Evan Lowenstein is the co-founder and CEO of Stageit, a Web-based platform that empowers artists to deliver and monetize interactive live experiences. Evan got his start as a guitarist, singer and songwriter. In high school, he started the group Evan & Jaron with his brother and ogether, they released albums on both Island Records and Columbia Records and had three Top 40 hits, including the Top 10 song “Crazy for This Girl.” With nearly 20 years’ experience in the business as a recording artist, award-winning writer and executive, Evan was named to Digital Media Wire’s list of 25 Execs to Watch in Digital Entertainment in 2011 for the work he did with Stageit. He also founded and served as President of HookUp Feed, a mobile marketing company whose clients include American Airlines, Domino’s Pizza and Cold Stone Creamery.
Evan talked to me recently about creating engaging fan experiences, the importance of resilience, and how artists can financially survive in a time when fans have now become friends.
Thanks for taking the time to talk, Evan. How did you get started in the music business?
The real, honest truth is that my parents were so frustrated that my brother Jaron and I were so uncultured. We were so into sports that we wouldn’t spend a minute on music or the Arts.
My dad said to me, “Hey, if you’ll take up an instrument, your mom and I will really get behind it.” So, I started piano lessons when I was 12, but I hated it. My dad had a guitar from when he used to play in a band, and I started playing it and really took to it. Within a year and a half, I decided I wasn’t going to go to college, because I wanted to play music. My parents objected a little, and I told them, “Hey, I’m really cultured now.” And I started writing songs. I think I was impatient and didn’t want to take the time to learn other people’s music so instead I decided to formulate my own songs and found it to be very cathartic as a means to communicate my feelings.
In the beginning, my friends said we were really good. But, you of course don’t really trust your friends when it comes to stuff like that. We started playing some open mics out in Atlanta, Georgia. And pretty much every club asked us back to play more shows. So, the end of 1994 we cut our first record for $140 live from a coffee shop. We ended up selling about 25,000 copies back when people still bought CDs and would pay $10 for them.
Then, we were discovered by Jimmy Buffett and put out an album on Island Records. But nine weeks after the record came out we were told to go home, We thought about quitting but decided to dig deep and stay in the game. So we dropped $500 on a 3 song demo that got us signed to Columbia Records in relatively short order. That demo contained two songs that would go on top be hits.
I definitely want to jump back into your trials as a musician. But tell me why you believed there was a need for Stageit. What were some of the holes in the marketplace that you felt it could fill?
I had always been fascinated by how artists connect with their fans online. I think I was really well positioned to watch the paradigm shift in the music industry. When I started playing in 1993, it was the old business; it was the way it had been for 40 years prior. And as I began, things began to change. We had a website in 1995. In fact, the record we released in 1996 actually had the URL on the spine of the record. So, we were really digitally minded early on. We spent a lot of time hanging out on the message boards and in chat rooms. And we watched as social media came out and our fans became our “friends.”
Services like Facebook and Twitter began to offer more accessibility, transparency and immediacy and this amazing connection with the artist, which was great. But through the process artists found themselves losing the ability to monetize. And I spent a lot of time thinking, “Where are things headed next?” Once I realized social platforms were headed to video, I started to become really scared that we were minutes away from going back to being waiters, playing when commissioned by others – the way it used to be. And while many would argue that’s where it’s headed, I felt there were things we could do to disrupt that. And it started with awareness. There was just this gigantic conflict between the new generation and the old generation. The old generation still wanted you to spend $18 for a CD with one hit. And the new digitally-minded fans were saying, “How about an a la carte method? Why can’t I just buy that one song?”
I felt like what was missing was a service that truly understood both what the artist was looking for and what the fan was looking for. It was a very uncomfortable position for artists, because, of course they wanted to make money – and any artist that tells you differently isn’t being honest. But at the same time, record labels were suing fans. So artists had to remove themselves from that to keep their fans. And in order to do that, they had to say, “Hey, take our music for free.” But I don’t think that was really the appropriate answer.
So, artists had to find a way to connect with fans. But I wondered, was there a way to monetize that without forcing the fans into it. As a result, I created a platform that really understands the notion that time is money. That’s something that the fans can really relate to as well, because time is money to them, but they also understand that the time is money for the artist. And as clichéd as it is, that concept was really what was missing in the marketplace.
One thing I’d like to add is that prior to Stageit, there really wasn’t any sort of social media platform that was created with the artist in mind. MySpace, Twitter and Facebook were never created with musicians or artists in mind.
Do you consider Stageit a social networking platform?
I wouldn’t categorize Stageit as a social networking platform, but I think that everything today is social media platform to a certain extent.. There are certain times when Stageit acts as a tool and certain times when it acts as a platform. The larger point is that here’s a platform that allows artists to connect with their fans and is truly focused on the artist and the fan.
Some of the other methods and media by which artists connect with their fans like USTREAM or YouTube are not built with the artist and the fan connection in mind and do not offer the same services we do. Are you aware of any other platforms that have the artist in mind?
No. Not that I know of either offhand. There are a handful of platforms, but not those that are purely meant for live shows.
You’ve said a lot of interesting things already. First of all, we’re actually a week apart. I’m seven days older than you and your brother. But as such, we’re really in an interesting place. Because, we could understand what was happening in the music space and were young enough to be on top of it. For example, I was the first person to have an email account at Atlantic Records in 1995. And on the other hand, we’re also old enough to remember the way it was. And as broken as the system was, there was a methodology to the old way, and some things carried over.
I’ve been reading a lot of psychological studies lately about the way we view purchases and media. And what experts are discovering is that people are much more likely to not regret a purchase that was an experience rather than something tangible. So, having an experiential product is extraordinarily important. But as you know – as someone who toured – Stageit really does take out the need for having to go from town to town.
With total respect for your platform, I don’t think the Internet will ever replace shaking someone’s hand. Because, there’s something special about seeing someone in person.
I agree with that.
Do you have any general advice for musicians about putting on their streaming shows, whether they stream them through Stageit or using some other method? Do you see a lot of mistakes being made by artists, or things they should be doing better?
Yes and no. One of the things I also know as an artist is that it’s challenging. I would never tell another artist how to relate with their fans, outside of some general guidelines. Because, any artist that gets on stage is looking at their data points every night– even if they’re not actually calling them data points. They’re tracking what happens. They know when they play a song and it gets a great reaction. So, it’s very hard for me to tell an artist what to do and what works for them, even if it has worked for me.
As it relates to Stageit, we have some artists that come back week, after week, after week. But I might be a guy who can do that once per month. It’s really trial and error and for the individual artist to figure out what works best for them and their fans.
But in general, I think it’s really hard to dispense blanket advice. I could tell you, “Listen, if you want some credibility, don’t ever play in a mall.” And then some credible artist will go into a mall make me feel like a jackass. The truth is that you just need to be credibly and authentic to yourself.
I know there are no hard, set rules. But I think there are a lot of things that artists have magical thinking about, especially in terms of consistently marketing and promoting. Are there things that people misunderstand about live streaming?
Here’s my thinking on this: The blanket statement is, “Don’t ever play a live streaming show for free. If you do, you’re hurting yourself and the rest of the music community.”
I’m not going to go into the whole story about how we became a broadcast medium but suffice it to say, prior to 170 years ago we were living in an era of social media as well. Now, because of technology, we live in an mp3 society where things can be cut and pasted, dragged and dropped and easily passed onto someone else. What’s happening now is that the fans finally have the power.
For years, music fans complained that they were sick of spending money when they only wanted one song and didn’t know the rest of the record. They said, “If you let me have it, I might actually consider paying for it if I actually like it.” Now that they have the ability to do that, fans are saying, “Screw you” to the business and, “We have control, and we’re going to tell you how to run this.”
Before you mentioned the “experience,” I was going to say something about that. And I’d love to see your research on that, because I’ve done a ton of research on it as well. But from a fan perspective, above all, the one thing they understand and can relate to is paying for an experience. What they don’t understand is how an artist can spend six months in the studio, and five years later ask a fan to pay $10 on the product that was created five years prior.
Our fans are everyday workers. They bag groceries, mow lawns, are doctors, etc. They can’t fold one t-shirt while working at the Gap and then cut and paste it and say, “Hey, I have a hit t-shirt.” It doesn’t work like that. Every day, our fans go to work, so they understand that time is money. And this idea is what I started getting freaked out about three, to four years ago when I started noticing we were going to video.
I don’t tell artists that I think it’s a bad idea to give away music or a bad idea to sell it. Whatever works for you – if you have those fans – you should do it. The problem is, selling your music is a very crappy business model, especially in the day and age where people can easily steal it. If you have fans that want to pay you for it, excellent. But you have to understand that people are going to steal your music because they can. The one thing people can’t steal is you, right now, in this moment.
It’s gone on long enough that artists are embarrassed to ask their fans for money, because they feel so guilty about doing it: “Oh – I can’t do it.” They’ve fallen victim to the idea that everything on the Internet is free. Maybe that’s fine. But the one thing that isn’t free is your time. The reason why is because your fans understand that 30 minutes of your time is valuable, because 30 minutes of their time is valuable. So, in the event that you as an artist decide to play on a live, streaming platform and give it away for free, you’re hurting yourself and also really confusing the fans at home. Now your fans will be saying, “Artists are completely worthless. Because, even my time is worth $10 an hour, or $40 an hour. It’s so interesting that artists have no sense of self worth. They think they’re so bad that they wouldn’t even charge for their time.”
That’s my big hang-up about streaming services. A lot of these free streaming services are great if you’re a dude in your dorm playing music or streaming your fish tank. But the second you’re going to create some sort of premium, quality entertainment and people are going to be tuning in, you have to be mindful. Even YouTube is great if you want to make a free video and have people tune in. But when it comes to you live in real time, to not charge for your time is a big problem.
Do you think that we’re almost in a place where people believe a live experience should be free?
Absolutely. And we’re working really hard to change that. There are a lot of people we work with that use live streaming platforms. And it becomes challenging for them, because they have to back out of that and slowly work their way back up. I think artists are starting to get it and realizing they’ve been giving something valuable away for free for a long time.
In general, the biggest comment we got from artists has been, “I wish you guys were around sooner.” And we do to. But we’re here now and apparently just in time. Our success is clearly showing us that it wasn’t too late.
As I mentioned earlier, we live in an era where your fans are now your friends thereby creating what some perceive to be a challenging environment to charge for ones music. The irony is that the artists understand less than the fans that charging money is okay.. Fans are completely okay with spending money on an experience. Artists are a still a little bit nervous about that. They are worried it’s a landmine that’s going to blow up on them.
We give them the data so they can see the reality. At Stageit, we have a ticketing system and a tip jar. We show artists that nearly 50 percent of the revenue on average will come from the tip jar – which is a voluntary spend. I also make the point that by not giving your fans a way to compensate you for your performance, you’re actually taking something away from them. When you’re so hung up on not charging your fans, you’re denying them the right to give you money for something they would like to do. It’s clearly proven.
It was harder to convince artists they needed to charge for their streaming experiences when we first started. But now that we’re getting out there and success is happening, they’re getting more comfortable with it. The fans are already comfortable with it. It’s a giant misunderstanding that the fans won’t pay. In the two years we’ve been in business, I think we’ve only had about two fans comment that they wish we would do something for free.
You definitely have to leave yourself open to patronage, without question.
When I first saw the platform and spoke to you about how it works, the first thing that came to mind for me was digital busking.
That’s totally accurate.
People can make a living with their guitar case open. They can go out and play for a few hours in a crowded train station and walk away with a decent living, depending on where they live.
I did a test case at SXSW last year. There were all these musicians on the street. So, I opened up my laptop for about 15 minutes and played a few songs and made over $100 online – much more than the people next to me, because I played for a worldwide audience. The others were just playing for a few people walking by.
We basically take the idea of busking – which you can do on the subway or on the street – and give it a larger audience.
If you were an artist starting out today – knowing what you know from about 20 years worth of banging your head against the wall as a musician and now an executive – what advice would you give yourself?
This is a difficult question for me. I’d say my biggest advice is, “Don’t get hung up on the mistakes you’ve made in the past.” It’s almost like saying, “Don’t ask yourself this question.”
I would say to go with your gut. You have to believe in yourself. Even when people tell you, “You’re not going to make it in this town,” just keep going. If you had a bad show, a bad review, that’s yesterday, and you have to move on. And you can’t get hung up on past failures. It’s not about getting knocked down; it’s about getting back up. That attitude is the difference between successful people and people that never do anything.
When my brother and I first came out to Los Angeles, we were 17- or 18-years old. We just spent a lot of time on Third Street Promenade. We would play twice a week for about an hour and would make anywhere from $20, to $50. After the first time, there were a couple homeless guys around. Instead of giving them money, we decided to go to the local pizza shop and take them to dinner with us. It became a regular thing to have homeless guys walking into the pizza shop with us. We actually wrote a song about it called “Could’ve Been James Dean” that was on our first record. The idea was that we were actually trading dinner for their stories. I don’t think we ever met a homeless guy that wasn’t “screwed” by the system somehow. One of the guys always would say he “could’ve been James Dean.”
What they all had in common was that they basically threw their hands up and stopped. I’m not saying if you stop playing music, you’re going to be a homeless person. But, they all had that story; they all had somebody else to blame. It was so easy to say, “It wasn’t my fault. I was supposed to get the Vice President gig, but somebody else screwed me over.” They were able to take comfort in the fact that they were dealt a bad hand.
That attitude just isn’t going to fly in the music industry or any industry for that matter. I think that’s the difference between successful people who keep going and those that don’t make it. And, by the way, I’m not going to define success, because that’s really up to each individual person. My main point is blaming others isn’t going to get you very far. So, when your record label drops you, it doesn’t matter. I was dropped hard nine weeks after our record came out on Island Records. We were told to go home. We could’ve easily just blamed them and named the reasons it wasn’t our fault. But instead, we proved them wrong.
To learn more about Evan Lowenstein and the work he does with artists, visit the Stageit website.