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Interview DAVID COURTIER-DUTTON, CEO of a new fan-funded business model for artists seeking investment - June 29, 2009

“We regard ourselves as a stepladder - we take artists from the vast pea soup that is MySpace and help them up the professional ladder. Whether that’s getting a top management company, a publishing deal, distribution, or their album licensed to a major.”

picture Broadband internet and social networks have helped nurture a new breed of A&R that gives the power to decide what music we hear to the fan.

Records labels’ lack of funds to spend on new artists and consequent lack of risk taking on who they pluck out of the mêlée has helped usher in a number of new business models that allow the fan to not only choose who they want to hear in record shops, on the radio, and on the main stage, but also invest in their success. First came Sellaband in 2006, followed by Slicethepie in 2007 before Bandstocks completed the charge last year.

For an insight into this new phenomenon, HitQuarters spoke with the CEO of Slicethepie, David Courtier-Dutton. As a basic summary of how the site works is available here, we took this opportunity to go one step further and quiz the London-based entrepreneur about how this fan-funded model can really benefit the artist.

From an artist’s perspective, what’s wrong with the conventional A&R set-up?

Well we’re predominantly in the unsigned artist space at the moment, and very few other people are in that market. For most people, if you’ve already been signed, it’s about distribution, whether it’s Spotify or whoever. They’re all looking at the one per cent of artists who have been picked up by a label and are professionally released and managed. We’re looking at the rest – the 99 per cent that doesn’t get out or just sits on MySpace. There’s just too much to get noticed.

The problem is not access, it’s the confusion that there are over ten million tracks on MySpace. You won’t get noticed in a million years! At the moment it’s driven by popularity ratings, and it’s like a chart effect – if you’re not in it, you might have the best song in the world, but if no one’s hitting your site, you’re never going to get noticed.

So when you launched Slicethepie it wasn’t from any moral point of view that artists were being treated unfairly? Was it purely market-driven?

It was purely market-driven. It was no label backlash - it was a matter of seeing an opportunity facilitated by broadband and social-networks. It meant fans could directly assist artists financially, which just wasn’t possible five or ten years ago.

So why is Slicethepie good for artists?

Well firstly the good thing for artists is that it doesn’t cost anything - we don’t take any rights to the publishing or copyright. In fact the worst thing that can happen is that you get some reviews that say your track isn’t any good. The upside is that you can raise £15,000 to get your album made.

On top of that, just being in the database means you’re automatically open to a range of opportunities from our partners – from national radio to Bebo and Samsung. And we’re also potentially working with major labels who will fold the entire catalogue into their publishing catalogue without taking any of the rights.

Either you can fool around on MySpace hoping people will discover you, or you can put it into a catalogued database, and if your track is right, you will be found.

Could you tell us how some of your partnerships help artists?
The marketing at the Bebo and Samsung end is the main engine for artists. Once they get financed they get £25,000 worth of marketing on Bebo. They get to play as support acts as major artists at Samsung-Bebo nights. They get free t-shirts to promote them, they get a free promotional store built on Bebo, they get access to radio play, and all sorts of other things we’re putting in that Bebo-Samsung package. So, if you were on a label putting together a digital-marketing campaign, that’s pretty much what you’d be doing.

On Slicethepie, Music Fans take on the A&R role, earning money reviewing tracks, spotting new talent and ensuring the best Artists get put forward for financing.

One of the distinguishing features of Slicethepie is that users review the tracks uploaded to the site. This clearly benefits them because they can earn money for doing so, but how do the reviews benefit the artists?

Well we now describe ourselves as a consumer-driven filter for the music industry. So what happens first is that artists upload their tracks. It goes through the filter, or the scout-room, and in doing so it gets indexed in a phenomenally detailed way, which you can see in the data we get from SoundOut.

Once a track has been processed we can do all sorts of things with it – we can take the top 0.1% and identify them for finance, so we can see who the most commercial are. Number two - we can do the SoundOut stuff interrogating that for analysis.

The third thing is we’ll be able to do a free test search for a piece of music. You can put in a song brief – 3 words or 300 – and our technology will index the search and sweep through 3 million reviews, pulling out the closest-matching track, because each track has got a thousand words of text attached to it after the review process. There’s none of those drop-down boxes, it’s absolute free-text, and our software is world-leading – you just say, “I want a pop track like the Spice Girls, with a slow beginning, and a West-Coast feel,” and it will pull out the top twenty closest matches. It all stems from the initial filtering of the music.

For an artist, they can come and put their track up and hope for finance, but actually we’re also opening a door to a huge range of commercial opportunities for commercial users of music.

With 3 million user reviews on the site now the review systems seems to be working.

Yep, 3 million. That means about ten thousand a day, so it’s a nice little engine in the background!

Could you tell us a bit more on how SoundOut works.

You come to SoundOut and pay your forty dollars or whatever, and the track is then whisked across from the scout rooms whereby it is prioritised to receive the next 80 reviews. We know quite a lot about the reviewers, whether girls like it more than boys and that sort of stuff, and we use our software to figure what people are talking about in terms of lyrics or compositional guitar or vocals, and apply analysis, seeing what the strong or weak parts of the track are. So it’s in depth insight into how good or bad your track is.

It’s very useful comparing a number of tracks by the same artist to see what’s the strongest candidate for a single or what should go on the album. It's already a good revenue stream.

Do you think the artists take more from Slicethepie if they are open to fans’ comments? Do people even end up changing their music?

We see they use SoundOut a lot – if we finance them we give them free tokens - and a lot use the feedback. We see three camps. First is those that use ignore the feedback because it’s “all about the art” or they’re too terrified, those that listen to the feedback but aren’t too bothered, and those that hunger for it and want as much feedback as possible as they want to be commercially successful.

Do you think the fans are better judges than A&Rs?

As a crowd they're definitely as good – the
theory of wisdom of crowds does work. Our scouts that have come through the rating system would be very good at A&R. They’re typically 92 or 93 per cent accurate at judging the broader mood - we’re rating the scouts as well as the tracks they’re reviewing.

Have you met any A&Rs who’ve been impressed?

The best example is that one of the artists is on the verge of signing a deal with a US major. The material has been recorded off the back of Slicethepie funding, and they’ve said, “It’s good enough for us!”

Was that always the intention – is that the big success for you?

Absolutely. We regard ourselves as a stepladder. We take artists from the vast pea soup that is MySpace and help them up the professional ladder. Whether that’s getting a top management company on board or getting a publishing deal, or distribution, or their album licensed to a major. What is actually happening is not that they record with a major, the label is picking an artist up and putting them through their vast marketing agent, adding the critical piece to the creative part with which we have helped – so it’s complimentary. In this case if the deal goes ahead, the investors and artists will make an 800 per cent return on their investments.

And so far 24 artists have received £15,000. Why’s that the minimum amount?

We agreed on £15,000 on the basis that it costs between five and ten thousand to create a professional album – then when you throw the marketing in and a plugger for a month or two for the single, that’s the budget gone. So it’s the minimum you need to have a shot at making an impact, but we accept it’s not really enough in today’s age to really get the music out. You shouldn’t expect too many sales unless you get noticed by one of our partners or indeed a label.

So who controls that 15,000? What say does Slicethepie have at that stage?

What happens is when the artist reaches a target they have to provide us with a budget on how they expect to spend the money, and a timetable. They go and record the album and we release the £15,000 against the agreed targets, taking in studio delivery and masters’ recording etc. It’s the fans’ money so we need to make sure it is appropriately spent!

Are there producers who you work with in particular?

We know a large number of producers and management companies. A lot of the artists have a good idea of who they do want to produce the album, as they respect another group the producer has worked with. Producers are not as cheap as chips but are affordable these days. So on the whole they’re working with very well known producers.

Who’s your favourite artist so far?

I tend to have my favourites and then move on. I like Temposhark on the site, Scars on 45 is very good – neither of those have been released yet. Sarah Grace’s album is good, as is Lights Action – everyone in the office loves that. We play stuff to death.

Do you find there’s a disparity between your own ‘wisdom’ and the wisdom of the crowds.

Yes, and that’s great – because that means it’s working.

Interview by Bill Code

Next week: Interview with Christopher Blenkinsop, the leader of 17 Hippies, a band that balances success with total independence

Read On ...