Q&A: Evan Lowenstein, pop rocker turned entrepreneur, on selling experiences

After having three hit singles, Lowenstein created Stageit, an award-winning online music venue streaming six performances a day. But concerts are just the beginning.
Written by Molly Petrilla, Contributing Writer

If you were a fan of Dawson's Creek and late-90s pop, you probably know Evan Lowenstein as one-half of Evan & Jaron, the twin-brother duo who sang "Crazy for This Girl."

Lowenstein left the music world nearly a decade ago but in 2011 he found his way back—only now he's on the other side of the microphone. His company, Stageit, is an online venue through which musicians offer live, one-time-only performances. The online shows aren't recorded or archived and artists earn money directly from ticket sales and a digital tip jar. The site often presents six or more performances in a single day, from near-unknowns to established acts including Bonnie Raitt, Rick Springfield, Jason Mraz and Jimmy Buffett.

Lowenstein spoke with us about his company, which Billboard named one of the most interesting startups of 2012 and Fast Company placed among its most innovative companies for music. As Lowenstein sees it, when it comes to selling experiences, music is only the beginning.

In the late 90s and early 2000s you were touring the world and had three hit singles. How did your own experiences in the music business lead to Stageit?

I haven't had a hit song for years and I kind of wanted to go back out and maybe do it again. I really wanted to find a way to tour the world and connect with all these fans that I still had. It's completely inefficient—and it did not make sense from an economic standpoint—for me to jump back in a bus and go play a $1,500 show in Chicago, for example. But I felt like that shouldn't stop me from having some sort of connection and giving my fans something.

I looked at the technology and I was really frustrated by the fact that there was no way for me to do that. Essentially, I wanted to be able to tour the world from my house and not leave. Not just because I was afraid of playing live, but because this was something I was going to start and see how things went.

So you were Stageit's first performer?

I did do the first couple of shows, but it didn't help anything for me to do it. I reached out to a friend of mine named Jason Scheff who sings in the band Chicago. It was early on and our site was so [basic] at that point—just a video player and a chat window and a tip jar—but I wanted to see what would happen if he did a show.

Jason was in his house and he took his laptop while he was live and walked down to his studio and started playing songs. He played for about 20 minutes and it was the most amazing feeling in the world to watch. I felt so attached to it all in a way I never had before. At that moment, I was like, This is magic. This is completely secret. I will not tell anyone else about this. I'm just going to go build, build, build [the site].

You've said before that artists today are losing their value. How so?

With the advent of MP3s and the ability to cut and paste and drag and drop content, the fans got the upper hand for the first time in recorded music. They basically said, We can now move this content around so easily that we're going to take it, and we're going to take it for free unless you give it to us for exceptionally cheap. I often say that if you had the ability to drag and drop a Range Rover, that company would go, 'Okay, we're in trouble.' But the recording industry still maintains there's a business.

It started to become a litigious world where the labels were suing the fans. I fully understand and respect a label's right to protect their copyright, but the artists found themselves in a very uncomfortable position. On one hand, they had their labels, who were supposedly out there protecting their interests. On the other hand, they have their fans getting sued and their fans are everything to them.

The artists found themselves on the sidelines and came up with an inappropriate message, which is: Take my music for free. You can't blame them for that message. They have to side with their fans. But over the last 10 years, artists have found themselves more and more vulnerable. They've just been giving themselves up more and more. This is part of the trend I started to see.

Why do you think the fans are willing to pay money for a Stageit show but not an album?

Live is the only medium that fans truly understand the value of. When an artist makes a record for six months and then 10 years later they still want you to spend $15 on it, the fan has never truly understood that.

At Stageit, we don't sell music. We sell time. If you have Jason Mraz playing at six o'clock tonight, it's not about selling music. It's about saying, Jason's going to give you 30 minutes of his time tonight, so what's that worth to you? We were able to find this common ground and that's what's enabled us to be so successful. That's why what we're doing is working and it's not a fluke.

So things are going well for Stageit?

Oh my gosh, it's unbelievable. There are artists and fans who describe what we do as magic. There are artists who say they made more money in a single Stageit show than they did for an entire tour. From a fiscal perspective, less than two years after launching, our revenues were through the roof. We were nearly cash-flow positive until we decided to take on more loans to expand our business.

Our growth has been astronomical from a revenue perspective. We're literally proving that fans want to give artists money. When you create the right environment, these patrons are exceptionally generous. The average fan is spending more than $14 for a 20-to-30-minute experience in a day and age when we can't get them to spend $10 on a record.

Performers get to stage these online concerts themselves. What's the weirdest place someone has done a concert so far?

We've had people play from the back of a moving tour bus. A couple guys performed from the bleachers in Wrigley Field. We've had concerts from the beach. Someone even played from the inside of a hockey arena with the Zamboni in the background.

You mentioned your own experience as an artist earlier, but how did you go from performing to founding a startup?

I think after two years on the road my brother and I grew up a lot and learned a lot. We were fighting a lot over our image. We wanted to be more credible. We had made a record with T-Bone Burnett but the record label wanted us to be more of an image-based band. In retrospect, I think being truly credible is just about being comfortable in your skin. I should be able to go on the road right now opening for Britney Spears and not care about it because it's my music.

I decided I wanted to go into technology five-and-a-half years ago. I started running up to Silicon Valley. It was the early days for things like Twitter. Two years before Ashton [Kutcher], I was this washed-up rock star, but people still knew who I was and thought it was cool that I was taking an interest in technology, so I made a lot of friends early on in the tech community. I think they respected me because I was a musician and sincerely interested in making a foray out there in mid-2008. A lot of my friends were like, What are you doing here? I said, I did music, I did film and television, I think technology's going to be the place.

Speaking of Twitter, the first line of your Twitter bio is "I'm disruptive." Can you elaborate?

Going back to my elementary school days, all of my teachers probably would have described me as such. I think it's a little bit of a play on the fact that I was disruptive in class, then disruptive elsewhere. Also, everyone claims to have a disruptive technology, so I was making a fun. Like, 'I'm the original disruptor. I disrupted back when I was a kid.'

Do you see Stageit as a disruptor, too?

We're not disrupting live music because we're a complement to that, but I'm sure we're disrupting something. We've created an entirely new revenue stream. It doesn't cannibalize any other revenue stream. For us, it is complementary. But I still think things that are complementary can be disruptive. I was complementary to my peers and disruptive to my teachers. You see what I'm saying?

I think so. I'm also curious to hear who's on your wish list for future Stageit performances.

This is not from a business perspective, this is from a me-as-an-artist perspective. The top of my list would probably be Elvis Costello and then a band called Del Amitri in Scotland. Paul Simon would be amazing.

It's amazing for me how many super-cool artists I've talked to—people I've met as an artist and am now re-meeting through Stageit. Melissa Etheridge called me out of the blue and told me that people like me are going to revolutionize the music industry. Shit like that is just beyond crazy.

What are your hopes for Stageit going forward?

I'm not interested in short-term gains. I'm much more interested in creating a platform that is genuine and true to the artists. We'll never create a feature that we think is not in the best interest of the artists. That puts us in a challenging position sometimes. People will write me emails and say, 'How can a show be sold out on the Internet? That's ridiculous.' It's because it's in the best interest of the artist.

I really believe in the value of people's time and I see us ultimately becoming an eBay for experiences, with people buying and selling time. Whether it's a comedian, an author, a lecturer. We have a chef coming this month. While we're still focused exclusively on the vertical of music, that doesn't mean other people can't come and use our platform. We've had successful shows in many different verticals. I can see that's ultimately where things are going.

Photo courtesy of Stageit

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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