Chicago-born, Los Angeles-based pianist Greg Spero has played frequently with jazz icons. He has also toured with and written music for acts like Halsey and Makaya McCraven. But at the moment his considerable gifts and energy are focused on a new venture:
Spero is Founder/CEO of a start-up, weeBID, currently at the stage of being beta/private, whose mission is “to help artists have greater ownership and understanding of their fanbase, and help fans get what they really want.” Email interview by Sebastian.
LondonJazz News: What do you see as the main challenges for professional musicians at the moment?
Greg Spero: Over the last 20 years, technology eliminated scarcity in recorded music which has, in turn, destroyed most musicians’ income from recordings. This led to musicians figuring out new ways to make money, such as brand partnerships. Concerts were left as the primary pillar for earnings, but Covid pulled that rug from under us for a while. I’d been witnessing the need for something like weeBID for a long time, but it was this sudden spike in difficulty for creatives that made me feel like I have no choice but to build it, for myself and my community.
LJN: How did the pandemic affect your music career?
GS: With all my gigs cancelled, I had the choice between going back to practicing 10 hours a day, or taking this period to re-explore the technology side of my skillset, and take a crack at building this vision which had been codifying in my mind for so long before the pandemic. I decided to take a 90-degree turn, and build weeBID.
LJN: How do you know about tech as well as music?
GS: When I was in middle school, I was into all sorts of nerdy stuff, and my dad bought me a book on C++ computer programming. I also learned HTML and started designing websites for fun. That turned into a business, as all my dad’s friends were old and didn’t know anything about websites, so I could charge $500 each to build sites for all of them. I was 13 years old, and had a great time buying speakers and musical gear with all the money I was making.
In high school, I hired some of my friends to do the work I couldn’t handle, and by college I had eight people working for me and some bigger clients. That gave me some understanding of what it takes to build a real company. After college, I went on to build an early Facebook competitor and educational software platform (though my degree was in Music).
LJN: Do you think there are parallels between music and tech?
GS: There are major parallels between the way music works and the way technology works. In the end, it comes down to communication. The greatest thing that technology has done for us is to allow us to engage with more people in a more immediate and thorough way.
The purpose of music is to bring us together in an emotional way, while also breaking cultural barriers. Technology is also a cultural barrier-breaker, allowing us to communicate with somebody from across the world in a completely different society. So, for me, music and technology are both about communication.
LJN: What do you think the long term consequence of artists not being paid appropriately from streaming might be?
GS: This is going to be really controversial, but I believe artists are being paid appropriately from streaming. Spotify, for instance, pays 70% of its revenues out to artists. The problem is that, in the current streaming landscape, people are not willing to pay very much for music, so that revenue is small. This is causing a state of desperation among creatives, and the long term consequence is inevitably going to be a technological revolution in the creator economy.
The music industry has been very slow to adopt certain technologies that would benefit it hugely. The primary one is communication and, more specifically, communication in the context of things that have not been done yet. In the technology industry, for instance, you can order a meal. I just ordered a meal on GrubHub. It wasn’t made yet, but I was able to pay them to make it, give it to a driver, and bring it to me.
There are lots of cases where someone might want something, and they will pay someone else to create it. I call this the ‘pre-creation marketplace’. It’s the market of things that have not yet been made. The first beacon of light is the app Cameo, because they’ve been the first to tap into a sliver of this marketplace. weeBID is positioned to be the second, while also opening up a much bigger world of things that can be delivered by artists and that are demanded by fans.
LJN: You describe weeBID as “the marketplace for fans to crowdfund unique content from their favorite artists, musicians, athletes, creators, and personalities.” How did you come up with the idea?
GS: When I was touring with Halsey, fans would come backstage for meet-and-greets and would ask her to create so many different things. But they didn’t have a way to incentivise Halsey to actually make any of them.
On my own YouTube channel weeklypiano where I uploaded short jazz piano lessons, people would comment on my videos asking me to cover all sorts of specific jazz techniques, but there were way too many comments for me to process them all and there was no money in it for me.
So, I said: “Anybody who sends me 50 bucks on PayPal and has a question included with it for a video that you want me to do, I will answer that question in a video for you publicly on my channel.” And those videos became my highest-viewed videos.
Eventually, I attempted to build a mechanism where people could submit their ideas to me, and then each of those ideas would become a crowdfundable asset, and all the other fans could bid their money on that idea which they’d only pay if I did it. My co-founder Nick Tillman and I raised some money, hired some developers and built the weeBID application.
LJN: What makes it different from other crowdfunding platforms?
GS: We’re the first platform that is, what I call, fan-initiated crowdfunding. It’s kind of a mouthful.
Other general crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter or Indiegogo rely on the artist to make a crowdfunding campaign. But it’s a major reputational risk for an artist to go out and ask their fans for money to support something. Plus, you only get one idea: a creator can’t make a thousand different crowdfunds and ask fans to pick something.
weeBID flips the paradigm and gives the control to the fans, so the artist is passively receiving ideas. Fans can bid their money on any of these different crowdfunds, and that money only gets paid out if they end up getting what they want.
LJN: What stage of development is weeBID right now?
GS: We currently have a web app. It’s in its private beta stage, so we’re not launching it to the public yet. It’s a closed network, so I’ve invited some of my friends: Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, Steve Coleman and Olympic athlete Tonja Buford-Bailey are all on there.
We’ll eventually open it up, but right now we have a lot of work to do to make sure it works in the best way possible.
With thanks to Ian Latham