Recently, I spoke with Alan Lastufka, who is co-founder of the digital label DFTBA Records with Hank Green and author of YouTube: An Insider's Guide to Climbing the Charts. He's also a successful musician, graphic designer, and YouTuber, among many other things. After news broke that DFTBA Records had cleared $1 million in sales in two years, Hypebot got in touch with Lastufka.
In this interview, he defines what it means to be a full-time musician and why the artists that he works with have done so well. (Hint: By being real people first.)
And musicians second.
Hypebot: Since founding DFTBA Records, how many artists have you been able to convert into full-time musicians?
Alan Lastufka: A full-time musician, by our definition, is someone who can pay their bills without having to live at home or work a day job outside of their music. Using that definition, twelve of our artists, or about half of our entire artist roster, are full-time musicians. The most recent example would be Mike Lombardo.
Mike's a Berkley College of Music graduate who has been writing and posting songs on YouTube for three years now. He signed with us this past spring (2010). He just left his job at a sound and lighting production company this month to start recording and touring full-time. Mike's only 22 years old.
Hypebot: When looking to enter into a partnership with an artist, what criteria must be met before signing someone?
Alan Lastufka: We don't have any hard and fast rules that would require us to pass up people we really want to work with, but on average, an artist would have to show us that they already have a strong grasp on how to engage their listeners. How best to engage is different for each of our artists. We look at their view and subscriber counts on YouTube, we look at their views to comments ratio, and we look at past music sales data if they've self-released any songs.
And, of course, Hank and I have to like the music. Some of our artists had as few as 2,000 subscribers when we started working with them. But our average artists have already cultivated a dedicated following into the tens or hundreds of thousands of subscribers on YouTube.
We don't work like a traditional label. We don't run huge (read: expensive) promotional ad campaigns. We don't "groom" our artists. We provide the distribution and networking tools needed to enhance and expand the promotion they are already doing. For those in the old media, it's probably easier to think of us as a "distribution deal" rather than a "record deal".
We do advance money for recording and studio time, when needed. But in most cases, when a band approaches us, or we approach a band, they already have an album's worth of songs recorded that they are now ready to release.
Hypebot: Are your sales disproportionate toward merch or music? Is combining the two a more successful product mix?
Alan Lastufka: The majority of our revenue is from music sales. We've recently begun focusing more on the t-shirt/merch side of things, which has bumped up our merch revenue, but not so far as to overtake music sales yet. Combining the two, however, is usually the most successful product.
People are coming to the site when a new record is released, planning to make a purchase anyway. They are already planning to pay for shipping, and wait for the item to be delivered. If they can add a t-shirt on to that order easily, or a sticker or button set exclusive to that album release, that's convenient for them.
It's also convenient for us, only having to process, pack and ship out one order, rather than two, so we're able to offer those music and merch bundles at a discount, which is good for everyone.
Hypebot: Could you give three examples of how your artists have connected with fans and given them reasons to buy?
Alan Lastufka: It's hard to list three examples, because every example I have boils down to one truth: Our artists were all "real people" first, and musicians second. Everyone we currently work with started out on YouTube posting vlogs.
Relatable, accessible stories about their lives, their music, their friends – whatever. As they started sharing more of their music, their viewers already felt connected with them, and cheered them on. Their viewers watched them develop, musically, and as human beings. When our artists release a new album, it's not about making limited edition deluxe packages for the completists to drool over, it's about our artists putting a piece of themselves out there for the hundreds of thousands of people who ALREADY have a reason to buy: they feel invested.
Sure, we've released a few numbered editions of CDs, and some limited autographed copies, but 90% of our releases are standard jewel cases or digipacks, available any time from our site, always for the same price.
Unfortunately, for your readers, this is not an easily duplicated scenario. I won't be able to write a "How to Start a Successful Record Label" book, because the conditions that lead to our success were unique to our time, place and community. But that's how it is for most successful projects. If they could be duplicated easily, they'd be lost in a sea of copycats and clones. What's important for your readers to take away from this is the fundamental idea of filling a need. There were YouTube musicians posting songs that fans wanted to buy.
But these musicians had no easy way to sell products to their fans. DFTBA stepped in and provided that easy, one-stop-shop, and it exploded from there.