The Hot Seat: Benji Rogers, CEO & Co-Founder, PledgeMusic

Record, release, promote. That’s the old way, reckons Benji Rogers. The future as he sees it is all about a deep engagement between musicians and their fans, where the recording process is part of the promotion. The PledgeMusic leader is confident that future is already here. Rogers and founding partner Jayce Varden launched PledgeMusic in 2009, with a plan to help artists bridge those direct-to-fan relationships. To date, the company has worked on campaigns including ABBA, Slash, Bring Me The Horizon, Ben Folds Five and Killing Joke; the likes of homegrown artists Kate Miller-Heidke and Pseudo Echo have launched campaigns on its global platform. As at October, the company had boasted its campaigns had resulted in ten top 40 albums, with top 5 chart placings in the U.K., Europe, Canada and Australia.

Rogers, a guest speaker at Bigsound 2012, has a keen eye on Australia where the average Pledge is $75 — well up on the U.S. ($55) and U.K (£35) average. According to the company, the average Australian campaign success rate tips 93%, and data from its campaigns count toward the ARIA charts. PledgeMusic bolstered its business Down Under earlier this year when it hired former Shock Entertainment executive GM Scot Crawford as GM for the Australian and New Zealand territories.

What’s the mantra behind Pledge?

One of the missions for Pledge is that it has to work for the artist to survive. Because there is no viable alternative at this point due to the sheer lack of sales and the sheer lack of financial income at the smallest-and mid level, to move through. I don’t see a viable strategy. If we keep putting “buy” buttons or “donate” buttons in front of people we’ll start to turn them off. I’m passionate about this because it has to work. In two years’ time we’ll look back and say, “do you remember when people used to just put ‘buy’ buttons up on websites and people used to ask for ‘donations’ on crowd funding platforms?” We’ve just lifted the lid on the last frontier in recorded music, which is the process by which it’s made. And the fundamental belief is, that the more fans that are involved in it, the more fans are brought into that process, the more the music means to them. If you’re confronted with an option as a customer, and you can stream it an infinite number of times for a small fee, buy a download or compact disc, or watch it being made and be a part of the process and share with all my friends as its happening. Which is better for everybody involved? It has to be No. 3. There’s a reinvention going on in the music industry. This is how it will look. The New York Times writer Nick Bilton said, “the fans of yesterday aren’t coming back, so why are we selling to them like it was yesterday?” With the ascendancy of Facebook and Twitter, there’s a participation element to this. The idea of holding everything back and a record label reveals the product is kinda dead, because everybody knows about it through social media anyway.

A recent Nielsen study found consumers would pay extra for exclusive content during that process of recording an album. You were involved in that study. What did you make of the results from it?

Well, the first was that the U.S. alone leaves $2.6 billion on the table because fans want access to the process as its being made. The second thing I took away was that when we asked the consumers who do they want to see going into this process and sharing direct-to-fans, they said, “all of the big guns” – Coldplay, Rihanna, Kings of Leon, Beyonce. They want all the big bands to offer this experience. But instead, all the big bands offer is that blanket cover-all. The third thing was, when they pooled the marketplace and asked “who is interested and aware” or “interested and unaware” of this process that $2.6 billion figure goes up to $9 billion. What that’s saying is that if fans are exposed to it, they would get involved. But the problem is, we’re not exposing it. All we’re doing is exposing the existing music fans to more and more ways to buy, and fewer and fewer reasons to buy. If you purchase a Rickie Lee Jones album now, you get to watch it as it goes through its paces. It’s not for everybody, but the fact is you shouldn’t treat superfans just like they’re everybody. Because their ability to spend is absolutely huge in comparison to what they’re able to spend on traditional direct-to-consumer sites. The industry is leaving not just $2.6 billion but $9 billion in the U.S. alone. That’s kind of crazy.

This model is targeted at the super-fan. How will you get this to the mainstream?

That’s the point; most fans are not able to become super-fans. There’s no way for them to express that loyalty. You can go on Facebook and Twitter and you can go to shows, and you can buy multiple copies of the CD. But how can you express it? How do you become an influencer? The average Australian Pledger spends $75 per transaction, beaten only fractionally by Canada. You think to yourself, how do you spend $75 on the release of a Beyonce album? Nine times of out 10 those big bands don’t offer the general consumers a way to do that. I’m not saying you’ll get all (the consumers). The majority just want to hit play on a streaming service, and that’s fine. But what you don’t want to do is to lose the ones that do want to spend that because they’ve simply no interaction with the artist or their team. Ed Sheeran is going to be in a studio and there’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t interact, I can’t be involved, I can’t watch. Ed’s making an album, and he’s going to emerge once the album is made and try sell it to me. Ed as an artist is a phenomenal thing to watch. Ed Sheeran as a salesman, maybe not so much. When the artist is doing their art, I can be a part of that. I can feel I’m a part of that, even if I’m just giving updates in the studio. When the artist is a salesman, that’s a one-way street – buy my shit, come to my show. A lot of artists aren’t comfortable being a salesman or woman, whereas if you offer the making of the art, the process behind it, that’s what fans are responding to and they’re willing to pay for it if it’s offered.

Your Australian business has been running for a while. What are you have you learned from the Australian projects?

The Australians are an incredibly high spending, loyal fanbase. You have to give them a way to show and prove that. Kate Miller-Heidke’s fans have been going crazy with the way they’ve been sharing it, because we’ve got technology that allows you to. The data we’re seeing from the U.S. is $55. The average in Australia is $75, even with conversation that’s pretty amazing. For us it’s just about telling the story. We have to get better with telling that story in Australia to those centres of influence, those artists and managers who we are a logical step for. And we’re also seeing the emergence of Aussie fans within our system who want to be involved in more campaigns.

So how will improve on telling of the story?

It’s through on-the-ground, meeting with people, artist by artist. It sounds like a lot of work, and it is a lot of work. But it’s worth it. We did a partnership with Moshcam, which was very much led out of Australia.

Is crowdfunding becoming a cluttered space?

I view us as stuck between crowdfunding and direct-to-consumer as the true definition of direct-to-fan. Crowdfunding is essentially a simple thing. It’s “please give me money and then I will go do something.” Direct-to-consumer is, “we’ve already made something, here’s six ways to buy it on our website.” Direct-to-fan is in the middle. What Kickstarter and Pozible and Indiegogo and the hundreds of other straight-up crowdfunding campaigns do well, is they do a proof-of-concept model. I don’t believe music should be proof-of-concept. If you’re going to make a record and you want to involve your fans in it, you can offer them all these multiple ways to do it, why should it just be around a short time period? Albums can take three-six months to make, so why not run a campaign for that length of time?

You don’t play with Marwood any longer?

Sadly no. But I’m glad I don’t have to carry my amp anymore. When I launched Pledge I had a dream, and I was still playing the odd show. I had this dream I’d be able to do both. We got the band together, I had this moment of, “I’ve got 400 emails on my inbox” and I got straight off stage to do product stuff. I figured, this isn’t going to work. As much as it breaks my heart to not be playing music again, I realize the gift given to me has been transferred to be able to help artists.

When I spoke to you at Midem earlier this year, you mentioned expansion into Asia was on the cards. How’s that coming along?

It’s been very interesting. I’m returning to Japan. Let’s wait and see. Our commitment to Australia and Canada is really strong at this point, because we’re seeing incredible, off-the-charts fan reaction. It kills me when a band is just doing a traditional release and not augmenting with this process.

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