An Interview With DFTBA Records Co-Founder Alan Lastufka On The Culture of YouTube
This is part two of my interview with Alan Lastufka. He's co-founder of the digital label DFTBA Records with Hank Green and author of YouTube: An Insider's Guide to Climbing the Charts. He's also a successful musician, graphic designer, and YouTuber, among many other things. After news broke that DFTBA Records had cleared $1 million in sales in two years, Hypebot got in touch with Lastufka. In this segment, he talks about the culture of YouTube and how it evolved. He also provides details on their contract spilt with artists.
Hypebot: Have changes in YouTube forced you to realign the way that you promote yourselves and your artists?
Alan Lastufka: YouTube is constantly changing. Two years ago I published a book with O'Reilly Media (one of the world's largest technology book publishers) called "YouTube: An Insider's Guide to Climbing the Charts" ), which was released just one month before I began the record label. Some of the tips in my book, and almost all of the screenshots, are completely out of date now, due to YouTube's evolution. But the core stuff never changes. Even from the "old days" of radio and physical product. Word of mouth is king. Content is king.
If your songs are good, and you can get even a handful of people to listen to you – over time, you will explode. I guarantee it. It just takes time and consistent output. So while minor details of promotion have changed, the overview hasn't. We collaborate with each other, we cover each other's songs, we recommend each other's music to our own listeners, and the word spreads, CDs start selling.
Hypebot: What are the most important community building strategies that you've learned through being on YouTube?
Alan Lastufka: Just be real. And I don't mean that in a cliché or buzz word/phrase way. I mean, if you're proud of a song you just wrote, don't be afraid to say so. Have conversations with your listeners, not because it's the "community building" thing to do, but because you honestly care about them, their reactions to your music, and what they're doing, creatively.
Many of our artists have collaborated with listeners on music videos, album artwork, t-shirt designs, and some, even duets or recordings for their records. These weren't cheesy contests or "meet your favorite artist" bullshit gimmicks, these were real collaborations between two artists who respected each other's work. That's powerful, and it instantly builds a strong community, a productive network, and a loyal listener base.
Hypebot: How would you describe the music culture YouTube? How is it different from what we consider to be culture?
Alan Lastufka: The music culture on YouTube is highly collaborative and participatory. Let me give you an example: I released my first single "Can't" in July of 2009 (music video: here). A month later, there were over a dozen covers and remixes of it on YouTube. Today, there are over four dozen.
Many of these were of such a high quality that I actually released a maxi-single a few months later featuring nothing but covers and remixes of the song. The single featured remixes by MC Lars, ALL CAPS and numerous others. I also gave away the multitrack stems for the song on USB keys, so others could continue to remix and play with the song. This response to one of our songs was not an isolated incident. Music fans no longer want to simply consume music, they want to experience it, participate in it, and connect with those who wrote it.
We were all doing that before we even knew it's where the industry would be heading. It was just fun and exciting stuff to do!
Hypebot: What has it been like to take a hobby from a bedroom to an office? What does the future hold for DFTBA?
Alan Lastufka: DFTBA has already grown faster and bigger than I could ever have imagined when first starting out. I got the idea for the label after seeing so many of my friends post songs on their YouTube channels, and then have to shrug their shoulders when viewers asked where they could buy the music.
The first artists we "signed" were friends who I made deals with via IM chats and emails. Nothing fancy. I thought at the most DFTBA would give me something to do for four or five hours a week, and it'd be great to help a few of my friends make some money on the side with their music.
We quickly outgrew my bedroom, so I rented a second bedroom at the house I was staying at. A few months later, we took over the garage too. After a year, I had purchased my own home and DFTBA had already moved into its own office space. The office space is great. We can (usually) fit all of the stock in there, and separating work from home has been wonderful. Those four or five hours per week I thought DFTBA would take up, ended up being about 50 hours a week.
To remain efficient and as profitable as possible, every DFTBA order is processed and packed by my girlfriend, Kristen, and me. I'm also the company's graphic designer, designing the majority of the album packaging we release. Oh, and I'm the accountant, I calculate royalties at the end of each month and pay our artists. My business partner Hank is the financer, he also handles reordering stock, and he heads up all of the promotion that we do put out there.
In the future, DFTBA plans to reach out to more talented artists with smaller and smaller audiences. We've proven we can efficiently handle bigger YouTube artists, and now we'd like to help those just starting out to grow. We have also begun working with a few promoters to hopefully reach out to radio, and expand beyond our close-knit, but ultimately finite, YouTube community. But the end game to all of this is to continue to support hobbyists' transitions into professional musicians.
Hypebot: What's DFTBA's standard contract spilt like with artists?
Alan Lastufka: DFTBA's standard contract is a 60/40 split, with the artist earning 60% of the retail price. We believe this is one of the best distribution deals out there. Most commercial artists make 10% or less, and usually on the lower wholesale price. Starting January 1, 2011, after such a successful 2010, we're actually giving our artists a 10% raise across the board. Everyone who's been with us this past year will now be earning royalties at a 70/30 split of retail.
It's our way of saying thanks, and showing the friends and the musicians we're working with that we truly are here to help them, not take advantage. Even at the 70/30 split, the company will be making a comfortable profit. I was able to leave my previous full-time teaching job to run DFTBA after just six-months of operation with the salary DFTBA was providing me, and while Hank continues to freelance, the majority of his income is provided by DFTBA as well. This would not be possible if we ran things as inefficiently as the majors do.