disposal, other than usernames and avatars, it can be difficult to uncover the identities that lurk beneath.
Thanks to AudioJungle’s new PRO (Performance Rights Organizations) policy – which looks after royalties for musicians should their work be played on TV, radio or film – many AudioJungle composers and creators are going through the process of unmasking themselves. And one of them caught my attention.
“Why the name StudioMonkey?” I ask the creator in a conversation over Skype. “I just needed to come up with something for AudioJungle when I joined, and I had this old crappy logo that I’d done. It kind of looked like a monkey wearing goggles, a mask and headphones. I just thought monkey, StudioMonkey, cool.”
By the time composer and producer Gen Rubin landed on Envato Market, he’d worked in the music industry at its peak, had been nominated for a Grammy Award and had won a Latin Grammy for Best Song.
After moving from Seattle to L.A. and struggling for a while in the 1990s, Rubin made a bunch of connections, and eventually ended up signed to Babyface, working with artists like Az Yet. He soon started writing songs for Aretha Franklin, Mary J Blige and doing work with David Foster, Patti Labelle and Diana Ross.
It was an era in which the music industry was full of money, singles were dominant and album sales were off the charts. “Not to sound wistful, but that was a great time,” he says. “Budgets were big and we were being flown all over the country just to write songs.” But in the early 2000s, the growing popularity of the internet, and sites like Napster, changed things drastically. Rubin didn’t actually feel the tide turning at the beginning. “Not with Napster. But I think what Napster led to, all the peer to peer stuff, that’s when the piracy really got out of control.”
He doesn’t blame it all on piracy, however. Instead, he cites the music business’ lack of foresight. “Record companies stopped developing long-term artists. I think you basically trained an entire generation of people to view music as fast food.”
The Backstreet Boys, NSYNC and Britney Spears were in vogue at the time, leading to what Rubin believed was a more manufactured approach to music. He thinks they diluted their own product, filling albums with one or two singles, and the rest with music of varying quality. “[People] were angry about having to pay $15 for basically one song on the whole CD,” he says. “And then Napster got shut down, which record companies could’ve had a little bit of control over if they’d actually cut a deal with them.”
“I think you basically trained an entire generation of people to view music as fast food.”
By the early 2000s he was ready to leave L.A., deciding to move to New Jersey. “Because of my work with Paulina Rubio and Luis Fonsi, and having some success with them both here and in the Latin market, I started working on a bunch of Latin projects.” With Fonsi, he would work on the hit single, “Aqui Estoy Yo”. “We’d written this song and then he invited three other superstars from Spain, Mexico and Argentina to sing on it.” It was a big hit and won the pair a Latin Grammy award for “Song of the Year.”
He started working in the Asian market with a few Korean and Japanese artists like girl group, Girls Generation. But his experience working on a single for popular South Korean singer, Kim Hyun-Joong was a wake-up call. “I was excited, thinking this is gonna be big, it’s gonna come out and go number 1.” It did, but when the royalties came in, they were not what Rubin was expecting. “It was just so shockingly bad that I was like ‘God, what is happening? How can I sustain a living like this anymore?’”
A month later, he got a call from a friend who was working at a publishing company, asking him for a bouncy, light, 30 second track for a commercial. “Do you think you can do it?” she asked. An hour and a half later, Rubin had sent something over. The company picked it up. “The fee ended up being around ten times as much as I got paid for that Korean thing, and that was a big surprise to me.”
“How can I sustain a living like this anymore?”
After a taste of the money he could be making, Rubin set on a path to find more work within advertising. He got in contact with a friend in the New York ad industry and asked them to hire him. “We can’t afford you,” his friend responded. When he asked where they were getting their music from, his friend said, “We just go to places like AudioJungle.”
He’d never heard of the site before, so he checked it out, and had soon uploaded his first track.
“Electro Jam” is an electronic, synthy piece that Rubin says – in retrospect – wasn’t the greatest fit for the market.” Nonetheless it was now out there.
He left for vacation a few days later and wouldn’t think about the track for two months. “I actually totally forgot about it,” he says. However, upon his arrival back home he discovered it had sold three times. “I know that’s not a lot, but I think it was just kind of shocking to me that anybody had bought it or even noticed it was there.”
He started looking at the market more closely, trying to figure out what worked. “I really got obsessed. For a period there I was doing a track a day.” At that time folk music had a big presence on the market, so he leaned into that genre and suddenly his stuff started selling.
“It was just kind of shocking to me that anybody had bought it or even noticed it was there.”
It was a great opportunity, but there was an issue. “I didn’t realize how bad the timing was with all the holidays coming up,” he tells me. “So it kind of did something in those first few weeks, but then as soon as Thanksgiving and Christmas hit it just died as all the holiday tracks went up the chart.”
In the summer of 2015, he and his family moved to his hometown of Seattle, leaving New Jersey and the daily grind of the music industry. “I’d just been in it so long,” he says. “It was less interesting to me, and so the need to stay in a music town like L.A. or New York just wasn’t there anymore.” Having found an opportunity making music for advertising and AudioJungle, he concluded it didn’t matter where he worked from.
For a few months, as he moved, Rubin went dormant on AudioJungle and his sales suffered a significant drop. However, not long after this, Envato held a community remix contest, supplying a bit of MIDI, and asking the community to mix it as a piece of music and put it to a video.
With an upcoming business trip to Japan scheduled, Rubin wasn’t sure he’d be able to take part. “But then I figured, why don’t I use my trip to Japan to shoot the video?”
He remixed the song, called it “Take Me Away” and had his wife sing it. He then filmed his whole journey, from driving to the airport, to getting on the airplane, to walking through the streets of Tokyo.
It landed him in second place, for which the prize was another featured track. “It was kind of like I got a second chance.”He chose to feature “Clap Whistle Surf,” or as it’s now called, “Upbeat”, which climbed up the charts, propelling him to Elite status – pushing his sales above $75,000 (US) – and landing on the bestsellers list, where it remains today.
Rubin now tries to write a track a week, aiming to maintain his visibility on the marketplace. He’s also leaning into that goal quite literally now, as he steps out from his StudioMonkey moniker to reveal the Latin Grammy winning identity previously hidden underneath.
When I ask him whether he was concerned colleagues from the record industry might find out he was on AudioJungle, he says, “Definitely in the beginning. Now I kind of feel that times in the record industry have changed so much that if you’re still making money doing music, so what?”