My Interview with ReverbNation Co-Founder, Lou Plaia

Emily: So today I am with Lou Plaia, Co-Founder of ReverbNation! Lou is a Music Industry veteran with over 20 years experience; he spent twelve years at Atlantic Records where he was VP of Strategic Marketing and worked in some capacity with Jewel, Hootie & the Blowfish, Collective Soul, George Carlin and hundreds of other artists and bands. He was also the Head of Marketing and Artist Development for Atlantic imprint, Lava Records, where he worked for four years with artists such as Kid Rock, O.A.R., Simple Plan, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Matchbox 20, Uncle Kracker, Unwritten Law and many others. Now, I’m a person very passionate about entrepreneurship. My first question is how did the idea of ReverbNation get started? What was your mission?

Lou: Sure, actually when I was at Atlantic Records back in 1999, I had this idea of “why not expose as many emerging artists in the world to everything that the labels had. Why not try to find the next big bands out of what’s buzzing underneath”. And I said, “Let’s create a website and we’ll have bands create and put up their contents on their own pages, artists and fans can talk to each other, people will listen to music on their computer.” And unfortunately, the Warner Music people laughed at me and said, “Why would artist and fans want to talk to each other? Why would anybody listen to music on  a computer?” and things like that.  

So that was back in 1999. I think Myspace was born right after that, which is kind of the idea actually. But then, I put this on hold. When I left Atlantic/Lava  I said to myself, “Wow, what the hell am I going to do now? I don’t know anything other than the music business. I’ve been doing this for 20 years”.   So then I met with a bunch of technology guys because I really don’t know anything about technology. I’m really like a technical idiot, I guess. So I hooked up with all of these brilliant, brilliant business and technology guys in North Carolina. And they said, “That’s great! Let’s do this. I love the idea.” They had a very similar idea, but they didn’t have a music person. So it was a perfect fit. This was 2006 I guess, so we launched.   That’s how it came about. Basically, we just wanted to help artists develop because with the internet, there are so many artists out there. The good thing about the Internet is anybody can do whatever they want and they have a lot of the same tools. But the bad part about the internet is you’ve got what I just said it. There’s too much stuff going on. How do you discover the best?  

So we wanted to start this company more of an artist services company, as opposed to Myspace, which was really more of a fan site. With Myspace, Artists put up their pages and then, hopefully, their fans would  go there. Myspace would make all their money on the advertising, but they  weren’t giving the Artists any tools to help advance their careers. They never gave an email system or press kit or distribution or anything. So we decided, ReverbNation would be the ones to give the Artists these necessities. So that’s how it all started.  

Emily: Yeah! I remember the Myspace days, wow how far we have come. And I do want to ask how can someone really use ReverbNation to build a career? You mentioned a lot of these tools and I know the business has definitely grown over the 10 years. Yeah, what are the highlights that they can really utilize from the site?

Lou: I’m pretty sure we were the first company to really start doing widgets way back then in 2006. A widget is something you can put on other websites. Everyone had Myspace pages, but their music player was really bad. So we created these widgets where artists can just copy and paste their widget from ReverbNation and put it on Myspace, so it became a big marketing tool for artists.   It wasn’t just a music player widget. It was a tour widget for showing all the tour dates, a press widget to show their press, a store widget to sell their music and merch. So we were really ahead of the game. We were and still are a pretty innovative company. We were the first company to create artist apps for Facebook. So our band profile was the first one way back when Facebook really started getting big. Now we’ve had millions of installs of that over the years. So that was some of those early tools.  

Emily: I can’t believe ReverbNation kicked off artist apps on Facebook. Totally awesome. And how about you? How did you get you starting with music? Were you a musician too?

Lou: No, actually, I was not. All my friends were from Berkley and all the other cool schools. I don’t know. I can’t play anything. I think I played the guitar in the 11th or 12th grade, but really, really bad. But I just love music and I love the whole music business part of it. I like to have fun as a person and everyone said, “Well, if that’s the business you want to be in…” I had a long hair and things like that, so I couldn’t work anywhere else.

  Emily: That’s hilarious. I guess you had the look though! Well, you’re just really passionate about the industry and just connecting with the players in the industry, a true entrepreneur. How is the music artist like an entrepreneur? A lot of times, they get confused. They think, “I’m just the artist. I’m just creative. That’s it! I can’t do it all.”

Lou: Yeah, that’s a great point. Every artist has to act as if they are a company, their own business. And hopefully, someone in the band acts as the CEO of the company because they do have to be completely entrepreneurial. They’re doing everything on their own, they have to make use of the tools that are out there, spend as little money as possible because they’re not making a lot of money.   And it’s really hard and it’s very, very risky. Do you quit your day job or do you not quit your day job? So it has a lot of characteristics, I guess, as an entrepreneur in those facets of it. It’s just very, very risky. But they need to realize that they are a business and have to treat it that way, and a lot of them don’t.  

Emily: Well, I guess you can always bring in support, just some people to support you. Managers, you bring in a coach etc.

Lou: Yeah, totally. Once they start moving the needle a little bit and really can’t do it themselves, the only way you’re ever really going to have a money-making career is if you get the team together.  

Emily: A publicist. You gotta build that team!

Lou: Exactly, a publicist, management, booking agent, whatever it takes to make you go from point B to point C. Companies like ReverbNation and other companies out there can help you go from A to B, but that’s about it. We’re not going to make anyone superstar. You definitely need team members behind you to go from B to C.  

Emily: Yeah, I was going to ask that a while ago. What are some steps an artist can take to go from indie and then climb up, mingle with the inner circle of music, the celebrities etc?  I guess, of course you gotta build your A-Team and you got to network. There’s really no shortcut. It’s about paying your dues…there’s a little bit of luck in there, but still?

Lou: Yes, it’s very true. It is. There’s timing and there’s luck involved, and there’s relationships you have. All that stuff that definitely brings you ahead of the other artists that you’re competing against because if you have a relationship or even money or something like that, you’re already ahead of the game. Of course you have to have a great song. Just because you have a million dollars from a trust fund or you won the lottery doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful. It’s still all about the song.   But I think just getting the right people in place. There’s a time and a place when you need a publicist. There’s got to be some type of story for the publicist to be successful. You can’t just go and hire a publicist and say “we’re on our way”. What are they going to talk about? If there’s not really a buzz, and you have no story, what are they going to write about? You have to have a lot of things going on before you can really get to that next level.  

Emily: Awesome advice. Now, who are some of your favorite artists?

Lou: I guess I’m an old-school guy, so I love all the old metal stuff like Iron Maiden and Metallica and Judas Priest. That’s where I come from. That’s what I love. Also, Frank Zappa is my favorite. I idolize him. But I guess over the past bunch of years, I’ve haven’t loved the metal scene that much, so I’ve gotten away from that. I got more into other kinds of music. I definitely still love the hard rock, but the newer stuff doesn’t do that much for me anymore. So I have actually learned to like things like Americana and indie rock and genres like that. So I definitely thought I would never listen to some of that stuff because it was too slow for me, but now I definitely appreciate it a lot more now as I’ve gotten older.

  Emily: yea, I totally get it. I personally love it all, from house to hip hop. So where do you think music is going on in five years? With everything right now, it’s definitely like house music is the hot thing – well, the hotter thing right now. And then that’s versus hip hop. I mean, I was living in New York and New York was all about hip hop. And then in Miami, it’s all about house over here. And everyone I interview tell me it’s all about the lyrics now.  

Lou: I’m not sure. I think the music that’s popular in Miami, for instance, is still going to be popular in Miami just maybe a different form of it. I do know this, the EDM genre has been crazy the last couple of years.   I personally think it’s probably just going to be a trend kind of like disco was. That lasted a few years and it went away. EDM will still exist but it will just be a different form of EDM. We’ve had EDM for 20, 30 years. It was just a different version of that. I think some of these genres will definitely last forever but may change its form a bit – I mean, look, hip hop has changed over and over so many times and so has rock. There will always be rock. There’s always going to be hip hop, just I think different forms of it will just get popular and it’s all going to be played on your phone anyway.

 Emily: Good point! And what really matters at the end of the day for the music artist?

Lou: To have a great song. I mean, it really just all revolves around the song. There are these great voices, but there’s no song. There are great songs and no voices. So you just have to start with the song. Without a good song, you’re just not going to have a hit basically. I know it sounds like a no-brainer. But then the artist think they’re the best (which is great that they’re confident), but they have to realize you can’t be a 10 anymore. You’ve got to be an 11.