Ben Minal (Crowdfunding Expert, Serial Entrepreneur, And Drummer From Dorje) [Interview]
UPDATE: TMMP has been reborn! This video has the full story:
Over the past few years, crowdfunding has become one of the music industry’s most talked about topics. Adopted by acts as diverse as art-pop legend Amanda Palmer and Canadian tech-metallers Protest The Hero, crowdfunding has made headlines worldwide and opened many eyes to the power of direct-to-fan business models.
Ben Minal created one of the top Indiegogo campaigns of 2012 before he had even finished university. Beating a target of $7,500 nearly three times over, Ben was able to send his band Dorje (fronted by YouTube guitar star Rob Chapman and completed by guitarist Rabea Massaad and bassist Dave Hollingworth) on a two-week UK tour alongside The Drills, themselves fronted by regular Bon Jovi sideman and session legend Phil X. TMMP sat down with Ben Minal to talk about Dorje, crowdfunding, the future of the music business, his current projects and passions, and how a man ordering a pizza changed the course of four careers.
With Dorje, you made quite a name for yourself in a very short space of time. But every journey has to start somewhere. How did you first get into music? What inspired you at the beginning?
I listened to whatever was on in the house as a kid. I wasn’t massively into music when I was really young, but when I was 12 I saw my uncle playing drums with his band. He was a real pioneer when it came to combining electronics and samples with acoustic drums. It was a lot deeper than the music I’d heard before, and it really connected with me. One day I sat behind his kit and found I could play a beat; it just came naturally to me.
My uncle taught me for a couple of years, eventually gave me a complete electronic drum kit that he’d made himself. I got an acoustic kit later; from there I played in bands for a few years and met Rabea and Dave along the way. We formed a band called ChasinJade, moved down to Guildford, then ChasinJade split and we found ourselves playing with Rob Chapman. Rabea was working at the Stoke (a pub in Guildford), when Rob turned up, ordered a pizza, met Rabea and told him he wanted to form a band and the rest is history. We ended up forming Dorje, and now here we are.
What is crowdfunding?
Crowdfunding is the process through which a band’s audience pays in advance for that band’s next project, usually an album, to happen. There are quite a few websites set up to help with that now: Kickstarter, PledgeMusic, Indiegogo. In Dorje’s case, we used Indiegogo to crowdfund our second tour.
Why did you decide to crowdfund your second tour?
We’d already played one tour, the Zombie Apocalypse tour, which was 9 shows. So we had a good idea of what would be possible with our second tour. Also, Rob has a huge following on YouTube, with about 170,000 subscribers right now; it wasn’t quite that high then, but we didn’t have any doubts about being able to raise enough money to hit our initial target ($7,500).
As for not going down the traditional route, the reason we chose crowdfunding was just because we weren’t attractive to a record label and we weren’t particularly attracted to a label at that stage. We also have a very strong in-house team with a wide range of skill sets. Rob has a huge YouTube audience and promotional and marketing skills, and he’s a born entertainer. Rabea’s got his own YouTube following now, about 15,000 subscribers, and he’s a talented visual artist. So Rabea plays insane guitar and designs our t-shirts, and Dave is a Jedi-level production ninja as well as a virtuoso bassist. On top of all that, we have IT support and business know-how and the network necessary to get any job done. Maybe down the line some kind of distribution deal or live support deal would be helpful. But back then, we didn’t feel that we needed it.
What was running the campaign like, behind the scenes?
I remember when Rob emailed me saying “Hey Ben, you’re now responsible for raising the money to get us on tour through a crowdfunding campaign!” It was hard work, because we were doing something that, as far as we knew, hadn’t been done before. I’m sure there have been others out there who’ve tried to fund a tour through Kickstarter or Indiegogo, but for the most part musicians use crowdfunding to raise money for an album, a record, a tangible product, rather than something more experiential like a tour.
Our main focus was doing things as directly and independently as possible. We recorded an EP ourselves and sold that as a perk for the tour campaign. So the money we made from our EP sales went straight into funding the tour. We promoted the video for the lead track from our EP (Aeromancy) through Rob’s channel with a link through to the campaign. So we sold over a thousand copies of our debut EP with no record deal, no marketing budget, all done in-house, no radio support either. And the video for Aeromancy now has over 345,000 views on YouTube.
I was running the campaign along with my friend Dan Wainscoat, and we had to set up a lot of the infrastructure ourselves, from scratch, because what we were doing was such an unorthodox idea. And then the response was much larger than we’d anticipated. Initially we were emailing EPs out individually; I’d be sitting in class waiting for a lecture to start, and be on my laptop personally emailing out DropBox links to the EP! But because we have a great IT ninja on our team, Mr. Dan Davies, we got that problem sorted very quickly. It was a real relief!
We also crowdsourced the venue locations for the tour by asking our fans where they wanted us to play. We got a great response, but we found that a lot of promoters were still not recognising the power of social media. Obviously ours was a unique situation, but hardly any band they’d ever come across had been able to pull our kind of following without having gigged endlessly. So to them we were not on the scene, they didn’t have a clue who we were, and we turned up and said “We can guarantee that we’re going to pull these numbers, can we book this venue for this day?” and the answer was usually “No”. So most of the venues were self-hired, which was included in the tour budget. Despite the fact that we knew we could pull the numbers, we had a very hard time convincing anyone outside of our team. So that is a sign of the times. The industry is in an evolutionary stage right now where other metrics like a YouTube following are going to become more important. I’m sure there are plenty of forward-looking young promoters out there who will recognise that opportunity.
Next time we take the crowdfunding route, we’re going to do it a little differently. We learnt a lot of lessons, and we’ll be applying them all next time around.
How did it feel once the campaign was over? You’d raised almost three times your initial target…
It was intense. We raised $21,119 from the campaign, and we also sold a deluxe VIP package that sold a few minutes after we announced it on Facebook. We got some extra cash from sponsorships and endorsements too.
In the end, we were secure. We were able to walk out of the front door and go on tour with it all paid for. That doesn’t happen, normally. It was a very special experience.
Is crowdfunding scalable?
I think it’s scalable. At the moment I think it’s more the domain of independent bands, because from the research I’ve done personally, I’ve found that artists that come from a major label’s backing to crowdfunding can come across as a bit desperate. A large part of crowdfunding’s appeal is the personal connection with fans and the whole ethos of independent music.
Dorje is a true DIY project, direct-to-fan and independent, and we use crowdfunding. We work in a team, alongside our fans. I think crowdfunding is scalable, and actually it would work with more people. You could achieve some kind of proximity effect or critical mass thing where with enough people supporting an idea, it could go viral. I do think it’s scalable, and it’s a very new financial model that’s a natural evolution from what came before. We used to have a situation where labels controlled the flow of money to artists and therefore had all the power, and artists could never have done something like crowdfund an album or a tour before. If you wanted to do what we’ve done under the old model, you’d have to go to a label and sign a record deal – which is essentially a long-term bank loan. Whereas our crowdfunding campaign was set out for people who were going to spend the money anyway, in advance, in exchange for perks which were exclusive to the campaign.
What do you think about the current state of the music industry?
I think the industry is in a state of complete evolution. The Internet and the ability for people to connect with each other and for artists to connect with their fans without having to go through the traditional gatekeepers has caused dramatic change. We’re still trying to get through to the other side of the digital revolution, and work out what’s going to happen next. There’s success taking place in the new world, but we still have two conflicting ends of the industry: the traditional ‘throw enough s*** and money at the walls and something will stick’ approach, which does still work, and then you have the complete opposite which is an independent effort using these new platforms and new ways of connecting with people. What hasn’t happened yet is the meeting in the middle. When that does happen, it’s going to be very powerful.
Is it possible for someone to make a living just online, without leaving his or her bedroom?
It’s certainly possible, but you’d run into credibility issues. If you were just an online guy, you leave yourself very open to that obvious attack: ‘You suck, can’t do it live’. With Dorje, the tour blogs and live performance videos are very important. Also, letting people see us recording our EP allows us to show the fans what really goes into making this band happen. It’s very easy to bundle YouTube success in with being a gimmick, but that’s not necessarily the case.
An unedited live video speaks volumes. It also shows artistic depth – that you’re not just all on the surface, there’s more to you than just an image and a YouTube following. If you combine depth with the right personality – friendly and approachable – and videos that show people that they can do it too, then you’re on to a winner.
What advice would you offer aspiring YouTube musicians?
Creating video is often a very time consuming, particularly at the start. I’m pretty quick nowadays, but it still takes a long time. I think it’s important to stay light-hearted and instantly forgive yourself for any mistakes. I made a lot of mistakes to begin with, taking an hour and a half just to do a video introduction, fluffing my lines and getting annoyed with myself. But you hit reset and you just go back in.
Also, the camera dilutes everything. When you shoot a music video you have to rock out so hard that you couldn’t even do it onstage, because you couldn’t hope to sustain it over the course of an entire set.
How will the music industry evolve in the future?
Platforms will naturally evolve to make it easier for fans to give money directly to artists in exchange for things. There’ll be less need for secure finance just to be successful as a band. The whole direct to fan thing, the easier it is for an artist to access their fans, the more it’ll happen.
What can you tell us about your current projects?
I’m currently working on launching a massive online music education platform! I’ve been working on it for about a year now and we’re nearly ready to go, so that’s taken up a lot of my attention recently. I can’t say too much about it, but we’re building the website that I wish had existed when I was learning how to play.
I’ve also been filming and editing a new show for YouTube called GrooveTube, which is all about totally honest gear reviews, helpful drum lessons to get people taking their playing to the next level and a healthy dose of industry advice from my experiences so far. It’s the most in-depth video project I’ve taken on personally and I’ve learned a load from doing it, so I’m really excited to see the response.
Dorje are writing at the moment so we’re in the studio slowly crafting an album. I’m sure it will be pretty epic and our fans will definitely dig it! We’ll be touring once the album comes out, which I expect will be the early part of 2015.
I’m also working on launching a new YouTube channel called Life Upgrade, which will have a load of information and advice on life in general from people that I think are awesome. I want to cover health, food, exercise, personal development, goal setting, going self-employed, meditation, starting your own business, learning how to use social media, finding your passion and living your purpose. I think that will be a lot of fun and I hope people will get some real value from it.
I’ve got a couple of cool ideas on the backburner to make some waves in the world of online art shopping, but that’s another story!
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