Spotify, meet your competition: UC Berkeley student Juliette Mekikian and TREBEL Music

Isabella Ko/Staff

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The history of music is one defined by its rapidity — not only are the ways we play music constantly evolving, from the earliest drumbeats and hymnal chants to the synthy earworms and club trappings that soundtrack our lives today, but the ways we access this music are changing as well.

For UC Berkeley junior and art practice major Juliette Mekikian, the history of music mirrors the history of art with a “very beautiful, synchronized” pattern. Both are constantly bending and morphing as the interests and habits of their curators transform from one thing to the next. But Mekikian also notes another uniting similarity between the stories of music and art — in contemporary times, both are controlled not by artists or creators, but by profit-oriented executives.

These executives are exceptional at keeping their fingers on the pulse of the art-consuming public. And when it came to music, they were quick to see the potential in up-and-coming streaming services, such as Spotify and Pandora. They signed their artists away to these platforms, and, as a result, musicians received little to no compensation for their music and instead became dependent almost entirely on touring and merchandise sales to support their incomes. Users, similarly, became frustrated with the invasive advertising of Spotify’s free version, and when they were unable or unwilling to pay the monthly fee for an ad-free experience, many turned to illegal torrenting, which only exacerbated the artists’ lack of compensation.

It’s an issue that disturbed Mekikian and her family. Mekikian and her sister were both involved in music in high school. Mekikian herself was classically trained, remaining a faithful devotee of Beethoven even in her college years. A troubling issue became a challenge that invited them to create a solution — and that’s exactly what the Mekikian family endeavors to do with its app, TREBEL Music.

“We came up with this idea to essentially create a platform that would enable us to pay the artist fairly while bringing music to the public,” Mekikian said. She’s wearing a black turtleneck and glancing periodically at her well-manicured nails — it’s not hard to imagine Mekikian co-founding a company.

As she explains it, TREBEL Music is “a downloadable service that allows you to do a quick one-and-done. You can download whatever songs you want — there’s a 15-second ad — and then you have the songs forever. … And during this whole process of the ad-watching, we generate revenue, and we can give that back to the artists.”

While Mekikian’s father took on the role of CEO at M&M Media, TREBEL’s parent company, Mekikian’s sister assumed responsibility for consumer engagement. This left Mekikian to work on user experience and user interaction. She currently leads a design team in taking note of how users are interacting with the app, what features would be most valuable to users and what sort of visual appearance best lends itself to a positive in-app experience — one that keeps users returning again and again. Her efforts this summer culminated in a total design overhaul, and when she’s asked about it, she beams with pride.

“This latest (revamp) really brought TREBEL into step with apps like Spotify and Pandora,” Mekikian explained. “We have a bunch of new features — we took a hint from Snapchat, actually, adding filters where people can video themselves listening to music and shareable playlists that we feel like our users really enjoy.”

The revamp also added a new comment section so that users can discuss the music they listen to, making TREBEL Music like a social network app in some ways.

“I feel like it’s attracting the type of users we want — and that’s up-to-date college students,” Mekikian said.

It wasn’t always the case that Mekikian and her family knew who their core audience was. Mekikian describes the early days of the app as targeting an “anonymous audience.” It was only later that TREBEL Music saw a potential market in college students.

“User engagement and user retention are very tricky fields. In the beginning, I don’t think we understood our user enough to the point where we could make an app properly for them, but over the years we’ve been learning about our user base and their needs,” Mekikian said.

The app has made tremendous progress over the years, and for Mekikian, it’s defined much of her young adult career. Her next objective is straightforward: learn as much as she can while studying at UC Berkeley and bring that knowledge back to TREBEL Music.

“TREBEL’s been part of my life for so long that honestly I just hope when I graduate that I’ve gathered enough knowledge … that I can bring a ton of new information into the company and help skyrocket it into whatever field it needs to go into next — and we don’t even know what that is yet, because everything happens so quickly,” Mekikian said. “But my main goal is to learn enough here where I can go back to the company and contribute in some way that I haven’t before.”

Contact Shannon O’Hara at [email protected].