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An Exclusive Interview with Live Streaming Pioneer Brad Serling
Live music fanatics have known of nugs.net for decades. In the early ’90s, live music tape trading was colliding with the new digital age, and there weren’t many people willing or able to assist in that transition. The kind of people who were traveling around the country following their favorite bands weren’t exactly the same ones who were into getting AOL email accounts, or developing websites. But Brad Serling saw a way to expand what had long been a one-to-one analog hobby into a service that could be shared worldwide.
Serling started nugs.net out of love, way back in 1993, as a way to share the tapes he was making of Grateful Dead and Phish shows. With those artists’ blessing, nugs.net’s non-commercial live music download site mushroomed to 3 million free downloads a month by 2000. The Dead were so impressed by the potential of his idea that they brought Brad on as a consultant, which led to an introduction to Phish. By 2002, the project pivoted from a fan site to a paid downloads provider with the launch of the LivePhish.com.
Growing to over 115 million downloads, thousands of artists, and hundreds of label partners, today nugs.net is the premiere platform for delivering live music directly to fans. And there is no bigger fan of live music recording than nugs.net founder, Brad Serling. We recently spoke with Serling about the new music industry model…
It seems that recording (and downloading) technology is so much cheaper to harness now; what is the state of the live recordings industry in 2016? Is it growing?
It’s certainly cheaper, smaller, faster than it was in 2002 when I recorded the first Phish show for immediate release at Madison Square Garden. Today the cost of making hi-res recordings has plummeted, and everything from the time to edit and render the files and upload for distribution has dramatically shrunk. Technology has now caught up with nugs.net’s original intent: instant access to recordings of the concert you just saw or just missed. I do think the business of live recordings is growing, but not necessarily because the cost of technology is dropping. It’s growing because of artists’ need for new revenue streams.
What can be done to grow it quicker?
Awareness is key. The more artists that start releasing live recordings, the more awareness grows among the artist community. It’s also fan-driven. Fans become accustomed to getting an official recording of the concert they attended and then they expect that same level of service from other artists.
Walk me through some of the challenges in delivering these live shows?
Once we leap the artistic hurdle, the challenges are primarily navigating the business issues. The artistic hurdle is the glass ceiling of perfection. For example, many artists simply will not release a warts-and-all recording even though 20,000 fans just experienced it live. I repeatedly tell artists big and small that we’re not making Frampton Comes Alive. This is a service we are providing for fans, not a product. Granted, we do productize it in the form of a CD or tour box set or multi-disc vinyl release, but even then it’s a way to super-serve the fans as opposed to a product on the shelves of Best Buy or Amazon warehouses.
I imagine licensing and label interference and also challenges to overcome?
The business hurdles include everything from origination fees at the venues, a label’s willingness or unwillingness to release recordings outside of their purview, and the business of artist compensation. Video licensing is still the “wild west.” It took three full months, for example, to license Widespread Panic’s recent Halloween show for VOD and physical release. We broadcast it live as a very successful pay-per-view on nugs.tv but had to fight for the rights to include the 22 covers they performed over two nights in the on demand and physical versions of the concert videos.
The catalog seems constrained, maybe by design. Are you opening up the platform to many more artists?
We’ve never set out to be Spotify or iTunes. We are laser-focused on artists who have a strong live following and/or a deep catalog of quality live recordings. We’ve survived all these years by staying true to that focus and not getting distracted by the latest trend or getting entangled with other aspects of the music business. We are open to any artist from any genre as long as they are truly a great live performer and they can support the regular release of their concert recordings. It’s not as simple as it sounds and frankly some bands crumble under the pressure. But it’s also not rocket science. We do the heavy lifting once the artist commits to program.
So, the idea is not so much exclusion, but more of a curation process?
There is an element of curation. For years now nugs.net has been the trusted brand for live music, much like The Fillmore was in San Francisco in the late 1960s.
Is nugs.net open to releasing independent labels or bands?
To be clear, nugs.net’s platform is not a self-publishing tool nor is it a black box. I suppose you’d call me the A&R guy in the classic sense of just having a gut feeling as to whether a certain artist will do well on nugs.net. As you said, it’s not so much an exclusionary tactic as a practical; we look at how many tickets a band sells and whether they can sustain this kind of live release business. It doesn’t matter whether they are indie, signed to a major label, playing clubs, or selling out stadiums. It’s about the music. Do they play a great show? Do fans want recordings of those shows? Does it fit their overall business model?
How should artists approach preparing for the type of live recordings (audio, webcast or video) that please fans?
An artist should absolutely not change a thing about their live show for purposes of recording or webcast. That would feel artificial. Fans flock to the real and can sniff out artifice from a mile away. Live recordings should be a document of what went down in the venue for those precious few hours with your fans.
Any tips on how to best pull a recording off the board for artists looking to start their live strategy?
Artists playing travel with an additional engineer to do a live multi-track recording just for nugs.net. That’s the ideal scenario: a live mix separate from the front of house mix, just for live release. Those artists mix the show on-the-fly and upload to nugs.net nightly for distribution. For smaller tours, the live recording is typically the front of house mix (i.e., what you hear through the P.A. at the show) blended with a pair of microphones at the mix position and time-aligned. In some cases, FOH engineers will do a submix just for the live recording. You’d be amazed how great a good front of house mix can sound. Many nugs.net artists playing theaters and clubs have this totally dialed in, like Widespread Panic, Railroad Earth, and The String Cheese Incident, to name a few.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
-Michael St. James is the founder and creative director of St. James Media, specializing in music licensing, publishing, production and artist development.