Roger McNamee is a journalist’s dream.
Impassioned and articulate, he filled most of our 40-minute phone interview with rapid-fire talk about music and the industry that surrounds it.
I squeezed in a question here and there, but mostly, I just let him go.
Because when McNamee talks about the music industry, he’s worth listening to. I talk to musicians every week, but this is the first time I’ve heard one use the terms “productize” and “click-through rates.”
McNamee isn’t your typical rock guitarist and his band, Moonalice — which will play in Bend tonight (see “If you go”) — isn’t your typical rock combo.
Which is exactly why this ’60s-inspired jam-rock band is able to engage in what McNamee calls “a grand experiment.”
A quick history: McNamee is a lifelong music fan and musician whose dreams were dashed in 1980 when the band he was in “blew up” after a key member quit. Looking for a career, McNamee turned to venture capital, and over the past 27 years, he has invested in hundreds of tech companies, including Google and Facebook.
In other words, he made some dough in Silicon Valley.
Today, he’s a co-founder and managing director of Elevation Partners, a firm that invests in media and entertainment businesses and, according to its Web site, has nearly $1.9 billion committed for investment over the next six years.
One of his four partners at Elevation is Bono. Yes, that Bono. He has advised the Grateful Dead and Pearl Jam. He’s a director of the Grammy Foundation and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum, and a member of Wikipedia’s advisory board. In an editorial published in Billboard magazine on Monday, McNamee wrote about the philosophy behind Moonalice, and he wrote this: “Along with Bono, I spent nearly five years trying to figure out how to fix the music business before I accepted that it doesn’t want to be fixed. So I decided to lead by example.”
This is why I let him talk.
And it’s why I’m going to get out of the way and let him talk directly to you, which is funny, because that’s sort of the driving principle behind Moonalice. McNamee spends about three hours each day, he said, using social media to promote the band. In a nutshell, Moonalice has bucked the traditional model of the music industry — spend a bunch of money to make a record, then spend a bunch of money to promote it — and instead gives away its music (and other fun stuff) to fans via Twitter and Facebook.
It seems to be working.
“In a sense what we’ve done is convert necessity into a virtue,” McNamee said. “The necessity here is that the music industry just isn’t supporting much in the way of new bands, and it’s for sure not supporting established musicians who were not the (big) name in their band. People in my band have all been in Rock and Roll Hall of Fame bands ... but the industry ... is not making room for all the incredibly talented musicians out there.”
Indeed, there are other people in Moonalice, and it’s quite a roster: G.E. Smith, Barry Sless, Pete Sears, John Molo, Jack Casady and McNamee’s wife, Ann. Collectively, they’ve played with Bob Dylan, Phil Lesh, Rod Stewart, Jefferson Starship and others. You may remember Smith as the longtime leader of the “Saturday Night Live” band.
For a while, Moonalice tried the traditional band model. They employed a publicist and a manager and a Web guy. But it became clear that for a group of Baby Boomers with relatively low star power, the traditional model wouldn’t generate enough money to keep Moonalice viable.
That’s when the band began to lead by example. They struck a deal with 18 artists who create a poster for each show, which are given away to fans. McNamee used his tech acumen to build the band’s presence on Twitter and Facebook, and began “Twittercasting” live shows for free.
They also worked to narrow the gap between artist and audience.
“We have this notion that we will not be undersold,” McNamee said. “The theory is to make the barrier to adopting Moonalice the lowest it’s ever been in the music industry. Anything that we can record for free, we’ll give away for free. That’s the basic algorithm. It’s all about building an audience, because in the long run, the thing that sustains you is your ability to play live.”
There’s an obvious caveat here: Not every band has access to the kind of money that Moonalice’s guitarist has. But McNamee is convinced that his band’s DIY methods can work for any group willing to put in the time and effort.
“The dirty little secret of the music business is that somehow all you need is musical talent,” he said. “Well, I would love for you to show me 10 examples over the last 50 years of people who made it just on talent. There’s someone around who loves them so much that they give them money.
“It’s not like we’re against that model. It just didn’t work for us,” McNamee said. “It still works great for U2, and if some record company comes along and offers your band a pile of money ... I think you’ve got to take it seriously because you need capital to run a band. But record companies ... aren’t interested in brand new bands of people in their 50s. So we tried ... that model (and) it became increasingly clear that that wasn’t going to get us anywhere, so we’ve been experimenting with other things. Some of them have worked, some have not.”
The experimentation will continue, no doubt. Because thanks to the Internet, it’s easier than ever to spread the word. But how to turn that ability into a career is a whole different animal.
“It’s an ... exciting phenomenon that we’ve democratized the process of (making and distributing music). The real question is what does that mean for professional musicians, and I don’t know the answer,” McNamee said. “What I know is what I hope: That we will find ways to democratize promotion and marketing as well as distribution to the benefit of all musicians, and I think our experience begins to point to at least one of the ways that’s going to work.
“It’s like farming. You’ve got to prepare the soil, you’ve got to plant seed, and then you’ve got to work it. It’s taking the only things that most bands have — time and content — and leveraging it like crazy.”
Ben Salmon can be reached at 541-383-0377 or email@example.com.