Going Against the Stream: Local entrepreneur creates independent music streaming and merchandising platform

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Damon Evans wants to make Arizona the independent music capital of the world.

Damon Evans

His latest endeavor is a million-dollar crowd-funding campaign marketed toward musicians, producers, labels and investors interested in being a part of Evans’ independently owned music streaming service, Arena. Once he reaches his goal, he plans to start nationally marketing the homegrown music platform.

Evans is the founder and CEO of the app and site, which is built on fair pay for musicians and free play for listeners.

Arena is the only streaming service that isn’t associated with major labels, a facet of other platforms that Evans believes contributes to an unbalanced music business.

“The system’s broken,” he says. “For us, it became clear that it wasn’t about trying to fix a broken system; it’s more about creating something separate that works independent of it.”

Evans is no stranger to that system. The Phoenix native started a music distribution company in 1997, which stocked the shelves of Best Buys and Sam Goodys with CDs and vinyl records. After downloads and digital streaming took over the music landscape, Evans says the next logical step was to create an online streaming platform of his own.

“The only way I would’ve been able to even conceptualize Arena is to first have come through physical distribution, through digital and then to present-day streaming,” Evans explains. “Otherwise, I would have never had the ability to understand what was needed.”

People were no longer purchasing music to own and it became increasingly difficult for artists and labels to monetize their content in the changing music economy. What was needed was a streaming service that did more than just streaming.

That’s where Arena’s exclusive merchandising comes in.

Evans and his team launched campaigns with artists based on a “Buy the T-shirt, get the music free” model. They don’t purchase band merch from suppliers. They don’t have a warehouse full of T-shirts and hoodies waiting to sell. The designs come directly from the artist, and when a consumer or listener wants to make a purchase, Arena prints and ships the garment that day.

“We started to need to shift the focus away from music as a primary product and focus on merchandising,” Evans explains. “We know Millennials won’t pay 99 cents, let alone $9.99, for a full album download but what they will do is pay $20 for an exclusive T-shirt while getting the album free.”

Arena started with the concept of a platform that pays artists a penny per stream. Because of its merchandising aspect, Arena is able to pay higher than average rates among streaming services without requiring subscriptions or ads. Other platforms pay artists a fraction of a penny, according to Evans, which ultimately garners less than $100 for every million streams.

“What most people don’t understand is that when you pay $10 dollars to Spotify or Apple Music every month, that platform is going to keep $4 for operations and overhead, leaving just $6 remaining to be divided among all the tracks, albums and artists that one subscriber has listened to in that 30-day period,” Evans says. “There exists not one streaming subscription platform that isn’t financed by or partnered with the major labels, so every single streaming platform in existence today with a subscription base, the major labels control.”

This means the major labels get all the money, which makes it difficult for independent musicians to make a profit. “We sell shirts for a $20 price point, plus shipping and handling, and the customer gets out the door with the full free album download and the shirt for $25,” Evans explains. “We split that revenue with the artists, so the artist is going to monetize with that bundle at a $10 revenue share. The $10 that we would make as profit, we basically use to buy that garment, print that garment and ship it. We’re allowing artists and listeners to interact through our platform in a way that allows the artists to monetize, it attracts the listener because there’s no subscription and no commercials and then we basically only have to focus on breaking even every month.”

After operating in beta for nearly three years, Arena officially launched over the summer. When he was first developing the app and website, Evans invited 750 artists and labels to the platform, which generated 270,000 listener accounts without a single dollar in marketing or promotions. Arena has close to three million tracks in its database.

“A lot of people were confused by it because we were never trying to race to compete or catch up to Spotify or any other service providers,” he says. “For us, it was just kind of running our own race and making sure that we were the only streaming platform that could convey the message of being artist-centric.”

The app’s browsing features, artist profiles and radio channels also make music discovery a big part of Arena.

But marketing isn’t. So far, Evans has let the platform speak for itself.

“The second a fan registers as a listener on our site, although they came to listen to an album or buy a shirt from that specific artist, they become a listener that gets introduced to all kinds of new artists,” he says. “We knew that Spotify and Apple wouldn’t be able to encourage mass populations of content creators and independent artists to endorse and support them because they simply cannot monetize and create viable careers with those platforms, so we decided to create something that the artist felt was valuable and we let them talk about it.”

For Evans, it’s always been a simple formula: Stand out in the market, support independent artists and satisfy consumers.

“I decided I wanted to set up my own physical distribution company to place independent artists on the shelves alongside major label content,” Evans says. “You start to understand the politics, you start to understand the process, you basically understand the system. Even beyond conceptualizing what it is, you have to come up with a brand that can cut through the noise.”

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