Benji Rogers is an independent musician from London who has been making his own records since 1999. In 2009, Benji founded PledgeMusic, the leading international direct-to-fan platform offering artists a unique way to engage their fans in the music making process while interacting with a global audience of music super fans, resulting in chart topping albums worldwide. In 2013, Benji was recognized on Billboard’s 40 Under 40 Power Players list and in 2014 at the MUSEXPO International Music Awards, he won Digital Executive of the Year.
Emily: So we have Benji Rogers, President and Founder of PledgeMusic, an amazing direct-to-fan music platform that truly supports artists in connecting closely with their fans, supporting their creative developmental projects and expanding their network. PledgeMusic is recognized by official chart companies around the world including the OCC and SoundScan and can account for a significant share of first week and overall chart shares. The purpose of this interview is to find out more about PledgeMusic’s philosophy and direction in helping artists and also, to gather your perspective on what it truly takes for a music artist to succeed in the industry. So, my first question for you is how did PledgeMusic get started. What sparked that first insight?
Benji: Sure. Basically, I’m an artist myself, performing and making records for ten years. I had a couple of independent record label deals and that type of thing. I couldn’t quite make it work for me. I would get really close and get some amazing experiences and then things didn’t work out. The label would not work out or the band wouldn’t work out, all kinds of things. Basically, I just saw something in my head one night and I was like, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if artists could offer their fans the experience of the making of an album, the experience of a tour, the experience of an EP, a single.” I looked for it online and there were companies that did crowd-funding, there were companies that did direct-to-consumer, but nowhere did I see that really did direct-to-fan, which is this unfolding process. I was really just obsessed by this thought that artists, when they’re making music are a lot more interesting to their fans than when they’re just selling music. So when an artist is a salesman or woman, they are one thing and when they’re making music, they are another. I think that when artists are making music, it fascinates their fans and that is something they can truly participate in, that’s a lot more interesting and a lot more exciting and it turns out, worth a lot more to the fans than just the, “I’ve made an album, buy it here,” which is what tends to commonly happen around most releases.
Emily: Yeah, definitely. In other interviews, I’ve definitely heard how disconnected it can be between the artist and the fans nowadays with so much competition and so many artists coming out and with all the different social media– fans are overwhelmed with all types of directions and which different artist are coming on the market. So it’s really great I believe that the fans can have a great, true connection through PledgeMusic.
Benji: I agree. The funny thing, in the one sense, the Internet made it both harder and easier to do disseminate content. It’s easy just selling content, but harder to actually get that content heard and engaged. The way I view this is that artists do things that are fascinating to other people. Selling products to them is not one of them. It’s really fascinating to watch an artist play live. It’s fascinating to watch an artist record. It’s fascinating to watch an artist talk about their process. It’s not interesting, I don’t think, to have an artist stand there holding up a record saying, “Buy it, it’s $20.”
Really, what it is, the landscape of social media has really radically altered that relationship. If you think about it, you can have a really close direct relationship with a brand, whether it’s your cellphone company or whether it’s your favorite restaurant and often times, you can have a better connection. Like if I stay at a hotel or I tweet or Facebook post or Instagram, “Hey! Having a coffee at Mario’s in Toronto,” this hotel will tweet back saying, “Hope you enjoyed it. By the way, did you check out…” – this is a hotel that does this. So when certain brands get it better than artists who are creative people – I think that the artist has to listen to that. I think that the days of being able to shelter yourself away in a cocoon of creativity and emerge once every couple of years with a shining product for people to buy is not going to be a sustainable future. I looked at it when I was first having the idea of Pledge (and it kind of solidified through now), that there were basically two frontiers in music. There was the release of an album and a touring of the album. The touring of the album was normally to help sell albums. That was its intention. It wasn’t designed as a money-maker or if it did, it wouldn’t break even for quite a while. What I believe that becomes the vision that guided Pledge was there was actually a third frontier, which is the making of the album.
That making of the album can’t be stolen because it’s not coming from the artist if it is. It can’t really be had after the fact. It’s literally something that you experience in real-time. This morning I heard a new track by an artist – I love Mike Doughty off of our platform because he released it straight to pledgers only. So I’m getting to hear something for the first time directly from the studio while this is happening. You can’t really go back and do that again. It has to be right there and then. It’s got the urgency in certain cases of a live show, but that happens across the Internet. A lot of artists, they’re like, “But I just want to go make records and sell them,” and that’s fine, but it doesn’t work. If it works, we’ve got kind of like top tier.
Emily: Yeah, I can see how it doesn’t work anymore if at all.
Benji: Yeah. Really, there’s a top tier of artists who have broken through and then you’ve got the bottom tier who are just not doing it. The middle tier of artists are really getting a hard time because they’re having to wrestle with a new way of communicating. The funny thing is it’s not that hard. Every album, every EP, every video has a story to be told. If the only part of the story that the artist is telling is how to buy it, then it’s not a story. The Internet is built on stories. If you look at Facebook, it’s the story of what your friends are doing, it’s the story of who they’re in love with, it’s the story of what your exes are doing. And so, for an artist that just simply posts, “Buy tickets here” or “Buy my album here,” it’s really selling the experience of what’s possible so fans have alternatives for people who are doing it really well and they go follow them. There’s a reason that Amanda Palmer or Ben Folds or these artists are incredibly good at social media. It’s because they just tell stories, they respond, they’re real. They’ve understood what that communication means to those fans who are on the receiving end of it.
Emily: Yeah, I saw that definitely great artists have collaborated with PledgeMusic including Lucinda Williams, Slash, Bring Me the Horizon and BB King…
Benji: Yeah. I mean, as an example, today, we have the no. 2 album in America, in the Billboard Top 200 with Lindsey Stirling. She uses the platform to engage with her fans. It was her way of telling her story to her fans and having her fans be a part of the process, which she was really excited about. I think it’s really telling that an artist of that size and stature understands direct-to-fan.
Emily: Yeah, you definitely found a part of the market with a huge need for artists to truly connect with their fans. Especially now with social media, you have all the different methods to do so. The last few years, there’s definitely been innovative opportunities for artists to really, like you said, get out of the middle level, the middle layer of being confused with how to really market to your fans in the best way and to really take this opportunity and truly expand with connecting with others through their music. I saw that one of the quotes on the site was that “PledgeMusic gives you many of the benefits of a record deal, but you remain in control of the creative process and retain 100% of the commercial rate, music rate.” I would love to know more about that. That is definitely interesting.
Benji: Sure. So basically, what it is, the traditional model, the artist accepts an advance on a record label. In exchange for that advance, the label owns that album for a certain amount of time. It reverts back. That model worked very, very well, but that was when the label’s greatest skill was in getting albums to more and more people. Labels, they had massive radio reach, massive retail reach and digital reach more often. Now, an artist with a TuneCore or a CDBaby account can access all of the digital distribution platforms from day one for $20 or whatever it is. And so what we really felt was a) we weren’t involved in making the album (as in we were in the studio), we weren’t making artist repertoire decisions about it. We were just a way in which it got to people and the story in which it got to people. And so a lot of artists would go on to sign a record deal or they’ll sign a publishing deal. They’ll sign with someone. They’re basically free to do whatever it is that they want after the fact. And a lot of labels, in fact, look at what our artists do and basically – a lot of people, they look at what artists are doing, they go, “Wow! I’d like to find them.” So we’ve up-streamed maybe 50-60 artists to major independent labels from the platform and it’s been very, very cool. It’s definitely not something that I 100% expected, but I’ve been really, really pleased to see it happen because ultimately, if we can de-risk the label’s investment in that band, the band will get a better record deal. I think that’s something we definitely want to shoot for.
Emily: What is an ideal wait for a music artist to set up a campaign and get fans and more interest?
Benji: So there’s a few ways to do it, but basically artists email us and we get them involved in that way or artists sign up on the website and then one of our teams (either the UK or the US) will bring them into the system and help them through that way. The artist can do it completely on their own or else, we will basically get involved and help them through it. So it’s a very collaborative process that works best when everyone’s running in the same direction. We basically are able to convert more fans to become pledgers than any other platform because it’s got these pledgers-only update where we feed artists’ fans the experience of the making-of-an-album. So yeah, we’re very friendly. We have artists by our office all the time. I just didn’t want to be an infinite company, I wanted to be a music company that runs via the Internet. Our team is at shows pretty much every night somewhere in the world. We really actively do seek out shows. We actively do this. It’s in our blood. It really is. We’re kind of like, “Where are we?” So yeah, it’s been very cool.
Emily: I saw that the average pledge was $60, which is a lot higher than average. I saw that also a percentage of the funds raised go to supporting charities. I think that’s amazing.
Benji: Yeah. No, when we had the idea for it, it was to solve a few things. I think ultimately, there were a few problems. First of all, I worked with refugees in the Middle East in 2004. That profoundly affected me. And so I wanted to find a way to give back and to help out the things that I’ve seen and done. And then the other thing was that at the time, it was very much designed that every artist I ever knew was passionate about a charity. They would have one cause that was near and dear and close to their hearts. And so the thinking was, “Well, why can’t we combine those two?” I also was thinking in my head that a lot of us, we’ll be posting and release material and release music, et cetera and what I was thinking was you’d have to be pretty cold-blooded to pirate an artist’s music, which would be taking away from them personally and from a charity as well. And then charities got involved. They helped too. It’s just a win-win. It doesn’t work if it’s not genuine. We say to artists, “What’s the charity that you love? Don’t just pick one. Find out about it,” but most of them just have one. So it’s been really nice to see that roll out. That’s been a huge piece for us.
Emily: Well to me you come across as a visionary. You have the visionary mindset. You developed a service that is helping the world.
Benji: Oh, thank you. I appreciate that. It’s a team effort as well. I’ll say from our CEO who answers to the board (and I’m on the board, so he answers to me and then I answer to him). No, it’s been a blessing to have gotten this far. I’ve made it my mission to ask very stupid questions, what I’ve seen as very stupid questions all the way through because ultimately, what I want is – no, not what I want. I’m often asked, “What’s your vision for the future of this way of doing things?” and my answer is so that it becomes normal. The artists realize that this is how this is going to look. I really believe that this is the future, this is what it looks like. When you’re trying to turn around an industry that is used to doing things in a certain way, its own way and it’s not used to changing, there’s not one change I think, it becomes challenging. You are hitting your head up against the wall all the time.The reality of it is that there’s no other way this can really go. This is the future. This is what it looks like. It’s super exciting. It’s a brilliant thing to watch unfold. We’ve just built a dedicated team that is second to none. So yeah, I’m blessed to be here.
Emily: So my final question is; where do you see music going five years from now?
Benji: I think that basically 99% of music in the future will be streams. The dissemination where people are streaming it from the Internet, they won’t need it on their phone. It’ll live that way. But one change is the fact of stories that people will fall in love with the narrative that exists within bands, the narrative that exists for solo artists. They’ll question why. What I love, the philosophy of it – it’s actually from Nick Bilton’s book, I Live in the Future and Here’s How it Works, the customers of the future where they can’t find the stories that they want, they will steal them or create them. That makes it a huge potential and a huge possibility. Artists can totally control their own futures now and that’s a super exciting time. There will be winners and losers in this. I don’t believe that the labels will disappear, but just the nature of what they do will change and it’s not a bad thing. It’s essentially very exciting. So yeah, that’s what I believe it will look like.