This is the story of my journey from electronic musician (as in a creator of electronic dance and trance music) to tech entrepreneur and what I learned along the way about people and communities. I made some good decisions, some bad ones, and some terrible and painfully expensive ones, but I learned many lessons. I think that what I learned applies to more businesses than just the music business, and hopefully to yours too.
Vintage synths and the Free Party Movement
As a 20-year-old, I was unhealthily obsessed with the spirit of the UK Free Party Movement, making electronic music and discovering cheap vintage music gear. I lived for the chance to own a Moog modular synth (preferably a Moog 55 with its walnut cabinet) and spent my time in my darkened bedroom listening to or making music. By 21 I had a degree in economics, and had turned down a career in finance, but scored a record deal with my favorite record label in the world. Life was good, I played to small sweaty clubs and made psy-trance for other people to listen to in their own darkened, UV lit bedrooms. But along the way, the world changed.
The first hint that it was changing happened fairly early on. A fan declared his undying admiration and asked me to sign his CDs. My inflated ego promptly burst when he whipped out a complete set of home-burned CD’s. Right, you’re my “greatest fan,” but stealing my music – I resisted the urge to rant angrily at him about the supporting artists blah blah blah.
How music got here
It was the sign of a change, or should I say revolution, one that is probably explained with a small dose of music industry history:
It was simply a sheet music and live show industry until the advent of the record player in the early 20th century, and it was largely a cottage industry. Record players combined with mass media (radio and then TV) created the modern music industry. The record was the product, the radio the marketing tool and the outcome was godlike global icons like Elvis, the Beatles, and a thousand others whose religion has been lost in the mists of rock-and-roll history. These icons were worshipped by millions of fans who showed their adoration by screaming very loudly and buying vast amounts of products – records, concert tickets, t-shirts, fanzines, decorated lunch boxes….
Let’s fast forward a bit to Mr “greatest fan” and his pile of CD’s. So I suppose I should be thanking him for the head’s up. He was the day-glo wearing canary in the music coal mine. The psy-trance tribe are very tech-focused and usually ahead of the curve, and as a result, they were ripping CD’s and burning them on their sticker covered laptops long before the ivory towers of Universal or Sony Music knew there was a problem. But within a few years, everyone was downloading their own MP3’s from torrent sites, and the music industry was imploding.
The hard decade
For a decade or so, things were tough in the music industry. Legal music streaming didn’t yet exist, so musicians like me played gigs and struggled to sell enough music to sustain a living (let alone the hedonistic lifestyle that the industry glamorizes). I had to start thinking like an entrepreneur, not a spoilt artist as we were all in unknown territory. I started touring a lot more, writing music for ads (heresy a few years earlier) and working much more closely with the label on connecting with fans through emails and forums. It was increasingly clear the value had gone from recorded music but that a strong relationship with an audience could still be really lucrative as long as you thought out the box a bit. But it was tough, very tough.
Social media to the rescue
Then an unlikely hero came to my rescue, appropriately enough for our fanbase it was an awkward geek. One that you’re familiar with – Mark Zuckerberg, well Facebook rather than the guy himself. Before you think how strange that sounds, it was a few years ago, and it was a way a very different Facebook from today – far more of a community. It was Facebook without a newsfeed full of cat memes, “false news,” and endless sponsored content. It was the Facebook that we all felt was connecting the world, not spying on it. As the labels and our fans became active on social media, something happened. We went from being booked to perform for 300 people in stereotypically dingy clubs to playing at major venues in front of 3000. We’d connected with an audience we never knew existed. Happy days!
Our customers (we hate that word in the music business, but it’s true in that we want them to like our product and vision, so they ultimately give us custom i.e. shiny hard cash) multiplied on the back of social media. So like every business who finds an opportunity, we focused our efforts. Getting followers and likes. Giving away music and videos. We encouraged interaction and sharing. We expanded our fan base – all was rosy in the social media garden.
After the honeymoon
It was a symbiotic relationship, Facebook helped us become more successful, and we and every other label helped make Facebook the place that fans gathered. We gave Facebook our content, and they gave us a strong connection with our fans. But like many passionate relationships, it turned sour. As Facebook approached an IPO and a need to please Wall Street, not users, things quickly deteriorated. Our page’s organic reach began its precipitous decline, content feeds became toxic and cluttered with noise. In short, the community had fractured, becoming a chaotic mob. We couldn’t work out who our true fans were amongst the noise, and we certainly couldn’t build a relationship with them. The control and most the money-making opportunities we’re now Facebook’s and Mr. Z’s.
I realized that maybe we’d been focused on the wrong relationship – in fact, perhaps we’d given away the true relationship – the one with our fans, customers, audience, whatever you want to call them. It felt like I’d introduced my best friend to the girl I loved, and now he was sleeping with her and spending more time with her than I was. Even worse, we were all pretending that this was normal and acting as if things were the same as ever.
I guess there’s rarely one single point at which a founder thinks of the idea that will persuade him or her to give up everything and start a new business… it’s probably more a chain of insights and ideas until the solution seems obvious. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t mistakes, a ton of hard work, and heart busting levels of stress along the way. Especially once you think you’ve found the solution. So my journey to entrepreneur started with a second insight (in addition to the odd Facebook stealing the girl I was in love with metaphor one) and actually it was a different obsession. It’s one that you have! It’s one that everyone has in today’s world. Smartphones, that shiny bit of metal and plastic that holds our attention like a Class A drug. I saw the focus that young fans had on their phones and knew, although worrying, we’re all going to be like that, and that if I can get bands and their logos onto that device, it will be the ultimate tool to build relationships and fandom through. And then it dawned on me that we could get back the relationship with our fans if we could get them into a community app that was built to engage them on mobile. After all, it was the true feeling of community that had made social media platforms such a success early on.
Getting it wrong and right
And the rest is history, but of course, it isn’t – I got it wrong! I created a company called Disciple that built communities for the music industry (shout out to the Rolling Stones and Luke Bryan, who’s community apps we still power). I guess as a lifelong musician, I saw things somewhat myopically from that angle. I thought that the problem was unique to music – of course, it wasn’t. Remember, they’re not really fans, and in the cold cash-focused light of day, they’re customers you’re trying to retain and have a deep a relationship with. It took a tough stress-fueled period of financial worry, arguments, co-founders leaving, etc. to realize that I’d made a mistake. This wasn’t a music fan-artist problem – it was more significant, more fundamental. All over the world bands, brands, institutions – communities had handed over their customers, their fans, their audience to the Zuck. Disrupting this one-sided arrangement would be good for everyone apart from Facebook. In fact, if every business had a community home to build a real relationship with their customers they’d all be healthier and not just financially (who doesn’t want a direct line to their customers?). More companies are seeing that it’s not natural to outsource a relationship to social media, to someone who wants to control and profit from your relationships.
It’s only now I consider myself to be a real entrepreneur – although there is still a touch of that music obsession, so I still create music and play a few clubs a year. Disciple now builds dedicated communities (web and app), for brands, influencers, and companies of all types, not just music. And also I’m glad to say that there is a lot more public discussion about the role of social media platforms, how it affects the relationship between companies and customers, and bigger questions about the responsibilities of those who control social media.