May 7, 2013
Benji Rogers firmly believes he has built a better mousetrap when it comes to the music business. While there are other crowdfunding operations, Rogers has taken it one step further with PledgeMusic. Instead of focusing on reaching a funding goal like a public broadcasting pledge drive, Rogers' aim is to help the artist grow and enhance the relationship with its most passionate fans by getting them involved in the creative process of an album's development. And not only has a great majority of PledgeMusic artists generate the funding needed to release the record, more than a few of them have achieved legitimate sales successes as well. And to top it all off, part of the funding that's generated goes to charities of the artists' choice. Take a gander at what could be a significant part of music's New World Order.
When did you come up with the inspiration for PledgeMusic and why did you decide to do this?
Around the summer of '08 I was a musician about to go on tour, and I was living in my mom's house on an air mattress in her spare room. I was lying in bed one night when I saw - in my head - a concept that would marry fans to artists and charities. I bolted out of bed. This thing in my head had to be! No one had built anything like it, and no one has since, which was a good thing for us. I just got the idea and the next thing we built a company.
And how did you do that?
I fleshed the initial idea out with some friends, entrepreneurs and others who were interested. We finalized our business plan in December of '08, got some backers who wanted to invest, and began building a platform in February of '09. We launched our first project in July of that year, and it has been a roller coaster ever since!
How have you tweaked it to optimize its value?
From the beginning, I noticed that similar sites were diving heavily into multi-vertical funding solutions, so we decided to go in the opposite direction. With PledgeMusic, we offered a specialized, music-designed tool specifically for artists, managers and labels. We've tweaked it since its inception, of course. For example, we no longer display financial targets, so no one knows how much money an artist needs in order to complete a project. Instead, we display what percentage of the goal has been generated. We find this helps us give fans an incredibly active experience rather than just offering a site that's a passive money platform. We set out to build a destination so music fans could have a great experience on our platform. We shifted from being artist-centric to fan-centric, which allows fans to discover new music and new artists all at once.
For artists who want to take advantage of Pledge, what are the most important things they need to do or what mindset do they need to have?
The most important thing is that they should want to engage the fans in what they're doing during the creative process - and not just in terms of asking for money. It's also important to engage with our team, which is really talented! The most important part for me is organizing and guiding our artists through quite a complex process. Most platforms or companies like ours offer little more than blogs to read, whereas we have a team that can help take a lot of the heavy lifting off the shoulders of the management teams, artists and labels that are engaging with us. We're a company made of music fans who have made albums, been with labels and toured for many years. We know how to get the most out of engaging the music fans.
In your mind, what are the biggest successes for PledgeMusic - and what made them successful?
There are three of them. One was Ben Folds Five, who was our first U.S. Top 10 record, where we proved that we could work with a major record label and create a compelling story. The second key was the first time we took on a brand new artist who had no e-mail list and no Facebook presence, and we created a campaign that was successful, starting out with his first album getting a high chart debut. In my mind, to be able to have success with both established artists and totally unknown artists is an amazing thing to watch. The third was one of our early artists, Matthew Mayfield. We've done three campaigns with him. The second campaign doubled the success of the first, and the third doubled the second. It's been a really incredible thing to watch.
Your website currently offers a platform to jazz great Wayne Shorter. This can work for jazz, too?
To be honest, the jazz audience is really switched on to this. We did a George Benson campaign that went really well. It's a different type of music. We're doing quite a few more jazz records, and we're doing some high-quality reissues.
Where does radio fit into Pledge's M.O., in terms of airplay, promotion or any kind of exposure?
When the bands treated the campaign as a pre-order for the album. Artists will often use radio to enhance the Pledge campaign and presale of the album. We have seen DJs saying, "Here's a new song from an upcoming album by this band. Check out their Pledge campaign." One band in the U.K. had a campaign on radio where they got a bunch of fans to sing on a song - all kinds of strange stuff. Just playing music from an upcoming album is like doing premieres. For the first time ever, instead of a DJ interview where there's an inevitable and same set of questions, our artists can talk about what's going on during the entire recording process. It all depends on how the artists use the platform.
How many people fans participate in Pledge artists - on average how much do they donate?
The average Pledger spends $55 per transaction in the U.S. It fluctuates some and is currently sitting at about $58 per transaction. It's a high-spending fan base because the typical Pledge represents a small, dedicated following within the artist's overall fan base - anywhere from 5 to 8% on the high side. PledgeMusic isn't designed for all consumers ... but mostly for the super-fans. Nielsen did a study on this section of the audience, and they estimated that a lot more fans would participate - pledging up to $9 billion a year - but most of those fans don't know about it or aren't exposed to it on a daily basis.
Do you do anything to grow that number -- and if so, what?
At the moment, we're essentially shouting from the rooftops. Also, when the first few larger bands came on board, some of the labels had a hard time wrapping their heads around the way these albums were being released. It was quite the paradigm shift - they were essentially offering fans a way to be part of the process before the album was finished. That's not done normally. So the good news is each time a campaign launches, more fans learn about it and the industry takes notice. The Amanda Palmer Kickstarter campaign was a definite shift for the public, and once they saw it happen, it was game over. Rather than trying to find the last remaining record store to go buy the record, fans can now have the experience come straight to them.
As far as raising PledgeMusic's profile with the public, we're looking for a marketing company right now to do that for us. Got any suggestions?
Two years ago, in an AllAccess 10Q, you noted that you were surprised by the label's receptivity to what you do. Are they still receptive? How is your relationship evolved?
I'll give you an example: We recently did a frontline act for Sony in the U.K. - Bring Me The Horizon - and it went Top 3 in the U.K., which was a big deal for us. The label feedback was that what we were able to achieve a pre-sale was effective and interactive, and that performed really well. We have used this same engagement process to run campaigns for all three majors, as well as a lot of indie labels. But it's still slow going because there have been so many changes in the retail space. Most people are still focused on the consumer experience and not the fan experience, which is what we bring to the table. For the most part, though, the majority of the industry still wants to "sell records" in the usual way.
How has the consumer trend from buying a product to paying for music streams changed the way PledgeMusic and its artists do their business?
One of the most interesting stats we've found is that 82% of Pledgers still buy a physical product. Even when we deliver an actual download to the Pledgers, only 50% actually download it, so it's no longer about the product, but the experience. We're working on changing the way the business works. A label offers a CD to buy, but there's nothing behind it. It's just a product, whereas what the hardcore fans really want is the journey of an album being made - and that's really what we offer. It's all about that process.
You also have a label apparatus and a publishing apparatus. Are they geared for certain Pledge artists and how do you run those companies?
The label thing is something we tried to get a new spin on by looking to implement the release process into a label deal of our making. To me, it's amazing that the labels couldn't address this kind of change themselves, so we've decided to create something great. We offer a very equitable deal that's very short-term, just to give the artist a push to see what we can do. The label isn't something that's at the forefront of our attention, though, because we are looking for a better model. The last thing we want to do is more of the same.
Is radio promotion a bigger part of your label than the original Pledge service? How important is it for your label?
In the U.S., our albums have been on non-comm and Triple A, but I've known radio promoters for a long time, going back to when I was playing music. It's been great going back and engaging them, as radio is still part of the equation for us. The majority of people still find out about new music on the radio, so if we can give radio a way to stand out more - with our artists' exclusive, behind-the-scenes stuff - radio can play a huge part in the success of an album.
Examples of that would be KCSN playing a lot of PledgeMusic artists, as well as KCRW. They were able to play music from albums that weren't out or available, and that got some interest. There are also a bunch of DJs who take part in our Pledge campaigns to hear new and amazing stuff. We have to apply the same logic as if we were a social network, where it all happens in real time.
How do you see PledgeMusic evolving in the future?
To me, there isn't a release in the world that couldn't benefit from coming through a system like Pledge. Every week, thousands of albums are released around the world the same old way - and obviously almost all of them are not making a difference or impact. The more artists run a direct-to-fan campaign, the better the outcome for everybody. More money goes into the hands of musicians, fans enjoy a better experience, and more money goes to charities. It's a win-win-win for everybody. For me, this has to become the normal way for music to be released.