Interview – Benji Rogers of PledgeMusic

PledgeMusic is an innovative new company that provides artists with a new way to distribute their music and earn an income.  M3 caught up with founder Benji Rogers to learn all about direct-to-fan…

M3 – First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself, and what it is that you do?
Benji – I have been a musician most of my life and toured and made albums for many, many years. I come from parents who were in the business as managers, and most of my friends were in bands or in the industry. I had the idea for PledgeMusic one night in 2008 and saw the idea of connecting artists, fans and charities as a win-win for all involved. Then I just had to get it built, which it turns out was no small thing. Today I’m the CEO of the company. It’s been quite the ride.

Many people have claimed that there is no longer any money in record sales, and that touring is the most efficient way to earn an income as a band. How much truth do you think there is in this sentiment?
Very little. There is simply very little money in the music business at the moment. Those on the upper, top level are making money in live, licensing and some sales and publishing—and then there’s everybody else. The economics of touring are really tough. I experienced this firsthand. As sales across the board decline, this leaves little income for artists to survive on anything other than touring, as you say. But then, how does one get on tour? How does one seed fund the recordings that one then goes on tour to promote? This is what we have sought to fix. There is money to be made playing live, but it requires getting to a certain level, and this level is getting harder and harder to reach without a large sponsor, a label or some other means of funding the live show. All of these have traditionally launched artists into masses of debt. I have been there firsthand.

Which alternatives for musicians to earn money through record sales seem most promising and likely to prevail in the future?
None of the traditional means of monetizing music will apply in the next couple of years. To me, the future lies in the experience of the release of the music and tour. By involving the fans in the process from an earlier stage and allowing them to have access to a new way of getting the music, you reverse the traditional model and begin the album or tour either already making a profit or very close to it. This is the PledgeMusic direct-to-fan model. By offering fans the experience of the album and not just the result of it, you can march toward a better financial position from day one of the recording process. You have to sell fewer because the fans will spend more and, well, everybody wins!

What do you think about DIY (do-it-youself) practices, such as fan-funding?
DIY is a myth. It’s a buzz phrase that’s meant to signify “without a label,” or at least it was meant to signify this. No artist releases records on their own, and they shouldn’t talk about them as if they do. You release music to people, and artists should include these people – these fans – in the process. Fan-funding is a process that fails more than it succeeds and is, to me, a march off in the wrong direction. The idea that you would share the financial targets or information with your fans seems to me to take away all the mystery and excitement from music making. It’s not inclusive, and it sort of misses the point. As a fan, why would you want to fund anything? Fans want experiences; they want to belong! They want the journey. They don’t want to know how much you spent on studio time or guitar strings. When we began this company, we used to display financial targets. Managers and artists didn’t like it and, more importantly, fans didn’t like it and let us know by spending less – a lot less. So we removed this element and things began to soar.

What benefits and/or disadvantages have arisen from this distribution method? Would you say this method is a realistic possibility for the future of music distribution?
If you’re talking about direct-to-fan then yes. It’s the only sane one that exists. Why would you try something that fails 90 percent of the time again and again and again and expect a different result? A large percentage of our artists have been in profit before they even finished tracking their albums. They then license their albums to labels or release them directly to their fans on their own. We have had five Top 40 albums using this method. Each and every day, one to two albums begin their lives either part way toward or fully in profit, whilst every other album that’s released begins its life owing someone else a ton of money with all the risk placed on the label and/or the artist to sell it in an incredibly narrow window of time. Worse still, all the music is then available for free, so there’s little or no incentive to make a purchase. It’s madness to me.

On average, how many people would you say still pay for a release when given the option to download for free?
This is too wide of a question. Streaming services are the biggest threat to this as the consumer is paying a third party (and in some cases the major labels) a flat fee to stream all the artist’s music, and so in their minds they have legally paid for the music. The fact that almost none of the money reaches the artist is little known outside the industry. People will pay for the release if the artist gives them a reason to do so. Or, as seems to be the case, if they withhold the music from the streaming services at first and window the release to leverage sales. Then people have to buy it to hear it first. People will pay for access. It’s still not going to be a viable living for 90 percent of artists, though.

Much has been made of the supposed death of the record store in recent years. Do you believe the digital age has killed the record store, and if so, do you think that this is a necessary part of progression, or a tragic loss?
Part of my youth was going to Virgin or Tower and browsing, looking for hidden gems and collecting, and it was wonderful. It’s sad to me and to this passing generation that digital natives or Gen C won’t have any context for this, but it’s a fact. Also I don’t believe that it’s digital that killed it so much as apathy towards an industry that cared more for its own survival than it did for its fans. Vinyl will hang in there for a bit, and we actually sell a lot of vinyl on the platform. It’s a glorious thing. But streaming will kill off the retail sector as much as its own cost structure will. Also, I believe that endless discounting of albums has devalued them immensely. It’s a race to the bottom. Technology has always found a way to innovate. I’m sure something amazing will come along. It may not look like it used to, but that’s something we just have to get used to.

What is your take on the current SOPA/ACTA controversy?
I think the World Wide Web spoke up loud and clear on that one …

Do you feel the idea of an album, as a piece of art that people will listen to from start to finish, has been undermined or forgotten about in the digital age?
I think it’s been dead for a long time. Blaming digital is way too easy. There just aren’t that many great albums! I mean start-to-finish masterpieces. There never have been that many. But as an art form, it’s not practiced anymore. Most of the kids making music today have to reach back to know what an album even was. They may never have held a piece of vinyl and will soon think of CDs in the same way. There will be artists who can come up with 10 amazing songs for sure. There always will be, but the idea of confining these to a set format for media that will eventually not exist may strike the musicians of tomorrow as more than a little odd.

For more information about PledgeMusic, you can visit their website.

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About M3 Event

The music industry is rapidly changing. The internet has enabled widespread piracy, as well as a variety of new business and distribution models. We want to offer an engaged audience in and around the Euregion an opportunity to develop a coherent and detailed picture of the future of music distribution. On the 31st of May 2012 a music conference in Maastricht, consisting of oppositional debates, creative workshops and lectures, will provoke opportunities for intellectual stimulation, debate, as well as networking. We hope to utilise the skills and ideas of some of most forward thinking minds and operators in the industry in order to highlight some promising new ideas and areas which can be improved upon.

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