THE MUSIC ISSUE
The week of March 15, 2015

Me IRL: Pomplamoose’s Jack Conte

By Aaron Sankin

Jack Conte is not the sort of dude one would expect to be at the center of online controversy.

Conte’s one half of the YouTube sensation Pomplamoose, a band that rose to prominence on the basis of recording catchy, expertly produced covers of pop hits like Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” and the Angry Birds theme and pairing them with equally charming and lovingly handcrafted music videos. He then went on to found Patreon, a crowdfunding platform where fans can agree to pitch in a small tip every time a content creator puts out a new piece of content. It’s an idea that raised piles of cash for tens of thousands of artists in an era when the longstanding business models in media industries are quickly crumbling.

So what’s not to like?

Pomplamoose, which also includes Conte’s partner Natalie Dawn, racks up detractors almost as quickly as new fans. When Conte recently wrote a blog post for Medium about the economic reality of being a touring musician in 2015, it ignited a firestorm of negative feedback.

In a very real sense, there are few people more at the forefront of how art is made in the 21st century than Conte.

But in a very real sense, there are few people more at the forefront of how art is made in the 21st century than Conte. Not only was Pomplamoose among the first musical acts to understand YouTube in a deeply intuitive and remarkably consistent way, but Patreon is likely the first crowdfunding platform to concern itself with the long-term viability of artists’ careers in the Internet age—one that allows creators to plan five years down the line rather than just five months.

Nobody has quite figured out what the future of creative endeavors is going to look like, but Conte is trying his damnedest to create a new model. There are definitely far worse people out there to trust than someone willing to brush the haters off and sink his life savings into a homemade video where he breakdances with robots inside the Millennium Falcon.

What was your first online screenname?

I was like 7 or 8 years old; my AOL screen name [was] VeggieMan100. I had just become a vegetarian, and I remember wanted to express that part of my identity through my screenname—at 7 years old (laughs). And VeggieMan was already taken. 

What album are you listening to on repeat right now?

Prince’s Sign o’ the Times. 

Did the idea for Patreon come out of a particular experience you had with Pomplamoose? 

The story is that I was making a music video for a solo project I was doing. It involved robots. I built a replica of the Millennium Falcon set inside my studio. It took me three months and was the most work I had ever put into anything. I was exhausted; I was working 18-hour days. It was the most unhealthy experience ever.

At the end of it, I got a really strong video. I knew my fans would like it a lot, but I knew it wasn’t going to be a viral video and get 100 million views. At the end of the whole thing I realized that I was going to post it and, if it did what my other videos do, it would 300,000 hits. By the end of the year, it would get about a million. That would be a hundred bucks in ad revenue for me. But the video had cost me over $10,000. I’d drained my savings account on this video.

I sort of grouped those two things in my mind and was just like, “Nope, that’s not OK.” It’s not OK that I spent $10,000 on this and it’s going to reach a million people and they’re going to really like it—and I know they like it because they leave comments and build a little community around it—but it was all only going to lead up to $100 of ad revenue for me. I just couldn’t take it. It felt so incongruous with what I felt I was giving back to the world. That led to Patreon. I had to ask “Why is this broken?” and “How could it be better?”

“That post was kind of my middle finger. It was kind of my way of shaking things up a little bit.”

I realized that if I could just ask my fans for a buck every time I released a new video, a lot of them would do it. If there was a page where they could just give me a dollar every time I release something, I knew a ton of them would go sign up. I didn’t know how many and I didn’t know how much, but I knew they would. What was so surprising is that, within a couple weeks of launching Patreon, instead of making $100 per video, I was making over $4,000. Fans weren’t just pledging a dollar. On average, they were pledging nine bucks, which was amazing.

You wrote a piece for Medium where you broke down the expenses for a Pomplamoose tour in an effort to argue that, even touring, which is now supposed to be the main revenue source for bands now that record sales have collapsed, isn’t all that lucrative of an endeavor for a lot of musicians. It really struck a nerve with a lot of people in both positive and negative ways. Why do you think that happened?

I’m sorry to say that the more I talk about this, the more bitter that I am about the experience. I would like to be one of those people who is like, “F**k what everybody else thinks; I don’t give a f**k.” I really want to embody that. The last couple months have been transformational for me because I’ve kind of had to do that to deal with the slew of people online who were saying that I had no integrity, that I was lying about the numbers, that I was stealing money from Patreon. I still don’t understand why people were so angry, but I had to kind to kind of become one of those people who is like, “I don’t give a f**k.” Otherwise you just can’t deal with it.

That post was kind of my middle finger. It was kind of my way of shaking things up a little bit. As an independent artist, it’s really unfortunate that people think art and money are different things and should never be joined—that art lives in this perfect vacuum, unaffected and unchanged by money. That has never been the case; it’s not the case now. Money funds everything. I don’t care if you’re a tech startup; I don’t care if you have an … [electric] bill to pay; I don’t a care if you’re an artist. If there’s no green, it’s not going to work.

“We raised $17 million. I haven’t taken a penny from the company. Nothing.”

What’s funny is that I’m not a money-focused person. I’m still not taking a salary from Patreon, like two years [after I founded it]. We raised $17 million. I haven’t taken a penny from the company. Nothing. It’s not that I really care about money and that I want more money—I don’t. I don’t have very much money right now, and that’s OK with me. That’s not the driving factor for me, which is that artists need to wake the f**k up and realize that money is half of being an independent artist. Half is making great s**t; make beautiful, great things that you’re proud of and that the world enjoys and that you enjoy, so you can look back on your catalog in 50 years and feel really proud of it. The other half of being an artist is figuring out how to make more of that. Because if you don’t figure that half of that equation out, then the thing you’re making now is the last thing you’ll ever make. I don’t want to be one of those artists who makes something awesome and then that’s it. I want to make awesome things for the rest of my life, and that means I need to figure out how to build an operation of making awesome things. 

That means half of my job is building a machine, the input of which is music and videos and the output of which is money. It’s not because I’m some money-grubbing, green-hungry Silicon Valley shark idiot, even though that’s what a lot of people would love to think. It’s because I care deeply about making things, and I want to be able to make my next thing. … That’s an ultimate truth for me. It’s like the meaning of life. Why are you making art? So you can make more art. That’s why we’re all doing it.

Do you feel like crowdfunding platforms like Patreon, where artists are able to directly ask their fans for money, are opening up that conversation and allowing people to talk about it more freely? 

It’s making all the difference in the world. People see that Amanda Palmer raised over a million dollars for her last record and then spent it on making an art book and touring and recording and mastering and mixing.

There will be people in that equation who say, “How dare she spend a million dollars making her album.” What’s so funny is that the only reason they say that is that every other band doesn’t talk about how much it costs to make a record. So as soon as they hear how much it costs, they freak out a little bit.

I was right next to Slim’s in San Francisco. That’s like a 500-person venue. Every night when I walk by Slim’s, there is a 50-foot tour bus outside with three people hauling gear and a full band and tour manager. It’s a 500-person room. No f**king way! They are losing so much money, but they don’t publish their number so no one thinks about it. Yes, Patreon and Kickstarter and Indiegogo and all these platforms that bring transparency to the foreground for artistry are having a huge impact on how people perceive money and art.

“I use Spotify every day of my life. As an artist, I hate it, and I hope goes away forever.”

One moment that I think is worth noting is that Pomplamoose’s fans, when that Medium article came out, they were stoked. They were so excited that we would open up and share that stuff with them. We got the most amazing comments, the most incredible feedback. That’s something that’s new: for fans to rally about transparency and money and finances. When Pomplamoose gets a brand deal now, like Lenovo or H&R Block, some brand pays up money to write an original song and make a video. We tell our fans about it, and they’re totally jazzed. It used to be, if that happened, people thought it was selling out. Fans would turn on a band. But now more than ever, at least fans of a certain type are rallying around those kinds of transactions. And honestly I think it about time. People used to have much more realistic expectations about art and money. Artists used to accept money from the f**king government, and it was fine. The government funded Michelangelo’s David, and it’s not like people were giving Michelangelo’s s**t for taking money from the government. It’s just how art was made.

One new model that’s out there are streaming services like Spotify. What do you think about their potential to fund musicians?

As a consumer, I think Spotify is the greatest the thing ever. I have every song ever recorded in my pocket—except for Taylor Swift. And that’s awesome. I love that. I use Spotify every day of my life. As an artist, I hate it, and I hope goes away forever. I make no money from Spotify. They give me no way of connecting with my fans or the people listening. Unlike SoundCloud, it’s not a community where I can reach listeners. I don’t have any visibility into analytics or growth or demographics or traffic. I get nothing. So, I absolutely love it as a consumer; but as an artist, I’m pretty bummed about it.

Illustration by J. Longo