Interviews with Smart People: David Dufresne of Bandzoogle and Backfed

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Is anyone disputing the decline of the recording industry anymore?  We doubt it, but we’re also not sure what happens next for music creation, distribution, and commerce.  We recognize that we have competing desires when it comes to music: we want to download and share our music freely, but we also want to support artists who make the music we love.  (And we also know that discussions about the end of the music industry have made a lot of us think more about the livelihoods of musicians than we ever thought about when we were actually buying cds.)  So… how can technology actually empower musicians?

That question is always on the mind of David Dufresne, CEO of Bandzoogle and Founder of Backfed.  We decide to borrow his brain for a few minutes to talk about music and technology, Montreal, and some surprisingly old-fashioned approaches to supporting musicians in the digital age.  — T.O.


Tell me about Bandzoogle and Backfed.

Absolutely! Bandzoogle is a platform that enables musicians to build their websites and manage their direct-to-fan marketing and sales.  We brand it as an all-in-one, easy to use, and affordable way for indie artists to have their own website, manage their mailing list, and sell their music and merch directly to their fans, with no commission taken by us.  It’s been around since 2003, when my partner Chris Vinson founded it, and it has grown in a very healthy and organic way. We now have over 10,000 artists that have built their websites on our platform, and ten employees in the U.S., Canada and U.K. that all work from their home offices.  This week or the next we will reach $3,000,000 in sales that our members have done through their Bandzoogle-powered store fronts, a number we’re very proud of.

I joined Bandzoogle over the summer as CEO.  Just before that I had started working on Backfed, a startup that aims to build a direct fan-to-artist payment platform and a toolbox so that fans can become collective patrons of their favorite artists and be recognized as such.  Our vision for Backfed is that the future music economy will not be based around the fan-as-consumer paradigm that has dominated the music industry of the past 50 years, but that it will get built around the fan-as-art-patron, and around the many creative ways to monetize that patronage.  We want Backfed to power those “ways to monetize.”

The very short story there is that I met Chris at the same time that I was looking for a technical co-founder and partner for Backfed. It turned out that he was a product and technology guy that had been looking for a business partner to help him take Bandzoogle to the next level. So the deal is that I joined Bandzoogle as CEO, Chris becomes my co-founder in Backfed, and we are building the Backfed prototype with the Bandzoogle dev team.

These are different companies/projects, but they seem to share some values and ideas about music and technology.  What opportunities do you see?

Both companies are about providing tools to musicians so that they can optimize their online presence, market their music and their narrative, and connect directly with their fans.  It used to be that there was no way to do any of that at scale without selling your rights to a label and having many layers of middle men help out and eat away at your margins while doing so. Backfed has similar values but also aims to provide fans and groups of fans with tools to support their favorite artists in more or less formal and organized ways.

Lots of people say that the Internet has devalued music. I disagree. I think it has devalued the traditional music product: packaged recorded music (CDs, mp3s).  But the Internet opens up so many ways for artists to build a narrative around their creative output, communicate it to their fans and prospective fans, and then create contexts where that music can be enjoyed and where it actually gains value.  The challenge is to find ways to earn a living from creating those “contexts.”

So, both Bandzoogle and Backfed are about helping artists get creative about how they build that narrative and then monetize it. It’s not about bands selling out arenas and staying in five-star hotels, it’s about creating a middle class of musicians that grow and maintain relatively small, but dedicated fan bases that they treat as partners and stakeholders in their careers.

You just got back from the Future of Music Policy Summit in Washington, DC.  What was the buzz there?  Any insights you’d like to share?

They are putting the videos up on the Future of Music Coalition website. If interested, you should check them out.  A lot of it I spent in the hallways, networking with potential partners and allies.  But the few panels I saw were of very high quality, presenting balanced points-of-view on the situation and efforts that can be made to make it easier for artists to succeed.  I think in general people recognize that we are moving away from “The Music Industry” and going towards “the music industries,” where many niche markets will develop around local scenes, or around online communities, creating very varied music economies, with different rules and different business models.  It is confusing lots of people, but we’re starting to see very articulate artists willing to share what works for them, and people are learning from that.  There is also almost-consensus that copyright laws and licensing schemes are creating horrible bottlenecks and prevent many of the innovators out there from having a fair chance of creating new prosperous models.  Finally, T Bone Burnett strongly advised artists to “completely stay completely away from the Internet.”  I definitely hope no one follows this advice too quickly.  But what I think his true message is that artists should worry about the music first.  Musicians make music, and only when they feel they have perfected their craft and when they have created something they feel will engage people emotionally should they worry about promoting it– Internet or not.

What musicians do you think are doing awesome, or profitable, or profitably awesome things with technology?  What gets you excited?

I get excited very time I see an artist successfully raise funds on Kickstarter, or on Pledge Music. I get excited every time I see artists get recognized because they let people use their tracks, remix them, build videos with them, etc.  If I had to name one artist, I would suggest people google Kristin Hersh (a singer I really like) and her Strange Angels initiative. Kristin is involved with the fine folks at CASH Music, a non-profit building tech tools for musicians, that we hope to partner with, somehow.

You live in Montreal.  Has that influenced your work or projects?

Montreal has a wonderful music scene and it is an amazing lab for innovating around music and business. The cost of living here is relatively cheap, both for artists and start-ups, and government programs are very supportive of both.  People in Montreal are passionate about music like few cities I’ve visited.  Shows sell out almost daily and our music fests draw huge crowds.  On one hand we have artists that are well-recognized across the planet in almost every genre (from Céline Dion and Leonard Cohen to Arcade Fire, and all the way to some of the most internationally successful DJs and black metal bands).  On the other hand, we have a very local industry for all flavors of francophone music, a completely independent music industry that caters to about five million individuals (with some narrow bridges to France and other Franco countries).  Québécois music has its own challenges and needs very different math to work if you want to make ends meet. If someone can build products and models that work for a large number of musicians and fans in Montreal, there is a good chance that it can work in North America but also for other local markets (there is amazing Swedish hip-hop out there, by the way…).

What is your process like?

Heh… A lot less organized than I wish it was.  Right now it involves 27 open tabs in my Chrome browser…

Who comes up with ideas on your teams?  How do you decide what ideas to do?

Historically, Bandzoogle has built features based almost exclusively on members’ feedback and requests. We’re going to keep doing that, but also we are probably to work with partners more, to offer our members some services that we won’t do ourselves (digital distribution, merch fulfillment, submission to music fests and venues, as examples).  Chris (founder and CTO) and myself work by consensus.  Typically he leads product development and makes the technology decisions, and I lead everything around business development, marketing and general corporate strategy.  We work the same way for Backfed.

What are the tools that you can’t live without?

Bandzoogle employees all work from home, so we spend most of our days using Skype group chats, a mix of shared Google documents, Dropbox, and some more sophisticated home-brewed admin and reporting tools. The dev guys use other collaboration tools between them, and they are smart enough to keep me out if it.  Personally, I’ve been a Mac convert for about 6 months, and will never, ever go back to updating drivers and waiting five minutes for my PC to reboot.  I have both a BlackBerry and an iPhone (legacy of my previous job) and I use the BlackBerry a lot more.  Less sexy, but so much more work gets done on it.

What’s your favorite snack?

Sweet: a Tim Tam Slam with milk coffee. (Google it!)  [Eds note: we totally Googled it.  Sounds delicious.] Salty: poutine at 3 am.

What’s the biggest or most important thing that you’ve learned?

If you can find work that marries three of your biggest passions (in my case, music, tech and business), it becomes hard to call it “work.”  Also, when people don’t e-mail you back, call them, tweet them or go knock on their door.  E-mail is broken, don’t trust it.

After 8 years working in venture capital (recently at JLA Ventures and the BlackBerry Partners Fund), David Dufresne decided to switch seats and try his luck at being an entrepreneur.  He is the founder of Backfed, and new CEO at Bandzoogle, two Montreal-based companies building web technologies in the music space.  He grew up and went to school in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, and he had a baby girl on 01/01/10 (binary baby!).  He doesn’t play music himself, but he is a total music snob and he sometimes DJs (available for weddings and bar mitzvahs).

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