“A Johnny Appleseed of online concert recordings,” according to The New York Times, Brad Serling has been active in the digital media space for over 15 years. Both established and developing artists turn to Brad for advice on digital distribution of their content, and many artists and labels partner directly with nugs.net to distribute to their fans. You can hear what Brad’s up to each week on SiriusXM’s Jam On channel, where he hosts “The Weekly Live Stash,” showcasing music performed in the past week.
By Pat Campolo
You started nugs.net in 1993, what were the initial goals of the site and how did it develop to where it is today?
Nugs.net started with very simple and self-serving goals. I spent a lot of time on tour with the Grateful Dead and Phish taping shows and trading these tapes. It was a time consuming project and I thought there has got to be a better way. MP3 format existed in 1993, but no one was really using it at the time. The site started as a place where I would put up 30 second samples of the tapes and facilitate trading. Often times I would get a box full of tapes and they were poor quality and unlistenable. By listening to samples, you could determine the sound quality of the tape and avoid these problems. Nugs.net really had nothing to do with business at this point and was purely for tape trading.
As the site grew in popularity it evolved into a popular place to download. By 2000, there were about 3 million downloads a month. The site was in no way commercial at this point, no banner ads or anything. The Dead then reached out and hired me on as a consultant. I had never dreamed that any band would want to work with the site. The relationship with Phish began when I met with John Paluska, who managed them at the time, and we hatched the idea behind Live Phish. No band had ever done anything like this before; releasing professionally mastered audio files right after the shows were played. This started with the New Year’s shows from 2002.
A lot has changed since then. Our site occurred before iTunes existed, but all that has change. There are zillions of stores selling digital music without DRM, selling lossless files. No one ever sold music like that, now it is the norm for bands to sell audio like this.
Nugs.net had to deal with bands, management, and record labels. Each of these must have presented unique challenges for the site. Can you speak to these challenges?
Nugs.net has always been artist driven. That is to say that the artist has always been our champion and we have always acted on the will of the artist. Credit has to be given to Phish, Trey Anastasio, and the band’s management. There was a big debate in 2002 about whether or not to release every show or just certain shows. The members of Phish said something to the effect of “what? We are gonna walk off stage and then decide whether it was a good show?” It had a lot to do with the band themselves, remembering the tapes they used to listen to on the road and how this influenced them to play the way they did.
As far as challenges, the labels presented the most difficult situations. I mean I get it, it is their job to sell a shiny piece of plastic or a download and they don’t want any cannibalization of that. In the case of Phish, who was with Elektra at the time, they went to the label and said this is what we want to do, and then had to figure out how to negotiate that. Phish wanted its own unique service with an emphasis on being fan friendly. It was actually Elektra who came to us afterwards with the idea of launching Live Metallica.
I consider Metallica to be the “Grateful Dead of metal.” In many ways they defined the genre of metal. They are responsive to the fans. They allow taping at shows and developed a kind of similar culture in this regard. While they might be very different musically, they were behind the concept of Live Metallica, the same with the Chili Peppers. It only happened because the artist wanted it. Now we partner with iTunes and Amazon among others.
Back to the challenges for labels. The label typically owns the band’s creative output during the contract period and obviously does not want this output sold through other parties. Nugs.net really for the first time put money directly into the pocket of the artists without any sort of hidden costs. Simply sell a download and get paid for it. Occasionally we had artists that did say “no” to putting out live recordings. This happened for artistic reasons though, if an artist preferred to take a recording and bring it back to the studio before releasing anything. I always thought “why? You just had 20,000 people pay to see it live?”
Piracy obviously represents a significant challenge to nugs.net, have you ever had to pursue legal action, and how do you deal with piracy on the site?
The bands are the ones involved with copyright in terms of going out and pursuing litigation against someone. It helps that there is a great deal of self-policing in the community of fans that use the site. It is obviously not effective, but that’s just the way it is. It’s pretty shitty from a fan perspective to just take this music but the reality is that some people pay and some people don’t. Piracy is taken into account with pricing. You know that for every one paid download there will be numerous unpaid downloads.
Nugs.net offers live streaming video for many shows now. Is this service going to continue to expand and are future video archived releases going to be as pervasive as audio files? What unique challenges does video present?
What’s tricky with video was the cost of delivery. It cost us ten times more than live MP3 for example. There is a huge challenge for licensing as well.Because many of the bands we work with play a lot of cover songs it gets tricky. Audio has an established rate to pay for these recordings, but for video this is not the case. We don’t want to exclude cover songs and pout out recordings with exceptions. If you went to the show and want the recording of the Led Zeppelin Good Times Bad Times encore it isn’t right to exclude that.
The Webcasting of live shows is happening more and more. We did about 30 webcasts in 2011 and expect to double this number for 2012. This area will be the largest area of growth in 2012. If you look at what is trending on twitter and the number of hashtags “couchtour,” you see a clear market for this kind of service. A lot of bands stream their shows themselves now.
No, absolutely in no way does it affect what a band is playing. This is a rumor I am happy to dispel that often comes up in interviews. When a band is playing on stage they aren’t thinking about licensing for webcasts, CDs, or DVDs. In terms of archival video releases, however, the number of cover songs is an important factor for us in determining what shows to release. An example of this was the Phish show from 2010 the night before Halloween, when they played a bunch of Led Zeppelin stuff. That kind of show will likely never come out on video like we want it to.
It seems like nugs.net thrives on jam bands or at least bands that mix their set-lists and offer unique concert experiences on a nightly basis.
That is exactly right, but we have done some different things. For example, we sold shows from Roger Daltrey of the Who, when he did Tommy in its entirety. Now Tommy is the same every night, but it sold pretty well, albeit to a different demographic group than our typical users. We don’t exclusively work within the jam band genre however. The Metallica example is another good one. For years they played the same set every night. Their shows had pyrotechnics and it was like a Broadway performance. Then when they started doing the Live Metallica service they began rotating about eight songs a night out of a twenty song set list. It made it more fun for both fans and the band themselves.
The Live Phish App allows fans to stream the previous night’s show just hours after it happens. Do you find that this might discourage downloads as fans have time to re-listen to shows they went to for free?
It’s hard to say, but I don’t think so. Data mining shows that the more streamed the show the more downloads you sell. So I really don’t think that this discourages sales or anything like that. With 311 we gave away an MP3 and still saw a significant number of fans go out and pay for it.
Straight to hell! Well, I think there have been dramatic shifts and these will continue. I was actually speaking with an old school radio guy, and it’s funny, no matter how big bands get radio is still the number one selling tool. Everyone talks bad about radio, but we do a weekly show on Sirius and what I play on that show always sells the most for the week.
Bands can now do a lot themselves as well. Control is shifting from labels to the band’s themselves who have more tools at their disposal for marketing ect. With this in mind, the label is still the band’s best friend from a marketing standpoint. It’s bullshit to think of labels as irrelevant. They possess the ability to be a major marketing force for the band and it is their job to do so. Band’s that use both labels and the do it yourself tools are the smartest.
Direct communication has also had a profound change. Accessibility has leveled the playing field. Before bands were in their ivory towers and fans were beneath them, now Facebook and Twitter allow direct communication between the fans and the band. The shift in importance has in many ways tipped from the artist to the fan.