I get asked to do interviews often. Most of the time I do them. Some of those times I repost them here for you guys to read, if you’d like. This interview was for a college student writing a dissertation on YouTube’s influence on the music industry. If you’re writing your own school paper about YouTube, indie music or DFTBA Records, you might find some of this information helpful. =)
1) What was the reason you began to take interest in youtube to this greater extent? At what point did you think or realise that there was opportunity here to utilise YouTube in the way you have to start your label?
It was all very innocent. I never set out to start a company. Before DFTBA Records, I had been on YouTube over two years, making videos with my friends, vlogging, etc. In 2008 I was part of a project called fiveawesomeguys. There were five of us, and we took turns uploading a new video every single day of the week. I was Monday. Through this project I became pretty close friends with Charlie McDonnell (Tuesday) and Alex Day (Wednesday). They were both uploading fun songs to their YouTube channels fairly regularly. Their viewers kept asking them where they could buy those songs, I mean tens of thousands of people. Charlie and Alex had to keep telling them, “nowhere”. I decided I wanted to change that.
Knowing that there was already a demand, I didn’t have a lot of the hurdles that most new companies have. All I had to do was figure out how to scale the whole project once we started. I told my friend Hank Green about my idea for a YouTube record label and he saw the full potential even before I did. We registered the company and set out building a website/cart system. The first release came quickly. We had no idea what we were doing. We sat up all weekend (Hank, myself, and my friend Monica Carr) cutting and pasting addresses from PayPal, printing them on regular paper and scotch taping them to envelopes. We’ve, of course, upgraded our system since then.
We quickly learned how to make things more efficient. Our second release sold almost 1,000 CDs on preorder, more than I thought we’d ever sell of anything we put out. We grew from being run out of my bedroom, to the living room, to the garage, to a commercial warehouse and office space within a year and a half. Our releases now regularly land on the iTunes top sales charts. We’ve branched out into other merchandise, including t-shirts, buttons and stickers. We have over two dozen artists on our roster. We’ve been interviewed in the Chicago Tribune’s Red Eye, Hypebot, and numerous music blogs. And YouTube has written about us on a few occasions in their official blog.
2) Without Youtube, do you believe that your label’s success would have been as substantial as it has been (financially and culturally)?
Without YouTube there would be no label. The entire label was born out of the need for YouTube musicians to sell their music to fans who wanted to buy it. I believe our success has largely come from the simple motivation of filling that need. None of us wanted to be rock stars, none of us were business executives sitting around trying to capitalize on the internet. We’re just a bunch of kids making music that people enjoy.
3) You co-founded DFTBA Records, and your label has exclusively been signing artists/bands that made a name for themselves on Youtube. Do you want this to be something the company is known for? Are you concerned that you will limit your ability to sign future non-YouTube sensation artists?
DFTBA Records will always be known as the YouTube record label. We don’t work the way most labels work. We don’t make stars. We don’t spend buckets of money promoting our artists. We don’t pay for nation-wide tours. We don’t hire fancy directors to make fancy commercials… I mean, music videos. We work more like a distribution service, and let our artists promote themselves the way they feel most comfortable.
Because we don’t do any of that major label stuff mentioned above, we can pay our artists an average of 6 to 7 times more than other labels. Most major label deals are for 10% of sales. We pay our artists between 60 and 70% of their sales. That’s huge. That means artists no longer have to sell millions of records to eat and pay rent. We have some artists who only sell two or three thousand CDs a year and they’re able to make a living from their music that way.
By severely limiting our overhead, we can maximize what we pay our artists. We receive just enough of a cut to keep the business operating (rent, manufacturing, IT services, etc), keep ourselves paid (we have four employees, including myself and Hank), and turn a tiny profit each month that we then invest in smaller acts who can’t yet sell enough CDs to make a living from their music.
4) Do you feel as if “traditional” record companies in the business perceive you differently than their labels? What has the reception for you label in the industry been like?
I don’t think too many traditional record labels even know we exist. We’re barely a blip on their radars right now. That will change. And quickly. Mainstream music sales continue to nose-dive every year, while our sales last year TRIPLED over the year before it. But for those who have heard of us, there has been some excitement. Hypebot published a two part interview with me, and their readers reacted well to the label. Music Think Tank has published a number of my articles, all met with enthusiasm and excitement. So there is hope.
5) Rio Caraeff President and CEO of VEVO said that it is hard to charge people for something they have been able to get for free for years. When you decided to release your first album, did you find that your fans were prepared to pay for your music, which they were used to getting for free?
Yeah, there was very little drama when we launched. Mostly, there was just excitement. Our fans understand that we’re not mega stars. We’re not living the cliches that so many rock stars fall into. We take our music, and those willing to pay for it, very seriously. We play small shows. We read and reply to comments and emails. We work on collabs with our community. Most of us don’t even use the word “fans” as you did above. We’re all friends. Some of us make music, some of us make videos and some of us write blogs. I’ll read your blog, and you can listen to my music, and we can share our experiences with each other. If you feel like spending a couple bucks to buy something I’ve made, that’s awesome. And if you don’t, that’s cool too, we post most of our music to YouTube still, where it’s available for free streaming. We haven’t changed anything from how we were sharing and interacting three years ago when this all started, we were just also able to make the music available on iTunes for those who want a copy they can take with them outside of YouTube.
6) Do you think that YouTube will charge money for its services in the future? How would this impact your label?
YouTube may or may not try a premium service option in the future. But it will be exactly that, an option. Maybe if you pay a couple bucks a month you won’t have to sit through pre-roll ads. Or maybe you can upload longer videos. Etc. They will never make the site a paid site. They’ve become too big and too ingrained in people’s every day lives to suddenly shut out a huge portion of their users by going to a paid model. So, we’ve never given it much thought.
7) From what I understand, DFTBA encourages its artists to cover songs by their label-mates on Youtube? Can you explain why?
Because it’s fun! Actually, it was an idea I had after watching one of my favorite bands, Death Cab for Cutie, play a few late night talk shows. I thought about how, after someone releases a new song on YouTube, there is a lot of excitement and buzz for about exactly 24 hours, then it’s dead. It’s old news. No one cares. Or it gets buried in subscription boxes and viewers never get to hear the song. By having other artists cover those songs after they’re released, they get a new 24 hour excitement period. People are reminded those songs exist. New viewers are introduced to new artists or songs, the same way Death Cab for Cutie playing on the Letterman show exposes them to new listeners.
If DFTBA Records is going to struggle with anything in the future, it is that. The internet moves very quickly. A new song is no longer new after 24 hours, and there are tens of thousands of viewers patiently (and sometimes impatiently) waiting for your next new song. As an artist, that kind of consume-and-move-on attitude online can be depressing. And it means that successful artists have to be continuously creating to remain relevant.
I’d like to start slowing that cycle down. Before you know, by the time a song is 8 hours old, people will be talking about how they can’t wait for your next new song. And eventually, artists will burn out. After you create something, it should be given time to grow and mature and be experienced by music lovers. It shouldn’t have a three minute life span before the back button is clicked and the song is forgotten.