Subscribed Podcast Ep #6: Sam Jennings on Prince and the Music Streaming Business

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Guest: Sam Jennings

Our guest on the Subscribed Podcast is Sam Jennings, a web and print designer who has worked closely with leading musicians such as Prince and Pearl Jam. You can view samples of his fantastic work on his website.

Sam spoke to us about launching and running the NPG Music Club with Prince, and the legendary musician’s relationship with his fans. We also look at what today’s music streaming services can learn from these early pioneers of the Subscription Economy!Listen to the episode below or scroll down for select excerpts!

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It’s three months now since the sad and untimely passing of Prince. In 2001, you started the NPG Music Club with him. This was probably the first online music subscription service. Can you tell us a little bit about how it came about?

At the time, Prince was an independent artist. He had broken away from his music label, Warner Brothers. Throughout the ‘90s it had kind of been a consistent story for him that he was breaking away from the music industry, wanted to do things on his own, wanted to take as much control away as he could from people he felt that didn’t have his best interest in mind. When the internet became a commercial thing, I think his first thought was, this is a perfect vehicle for me to reach my audience, to reach my fans directly. Gone were the middlemen and the record labels controlling all the distribution channels. This was a way he could go one-on-one with his fans.

It was definitely a topic of discussion of the time – How can we turn this into a business? How can we take his music, reach the fans directly, and create a business for him? You have to remember this is before the iTunes store, and Napster was a big issue for a lot of the music industry. The industry hadn’t quite caught up to the download model and they hadn’t quite figured out how to monetize yet.

From our perspective, we were thinking along the lines of – we have this music, we want to connect it directly to the fans, why don’t we present it as a subscription model, as a way to engage the audience? So it’s not just one-off files that they download to their system and then share out to Napster. Instead, we create a relationship, we create an ongoing experience for them. They get the music, they get the downloads, but they’re also investing in a larger experience – making them more of members as opposed to consumers.

So much of this was obviously about the fans and building that relationship. How did you think about monetization?

I think it was definitely about building a relationship with the fans directly. I think once they felt they were supporting Prince directly, and it wasn’t going to a third party, it wasn’t going to an anonymous record label, they really felt like they were investing in him as an artist. I think developing that relationship was really a key factor because his fans wanted to support him. They wanted to be almost like patrons in a way, to keep him going, keep his art going, and support him. I think it was really all about their relationship, all about building that connection.

What would be some of the lessons from your journey with NPG Music Club for new streaming music companies such as Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music?

I’ve been listening to a lot of the feedback from the fans recently. Prince plugged his whole catalog into Tidal. He threw his weight into Tidal and said that’s the one he wanted to support. I believe it had to do with what he perceived as Jay Z’s relationship with artists and the sense that Tidal is perhaps more artist-friendly than other services. I think Prince had a sense that the recording industry had kind of caught up and they controlled a lot of these channels in the same way they did twenty years ago with radio and record stores. But I think his fans felt like “I’m not really supporting Prince directly”.

I’ve always thought that a good strategy for such companies might be to do a white label service. For instance, if Prince went to them and said – I want to use your service, however, I want to do a little bit of a side project and we’ll do a white label Prince streaming service on top of Tidal. It would give the fans something that was able to take advantage of Tidal’s infrastructure but create more of a fan-special experience and they would feel more connected to Prince through that. Maybe something that he could customize?

For more on how Prince pioneered the Subscription Economy, read How Prince and Bowie started streaming music services and check out previous episodes of the podcast here!

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