Fuse Tech: An interview with Jayce Varden, President, North America PledgeMusic

Artists need cash in order to record, tour, and create. They also need support as they hunt for better ways to connect with their fans. That’s where services like PledgeMusic come in.

By Charlie McEnerney

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Jayce Varden. President of PledgeMusic.

We recently launched a new series called Fuse Tech, putting the spotlight on technology companies in Greater Boston working in the arts, culture, and entertainment sectors. Read our Fuse Tech columns on Grouptones and on Groupmuse.

Next up in the Fuse Tech series is Jayce Varden, President, North America for PledgeMusic in Boston, Massachusetts.

For about 60 years, the music business had a solid model: record labels would find new artists to cultivate, investing in them by recording their music, putting them on tour, helping them develop their identity, marketing them to the press, and distributing their vinyl, cassettes, 8-tracks, and CDs to record retailers.

Most labels had a strategy of releasing acts that made sense in terms of the label’s brand. Not all the chosen artists would make money, but the successful acts would subsidize those that fell short — and would give labels the capital to keep going with more new acts.

Yes, there were flaws: most new artists—understandably excited at the prospect of getting a record deal—would take the cash advance in order to record an album and go on tour. The advance was only a loan, of course, and many artists never made back the money for the label (or “recouped the costs,” as they say), so they would make little or nothing from a record release and tour unless they had a hit. The history of record labels is littered with artists who owed the record label money and were often dropped from the label if they didn’t break big. The terms of a contract were also always favorable to the label because a new artist had little if any leverage.

Of course, as the sales of music declined (replaced by file sharing and music streaming services,) major record labels no longer signed on as many new artists as they used to. At the same time, the Internet made record labels much less crucial. Record stores are now an anomaly, so musicians doesn’t need distribution. Through e-mail and social media, artists can now easily create their own marketing campaigns and tours. Given that commercial radio is controlled by a couple of conglomerates, most musicians don’t even bother trying to get airplay. Instead, they form their own teams to accomplish most of what record labels used to do.

Still, artists need cash in order to record, tour, and create. They also need support as they hunt for better ways to connect with their fans. That’s where services like PledgeMusic come in.

The Arts Fuse: What is your background and how did you come up with the idea behind PledgeMusic?

Jayce Varden: I attended Berklee College of Music in 1991 where I met Benji Rogers, PledgeMusic’s founder. We spent the better part of the 1990s playing in bands together from Boston, to London, NY, and LA. I returned to Boston in the early 2000s and matriculated at Boston College, where I graduated with a degree in Corporate Systems. Benji continued playing music throughout that time. Then, in the summer of 2008, he brought me the initial idea for PledgeMusic. We sketched out a cursory business plan, then went to work with our other co-founders and an advisory team honing in on what became the eventual business plan. The core idea stemmed from Benji’s experience as an independent musician during the rise of MySpace and Facebook.

Arts Fuse: What is PledgeMusic and what problems are you solving?

Varden: We’re a direct-to-fan platform that specializes in both crowd-sourcing projects and music related pre-sales. Fundamentally, we help artists return a value proposition to music fans—and I stress the word fans, because that classification differs from consumers. We know that fans have not always been given what they want. Instead, they have been forced into being treated like consumers, where the average spend is diminishing.

PledgeMusic was built for artists to engage with their fans in the creative process and to monetize that process. We put money directly into artists’ pockets—whether it be to record an album, release a video, or sell a show.

Arts Fuse: What makes PledgeMusic different from other crowd funding services?

Varden: Well, I have to make it clear that we are not a crowd funding company. We are a music company. We can operate as a crowd-sourcing platform, but we mainly supply marketing expertise, project management support, and customer service. We come with a broad network of partners to assist artists in completing their album cycle process. We also have a social network syndication technology capable of creating millions of impressions from an artist fan base–think a de facto social media street team from a single authorization at point of sale.

Arts Fuse: What are the benefits of using the service for audiences and artists?

Varden:The primary benefit for both lies smack dab in the middle of Maslow’s hierarchy — community — a fulfillment of our need to belong. Our campaigns connect artists to fans. Fans don’t need another platform to buy something on nor do artist need another platform to sell something on. What they both need and WANT is the ability to feel closer to one another. Some may argue to the contrary, but today the traditional notion of the mystique of the artist is all but gone. Social media has created an expectation of transparency and inclusion.

We help deliver the most intimate digital experience possible for an artist’s creative project. Of course, commerce is involved, but it is delivered in the spirit of patronage, and is worn as a badge of pride. PledgeMusic doesn’t focus on the transaction or monetary goal — in fact, we don’t display a crowd-sourced project’s financial goal. The value to the artist is that we can maximize their potential by minimizing the chance someone (a potential fan) can make a value judgment based on a monetary goal. Fans win because they receive the access they want as well as exclusive merchandise and experiences. Artists win financially, but they do so by engaging and growing their fan base. Finally, a charity can be chosen by the artist to receive a portion of the final amount that is raised.

Arts Fuse: What is the business model?

Varden: 15% commission on all funds raised. No additional fees.

Arts Fuse: Who are some of the other key folks at PledgeMusic and what are their backgrounds?

Varden: Benji Rogers, Founder & President—literally born into the music business with his father, mother, and stepfather all music managers. Malcolm Dunbar, Managing Director, based in our UK office, former A&R head at Island records, Warner/East West, and V2 Records and a wonderful team of 40+ others with whom it is my pleasure to work beside.

Arts Fuse: Can you share a few success stories from recent or current projects?

Varden: We value our successes at a levels – whether it is a project to fund the vinyl production of Corin Ashley’s (Boston local) New Lion Terraces—or a pre-order campaign for Lindsey Stirling, who debuted at #2 on the Billboard Top 200, with consecutive weeks as the #1 EDM and Classical albums to boot! Some other chart toppers include the last Ben Folds Five album (#10 Billboard Top 200), 311’s latest release (#6 Billboard Top 200), Mindi Abair (#1 Billboard Jazz Charts), Sevendust (#19 Billboard Top 200).

Charles McEnerney has held marketing and editorial roles at HBO, WGBH/PBS, Fast Company magazine, ArtsBoston, MovieMaker magazine, Seattle International Film Festival, and worked in film, television, and music production. He was also Host + Producer of the Well-Rounded Radio music interview podcast series from 2002-2010 and is now Principal at Layers Marketing.

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