As recently as Thursday, Preston Austin used the secondhand CD and streaming service Murfie to listen to his music in the cloud — that nebulous place where photos, videos and music files live online.
So he was as surprised as anyone when he got an email Friday saying that the local company had “ceased operations” and the “senior debt holders of the company will determine the process by which you may retrieve any physical media that you may have stored on Murfie.”
The company’s website displays a similar message, thanking customers for their “support over the years.”
Like many other users who have shipped their CDs and vinyl records to Murfie for digitization, Austin was taken aback by the sudden announcement.
“I’m sad about it,” he said. “I look at the situation right now and think I’m going to get my discs back somehow. I’m going to get this box of CDs back from them, and I started this thing a decade ago because I had a box of CDs.”
Austin, 48, co-founded Murfie in 2011 with fellow entrepreneur Matt Younkle. But he hasn’t been directly involved since 2016, when he left to focus on an offshoot music start-up, Rabble, which helps libraries around the country digitize collections of local music.
Murfie was conceived as a subscription-based service that allowed members to digitize CDs and vinyl albums and sell, swap or stream them from the cloud. It appealed to fidelity-worshiping audiophiles and record collectors who prefer to own the music they listen to online. It also served as an alternative to streaming giants Apple Music and Spotify, a platform for artists to distribute music, and a custodian for record collectors who didn’t have enough space themselves.
The concept “never really caught traction” during Austin’s time with the company, however.
“We didn’t have the explosive growth we thought there was potential for,” he said. “It was an inventory-bound online store, and buying a lot of inventory is expensive if you want to cover the 300,000 most popular CDs. We just didn’t have enough inventory, so too much of the search traffic was lost.”
Originally based in Downtown Madison, Murfie moved into more spacious digs in Middleton in 2016 to accommodate its stash of more than 750,000 CDs. Around that time, Chris Wheeler assumed the role of CEO from Younkle, and the company had about 20 employees.
It’s unclear who made the decision to pull the plug on Murfie. Rex Mangat came on as CEO in May 2018, but left in September after butting heads with the company’s board of directors, he told the State Journal.
“Generally, the board and I disagreed on what the core issues were,” he said. “I felt like Murfie needed to rapidly evolve its product offerings in a variety of ways. I’m a product guy and marketing guy and a huge music nerd, so I felt like I had good insight into what was missing in the wider streaming landscape. Getting everybody behind that vision proved a challenge.”
Attempts to reach members of the board of directors on Saturday were unsuccessful.
Until Friday, Austin had been under the impression that Murfie was going strong. The used CD business was growing alongside the resurgent interest in vinyl when he left in 2016, and he fully believed the future of the company was bright.
“I was quite surprised,” he said. “I didn’t have any reason to believe there was any imminent problems.”
It’s unclear how and when record collections will be returned to customers like Vince Jenkins of Madison, who estimated that he’s shipped about 150 records to Murfie over the years.
“I’m assuming, at some point — Lord knows how long it will take — we will get back our material records,” Jenkins said. “I don’t have any reason not to trust they won’t get them back to us. It’s just a matter of how long it’s going to take.”
Austin said he would reach out to his former colleagues in coming days in hopes of facilitating the process on behalf of customers. For now, he’s as confused as everybody else.
“This is leaving people underinformed right now,” he said, “and I really hope there’s no intention of leaving people in the lurch.”