Meet the 21-Year-Old CEO Who’s Been Hosting Your Rap MP3s

February 27, 2012

Hulkshare is a file hosting site built specifically to help people share rap music. By permitting anonymous, un-traceable file uploads, the site became a major player in the no-questions-asked online storage game, and a haven for the grey-area MP3s embedded and linked to on rap blogs (including this non-exclusive rap blog). Now, in the wake of shelved anti-piracy bill SOPA and the FBI's enormous criminal copyright case against file locker Megupload, Hulkshare faces something of an identity crisis. They've started requiring users to log in in before uploading files, redesigned their media players and temporarily discontinued a popular revenue sharing program which rewarded bloggers for driving traffic to the site. Hulkshare now employs the services of Audible Magic, an automated content filter that helps copyright holders blacklist their files, and in turn, the artists and industry professionals who've come to rely on Hulkshare are scrambling to reckon with its overhaul. Some MP3 outlets have turned increasingly to Sharebeast, a file locker that still allows anonymous uploads, driving a substantial increase in that site's traffic. (In the last month, Hulkshare has seen a drop in daily visitors.)

Hulkshare's CEO Theodore Brinkofski talked with us about starting the site, how it's run and his strategy for surviving the government's ramped-up fight against illegal file sharing. At just twenty-one, Brinkofski is a through and through internet kid—though he doesn't know how to code and isn't on Facebook or Twitter—and lifelong hip hop fan. (One time, Wale came at Brinkofski in a freestyle for saying he wasn't a big fan of his music.) Brinkofski started Hulkshare while he was a student at Cornell, where he recently re-enrolled this semester after taking some time off. He doesn't think people should have to pay for music, but concedes that that may not be a viable model right now. "We may not build what the people want," he said in a follow up email, "but we will build something that makes the RIAA satisfied entirely with online music sharing."

How did you start Hulkshare? We launched in December 2009. I was a sophomore. My running coach at Cornell was the founder of one of the larger running websites in the world. He was making money. I’m very interested and passionate about the hip-hop space and the blogging space, so I just taught myself some technology things and started the website. I worked on it every day and stayed dedicated to it and kept growing it.

What were your goals for the site? When I was going to hip-hop blogs, I was really annoyed. The sites they were using for hosting had pop-ups and waiting times. So I was like, I’m just going to do something that gives you a better user experience, faster and free, and then eventually make a profit. At first it was a break-even model. Anything I made went out to the artists and the publishers. I did it that way was because I was on financial aid at school. If I made money, I would have to pay it to the school. My goal was just to have fun, try to meet people and network. Now Hulkshare is definitely doing some profits. We’ve become more efficient—cutting down costs, streamlining the process, building a better reputation with advertisers. I’m looking at it as an investment. I'm only 21, and I'm preparing myself for the long term.

How did you manage to grow the site to be what it is today while you were in school? I worked on Hulkshare for a year as a student, and then I took a year off and focused on it. For the first ten months I did the site by myself. Then I met a guy in Norway and he became my first partner. Whenever I met somebody I liked online and they brought value, I’d pay them and add them to the team. The team is entirely remote. That guy from Norway, I’ve never even spoken to him on the phone before. We talk just through instant message and text message. As long as you have the wi-fi connection and a laptop, I’m willing to hire you. I would team-build with a lot of people quickly. Guys from Israel, Thailand, the Netherlands, some people from Brazil, Mexico, Spain, Uruguay.

What do those guys do? They’re all pretty much coding. It’s so random. It’s just cool because when you deal with all these people in these countries, they all can’t speak English but they can type in English. That opens up opportunities. I know zero coding. All I know is how to motivate others and how to provide the right incentives to maximize efficiency. For example, how do I motivate a Russian, on the opposite time zone working for five dollar an hour, to complete an urgent task at my request? I’m probably the only non-tech guy in the company. Hulkshare is me and programmers—the server men, the tech men, the developers and the team leader. Accounting gets outsourced to Indians and all that good stuff.

Megaupload is gone, and other file lockers like Filesonic and Fileserve are basically shut down too. Where does Hulkshare stand now? The internet is changing, for what seems like the worse. The space we’re in is ridiculous. It’s a total gray area. It just sucks because it’s really holding up technology. We get hundreds of artists complaining to us each day. We’ve got the labels complaining to us. It’s really annoying.

What do labels complain about? The labels complain that something is a copyrighted song, and then they send us this document with like, eight elements of why we need to take their song down. And then we do. But the labels send many false take-downs. They try to undermine anything, but I don’t blame them. Nobody knows what to do.

How many takedowns from labels do you get every day? I can’t answer that one. I’m sorry.

Hulkshare’s been significantly redesigned in the last month. What are your goals for the reworked site? Right now we have the RIAA totally on us for garbage, because now they can use the Megaupload take down as leverage to require us to make changes to the site. The redesign came with changes to the backend, because of the Megaupload indictment. We had this revenue sharing program. It was very popular. If bloggers drove traffic to Hulkshare, we would share ad revenues with them. Then the RIAA recommended we stopped doing it. So we stopped the program, lost users, got a lot of backlash. But then our lawyers go in there and find out it’s not illegal. The RIAA is not acting in good faith. It’s going to be a fun battle in the next year or two. But the revenue share program will not be returning so soon. Users can still accumulate points for future payouts, but no date has been set for the program to return officially. On the front end of the redesign, we wanted to make the site more professional and cooler-looking, and improve the user experience. We made it so people can store their music, but also any type of document they want. We put in a couple new media players, reformatted the download page. I call it cowboy coding. I’ll just go in there and tell someone to make the changes live, not even test it. We do that and then see what the users say. We always see what the customer wants.

Hulkshare users are no longer able to anonymously upload files. But, as a registered user, you can chose to hide your username from the download pages of files you’ve uploaded? If you’re a registered member, you can choose to be anonymous with your songs. But you can’t upload anonymously. If a file that you have is found to be copyrighted by a fingerprinting technology three times, then your account gets deleted—but it’s still anonymous. No one would ever know that you uploaded it. Before, if you uploaded a track, it would be in our database and we would have no way to track who uploaded it or where it had been. Now, it’s logged.

So, if you post copyrighted music thee times your account will get frozen, but you won’t necessarily be penalized? Correct. But if you have an account and get banned, you can’t share any music. It’ll just be a private account, just for storage. So if you upload three Jay-Z songs and share them with your friends, it’ll be like, Okay, no more sharing for you.

If you had your way, would it still be possible to upload anonymously to Hulkshare? Yeah. My ideal future is we get to the point where all music is free. People are willing to pay $20 for virtual games like Zynga and Farmville, and I think people are willing to pay for music, it’s just that it’s so inconvenient and annoying that no one is willing to now. But things could also go in a really bad direction, where there are very few outlets where you can find free music. Free mixtapes drive the hip-hop economy. If that’s eliminated, I don’t know how things will be. But at the same time, some policies should be enforced. People should not be sharing copyright-infringing music. We want to make sure we’re a company that’s around for a long time. Even if I don’t think Jay-Z’s music should be bought, there are laws and we’re going to follow them. Whatever they throw at us, we’ll just adapt.

Meet the 21-Year-Old CEO Who’s Been Hosting Your Rap MP3s