Emily White Interview Transcription

By October 3, 2016


George: What a pleasure it is to talk to Emily White. There’s a sense of poetry here after after Rykodisc was sold and I was doing some soul searching myself, I decided I wanted to do some teaching. The very first class I taught, there was a star student in that class. And as it turns out that student’s name was Emily White. She has gone on to absolutely exceed anybody’s wildest expectations, in terms of being a music business
trailblazer and now segueing into all sorts of other things. So thanks Emily for joining me here on the Music2020 interview.

Emily: Thanks so much for having me.

George: So while I would like to sing your praises and, you’re so humble that you probably won’t. Would you give a little background on what leads us to be talking to each other in 2016?

Emily: Yeah, absolutely. So, as you mentioned you were my professor in college for a class, I believe called The Recording Industry. and I couldn’t have been more excited that there was someone from the industry, you had just been running Rykodisc so that was amazing. I ended up meeting a band called the Dresden Dolls when I was in college and asked the singer, Amanda Palmer, if she needed help with anything. She said can you come over tomorrow? So I worked my way up with that band. Eventually becoming their tour manager, and their manager. I went all over the world with them. When I graduated…they actually were part of a management company called Madison House. I feel incredibly lucky that that’s who they went with because thier manager, Mike Luba, hired me out of college. Madison House mostly worked with jam bands. And, no matter what you think of the music, the business model is incredible because they were all about building businesses around the artist, and taking care of the fans as a very close second. So, I like to think that would’ve been my perspective anyway but I feel really lucky that I worked with all those people. That was in my early twenties. I worked with a ton of bands like I said learned my management chops at Madison House. Luba ended up going to work for Michael Cole which was part of the live nation Madonna,U2, Jay Z, 360 Deals.

George: Right.

Emily: At the time I had written a name your own price business model for Amanda’s solo record that I knew we could never do because she was signed to a semi-major but Luba had given my business plan to Bob Ezrin. Bob was heading up the recording division at the Live Nation artist thing. We all moved to Miami, of all places. I was twenty four years old and going into it I thought this is either going to be the biggest thing ever or a big disaster. But if it’s a big disaster it will be a great learning experience for me. It felt like grad school. I worked on Zac Brown band down there. We were laid off seven months later. Everyone was freaking out. I think I was the only one under thirty let alone under forty.

George: Right.

Emily: So a lot of people had brought kids down. They had mortgages, things like that. But…if I were talking to students right now I would slow down and tell them I was crying and freaking out. But in reality I was in a much better position. I had job offers. I started a management company because I had artists asking me to manage them. So I started Whitesmith Entertainment in 2008. Partnered with a comedy manager who was totally a colleague, not a friend. We didn’t know each other that well and I joked that we were eloping at the time, but it’s been eight years and you know we work with musicians, comedians, athletes. I’m a little bit more focused on my start up. Which is separate from Whitesmith, but Whitesmith is still intact. We have a waiting list of musicians that want to work with us and I am really proud of all the work we’ve done over the years. So that’s as short as I can whittle down ten or fifteen years or whatever it’s been.

George: That’s so great. It’s just, you will understand at some point if you don’t already….I don’t know, just the sense of wonder and delight that I have listening to that. I see teaching at some point in your future and I hope that you’ll be as lucky as I am to have had a student like you, that’s gone on and now….to hear you tell that story, I get emotional just talking about it. That’s amazing. So one of the things that you said in your intro early on through Madison House was this concept of building businesses around the bands. Right.

Emily: Yes.

George: And with Music 2020 we are just obsessed with this idea of trying to A. define, B. also just make sure that musicians are compensated fairly. In order to do that (and you and I can talk about what is and isn’t fair) one thing’s for sure, you don’t know what’s fair or not fair unless you control the prices. Right? If somebody else is controlling the prices for you, whether that’s your record label or any of the other intermediaries they’re setting the prices. So talk a little bit about that idea of building a business around the artist rather than, I assume you mean, the artist handing their business over to someone else.

Emily: Yeah absolutely. I think in “jam band world” that definitely started with the live show.

George: Right.

Emily: And my old boss Mike Lupa successfully sued Ticketmaster so the String Cheese Incident could sell their own tickets directly. But when you think about all the revenue streams around an artist, why would you want to sell those rights away or even give them away? And now with the onset of the digital age, artists can record on thier own and they can distribute on their own and those are, as you know, the two main things that changed from the pre-digital age because you needed those gatekeepers for the recording studio cost and for access to distribution. So now that artists can own and control thier recording rights, that’s really, really exciting. In addition to, of course, merchandising, touring, songwriting and all the other revenue streams that can go into being an artist.

George: Right. And we have (I’ve talked about it on the Music2020 site) these different stages of disintermediation and you hit on two of the big ones. At first you had to have a label to fund your recording, you couldn’t do it yourself. So ProTools allows for that to not be the case. Then, “You can make your own recording, artist, but unless you’ve got a label to distribute it, you’re screwed.” Well CD Baby, Tunecore, iTunes etc. those all become a way for artists to distribute without a label.

Emily: Band Camp, also.

George: Band Camp, also and many others..thank you for that. Band Camp, there’s a lot of others that are great for artists. I appreciate that. Please bring up others out there. I’m not you know…..and then my theory is the third level of disintermediation was around promotion where…..

Emily: Yeah and I didn’t mention that and just to interject quickly. That’s something that we’ve been really successful and effective with using social media because that is, even though you don’t own those platforms, it’s a direct way to communicate with the fans. And then, of course, you know it’s not outdated yet, but still building up that email list. It is something that you do own. So, yes marketing is crucial but I’ve also seen artists or myself or whoever spend thousands of dollars on marketing and promotion. And we’ve always tried to get really smart and efficient and sustainable by communicating with the audience as directly as possible, as often as possible.

George: I love it, and you can own your own website. You’re never going to own Facebook or Twitter and I always see those (you might be able to own Twitter at this point) I see those as little satellites around your sun or your planets. Owning your email, owning your website and that’s really the third level of disintermediation. Where the labels used to say, “Well sure you can distribute it and you can record it but you can’t promote it.” Yes I can. Now nobody is saying any of this is easy. So, then we come to the fourth level of disintermediation and for me that’s transaction. But before we get to that and how blockchain tech and other things can maybe do that, if we look at all those levels of disintermediation (and I would like to get your opinion on it – and this is the second point of the Music2020 manifesto); how do we reevaluate the role of those constituents and the business, whether they are streaming sites, labels, etc? Is there a role for them moving forward?

Emily: Yeah definitely. I wrote a plan that I believe in very, very much. I think there needs to…..I think you can build a sustainable streaming platform.

George: Okay.

Emily: For me, as a fan, I think streaming is awesome. You know, if we had monetized Napster, we would’ve been in a way different boat.

George: Sure.

Emily: In fact, I was in high school when Napster came out and in my head I thought not that I had this money but I thought I would pay ten, fifteen, I would pay fifty dollars a month for this service. But instead our industry decided to sue fans.

George: Right.

Emily: So here we are you know ten, fifteen years later and now everybody is fighting about streaming. Which again something as a fan I am like, “Oh, this is awesome, finally!” And even the Beatles are finally on streaming.

George: Right.

Emily: So I wrote a plan where first I think all of the rights holders which are starting to be more and more artists…

George: Artist, sure.

Emily: …should vote on the price point and take an average of whatever that is. So is it twenty dollars? Is is two dollars? You know that is a huge paying point for people.

George: Yes.

Emily: So, give the rights holders a voice on that. Two, the model that exists as crazy as it is, a fraction of a fraction of a cent, or whatever, actually isn’t sustainable, because it’s just made up.

George: Yes.

Emily: What you need to do is look at that ad revenue and the subscriber base revenue and what I propose is dividing it equally amongst how many streams there are.

George: Okay.

Emily: Because that way noone can complain. So, as I mentioned to you, I work with Pat Samson.

George: Yes.

Emily: …who plays in Wilco (a very big band) and Autumn Defense (a smaller band). And so when I explained that to Pat, I said Wilco is going to get more money than Autumn Defense but it’s literally fair. And the other component that I think that is really important to build into that platform is a Band Camp apps download model. I am stunned when I work with labels to this day and I have to convince them to work with Band Camp. Now of course ideally you have some direct to consumer setup yourself. Not everyone knows how to code. I am on the board of CASH Music but even with CASH oftentimes you do need someone who knows how to code.

George: Right.

Emily: So Band Camp is an awesome alternative because you keep all the email addresses. So that’s really, really important and what has gotten labels to pay attention when I do want them to work with Band Camp I am sure my stat is outdated but I believe they’ve brought in over hundred and fifteen million dollars on download revenues and suddenly labels pay attention when I mention that. But it just blows my mind that they just like ignore that platform. So anyway I think there needs to be a streaming platform that the rights holders vote on the price point, the income from streaming is divided equally, and the rights holders control the individual downloads and can also set that price point.

George: And there is the key to me.

Emily: If you want to keep your album at twenty bucks, you know you get that. If you want to make it three you get the email address. And to me that combines the best of everything that’s out there and I don’t know how anyone would complain about that.

George: I love it, I love it. And so you presented a very cogent plan. I would love if you’ve got that written down or somewhere I’d love to link to it.

Emily: Yep, it’s been picked up by Billboard, Midem, Future of Music and I think oh, and Hypebot of course. And now someone’s gotta do it. I am a little busy with my start up but that’s why put the idea out there for people.

George: Great and so the point that delights me the most of the very cogent plan is the last point that you mentioned where the artist gets to set the price.

Emily: Or I mean rights holder. I do have to be respectful to them.

George: Rights holder, songwriter, whomever, the individual rights holder, I am with you. I mean it could be dozens of rights holders for one song. In my ideal scenario the rights holder should be able to set the price and then the consumers should be able to, you say vote, I think people tend to vote with their checkbook. They will vote whether or not they’re willing to pay the price.

Emily: Right.

George: If they are not willing to pay the price, the price is going to come down. If lots of people pay at that price, just Economy 101 tells you, as demand goes up so too does prices. So we’re actually able to get to a free market without the intervention. What’s stopping us from doing that right now is governmental intervention whether it’s compulsory mechanical rates or blanket rates around performance royalties or what have you, that are setting either price floors or price ceilings and not allowing for the market to actually define a price. So this whole notion of artists being compensated fairly, we can’t even get at because people can’t set the price.

Emily: Right.

George: So I love that. In order to facilitate that, because you are as you noted dealing with a ton of different rights holders and different stakeholders, in order for that to happen without it getting gummed up you would need blockchain technology or something similar to it. Something where a set of rules and prices could be ascribed on a registry that’s not owned by anyone. Then when those rules are met through smart contracts it self executes. That’s the only way we are going to get there.

Emily: I think you need to lead with that when you are talking about this because that just sounds like a lightbulb moment for me. Even though a lot of these laws are in place like with good intentions and for good reasons.

George: Sure.

Emily: And that makes complete sense.

George: Yeah, and those laws were put in place for good reason and good intention back when the technology did not exist to do this without them.

Emily: Right.

George: Of course fifty or hundred years ago you needed a blanket license fee because it was completely ineffective to go and license individual by individual because there was no technology for it. But now we’re an era where we’re going from modeling, guesstimating to measuring. Actually I know exactly what the usages are and no one can tell me that we can’t effectively measure rather than model music usage, of course we can. So, great. So that leads us to the third real point of the Music2020 manifesto, which is how do we get to a more egalitarian playing field where artists succeed based on talent and not money behind the label affiliation? And it feels like it ties into your method here. Is that fair?

Emily: Yeah, no definitely I mean so we can talk about all these awesome things we want to do and I hope we do them but they don’t necessarily exist yet. So in the meantime art has to be great first and foremost. And then, yeah, I am still into the email address collection thing. You know it is such a strong piece of currency and it is the number way to communicate. [For example,] “I just put out a new song or I’m putting out a quadruple album, or I’m going on tour.” So building up that trust between artist and fan is really important. I’ve definitely worked with artists who frankly suck at social media. So we’ve always taken an approach where…like when I was working with Brendan Benson I mean I would say all that in front of them. We would tag everything team bb because we would never want to pose as Brendan.

George: Right.

Emily: But that way…I used to get thanked in the audience when I first started working with him from fans being like, “That’s the first time – I’ve been a Brendan fan for ten years – and that’s the first time I have received a mailer so I know the tour dates.” So I think whether it’s the artist, I mean ideally the artist working in conjunction with the team obviously, that’s the most effective way. So make great art, put together a strategy, and you also have to be consistent.

George: Yes.

Emily: A lot of artists put all their eggs in one basket and I remind them to think about repeating it. You know, or maybe putting out a song a month instead of just one album. So that’s really, really important. And yeah, all these tools are out there for artists but I also know it can be really overwhelming. That’s hopefully what people like you and I are here to help artists sort through.

George: Yes exactly, and you have such a big brain and it’s interesting how you’re able to think with these big ideas sweeping gestures, but also get very tactical and very few people can do both. I wonder, I want to let you go, but I wonder if you could just reflect a little bit on Amanda Palmer, who has become such an exemplar of what it means to be an artist in today’s era. I have my sneaking suspicions that you guys taught each other a lot about things and Amanda’s an artist and very visual and out there in the world and you’re more of a behind the scenes player. I have a feeling that you’re responsible for more of Amanda’s POV then people might know. You don’t have to comment on that. But just talk a little about and give me some feedback on the way that evolved from Dresden Dolls to Amanda Palmer as this exemplar. And, maybe what it is to be an artist today.

Emily: Definitely, I think one thing that Amanda and I are really on the same page about is we always did things that made sense. You know, so literally, I would be at her apartment in 2003 and some of the strategies stemmed from paranoia but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. So in 2003 no one was talking about direct to fan or email lists or anything like that. But she had amassed a little email list and put lot of thought into what she was going to say in those mailers. She would look at me, this was probably one of our first conversations, and she said, “This is my life line. What if you go away? What if my fancy booking agent, Matt Nikki goes away? What if the attorney goes away? This is all I have.” So, I did merch[andise] for the band for years and between myself, Amanda, and Brian Viglione from the Dresden Dolls, you could barely say hi to any of us without us asking for your email address. I was pleasantly surprised when Amanda put out her solo album and I went to grab the [Dresden] Dolls email list and there were fifteen thousand names on it. I think now it’s up to like forty or fifty thousand names. And even when Amanda put out her first solo record she was on a label. We sold ten thousand copies the first week. Fifteen hundred were on ITunes, presumably by the label, and eighty five hundred were direct to fan, us.

George: Unbelievable.

Emily: I think she would be okay with me saying this, we also built in a lot of other things, a lot of other experiences.

George: Sure.

Emily: That’s become very common. Within the first few weeks a hundred grand came in. She’s gone on to raise a over a million dollars in KickStarter. That has it’s foundation in that email list. Actually, just to bring it back to Brendan for a second, who is such a brilliant writer, and that’s what blew my mind! I remember sitting next to him at Sundance once and saying, “Can I just get a couple sentences for your mailer.” He struggled with it. So, we all have our talents, but my point is when he would put out an album and I’d say, “Ok I really want you to write something.” and we would put that up on Facebook it made the post that much more powerful because it was from him. So, the team always made sure the information was getting disseminated to the fans, which is really important, but when that artist’s voice comes through, that’s even more special. But yeah I mean Amanda and Dresden Dolls and I grew up professionally together and that’s something that I cherish.

George: Yeah, and that last point related to that, Andy Weissman, the Venture Capitalist, he said something in one of the Forbes articles that I wrote about that there shouldn’t be six streaming services, there should be six thousand. I think it’s consistent and my partner, Scott Kirby at Music2020, has a similar vision where it’s like a real social network where I can tap into what Emily White is listening to and learn from what you’re playing and you from me ect. And all along the way going back to the idea the artist should be controlling their destiny and setting the prices on those types of things. Do you see Band Camp or what Amanda’s done as pointing a road towards that, where some artist could say, “Yeah I’m gonna build my own “social network” in the true sense of the word. You can’t own Facebook, but you sure as hell can control your email list, you sure can control your domain name, and you can increasingly start to use that to use the blockchain and other things to not just be a transaction thing but to turn people onto stuff in a promotional way.

Emily: Yeah definitely. I mean that’s a huge power. That whether they’re I’m going to do an open mic or street bus or whatever, that’s really powerful. I’m like being flooded with memories. It just comes down to doing things that makes sense.

George: Right.

Emily: And if you have that direct pipeline to communicate that to the fans that’s awesome. I remember when the [Dresden] Dolls did a big festival tour in Europe, we had a sound person and myself and that was basically the crew. At festivals the merch, if you want to buy a shirt it’s like literally miles away. And so you have that instant gratification of the band playing. Amanda, I would say this in front of her it’s totally shameless, so it isn’t for every artist but she literally would be like, “That’s Emily right there and she’s got a bunch of shirts and pins and cd’s and I’m gonna come right over after this and sign.” And we would just sell stuff and she would just sign until we would get yelled at. And it’s not like we’re trying to like dis or cut out the concert promoter we’re trying to take care of that instant gratification moment that people at the festival are partying, they’re distracted, they’re with their friends and so we want to capitalize on that direct connection.

George: It’s all about the direct connection. Emily you’re so great thanks so much for doing this. I really appreciate it.

Emily: Totally my pleasure.