Tech guru Roger McNamee and his band Moonalice
Roger McNamee is a rock star of a different sort.
Long before he and his band, Moonalice opened up a U2 stadium show, became the first artists to independently live stream all their shows, had a record produced by the legendary T-Bone Burnett, or were certified by the Rock N’ Roll museum as the only band to have more than a million singles of a song downloaded from their own website – 2.5 million copies of “It’s 4:20 Somewhere” – McNamee was Silicon Valley’s rock star.
McNamee is known as a man well ahead of the curve, or as Upstart Business Journal described him, “a man who can see around corners.” In the heady venture capital world of the 1990s, he was the guy you went to if you had a big idea.
“I’ve always been impressed by his ability to anticipate how key technology trends can disrupt entire industries and create new markets and new opportunities,” Bill Gates told Upstart.
Unlike so many so-called gurus, McNamee had staying power. He saw the impending burst of the dot.com bubble two years before it happened, and shifted investments to less ethereal companies, most famously the disk-drive manufacturer Seagate. He cites “McNamee’s Third Law” as a guiding principal.
“Cream is not the only bovine product that floats to the top in a bull market,” McNamee said in an interview last month. “And there comes a point where you got to get out of Dodge – there’s no place to land. They take the piano player, too, right?”
McNamee, whose band plays at Saint Rocke in Hermosa Beach tonight, has stayed relevant in the tech world for two decades, most recently as a co-founder – along with U2’s Bono, among others – of Elevation Partners, a more creatively oriented multi-billion dollar venture capital firm.
And here is where McNamee’s day job and night job as the lead singer of Moonalice coincide: he is a builder of things, and in both the VC and rock n’ roll worlds, his instincts are pure and his sense of timing impeccable.
Mark Zuckerberg, for example, later credited McNamee for arguing against selling Facebook for a mere $750 million in 2006 because he cared “about the impact of the things we build as opposed to just making money in the short term.”
So it should come as no surprise that McNamee likewise identified the significance of live streaming concerts in the newly evolving music industry well before almost anyone else. Moonalice began streaming its shows nearly four years ago, when live streaming was barely a glimmer in anyone’s eye. McNamee also has long had his eye on Hermosa Beach-baseed live streaming source IROCKE – and it’s early roots in Saint Rocke, one of the first clubs in the world, three years ago, to regularly live stream its shows. In IROCKE co-founder Allen Sanford, he saw someone with a similar faith in the power of live streaming when its long-term path to monetization was unclear.
“When you are way in front of a curve, two things are true,” McNamee said. “There is no market research to take your anxiety away. And the second thing is there is nobody you can ask who knows the answer. So sometimes you have to say, ‘Do I believe in this so much that I am willing to trust my instincts even if I am wrong?’ So Allen did that relative to IROCKE, and we are doing that relative to what we call Moontunes.”
Moontunes is the name of the video player, at moonalice.com, on which fans can watch every single Moonalice show live (including this week’s Moonalice performance at the BottleRock festival). Perhaps more crucially, it’s also a ready-made technological platform that will allow anyone to likewise offer extremely high quality, satellite-beamed live streams of anything from a concert to a wedding.
So far, takers include Oracle and the Dave Matthews Band – and Moontunes won’t even be officially available until later this year.
“We got guys like Oracle and the Dave Matthews Band as customers not because we went and sold them,” McNamee said. “But because they saw what Moonalice was doing, and went, ‘Dudes, this is the future.’”
To the Moontunes, and beyond
Moonalice is a rock n roll band of a different sort.
The band was a legend – quite literally – before they’d ever played a note. And though Moonalice isn’t exactly a household name, the band has already made rock n’ roll history twice over.
“It’s 4:20 Somewhere” is the song most downloaded from any band’s website in rock history, and Moonalice made musical history as the first band to fully utilize live streaming as a means of expanding its audience from a few hundred to thousands of fans, nightly.
And then there is the matter of Moonalice’s founder, guitarist, singer and driving force, Roger McNamee, who by day is one of Silicon Valley’s brainiest, broadest thinkers and most cannily successful venture capitalists. By night, he becomes Chubby Wombat Moonalice, a tie-die wearing, Gibson-playing, story-slinging longhaired hippie rocker.
This is where we get to the legend part.
McNamee has long been more than a hobbyist as a musician. He gigged in bands in his college days at Yale and Dartmouth, and was known to pull out a guitar at tech conferences in Silicon Valley’s halcyon days. He and his brother, Giles, had a band called The Flying Other Brothers that began in those days (Steve Jobs’ daughter, Lisa, sometimes sang with them) and eventually included Bay Area heavyweight musicians such as Pete Sears (of Jefferson Starship fame).
Moonalice was born at the behest of the great T-Bone Burnett, the legendary producer whose discography includes the influential “O Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack and “Raising Sand”, the colossal hit record by Robert Plant and Allison Krauss.
McNamee, U2’s Bono, and Burnett worked for a few years on a project intended to give musicians the first opportunity to buy back their publishing rights after what McNamee believes is the inevitable end of recording labels. When that project fall apart, in 2007, Moonalice happened.
“Some asshole, pardon my French, literally blows the thing up….and everybody was really pissed off, but nobody more so than T-Bone Burnett,” McNamee recalled. “And T-Bone, bless his heart says ‘Look, I am doing this series of Americana albums, and…I want to do you guys. I want to do a San Francisco Americana album. You’ve got to create a new band with a new legend.”
“I can’t imagine a better reason to start a band than because T-Bone Burnett is willing to make an album for you.”
And make an album he did. In fact, Burnett earned a Grammy nomination for the eponymous Moonalice record, released in 2009. But a project he worked on at the very same time – the blockbuster “Raising Sand” – overshadowed everything else he did.
Burnett’s PR guy summed it up for McNamee. “He said, ‘Roger, you are screwed,’” McNamee recalled. “ ‘You are a bunch of old guys that nobody has ever heard of….Sorry, I hate to tell you this. Nobody cares.”
The album dropped with little notice. Moonalice was undaunted. They continued focusing on what their passion was, anyway – playing live shows, at least 100 nights a year. Much like the Grateful Dead – for whom McNamee formerly worked as a business consultant, helping the band continue after Jerry Garcia’s passing – this is a band whose business model is not fundamentally based on a recorded product. They believe essentially in two things: the primacy of their live show, and the ability of music to foster a community, a fellowship of sorts among musicians and their fans. Given McNamee’s deep involvement with the Internet, it should come as little surprise that the band turned to social networking with a gusto long before most bands understood its import.
“We go, ‘Okay, we got to learn Facebook and Twitter, because if you can do an album with T-Bone Burnett as good as we made and nobody cares…Well, we’ve got to get a new plan,’” McNamee said.
They decided to do something nobody had done before – “Twittercasts,” i.e. using social media to get people to tune into live audio streams of their shows done real-time with two Apple computers. Then, when a drum tech started to video shows and realized the editing was too labor intensive to keep up, Moonalice decided to experiment with live streaming both the audio and video of their shows.
“So we are down here in LA playing at The Mint, not just a great room – they had tremendous WiFi for the time,” McNamee said. “So we do a live show…and people go crazy.”
Their free Livestream account, which allowed 50 viewers, went over its limit within 15 minutes. McNamee had to call in with his credit card to keep the stream going. “Never was I happier to pay 300 bucks for anything in my life,” McNamee said. “Because we’d done this thing and people really dug it.”
But as they continued their tour, stop after stop lacked WiFi. At one point, they took matters into their own hands, putting together a device that utilized six cell phones to create their own WiFi.
“We learned a very important lesson, which every consumer knows but has never tried with six phones – which is, when you have one bar and six phones, it’s still one bar,” McNamee said.
McNamee is famously tenacious. “As a kid, I wasn’t particularly good at anything — sports, school,” he once told USA Today. “I was OK. But I was tenacious. Everything I do, I have thought: ‘I might not be great at it, but there’s a way to get great at it.’”
Now that he’d had a taste of live streaming, he wasn’t about to give up. So Moonalice went moonwards – that is, they went live via satellite. They bought a large satellite dish and added it to their road-going gear.
“The problem is it couldn’t collapse, so it took a three-foot cube,” McNamee said. “We had to get a bigger truck, and then the electronics to run it were a stack about four feet tall. We were like, ‘Well, this isn’t going to work.’ But it looked great. And it worked everywhere.”
They streamed, and archived, every single show. They developed a website player, MoonTunes, that displayed both the live streams and archives and was integrated with social networks. The band already had a fairly devoted following – one that is decidedly a throwback to a more communal, less corporate time. A new poster is created for every single show and fans frequently bring their own art to shows. Live streaming tightened the connection between the band and its fans, and helped further spread the Moonalice gospel.
It didn’t bother McNamee a whit that he was giving away the band’s chief product, its live show. In fact, he saw it as cost-efficient.
“You are giving away a version of the product,” he said. “What you are really doing is saying, ‘I trust you.’ I look at this and I go, look, there is no comparison to doing a couch tour, which is what we call when you watch MoonTunes at home, and being there live. The truth is the couch tour is an awesome experience, and we don’t have to give it away free. We choose to give it away free because we are a young band – of old people – and we are trying to build an audience. This is manifestly cheaper — we don’t have a publicist, we don’t have a label, we don’t have anyone out there working for us. So our fans do all the work for us by seeing shows they like.”
McNamee, as he is wont to do, also saw a more long range bottom line.
Bono, who along with McNamee is one of the partner’s in the creatively oriented Elevation Partners venture capital firm, once summed up McNamee’s thinking thusly: “I’ve not been famously profit-oriented. Roger’s also not motivated by profit,” Bono told Upstart Business Journal. “Isn’t profit what this is all about? But Roger believes, like I believe, that brilliance brings a better bottom line. Always.”
The band spent two-and-a-half years steadily reducing the size of their dish, until finally earlier this year they discovered Viaset, a Carlsbad-based company that had just launched a half-billion dollar satellite and had 78 times more capacity than anything Moonalice had yet used, allowing MoonTunes to stream in high definition. A
“You see the guy on CNN in the hip waders in the flood – that four minute slide is done over Viaset,” McNamee said.
Viaset was astonished to learn that there was a rock band out doing what even few news organizations were doing – live streaming 400 hours of footage every year, beamed from a satellite. “They asked, ‘Are there more people like you?’” McNamee recalled. “We said, ‘Not yet.’”
What the caught McNamee’s attention particularly was the size of a dish – it came in a suitcase. “I go, ‘You are kidding, right? Anybody can use it?’ And he said, ‘Well, no. Right now it’s just ABC News, Univision, and Fox – it’ll be those three, plus Moonalice.’”
McNamee immediately saw a broad application. For a tiny fraction of the cost of making a record, a band could live stream entire tours. MoonTunes suddenly became more than a live streaming player; McNamee transformed it into a turnkey service any band could use. Before the word was even out, people contacted Moonalice, wanting to use MoonTunes.
“First it was Oracle, then Fora.tv, then the Dave Matthews Band,” McNamee said. “And they are going, ‘Guys, we are watching what you are doing. We’ve got to have it.”
Other bands weren’t so sure. “Every once in a while, I get a call from a band and they say, ‘Look, I can’t afford to give my product away. I say, “Dude, you are not paying attention,’” McNamee said.
MoonTunes will officially launch, as a service, in September. McNamee is all in. It’s not hard to see why: how exactly it happens remains to be seen, but there’s little question that live streaming is about to become a fundamental part of the music industry. Through MoonTunes, the artists themselves have an opportunity to control how that happens.
McNamee acknowledges that there are many ways for a band to engage in live streaming, but few offer such high-definition capacity and control over production values.
“We are offering a high value service to people’s whose brands really matter,” he said.
MoonTunes, like Moonalice itself, is likely to go where few have gone before. The service, like the band, will spread of its own accord, by word of mouth – a technology that is emphatically humanistic.
“It was just cool,” McNamee said. “We are a band of old folks. Everybody is going, ‘Dude, nobody cares.’ And I’m going, ‘I know that is not true.’ The thing is, I know a lot about technology. And historically there was no way to take what I knew from Silicon Valley and mix it with music. But Moonalice got big enough I didn’t need to convince anyone. We could just do it for ourselves.”
“My day job and night job have now totally converged. Because what I am doing right now is MoonTunes and Moonalice, right? So half is the same – the moon part is the same.”
Moonalice, meanwhile, has become the little band that could, growing bigger and bigger, against all odds, in no small part because of the inclusiveness that their live streaming represents.
“We did a lot of funny things, not just music,” McNamee said. “Because Moonalice is an inherently funny idea. I mean, what is more ridiculous than people our age starting a new band? My point is why are we doing this? Because we can, that is why. I mean, Jesus, who would swap places with us in a heartbeat? We are playing rock n’ roll shows 100 nights a year.”
Moonalice plays Saint Rocke in Hermosa Beach tonight, along with Cubensis. Music begins at 3 p.m. with Hang Dog Expression.