Interview: Chris Vinson & David Dufresne, Founder/CTO & CEO Of Bandzoogle (Pt. 1)
Recently, I spoke with Chris Vinson and David Dufresne, who are respectively founder/CTO and CEO of Bandzoogle, a company that offers a do-it-yourself website builder and a suite of direct-to-fan marketing tools for artists. At present, they are also working on a yet-to-launch project named Backfed, which they described to me as "a fan-to-artist payment system and a platform to enable and encourage collaborative patronage of artists." This interview is second in a series that I conducted in research for an essay of mine titled "Chaos We Can Stand."
Kyle Bylin: In the public consciousness, we have built and strongly reinforced the ideology that artists should just be artists—that, as creators of cultural content, they shouldn't worry themselves with the overall aspects of their business or how they are engaging with their audience. Such things and activities should only be viewed as disturbances to the creative energy and being. Better if artists focus solely on their art and not trouble with the rest of their career.
As we know, the age of the aloof artist, disconnected from his audience or not even knowing them at all, is long gone. It's not that there can't be artists who focus mainly on the process of creation, but for every one that isn't willing do get more involved in their careers, there are many more who are willing the work.
Why must artists not just be artists—aloof and solely creative nature? Why must they embrace not only new technologies, but the techniques of online promotion and participation that go along with them?
David Dufresne: Of course, there is nothing that prevents artists from just being artists. However, if an artist hopes to make a career out of being an artist, then that typically means that the artist will need to find both an audience that is engaged with the artist’s creative output, and ways to earn revenue from that engagement. If we talk about music, the Music Industry of the past 30 years defined the rules, both in how you found an audience and engaged with it (think radio, MTV, mainstream press), and how you monetized that engagement (by selling and licensing recordings, and the occasional concert ticket). You wanted a career? You needed to find your way into this Industry, understand the rules of the Game, and abide by them. This worked well for a relatively small number of artists, and very well for a relatively large number of businessmen, lawyers, and shareholders.
"As we all know too well, the innovations of the last 15 years in how you produce, distribute and promote music, mean that the rules about how you find an audience, and how you monetize it are seeing fundamental shifts."
The technologies that are causing these shifts threaten many of the established rules, but also open the door to new rules and new models. A lot of this newness is still unproven, confusing and chaotic. It is often comforting for an artist to keep having faith in the old ways. However it is clearly the serious artist’s responsibility to understand what is happening and seek out the tools and techniques that will work for them.
KB: It's been said that any artist worth their salt will already be using new technologies—on many levels.
In Clay Shirky's latest book Cognitive Surplus, he urges companies and consumers to stop clinging to old models and embrace what he characterizes as "As Much Chaos as We Can Stand" in adopting new Web technologies. In respect to artists, they should try anything they like with new technology, without regard for existing cultural or social norms, like artists should just be artists, or potential damage to current social institutions, like record labels.
Does the concept of artists needing to embrace "As Much Chaos as We Can Stand" in adopting new Web technologies ring true to you? Why must they try anything they like with new technology and do so without for existing cultural or social norms or potential damage to labels?
Chris Vinson: “As Much Chaos as We Can Stand” definitely rings true when you look at the larger picture. You have an entire industry where that thing you were selling (shrink-wrapped recorded tracks) is something you might now have to give for free, or bundle with something else. It forces and encourages innovation. Unless they already have a recording contract that prevents it, it enables artists to invent, or re-invent the way they promote and monetize their art. I’m not sure they should try “anything they like” and disregard all cultural norms related to their genre and target audience (polka bands on SoundCloud? maybe not yet…), but they should definitely research all the tools available for them, and experiment with those that show promise. But artists have limited resources (time, money and “computer” skills), so most of them need some guidance, and an easy to use toolbox. That’s what gets us up in the morning at Bandzoogle.
David Dufresne: As an artist, you also need to look at the tools that are available for the fans, for your target audience. And don’t fight it. Embrace it. Ultimately, the more people listen to your music and enjoy it, the more opportunities to engage them and monetize will arise.
"We are seeing a wide fragmentation of how
fans want to consume music. Some still want to own
it physically, some want to own it digitally."
More and more will only require access (to streaming services, or to satellite radio). Some are willing to pay for their listening, some aren’t. The fact that a fan isn’t willing to pay for one aspect of your art (the recording) doesn’t necessarily mean that there is nothing they will pay for. And it definitely doesn’t mean you should treat them as cheap-ass criminals. The challenge is to create and optimize a wide variety of experiences and products that some of your fans (hopefully lots) will be willing to pay. Using the new technologies at your disposal can help achieve that.
KB: Many artists have different perceptions of new Web technology and how they integrate it into their careers. Those who are getting it right, are letting new Web technologies reshape the interactions they have with their fans and redefine their roles as cultural creators in society, as opposed to clinging to outdated notions of what it means to be a recording artist.
How do artists differ in their attitudes towards technology, new and older acts, and why is there such reluctance to allow them to redefine reshape the interactions they have with their fans—to, in a much larger sense, actually redefine their functions as cultural creators in society?
David Dufresne: There is much conditioning that comes from the last 30 years, and defines how success in the music industry gets measured. Recently I was talking to a friend of mine that plays in a local Montreal band. Five relatively young guys, mid to late twenties, talented, good looking, and fashionable. Their band is successful, but in a small market (French-speaking Quebec, then maybe onwards to France, Belgium, etc.). They signed with a local label last year, recorded an album (good one, too), got some airplay on the radio, played shows in front of larger and larger crowds, etc. Despite all that, they are not making much money and they definitely are not leaving their day jobs anytime soon.
"My friend was complaining how hard it is to
sell CDs and mp3s these days, and how kids are
so goddamn cheap, and how the band is far from recouping the label’s advance, etc."
I asked him: “Dude, when’s the last time you walked into a record store and bought a CD ? When’s the last time you launched iTunes and spent some dollars?” He gave me a blank stare. Turns out he mostly streams music on Youtube, listens to old LPs and once in a while takes part in some casual, and consensual filesharing to fill his iPod with fresh tracks. “So why would you expect your fans, typically younger and more web-literate than you are, to be any different. Doesn’t mean they don’t like you. It just means that your recordings, packaged for mass consumption, are not what they are willing to pay for.
Chris Vinson: I think that artists are still attached to the rock star image. In the recent past, to start having audience meant that your songs were getting played on the radio, your video was on MTV and your pictures were all over the cool magazines. We lived it, with my band, 10 years ago, after getting signed to a major label. So, despite the fact that you were still pretty much broke, there was always this image of the artist as a celebrity, someone better than everyone else, that you don’t really approach unless you’re VIP, or some kind of deranged groupie. In this new reality, though, the artists that are “getting it right” are those that understand how the fan must be treated as an equal, a partner in your startup and a stakeholder in your career.
It takes humility to use your website and social networks to connect directly with your fans, answer their questions, meet them after the show and, once in a while, ask them kindly for money. For most artists that want to succeed, this humility will be a necessary ingredient, and it will need to be part of what defines them as an artists. Web technologies are great at making that equal relationship possible. Amanda Palmer has written some excellent blog posts on these topics.