The Importance Of Being A Fan

Drip.fm and new subscription models

Drip.fm, a ground-breaking digital platform for experiencing music, services the wants of both your average and dedicated music fan. The brainchild of Ghostly International’s Sam Valenti IV and Miguel Senquiz, could it offer the most logical solutions to some of the music industry’s woes?

When I chose to start writing about music ten years ago I did so because I was a fan first and foremost. I was also massively naïve, a pre-requisite perhaps when you consider how widely different things were just a decade ago. The importance of being a fan and letting that drive what part you want to play in the creative community of your choice has remained one of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt in those ten years, alongside staying grounded and being a tad cynical when everyone else is foaming at the mouth. These lessons have served me well as the landscape of the music industry has changed radically, in the process affecting everyone from fans to labels, artists to journalists.

Today the music industry finds itself in a time of trial and error, big losses and seemingly small wins with most people looking for the same certainties they held only a decade ago. Solutions to the industry’s problems, from subscription services to punitive handling of pirating fans, are heralded as game-changing on a semi-regular basis. Amid this uncertainty a duo of seasoned independent veterans launched their own solution at the end of 2011 with little fanfare and a strong belief that they could answer the needs of labels and their fans in a way that was still missing. Drip.fm is the brainchild of Ghostly International’s Sam Valenti IV (the label’s founder) and Miguel Senquiz and it offers a simple solution to the wants of both your average and dedicated music fan: a platform from which labels can offer fans a steady stream of music – generally two albums a month – and more for a small monthly fee, often between $10 and $15. As with similar attempts the impetus for Drip’s birth was frustration with the current models and behaviours that rule the industry. “We were getting a lot of requests from fans who wanted to use their credit cards to get music and not miss out on releases” explains Valenti from his temporary location on the US West Coast. “It’s a silly model that record labels have in a way. We do all this promotion on bands before the record comes out yet we don’t let fans buy it in advance. Meanwhile it gets leaked, and fans either already have it or aren’t interested anymore. It’s a really silly distribution method.”

"Drip.fm is a delivery platform for independent labels that goes beyond simply streaming or being a store"

As the saying goes if you want something done well, do it yourself and so the pair set about testing their idea for a new type of fan subscription service by using Ghostly as the proverbial lab rat. The Ghostly Music Service was thus born offering fans of the electronic label swathes of its back catalogue alongside new releases before they hit shops for a relatively cheap $15 a month. Releases could be downloaded in high quality mp3 or wav formats without the worry of DRM (you keep anything you downloaded even after unsubscribing) and once signed up the existing offerings were also up for grabs. All from the comfort of a clean, simple interface with email reminders when a new release becomes available. With a good response from their fan base they hired a full time developer and set about building Drip.fm, a delivery platform for independent labels that goes beyond simply streaming or being a store. They launched in late 2011 with Claude Von Stroke’s Dirty Bird Records alongside Ghostly, each label in effect owning its own corner of Drip.fm and in charge of doing with it as they see fit. “We figured it was working for us and labels and artists always need more revenue streams and ways to connect with fans. We thought it was a good enough model that others would want to use it.” Nearly one year on Drip.fm boasts independent giants from various corners of the music world including Stones Throw, Planet E, Mad Decent, Fool’s Gold and Domino; adding weight to Valenti’s assertion that it might just be something others would want to use. With more labels queuing to take part, Drip.fm is only likely to grow though the pair are keen to not rush as they’re still “learning a lot about how this works, what people want, what benefits, features and prices work. We still want to hold hands a little.”

Domino’s addition to the Drip.fm roster seems to have caught the most attention in the UK so far, with The Telegraph profiling the label’s Domino Drip (each label gets to name its Drip how they want to) as the latest proof that subscription models may well be one of the more solid answer to the industry’s woes. While subscription is at the heart of Drip’s model, focusing on it seems to be almost missing the point of what Valenti and Senquiz have set out to do. Drip is first and foremost a new way for labels and fans to connect by reimagining old ideas such as record pools and music fan clubs thanks to new, ubiquitous technology. As Sam explains “I like streaming services, they’re useful, but Drip is more than just a streaming service. It’s a download service and it’s also a connection platform.” Discussing their choice of the subscription model Valenti explains how its intrinsic unobtrusiveness allows for fans to renew a relationship with music that’s slower and closer to what it ultimately always was about. “If you already know you like something, I know I like Stones Throw for example, you’ll be pretty confident that you’ll want everything on that label. With something like Drip the label I choose doesn’t interrupt me. Decision can be paralysis and music isn’t always immediately digestible in a 30 second preview. I think the way we’re being fed music today is so fast and ephemeral that it’s not a great way to develop a relationship with it.” It’s this sort of logic behind the approach that’s made Drip a refreshing addition to what Valenti rightfully terms the modern music ecosystem. In a world where fans can stream, share or download the music they like, options rather than an all curing panacea are key. For Valenti, Drip is simply an option that was missing until now.

"Drip.fm takes to its logical modern conclusion by offering the super fans out there the same sort of preferential treatments that have so far been reserved to press and industry types"

In the course of the conversation Valenti tells me that “what we’re going after is a real sort of super fan”, an idea that Drip.fm takes to its logical modern conclusion by offering the super fans out there - or even the moderate ones who’ve come to feel disheartened by how they’re treated - the same sort of preferential treatments that have so far been reserved to press and industry types. As we talk about how each label is trying to use the Drip platform to innovate in their own ways, this becomes even more apparent, echoing the calls by independent music analyst Mark Mulligan in the Telegraph article that “[Drip] has got to reflect the diversity of an artist’s creativity”. For Valenti Drip is merely the platform. “We don’t tell labels what to do, we just suggest things but it’s up to them. So we’re now seeing different kinds of innovations. Morr Music are offering exclusive compilations of Thomas Morr’s favourites while some labels have done free products. Mad Decent did a shirt for example. It’s nice to breakdown the barrier and get a physical product in the mail, it makes you excited again” Valenti tells me, comparing the idea to that of the old subscription services where you’d get CDs in the mail from replying to a magazine advert. “We’re so web deluded that when you can break into physical things it brings home the point that someone is out there, thinking about you. Mad Decent have been funny with their ideas, they also did Diplo’s ashes” Valenti adds, referring to what is perhaps the weirdest Drip.fm perk so far. If you stay subscribed to Mad Decent Premium for 70 years you’ll receive 3 grams of Diplo’s ashes. Regardless of what you think about the man or his work, as Valenti points out “that kind of humour is crucial” and is exactly the sort of thing that engages fans beyond mere consumerism. The innovations have been as varied as the labels on Drip: Domino’s Dan Deacon is using the service to answer fan questions – each label has its own blog with which to communicate with its subscribers – while Fool’s Gold and Ghostly have both given fans exclusive VIP tickets to label events in US cities. The idea that a dedicated fan can get the same treatment as press or industry people for nothing extra not only adds to the experience of being a fan, but also helps to break down the barriers that still exist in the industry when it comes to who gets what.

"I’ve always thought that the industry was wrong to make people feel bad about stealing music"

“We’re spoiled right?” Valenti replies when I tell him that the idea of Drip helping to rebalance the gap that exists between dedicated fans and music industry people is a really grabbing one, especially considering how industry people can often appear to be almost blasé about their sense of entitlement to perks such as promo copies and free entry to shows. “We get free stuff, guestlists, it’s a real privilege to be so in touch with the music. I remember growing up and not really knowing how to navigate the music industry. If this offering had been available for Mo’ Wax or Metalheadz back in the day I would have been first in line.” Beyond elevating fans to a status that’s more in line with the dedication it can take to follow a label or artist, Drip is also giving labels a new way to talk to their audience. As they recently found out, this new platform for dialogue - one that is intrinsically tied to both fandom but also putting your money where your mouth is - has the potential to deal with the industry’s biggest nightmare, online piracy. “Labels are great at releasing music and promoting content but in one way not necessarily great at communicating with fans and customers. They always go through someone else, be it stores, distribution or press. Dirty Bird for example are doing a great job of talking to their fans via the platform.” Recently the label released an early track which got leaked. As they pondered what to do about it, they decided that the standard reaction, such as watermarks or DRM, was against the whole point of the Drip ecosystem where the customer should not be treated as a criminal. “I’ve always thought that the industry was wrong to make people feel bad about stealing music. We suggested they put a post on their blog and they did, asking people to respect the system. Three comments in someone apologised for the leak saying they wouldn’t do it again. This was followed by tens of posts repeating the value that Drip was bringing to users and them not wanting to see it go away. So it’s almost like the community is self-regulating.” While this response is not surprising in itself, if you’re paying for a service it’s because you chose to and are therefore more likely to respect it, it’s a perfect reminder that if you treat paying fans in a sensible way you’re much more likely to get respect for the music and its rights.

As the service nears its first year, Valenti is keen not to jump ahead of himself. Numbers for the service are still being held back as the product is being refined and its offerings continue to grow. Drip has seen a healthy retention rate since launch, around 71%, and with every label bringing to the platform its own group of fans they’re now seeing more people subscribe to multiple labels, an unexpected but welcome behaviour. One of the most recent additions to the service is Wav.pool, the first label group giving fans music from five NYC-based Disco labels. Wav.pool is described by Marcos Cabral, one of its creators, as the digital equivalent of the DJ music pools pioneered by the likes of David Mancuso in the 70s. “While Mancuso and co focused on providing DJs with promotional music, Wav.pool wants to provide that service to the general public”, he explained on launch. As with Valenti, Cabral has also been keen to stress that Wav.pool is only intended to give fans a closer relationship to the labels involved rather than replace any existing system. This sort of initiative, alongside label-led choices to use the platform as they see fit, makes Drip.fm seem capable of adapting almost any idea that the music industry has tried in the last 20+ years. Mad Decent and Fool’s Gold recently released a cappellas via the platform and Valenti thinks that offerings such as track stems, which like a cappellas are of real value to DJ and producer fans, are another likely evolution of the service.

While the music industry continues to chase its own tail in an attempt to regain control of its revenue streams, efforts such as Drip.fm give more weight to the theory that any long term solutions will come from embracing the internet and its potentials rather than fighting them. The fact that this solution is coming from the smaller, more independent corners of the industry is also one of its most important qualities. “We’re still users of other services as a label of course” Valenti tells me explaining the relationship between Drip and Ghostly. “We just think that Drip was an interesting way to go forward, for both fans and labels. Other labels seem to agree and one of the more common reasons is that it was something they’d always wanted to do but never had the time to.” Another benefit of Drip being a solution from the inside is that when Valenti and Senquiz approach people they have more than simply a business deal to lose. “It helps that we’re able to go to other labels and say ‘look we wouldn’t sell you this if we didn’t think it was good.’ My, and Ghostly’s, reputation are on the line ultimately. Other labels know we have a vested interest.” When you consider the debates that have raged around how much artists make from services such as Spotify in recent months, Drip’s approach is refreshing in its honesty. Drip is free to labels with the platform earning through a revenue share on sales. Therefore it’s in everyone’s interest, from the platform to its members and their users, to be as innovative and honest with the platform as they want to be. Turning fans into subscribers is increasingly becoming one of the most logical solutions to some of the music industry’s woes, especially when the subscription involves an almost invisible, non-limiting middle man such as Drip. It’s not just labels either, soon enough single artists are likely to follow suit. “In the end we’re all just trying to offer interesting ways to stay excited about music. It’s not defeatist or defensive it’s part of a healthy, balanced diet. We always build from desire, from what we would want to use. It’s like solving our own problems and acknowledging that other people have the same problems.”

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