Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Derek Webb Gives NoiseTrade The Old College Try


While sitting in on a peculiar college class of student-artists recently, I was struck by just how much the back-and-forth discussion revealed about their outlooks and attitudes. There was disappointed cynicism, “With that album cover, I thought we’d get more tips,” fresh-faced optimism, “Dude, twenty-six bucks is pretty good,” practical skepticism, “Yeah, but I feel like somebody’s mom probably gave twenty,” and even some considerate altruism, “We should send a fruit basket to whoever’s mom did that.” As the professor refocused the discussion with a guiding “I like the enthusiasm, but let’s bring it in a little bit,” he playfully noted “I think a fruit basket’s just a little bit out of our budget right now.” 

The name of this Belmont University class is Songwriting and Entrepreneurship and the man at the front of the room this semester is Derek Webb; an award-winning singer-songwriter with 20+ years of real-world experience and career sales of close to a million albums sold. He also founded and functions as president of NoiseTrade, a revolutionary digital content distribution company that connects artists and fans in a tangible and quantifiable way. 

With a résumé full of successes and each foot firmly planted in both arenas, Webb’s credentials may seem to position him as a foregone conclusion for just such an academic position. However, it didn’t start off as an easy sell to the guy who, by his own account, “barely got out of high school.” It was the initial impetus and encouragement of Drew Ramsey, one of Belmont’s professors of songwriting and music business, that won out against Webb’s reluctance. Sealing the deal for him was Ramsey’s free-rein approach and his vote-of-confidence advice to “make a dent, take chances, and go in there and get yourself fired.” 

The Songwriting and Entrepreneurship course is project-based, which means there is no curriculum, no syllabus, no books, and no previous precedent. Webb has never been one to rely on another’s roadmap anyway, so it seemed to be a perfect fit. During the first class, Webb and his students discussed what they wanted to do and decided on their semester-long project: make a compilation of the music being created by the students, distribute it for free via NoiseTrade, gather the information to self-promote and cross-promote each other, and use the data collected to plan and publicize a concert featuring all of the students and their songs. As a result, The Starving Artist Collective was born and their compilation is currently available at NoiseTrade for the low cost of just an email address and a zip code. 

As I sat in on the class just a short time after the compilation had been made available, the students’ excitement for the project and their curiosity surrounding its initial impact was genuinely palpable. Their questions about how many times it had been downloaded, what cities were showing up on those downloads, and how many tips it had generated were answered and then meet with additional follow-up questions from Webb regarding how many times they had told someone about it or had mentioned it on their social media accounts. Webb speaks to the class about the importance of not just getting their music on the digital shelf, but using social media as a viable tool to move their music off of the digital shelf and into the hands of the listening (and purchasing) public. 

Webb also talks heavily to his class of the unique state of the current music industry and the unprecedented opportunities available for blue-collar musicians and the musical middle class. Where there used to only be room for either superstars or hobbyists, there is now an accessible middle ground for independent artist to make a comfortable living if they are willing to cut out the middlemen, bypass the gatekeepers, and do the work necessary to “find their tribe.” With the extensive network of industry relations that comes with having two decades of artistry under his belt, Webb has also brought guest speakers like Kristen Dabbs (Ten out of Tenn) into the class to tell their own self-starter success stories and brainstorm with the students. With a few other entrepreneurial artists planned to speak in future classes, these students are getting tested and proven advice from a wide variety of voices and sources. 

When Webb speaks to his class about identifying gaps in the market and then creating the solutions to fill them, he is not merely reciting buzzwords or trotting out tropes from a business handbook. He is speaking from tried-and-true entrepreneurial experience. In 2006, Webb experimented with broadening his audience by giving away his album Mockingbird for free. In exchange for a digital download of the album, users would supply their email address and zip code, along with five other email addresses that would function as referral opportunities for Webb. With each download, Webb received a name and email address for his mailing list, a zip code to locate concentrated areas of fans to plan future touring opportunities, and five other potential connections that came on the recommendation of someone they already knew. In just the few months it was available for free, over 80,000 copies of Mockingbird were downloaded. NoiseTrade was birthed the very next year. 

 With The Starving Artists Collective compilation already having been downloaded over a thousand times in less than a month and their concert booked for the end of March, the students in Webb’s class are getting an education and an experience in a real-world, real-time environment. As Webb puts it “the class is not in a laboratory, we’re not experimenting, and we’re taking real risks.” Webb doesn’t teach in the hypothetical and he understands that the industry changes at a pace that doesn’t exactly keep up with what is printed in textbooks. For Webb, the hour a week that they are “in class” is spent on discussion, ideas, and engagement, while the true work happens outside of class in the hands of his students. Not only for their individual careers, but for each other’s as well. Webb is quick to remind his students not to be stingy with their individual audiences and he encourages them to promote each other’s work, appropriately adding, “Everyone doesn’t have to lose for you to win.” In a town known for its ruthless competitiveness, it’s refreshing to see young artists get a hands-on education in working together from a professor who has modeled his career on both the connection of art and the art of connection. 

The Starving Artist Collective will be performing in the round this Sunday, March 30, at Belcourt Taps in Nashville, TN. Doors open at 7pm, the music starts at 8pm, and the show is free. Belcourt Taps is located at 2117 Belcourt Avenue and can be reached at (615) 915-3622.

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