In our most enlightening Q&A to date, BigChampagne CEO Eric Garland shares his insight on the issues facing the music and technology business in the last 10 years. It’s a must read for industry insiders in the online and offline world. He recently stopped by RM 64 headquarters to sit down with office janitors Berko Pearce and Scott Sheldon where they also discussed the finer points of Joe Fleischer‘s hair.
RM64: Can you give us a little background on yourself and how you got involved in the music & technology business?
EG: I’m a kid from Texas, most of the family is still there and I’m the one that got out. I take great pleasure in turning SXSW into like a three-week boondoggle and visit every distant relative and hang out on the lake. I played in bands unsuccessfully, knocked around Texas, then did the whole fraternity/sorority circuit for a while when I got out of school. I went to work as a management consultant and got the bug, being entrepreneurial, that is to say basically having a paycheck but not having a boss. So when I got really restless at that, I realized there was no less legitimate place to go, you’re already a consultant, so you can only go to unemployment. So I decided to start a company, what would become BigChampagne really. It was sort of set off like everything was in music and technology at that time, with the explosion and popularity of Napster. Napster happened and we thought there has to be an opportunity here for artists.
RM64: Did you use Napster?
EG: Um, I had an occupational interest in Napster (smiles).
RM64: Strike that from the record.
EG: No, no, no, that’s actually a good story, the one part of my personal story that’s worth telling. I was helping out artist friends who had been helpful to me when I was trying to be an artist. One of my friends at that time, a great artist named Glen Phillips who had been the front man for Toad the Wet Sprocket, was starting his second career as an independent artist. I was sort of quasi-managing Glen, helping him a lot and I launched his first website. He wanted to do the whole e-commerce thing and sell his first solo record on his website, this is late ‘90s or early 2000’s. We were sitting around in the bar at Largo long after closing one night after he had done a little solo set, and he said, ‘What do you make of Napster?’ I said, ‘Just between you and me, I think it’s really cool. Does that offend you?’ And he said, ‘No! And that’s my problem.’ Everybody was so upset about Napster. Lars is going on about it, and Hillary Rosen is banging the drum and everybody’s threatening lawsuit. And he said, ‘As a guy who used to be in a band that people really loved, and as a guy who’s trying to draw some attention to what he’s doing now, I just wish I could let those people know that I’ve got a record and that I’m coming to town, or that I have a T-shirt that comes in lady’s sizes.’ You know, and his take was just so different. He was like, ‘I just think for most artists the first reaction should be that this is a community and it should be a tool set for me, and how do I exploit it to my advantage?’ And I was like, ‘that’s kinda cool.’
So I went and found this computer scientist buddy of mine and said, ‘what do you know about Napster? Tell me everything about Napster?’ Just by total chance he had met a group of other developers who had been working in this area of peer-mediated computing. He said, ‘Well, there are a lot of things we could do…’ And I said, ‘I’ve got this artist friend who really wants to find his fans on Napster and let them know what he’s doing now.’ He said, ‘let me think about that.’ Twenty-four hours later he tells me ‘I think I have something for you. I’ll have a prototype tonight at 7.’ Sure enough he showed me this amazing thing that he had very quickly thrown together. It was essentially a search engine that was collecting information about what people were searching for on Napster, what people were downloading and which artists people were adding to a playlist. Then we could segment that for purposes of marketing. So we did this little pilot with Glen Phillips where we approached Toad the Wet Sprocket fans and said, ‘hey, it’s Glen from Toad. I have a new record out and I’m giving away some mp3s, I have a tour calendar, and here it is.’ The conversion rate was unreal, it was getting like 20-25 percent conversions, we sold thousands of his independently released CDs off of glenphillips.com, a website that I was maintaining at that point out of my apartment in Fairfax. We just thought, ‘this is it. This is the future of the music industry.’ Little did we know that 10 years later that would almost be true. We were very eager and excited about what that first 6 months would hold, which was mostly pain and suffering.
RM64: So how did BigChampagne come into being?
EG: We did a few more of these experiments with artists after Glen Phillips. There was this sort of word of mouth thing in the artist community. Along the lines of, ‘these guys are doing this crazy stuff with Napster and online marketing.’ Then we started doing a lot of them. We worked with a whole bunch of L.A. bands, Bay Area bands and we got some press for that, and it was like, ‘hey these independent artists have a different attitude about Napster and they’re working with this technology start up.’ At that point there was still no name for it, you know, it wasn’t BigChampagne. It was just some guys.
Then I got a call from Jim Guerinot. And Jim said, ‘we get it, we think Napster is amazing.’ The Offspring wanted to put out their new record on Napster. That did not end up happening for reasons that had nothing to do with Guerinot or The Offspring, which I’m sure you know. But it started a really good conversation, and we did do some stuff to market and promote not just The Offspring, but a bunch of different bands of Jim’s. And through Jim we met the lawyer, of course. They always march the lawyer in, and that was Ken Hertz. He was effectively my co-founder, in that he was the one that looked at this little experiment of ours and said, ‘let’s turn this into a business, let’s build this. This could really be the path for the music industry with respect to Napster. This could be a better approach.’ And so it is, in a roundabout way, Kenny’s fault that I met Joe Fleischer.
RM64: Now at the time did you know of their (Ken & Joe) work with mp3.com?
EG: I was doing real-time research. I was Googling furiously. I guess this is before Google, so I was Yahooing to try to find out what I had fallen into. And yes, I was aware that they had worked together with varying degrees of success in the past.
RM64: Was this right after mp3.com?
EG: It was, it was virtually the same time. It’s when all these companies were falling through the door, were pouring into L.A., mostly from Northern California. And I will say this, completely unabashedly but also un-cynically, it could have gone so badly for us. This is the thing I think back on more often than anything else, you had a couple of smart geeks that had an idea and a little bit of technology. We basically showed up in Hollywood and said, ‘does anybody want to buy a watch?’
In hindsight, we could not have done better. We sort of fell into this little Largo community, where people loved music, were passionate about art and were all friends and invested in one another. That was great and really lucky. Then we caught the attention of slightly more powerful people in the business. During that time we sat down with everybody. And they were dazzled and wowed by the possibilities. It was cool to be knowledgeable and valuable to these people who were legendary. Who were we? We were somebody who knew something about Napster and that was a real currency, the elevator definitely got off on the top floor.