Why it took so long

Yesterday, someone posted a comment about my former employer, StarStyle, but didn’t use their real name, which leads me to believe they were afraid to identify themselves. Whoever it was actually typed in my name to the Name and Email fields. I moderate all comments so I didn’t let this one through, but I will write about it and if the commenter wants to come back and identify him or herself, then I’ll be sure to publish what they said with attribution to them.

Anyway, the comment from the mystery poster said, “Surprised StarStyle.com gave you a laptop. The execution was amateur and the music came out 4 months after our video release dates.”

Now, I’m not defending StarStyle here, because I have absolutely zero faith in their current management team, including their CEO, who I don’t believe has the experience or understanding of new media to have been placed at the helm of this company, but I digress.

I will say from experience that building the music division of StarStyle was a Herculean task that was one of the most difficult jobs of my life, and here’s why.

First, just to get approval to be on set for a video from a major record label was difficult enough. The major labels want minimum guarantees to allow web sites to air the videos. And, the artist has to convinced that the StarStyle opportunity is right for them. Once you’ve paid the minimum guarantee (one major label wanted 1 Million dollars regardless of how many videos we could get on set for) then you have to have someone at the label approach management to get their approval. The video commissioners are busy enough as it is. Understaffed with everyone working freelance and deep budget cuts (videos cost a fraction of what they used to), they didn’t want to take on the role of negotiator with management. So, you had to find someone at the label to be your cheerleader and make that call to the manager get your resource on set to track the styles. Then, while on set, you had to navigate through the hours and the participants to get what you needed, which sometimes took a bit of cunning and ingenuity to shake some information from the tree leaves.

Managers so tightly control the artist experience, their permission is critical to getting the access that you need in order to cover the video. Since posting the video on StarStyle and linking to commerce is revenue generating, it’s illegal in most states to use an artist’s name, likeness or image (or anyone’s for that matter) in commerce unless you get written permission.

There are some managers, like Mary J. Blige’s, who totally understand the offering and were willing to experiment and build on the results. They realized that artists are selling products through music videos and were looking for ways to tap into that revenue stream. There are other managers, like Gwen Stefani’s, who wanted a minimum guarantee to use her image on the web, above and beyond what we were paying her label to show the video. At that point, you have to make the call and decide if it’s worth it.

With Gwen, the ask was $500K up front. That’s a lot of money for a small company. From management’s perspective, a web company like StarStyle is building its business on the backs of their artists. With that being the case, they want to see those dollars up front in order to protect them from exposure and ensure that the companies they are working with have the resources to represent their artists correctly. This is a fact of life in the music business, which investors don’t understand or think will just go away because they have the next big idea. I believe that ideas are great…but they’re not worth anything to anyone unless you can execute on them.

Artist managers aren’t stupid. Many of these Internet companies are here today, gone tomorrow. With that goes your artists reputation for being tied to something that failed. If you are a manager for Gwen, you’ve got an artist who’s at the pinnacle of her career. Most artists careers excel for a few months to a few years at best. For every superstar, there are hundreds of failures. With so much competition and short time frame to make an impact, you’d better make all you can, as quickly as possible, so you can live a long comfortable life once you’ve left the spotlight.

Once approved to get on set to track all the styles, then you have to bring that information back to the office and for your operations teams scour out database of partners looking for exact matches. If no match exists, you go for similar and looks for less. That can take a few days to complete, depending on the number of resources you’ve assigned to the project and the level of detail you want to get into. Once that’s complete, you hope you have the right video asset from the label and permission to air that video on the site.

There are times when it took weeks for a label to deliver a video to StarStyle, even though it had already aired on MTV or BET. The reason for this is that those sites with large audiences, for example AOL Music, Yahoo! Music and MTV Networks properties, were given exclusive windows to air the videos before any other web site. Just as they get exclusives on TV, the same goes for the web.

Okay, so let’s recap. Once you get word that a video is shooting, you contact the label to make the request. The label has to get approval from the manager. Then, you have to get on set and work your magic to track all the products. After you’ve done that, you bring it back in house, find all the products you can through your partner retailer feeds and get those products and the video ready for launch. Once that is done, you have to sit back and wait for the label to finish editing the video, which can take up to two weeks in many cases. You have to wait out the “black out” period to allow a larger networks to air the video. And, finally, you have to schedule it internally so as to be able to promote it through your own channels, like email newsletter and home page promotions. We were sending bi-montly newsletters, so we wanted to update the site every other week with new video content. Sometimes, we would put up something on a Friday and announce it on a Tuesday. That seems like eternity in the music world.

Unfortunately, we had to constantly make decisions based on everyone else’s schedule. Unless we funded and shot the video, which we never did (we should have), we were the last people on the food chain to get access or anything else for that matter. And, truth be told, it’s not their concern. At the end of the day, the bottom line was: how is StarStyle going to make us money? On the reverse, we were providing a new revenue stream. It’s a catch-22 situation. If you don’t participate, then we can’t make you money. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?

Now for my independent artist and label friends. Love them, but they’re not the most organized bunch either. For example, we did an Angelique Kidjo and Joss Stone video. It never aired because I didn’t feel comfortable putting up a video using Joss Stone, without her express approval that we could use her name in commerce. At the time, she was managing herself, so that conversation never took place, because after she did the video, she was then on tour overseas somewhere and couldn’t be reached. And, she was a guest in the video and not signed by the label. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t approve it. One more thing was that because there was a social message to the song, which was about the disparity of rich and poor in this country, I wanted to donate proceeds to Oxfam, which is a charity I believe Angelique supports. I contacted the label to work out the details of that and nothing ever happened. So, like any job on this planet, getting something done can be quite difficult, especially given all the characters that have to say “yes” for it to happen.

Another problem was that most of the indy videos we did we were not on set for. My team had to send a request to the artist to determine what they were wearing. By the time we got back any information, the video was in the marketplace and it was becoming stale. My thoughts were that any content is good content. Let’s take the video and help the artist get some exposure, no matter what. If a video became instantly popular, like Brooke Hogan’s first video with Paul Wall, that would generate a buzz about the site and show that we were not only selling clothes and generating profits, but breaking new artists as well.

The record industry is used to doing one thing very well: selling records. In today’s world, there are so many other options to generate revenues. You’ve now got strategic marketing departments selling their artists image to car companies, hair and make up products, clothing companies and more. Anything to get a dollar in the door to help pay the high cost of artist videos, packaging, etc… There are so many variables in play that it is extremely difficult for a small company to come in and get content to prove the model, especially with indy artists who aren’t mainstream. They generated the least revenue for the site, but I did them anyway because of my personal commitment to artists.

Unlike downloading, for things like StarStyle, you have to be close the artist and a trusted friend. Because you need the data on what they are wearing, it’s not as easy as just starting an illegal p2p or music site and testing the waters by generating an audience and letting them catch up with you later. Doing something like StarStyle is probably one of the most difficult endeavors you can work on. Like People mag or TMZ, you have to have money and resources to make sure you can buy the content you need, package it and then distribute it. It’s no easy feat. There are so many people with their hand out, unwilling or unlikely to budge until the dollars hit the palm of their hand. That’s why providing a way for music fans to buy what they see in videos is so hard to do. If the labels had the right to say yes, then it would be a little easier. But artists want to control their image, and rightfully so, so where do you win here?

It took patience and perseverance just to get to the point that we got to, which was over 50 videos in about a year and a half, give or take. That’s more than ANYONE has EVER done and we were the ones to do it. It’s very, very hard to accomplish. That’s why when people ask the question, “why can’t I buy what I see in music videos,” they’ll learn the answer is, because it’s not that easy to do.

A final example of that is AOL. We went down the road to provide this service to AOL on 3 occasions. Each time we started down the path to success, the person heading up the effort at AOL left to go to another organization. The ball dropped and we had to start all over again. Such is the business development process.

I personally met with Kevin Liles at Warner Brothers who asked me, “why aren’t we doing this?” And I told him it was it in business affairs hands. Once he bounced it back down to them, they were so busy with other major priorities, that if StarStyle wasn’t giving them a huge upfront fee, it just wasn’t worth it to them to pay attention. With labels, you have to come with your “A game.” They don’t play the “B or C game.”

Wherever you turned, there was a battle to fight, a negotiation to ensue, a handshake and promise to make. It was and remains to this day, the hardest undertaking I have ever gone through. Even harder than Netmix in some ways.

Hope that helps explains things in more detail.

About Tony Zeoli

Tony Zeoli is a digital media strategist, innovator, and entrepreneur. He founded Netmix.com in 1995, which was considered by Billboard Magazine to be the "innovation and advancement of dance music on the Internet." Tony has innovated at the intersection of music and the Internet for the past thirty years as a project manager, product manager, information architect. He is also the founder of Digital Strategy Works, a WordPress web design and digital marketing agency in Asheville, NC.

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