Mark McDermott

iRocke: two Hermosa Beach businessmen help shape the future of the music industry

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allen sanford

Allen Sanford and Karl Rogers at iRocke world headquarters in Hermosa Beach. Photo by Kathalina Rodriguez

Two years ago, Allen Sanford made a rare admission for an entrepreneur who’d staked his livelihood on deliberately careful decision-making and done so quite successfully, launching local clubs Saint Rocke and Union Cattle Company along with his brother Jed and a group of friends by the time he’d turned 30.

Sanford was about to start streaming live music shows from Saint Rocke in high definition video. He’d dubbed the venture iRocke, and was going to make the shows available to anyone, anywhere in the world, free-of-charge. His was the first club ever to do this, and Sanford was blunt about it.

He had no idea what he was doing.

“It’s wild, man,” Sanford said at the time. “I have no business plan for his. I have no monetization plan. I have a feel for it, but there is something about being the first to do something.”

Now Sanford has a plan. And that plan just might be a harbinger for the future of the post-music industry music industry, a future in which the walls between artists and their audiences are obliterated and reliance on the machinery of a few business behemoths for the making and distribution of music goes the way of the dinosaur and the eight-track reel.

The plan is for iRocke to become a central global platform through which artists play and present music for their fans anywhere, anytime. Clubs from all over the world will be plugged in through iRocke, and musicians will be able to not only take their virtual audiences backstage, but other places as well – concerts virtually attended by thousands and sometimes millions will happen on back porches and in back rooms, and when your favorite artist is about to play, you will be notified with an email or a ping on your phone.

Live music will be produced anywhere and instantly available everywhere. It is a plan that has the potential to revolutionize the global marketplace for music. Quite naturally, it is also a plan that began to come together at the Manhattan Beach Pumpkin race a year ago.

Pumpkin Race founder Karl Rogers asked Sanford to provide music for the annual event, a decidedly homespun affair in which entrants carve pumpkins, put them on wheels, and race them down Manhattan Beach Boulevard. The two men struck up a friendship during the festivities, and somewhere along the line Sanford mentioned his live streaming business, iRocke.

Rogers wasn’t all about pumpkins. He was, in fact, the man who founded Universal Interactive Services, the first major studio Internet division, as well as Time Warner’s Roadrunner service, currently the second largest broadband Internet service in the world.

“My job was to create product and think in mass consumer terms and broad appeal,” Rogers said.

Rogers was intrigued. He told Sanford he’d go home for the weekend, think about it, and come back on Monday and tell him why iRocke would never work. But when the two met the following Monday, he’d come to a different and somewhat startling conclusion: it could work, but only if it worked big.

“What you have is something special, but you are not looking at it the right way,” Rogers told Sanford. “If you want, let’s do this together, and let me show you the way I look at it.”

Since iRocke launched at Saint Rocke, hundreds of other clubs had also started streaming their shows live. Like Sanford, nobody really had a plan. The streamed shows at Saint Rocke had served as a promotional vehicle for both the club and the bands who played there, allowing the club to book bigger bands – such as Rebelution and No Effects – who would play a small club gig in order to have a show fans all over the world could watch. Smaller bands reaped the benefit of having a high-fidelity video and audio recording of their show that they could use to promote themselves.

For Sanford, the initial iRocke experience confirmed the notion that there was a market for live-stream music. More than 70,000 people watched a live stream of a Rebelution show from Saint Rocke, and 130,000 watched No Effects. People had questioned the wisdom of giving away shows via streams, but Sanford saw it differently.

“The biggest thing, I think, is it validated my assumption that it was not trying to replace live music, but instead get live music to people who otherwise couldn’t be there, whether for economic or geographical reasons or whatever,” Sanford said.

But that was about where it ended for Sanford and other live-streamers. Nobody had a plan beyond producing content. What Rogers saw was a completely unorganized but wildly expanding global marketplace for streaming live music that was on the cusp of going off.

“What Allen had done was point to the future, and a lot of people picked up on that,” Rogers said. “I said, ‘You could either be one of 10,000 venues that are producing live streaming events, or you can be the company that organizes the entire global marketplace for live-streamed Internet music. So we decided to go big.”

 Going big

The music industry as we know it had not existed for all that long before its recent implosion.

Music for thousands of years had been a function of human community. A people would transmit their histories, ceremonies, and cultures in song, and music played a key function in the making of everything from wars to weddings. Eventually, aristocracies and churches became paying patrons for musicians. In the 18th century, performers and composers — such as Mozart – began to commercialize their music by making it available, through publishing and performances, to the general public. Music publishing became an industry unto itself in the 19th century. With the creation of the phonograph and radio broadcasting before the beginning of 20th century, the recording industry was born.

Oddly enough, the beginning of the end of the recording industry arguably appeared in the form of the Grateful Dead. They began their career in the late 1960s and early 1970s as recording artists, but soon went their own way. The Dead allowed fans to tape and share their shows, free-of-charge, and made the bulk of their revenue through performances rather than recordings. In so doing, they created a whole new genre within the music industry – the so-called “jam band” scene.

The rise of the Internet and free file-sharing ripped a giant hole into the underbelly of the recording industry from which it will likely never recover. A generation of music fans has grown up with the notion that content is free. But if the industry itself is mostly doom-and-gloom, jam bands are largely unperturbed. They mostly never made their money that way anyhow. Legions of bands — such as Phish, Widespread Panic, and Slightly Stupid – allow free taping and gross millions of dollars from live shows and intensely devoted fan-base.

Into this post-music industry scenario appears iRocke. Rogers says that the viewership for live streamed music is in the midst of an explosion. Between mobile computing devices and Internet-connected high-fidelity home entertainment systems, live music is streaming to places it has never gone before.

“There are more and more live stream producers coming into the market, generating more supply,” Rogers said. “And on the consumer side, there are already 150 million unique people each month watching live video on the Internet. By 2014, that is projected to be 300 million monthly users. That is the size of the U.S. television market. So it goes from being nothing to being larger than the U.S. television market in about five years. We think now is the time to jump into it.”

Later this year, iRocke.com will launch. The site will aggregate live music streams from all over the world and provide ways for consumers to subscribe or be notified when their favorite artists are streaming. The site will also become the largest database of live Internet concerts available in the world. Many shows will remain free, while others will be part of premium subscription packages and pay-per-view.

Matt Phillips is the co-owner of Silverback Music, a management that has long been ahead of the curve, representing such bands as Sublime, Slightly Stoopid, and Rebelution. He has worked closely with iRocke on several shows and saw it as part of the wave of the music industry’s future since its launch. Phillips said that while free shows will continue to be a staple – helping build a stronger connection between artists and their audiences – live streaming will also create new revenue sources for bands. Slightly Stoopid played a show with former Dead guitarist Bob Weir and his band Further at a San Rafael studio earlier this year that was available for streaming for $9.99.

So many people tried to sign up and pay that the studio’s server crashed.

“We ended up making it free at the end of the day,” Phillips said. “But we saw for that model that people are willing to pay. We also saw a lot opted out and didn’t want to pay…it’s always like that with new technology – you see what fans want and adapt to it.”

Art Streiber, a renowned entertainment industry photographer who has taken such an interest in iRocke that he sits on the company’s board of directors, said that live streaming will represent a boon for artists.

“It helps the artist because it gives the artist one more way to connect to the fan and in so doing creates an even more powerful bond between the fan and the artist,” Streiber said. “I think in terms of revenue streams, there is absolutely a way for the music to be monetized through offering the experience of a live show in ways that were never an option before.”

Sanford and Rogers believe iRocke has the potential to redeem the damage the Internet has done to many artists.

“This is artist-first,” Sanford said. “That is very important in everything we do.”

“For the most part, the digital world has really wreaked havoc with the music world, and the people who have suffered most from that are the artists,” Rogers said. “Everybody talks about the labels falling, but it’s really the artists who are suffering – it’s very difficult as an artist in the recording medium to make a living. Nobody is paying anything for your product, and while that is great for consumers it nearly puts the entire concept of musicianship at risk, because if you can’t make a decent living – not superstar rich, but just making a living – then fewer people will be able to chose that as an outlet.”

“Right now there is no real way for musicians on the Internet to be able to develop themselves as an artist and generate revenue streams…We really hope to give digital a good name again in the artist’s world.”

“You know, it’s something we are really proud about,” Sanford said. “We are trying to get this right. We are trying to get it right for the artists, and we are trying to get it right for the fans….We are really trying to bring it back to the true essence of an artist performing for an audience.”

Staying local

live streaming music

iRocke headquarters on Cypress Avenue in Hermosa Beach. Photo by Kathalina Rodriguez

Sanford deeply believes in the power of live music. And he believes the new direction that iRocke represents in a sense returns music to its more authentic roots.

“It kind of brings it back to what music really is – the origination of music is the performance,” Sanford said. “The recorded medium started to become more important than the live performance, and this returns it to what is really important to those of us in the live world. I am speaking as the owner of a venue – I don’t care what the recording is like, I care what people play live and what the fan’s experience is. Do people love watching? Do they walk out saying, ‘Damn, that was an experience. That was amazing.’”

If iRocke represents a potential revolution in the music world, then it is a revolution that will begin in a little warehouse on Cypress Avenue in Hermosa Beach. This was a very conscious decision.

“To me, we couldn’t have picked a more perfect place to make this company,” Rogers said. “I remember going to get surfboards shaped on Cypress, when Redman and Mangiagli was still there…It’s kind of the artisan and crafts area of Hermosa. And given Hermosa’s heritage in the music world, really being one of pillars of west coast jazz and the birthplace of west coat punk…We had a choice of where to put the company. We wanted it to be local, but decided that Hermosa was that place.”

“We are taking this seriously,” he added. “The other tagline of Hermosa is either go big or don’t go at all. I told Allen, ‘Go big or don’t go at all.’ We are going big.”