Sean Greenhalgh, left, and Alec Ounsworth of the band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, which used a service called Rabbl to help it build an audience for a Baltimore show.
By CLAIRE MARTIN
Published: September 28, 2013
A TWITTER user from Monterrey, Mexico, issued a challenge this month to the indie rock band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: If it would perform in his home country, he would tattoo the face of the lead singer, Alec Ounsworth, onto his own left buttock. The band retweeted the offer for the amusement of its followers.
The message was a sign that the band has a strong fan base in Mexico, and its members are eager to play a concert there. But having thousands of fans, including those zealous enough to ink their body parts as a tribute, doesn’t guarantee strong ticket sales, says Sean Greenhalgh, the band’s drummer.
“Trying to judge what’s going to happen in a certain city at a certain time is like trying to predict the weather,” he says. “There are so many variables.”
To mitigate the risk, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah has turned to a new service called Rabblthat uses crowdsourced fund-raising to allow musicians to sell tickets in advance in untested markets, collaborate with other bands they might want to perform with and attract the attention of talent buyers for places where they’d like to play. It’s part of a wave of companies that are connecting artists directly with their audiences.
As with the crowdfunding site Kickstarter, Rabbl users post online profiles, in which they set specific financial objectives and deadlines for reaching them. For a solo act, for example, the goal might be to sell 30 tickets at $10 apiece for a potential live show in Tucson, Ariz. Interested fans can then buy tickets on the site. If the sales goal isn’t met, the gig doesn’t happen and their credit cards aren’t charged. But if it is, the show is on and Rabbl runs the cards, collecting a $2 fee per ticket.
Money in hand, the band can then rent space, pay a sound engineer and cover some of the expenses, like staffing the door. With these break-even costs financed, both the band and the venue are poised to make a profit.
Rabbl got its start in San Francisco in late 2012, when Wade Lagrone, a marketing executive and former technology product manager, approached his friend Erik Needham, a software engineer who recorded bands on the side, with the idea of a business to allow fans to recruit bands to play in their cities.
“The live music business today works a lot like the television business did 30 years ago,” Mr. Lagrone says: you look at a list of what’s playing and decide what to watch. “You don’t have any control about when and where shows happen.”
Mr. Lagrone, whose father started the Tupelo Symphony Orchestra in Mississippi, and Mr. Needham, who played in both a Motown band and a Grateful Dead cover band at his New York college, knew of other sites that allowed music lovers to show their interest in seeing a certain band perform. But none involved an exchange of money and thus a firm commitment to attending.
In the last decade, the Internet has radically altered the way music is recorded, sold and consumed, and most musicians no longer earn the bulk of their income selling records and using concerts as a marketing tool. The money is almost always in the tour itself. “The album becomes almost like a promotional piece for the tour,” Mr. Greenhalgh says.
Today’s do-it-yourself recording software allows any musician with a laptop and $50 to spend a weekend making an album, and more artists are seeking a share of the tour-revenue pot. With this influx, gaining the attention of talent buyers at clubs and theaters can be tough, Mr. Needham and Mr. Lagrone say.
When Rabbl began, bands struggled to sell tickets when venturing into cities where they didn’t already have fans. Initially, only 3 to 5 percent of Rabbl campaigns culminated in live shows. So it began joining with venues to formalize standards by which bands could secure bookings. Rabbl now has contracts with Arlene’s Grocery in Manhattan, the Rock Shop and Tiger Lounge in Brooklyn, the Viper Room in West Hollywood, the Hi-Dive in Denver, and Thee Parkside and the DNA Lounge in San Francisco, and with the promoterCreative Entertainment Group, which books shows in seven states and Washington, D.C.
Rabbl allows musicians to be co-sponsors of fund-raising campaigns with other acts in order to share billing for a show, cross-promote it and play for one another’s fans. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah eventually used this function to support its first successful Rabbl campaign for a show it will perform at the Metro Gallery in Baltimore this Friday with two local opening bands.
But even with co-sponsor capabilities and a network of venues, a successful Rabbl campaign can require a fair amount of user effort. “We’re not a magic box where you create a Rabbl and a thousand people come to your show,” Mr. Needham says.
Dan Tedesco, a Nashville-based singer-songwriter whose Rabbl venture led to a gig earlier this month at the Rock Shop, says he sent e-mails and Twitter messages, posted on Facebook and texted friends to spread the word about his campaign. His show is one of 15 that have been booked and performed through Rabbl so far. “You still have to put in a lot of work,” he says of the service. “But it absolutely helps.”
A boom in similar live-music services could be imminent. Tegan Monique Gaan is the founder of a five-month-old service, Gigit, that caters to fans looking to hire bands for events in alternative sites like backyards and living rooms. Within the tech world, she says, “there are a lot of eyeballs on the live music industry.”
Existing services like Songkick and Bandsintown alert users via e-mail or a smartphone app when a favorite musical group has a gig in their area. Ticket-fly is an online ticket sales and marketing service for venues and event promoters. We Demand harnesses fans’ enthusiasm to help book larger acts into new markets — for instance, recruiting the dance band LCD Soundsystem to play in Brazil, as the company did.
The more crowded a field becomes, the harder the fund-raising can be. Mr. Needham and Mr. Lagrone have so far invested their own money in Rabbl and have kept expenses low by not taking salaries and relying on a small crew of advisers, rather than hiring a staff. But they’re in the process of raising financing.
They say that what sets Rabbl apart is its scope: helping smaller bands venture into new cities and organize tours without the expense of hiring a tour manager, and giving medium-size bands a way to fill gaps in their touring schedules and create opportunities to play in smaller, more intimate spaces.
THE business models of clubs and theaters are primed for change, according to Mr. Greenhalgh of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. The band is planning its second Rabbl campaign this fall, for a Mexico City show. (So whether that devoted fan will follow through on his tattoo promise remains an open question.)
“Making albums has been affected by the Internet so much, and it’s a matter of time before the live side gets integrated a bit more,” Mr. Greenhalgh says. “It’s coming.”