The 10th birthday Long Read
As we celebrate Music Glue's 10th birthday this week, CEO Mark Meharry looks back at the company's journey so far, only made possible by an amazing team of passionate people and a network of loyal friends. Make this insightful anniversary piece your lunch time or commute read this week because... "we couldn’t have done it without you."
"10 years of learning, adapting, listening, innovating and solving your problems."
On the 5th April 2007 I heard the mail drop through the front door of my London apartment and ran excitedly from my living room in anticipation of a life changing event. As I flicked through the many letters (people still posted letters back then) I think I may have squealed with joy because there it was: an envelope addressed to Mark Meharry c/- Music Glue from a chap called John. I tore it open and inside was a cheque, indeed the first we had ever received, from our first investor and my business partner to this day. This triggered 2 events: firstly, Music Glue was officially born and secondly, the cork was removed from a rather nice bottle of champagne that I had been keeping in the fridge for a very very long time.
As I sit here in May 2017 looking back at the last decade, I cannot help but smile as I wander aimlessly down memory lane. 10 years! As my right-hand man (Joe Porn) often reminds me “you even had hair when we started this!”.
"...Through technology there is a better way of getting money into the pockets of artists and those people that work tirelessly for them."
So, what have we built over the last decade? I could tell you about the number of users, the achievements of artists on the platform, the technology, the sales, the revenue, the bits, the bytes or the number of daily transactions. But that would be misleading, because what we have built is far simpler. We have built an amazing team of passionate people, all of whom are music lovers and firmly believe that through technology there is a better way of getting money into the pockets of artists and those people that work tirelessly for them. Furthermore, we have built a network of loyal friends that have helped us along the way, propping us up when the ship was listing and filling our sails just when we needed to gain speed; we couldn’t have done it without you.
Since our inception we have been heads down and just ‘got on with it’. We haven’t boasted about our achievements and have generally kept in the shadows because we firmly believe that “The Band is the Brand”, not Music Glue. The flipside of this ‘below the parapet’ approach to marketing is that people don’t always understand what we are, or indeed why we are. So instead of telling you straight, I will give you the condensed story of Music Glue over 10 years, in as few words as I can… and let you draw your own conclusions.
“The Band is the Brand.”
It all started with a game of poker in September 2006, where I was introduced to John. Music Glue didn’t exist except for a half-baked demo on my laptop, which sometimes worked but usually didn’t. John sent the cheque the following year, allowing us to rent a pokey office in Camden (London) and turn our demo into a production ready system. We then took it to market that Summer and like all good technology companies, discovered to our horror that we had not achieved ‘product – market fit’ and our entire idea was fundamentally flawed.
The pivot happened after a meeting with Beggars Banquet, where I was asked if I could sell tickets for the upcoming UK tour for one of their artists. And more importantly, could we go on sale next week! “Hell yes, we can” came out of my mouth, having absolutely no idea how we could make this happen, and the following week we were somehow selling tickets. And for the first time, generating revenue, which meant we were instantly in the top 50% of most successful tech start-ups ever (I’m guessing at that stat, but it seems reasonable). On the 9th October 2007 we sent our first ever door list to the Birmingham Barfly with 9 customers on it. Music Glue was now a ticket agency.
We started 2008 with a spring in our step, focusing our efforts on this ticketing thing. Some friends started a club night called Ultimate Power and by the beginning of February we learnt a valuable lesson: you cannot get 400 people into a venue very quickly by crossing names off a list. For the next show we built a barcode scanning system, and as we scanned our first ever ticket (we even had a photographer ready to capture the moment) the whole thing crashed. First bloody scan. Back to the paper list and the drawing board.
In 2009 we learnt about paying tax correctly, after a fairly ‘intense’ visit from a HMRC tax collector. It seems obvious now, but I thought we only had to pay the staff income tax at the end of the year. Apparently not, and I had to write a cheque there and then, in front of the entire team. Pay your tax kids!
By July of the same year we had our first sold out show for a friend by the name of Ben Howard, who back then used to perform sitting down with his guitar placed across his legs. Ben managed to sell all 70 tickets (it’s a very small venue) direct to his fans without any traditional marketing and it got us thinking. At the same time, some other mates were in a band that starting generating a buzz and so we set up their first UK tour, the first of many for Mumford & Sons. Again, sold out off the back of an email… Interesting indeed.
By 2010 we were selling shows at venues like the iconic Shepherds Bush Empire and learnt how to post physical tickets to customers, in bulk. Joe and I would stay late in the office putting address labels on envelopes and learning how to use Mailmerge (which really is just impossible to use). At this time I was doing all the customer support and had the pseudonym “C Norris” as in “Don’t find Chuck, he finds you”, ahh yeah... As Mumford & Sons toured USA and Europe we learnt about foreign currencies, foreign exchange and how to deal with box offices around the world and how to interface into access control systems. Seems simple now, but at the time there was a lot of head scratching.
Later that year The Strokes played their first show in 5 years at Dingwalls (500 cap) in London, and we were selected to do the ticketing. The demand was so high that it wiped out the venue website and the entire data centre it was hosted on for 48 hours, which in hindsight was lucky for us because it meant that the traffic to Music Glue was manageable, just.
We needed bigger servers!
That Christmas we had an emergency huddle, cleaned the whiteboard and drew a fan on 1 side and an artist on the other, then filled in the bit in the middle as best we could, adding things like merchandise, tickets, experiences, automated order processing, warehouse management interfaces, multi-currency and multi-lingual stores and lots of other things that I won’t bore you with, oh and the ability to deal with extreme loads as thousands of fans click refresh at the exact same time for high demand shows. We concluded that we couldn’t achieve all of this with the system we had cobbled together over the last 3 years and decided to start again. And we also decided that artists and managers were going to become online retailers.
This pivot was much bigger than the last and to pull it off we would need more developers. A lot more. Time to raise some money.
At SXSW 2011 we met a lovely chap called Paul and we became friends and still very much are. We asked him for some advice and a year later he became our second investor. Another good lesson folks: if you ask for money, you get advice. The reciprocal can also be true!
By the end of 2011 we had around 40 independent venues on the old (creaking) system, most of which are still with us today (thanks for your support!). We went live with the new Enter Shikari website, complete with a merchandise store, which crashed instantly with a single Facebook post. Also at this time one of our developers ran a script on our production database that turned every product on Music Glue into an Enter Shikari t-shirt and stayed that way for over 24 hours. We did however reach an important milestone; we employed our first customer services staff member. Exit Chuck Norris.
By mid 2012, following Paul’s investment, we moved to our current office in Kentish Town (London), painted the back wall as a whiteboard, bought a second-hand boardroom table and chair set for £29 on ebay, had Ikea deliver our new desks, and dug in. We did our first Gentlemen of the Road Stopovers, with 100% of the ticketing plus access control at the events. We upgraded our scanner systems to work in large peer-2-peer groups and then had to puzzle through how to operate them both in the rain and in the sun. We also did ticketing for our first arena tour, including 2 nights at The O2 in London, all still on the old platform.
We finally went live with the new platform in 2013 and instantly started doing massive ticket allocations, including festivals with allocations of 30,000+ tickets per show. Because we had often had 100% allocations, we were able to prevent secondary ticketing by forcing customers to bring matching ID. We had our first £1M through the checkout in a single day (was actually closer to 3 hours), causing our merchant account to be frozen for 3 months. The risk and fraud teams at the payment gateway simply couldn’t get their heads around the spike. ITB kindly chose us to ticket 50% of a Bob Dylan UK arena tour including 3 nights at The Royal Albert Hall, Ben Howard was taking off, Enter Shikari released a fantastic new album and tour and we were growing very quickly. Perhaps too quickly.
Then in 2014 our top 3 artists announced that they were all having a year off, and we learnt about the 80/20 rule the hard way. The belt tightened and the terms ‘frugality’ and ‘hand to mouth’ became a cornerstone of how we still operate today. Good lessons, and we started 2015 more or less where we finished 2013, just leaner and more efficient. More arena tours, hundreds of thousands of tickets, merchandise and music sold direct to fan and we even opened offices in New York & Sydney. Yet still, something didn’t seem entirely right.
For years we had tried convincing artists, managers and labels that they should be retailers, and whilst many accepted the challenge and have benefited enormously from the control they have due to the direct relationship with the fan, most told us that they didn’t understand retail or had tried it with other services and it was a disaster. They told us they wanted to focus on the things that matter most to them, like the music. Hmmm, not good and the old ‘product-market fit’ problem reared it’s ugly head again.
Back to the whiteboard…
"we must work with all organisations, allowing them to all be vendors in a single store, under a single banner, being the artist."
The solution was simple: turn the artist into a marketplace. Instead of forcing the artist to be the retailer, allow their licensees to sell within an artist branded store (previously known as the artist website). The music industry is fragmented, and the bigger the act, the bigger the fragmentation. As an industry we have been replicating that fragmentation toward consumers, which is fundamentally wrong. Some artists have hundreds of licensees worldwide, assigning various rights to various parts of catalogue, merchandise, e-commerce, websites and ticketing, split geographically and vertically. To bring this all together, we must work with all organisations, allowing them to all be vendors in a single store, under a single banner, being the artist.
Unfortunately, this meant we had to rebuild all the plumbing and wiring at Music Glue, again, so in true Music Glue style, concluded to start from scratch, again… But this time we had 8 years of experience behind us and knew exactly what the market needed, because we had been listening.
In 2016 we went live with our newest platform and the feedback has been overwhelming. Because we like a challenge, we migrated the Metallica merch store first for Probity (go big or go home!) followed by 35,000 more artists and venues over the next 12 months. And the new system is truly next level. If you haven’t had a look, you should. Artists can finally have an entire website for free, that can be completely customised, selling everything directly or aggregate all of their vendors into a single, global store. If you browse our website you can see some amazing examples of what artists and managers are now achieving. My current favourite is Shikari Space www.entershikari.com constructed 100% on our platform.
"Artists can finally have an entire website for free... selling everything directly or aggregate all of their vendors into a single, global store."
And now here we are, May 2017, The Great Escape is about to start (we built their website for the first 3 years) and we have our 10th birthday party. 10 years of learning, adapting, listening and innovating, solving your problems and finally delivering the solution that works for everyone. Could we have done it quicker? I don’t believe so, because the industry has evolved and matured with us. Timing is everything, as they say. We have the best team and the best tech, because we have invested heavily into the things that matter the most. It is an incredibly exciting time for us and as I mentioned before, we couldn’t have done it alone. Bring on the rest of 2017.
I’m slightly biased of course.