Jonathan Thaler of When I’m Mobile
In the conversation, Thaler discussed his work making indie bands and labels’ websites fully functional on all mobile phones, everything you can get out of that from immediate tour updates to easy sales, how he got into indie music & why he brought his service there, what iPhone apps and MySpace pages are lacking, working with The Shackeltons, BM Linx, & KEXP, how Brooklyn Vegan can help you cut down on business meetings, and much more.
Jonathan Thaler: So, what I’m doing is, I’ve started a business, focusing on the mobile web user experience. And I feel like the clearest beneficiary of this, to begin with, is the music industry. Because bands on small labels – even larger labels, now – are lacking the comprehensive marketing and promotion strategy, and distribution strategy, that gets to everyone, wherever they are.
Right now, the major labels, and some of the smaller ones, have the music available on the phone-maker, device-maker sites, like vCast or tZones, to download and distribute music. But the consumer has to pay for it, the providers of the information have to pay a huge cut of whatever’s sold, the device-maker controls all the content, and basically it’s songs, ringtones or wallpaper, and that’s it.
What I’m doing is exploiting the fact that almost every phone out there that’s being sold now has some sort of web browser. And more and more people are driven toward getting the better phones that can handle that. I’m seeing a proliferation of iPhones – every time I’m at a show, if there’s five people around me, three of them have iPhones out…
QRO: Yeah, and they always hold them up to take photos…
JT: The iPhones are becoming ubiquitous, the Blackberries are getting better – the Palm has surprisingly a very strong web device. You can do more on the mobile web with the Palm than with the Blackberry, and almost as much as you can do with an iPhone. In some ways, [it’s] an actual better web experience.
So what I’ve developed is a service, that I’m approaching clients, one-by-one, that enables me to extend your existing website, with all of its functionality and its features, the ability to play music, show video, display tour dates and press releases, and even the ability to purchase the music, which people are used to on the computer. I’m bringing all of those services over to the phone. What I’m doing is I’m figuring out which device you’re on, and presenting the version appropriate for that device.
I’ve done it for a couple of bands, and I’m actually working with several people on some prototypes. I worked with Beggar’s Group USA over the summer – they helped me decide what content, and I did all the functionality. So I built a Beggar’s Group mobile prototype that is set to work on any phone. But, as I said, the better versions will come with the better phones.
So here’s an iPhone version (see left). And one of the things you’ll notice is, it looks like an app; it doesn’t look like a website. Because a website on the iPhone, if it hasn’t been prepared by my service or some other way, it’s gonna show up as the full website, in tiny print. So what I’m doing is I’m sizing the pages to show appropriate on the device, without you having to use a pinch-and-tap.
And you can get to the same place on a regular phone (see right). So you’re going to have the same functionality, but in a presentation more appropriate for the device. Because I don’t have the horizontal or touch-screen ability the same way, here, I’m presenting the same concept as before, but in a different format. In fact, I can take advantage of the fact that I have a number pad here. So each version is built to exploit the capabilities of whatever phone is using it.
One innovation I’ve that come up with on these phones is, I can take you one click to video. Versus having to go through the mobile YouTube, go to another screen, then click to video, then click again to watch now – I’ve actually isolated the exact link, so you can go right from the website to the video.
Another thing people who are used to using the iPhone will discover, as an innovation, right away: each time you click on [the NavBar], it’ll take you right to the content. You’re not having to go back and load a new page. I’ve taken care of that already. I’ve anticipated that you’re going to want to do a lot of different things at once.
A lot of people are using apps. Apps seem to be my main competition right now. Because when I go to labels or whoever, if they wanted to do it, “Well, we’re already planning an iPhone app.” They only have a limited amount of marketing dollars to spend, and the trend right now, the cool thing to do is build an iPhone app. There are a lot of limitations to the iPhone app. I take care of a lot of them through my service.
One of which is, you’re in the middle of an app and you’re doing something, if you get a phone call?… You are out of the app; you are now back to the beginning. There’s no contextual reference. Whereas, if I go back, I can listen to songs, watch a video through YouTube, take you to iTunes to sell you the music. No matter where I take you, once you come back to the Safari browser, you’re going to be right where you left off. So the continuity to the user is something the apps cannot provide.
Because apps are stand-alone: they can interact with the other features on the phone, but they’re not inter-directional. They can send you somewhere, but you can’t come back. When you come back, you’ve got to start again. So the flow of the user experience is much stronger on a When I’m Mobile™ site than on an app.
The other thing is – I was just talking to someone at Comedy Central, and they submitted an app for South Park, and Apple rejected it because of content! So there are cases where people spend time, and effort, and money on building apps, and for whatever reasons Apple deems suitable, for their own reasoning, they can reject it.
Also, she told me that, from inception of idea to sending the app, the process can take months. There’s a huge layer of bureaucracy, fill out a lot of forms, because you have to work directly with Apple people. In my case, you only have to work with me – there are things I may disapprove of, but I’m certainly a lot more lenient than Apple. I think it’s terrible that someone like South Park can’t get Apple.
QRO: Perhaps because Apple is also selling the iPhone itself, often to parents who buy iPhones for their kids, Apple is extra-careful about anything that can hurt ‘the brand’. Especially for younger-skewing, kid-appeal things like South Park – or bands…
JT: There’s all these extra layers of stuff that can interfere with the flow of information, the interaction between you and your audience.
The other thing is, ‘Great, you built an iPhone app. You’ve got a slick, nice thing that works on the iPhone. How many people have Blackberries? How many people have flip-top phones that may only want to use the internet sometimes?’ This works across all versions. So you don’t have to come up with a different strategy beyond the iPhone. You don’t have to do a separate device-by-device strategy, hire different vendors to build you new apps, maintain updates through different environments – once you make a change on the server, it goes through all.
Another innovation – and it can work across many industries; this may be more attractive to people outside the music industry – suppose you book a new show, and you’re not near a computer, and you don’t want to call the web guy or e-mail somebody. I’ve provided a password-protected data form right on the devices. And it will help you instantly on mobile.
(see above left)
QRO: Like at SXSW (QRO recap) – that stuff gets added very late, and you’re away from home. You could add some house party…
JT: You’re in one venue on the way to another venue, and you make a deal with someone – you could be playing two hours from now and just find out, and put it on there.
I could see this two-way interaction, from the phones accessible to any business, in any industry. It gives you immediate access to your website – not just on the iPhone, but across all versions. It creates a way to interact with your fans.
And I showed the purchase capability (see right) – think of the promotion potential: you’re up on stage and say, “We just played a song from our latest CD. You can buy it from the merch table in the back when we’re done, or you can buy it from your phone right now…” And you’re all sitting there on your phone, anyway, texting… Why not do something that gives you a chance to connect with that? You could download the song that was just played.
It gives bands a way to connect to their audience, it creates a revenue stream beyond whatever they’ve already got, it supplements whatever inventory they’ve brought – let’s say they run out of CD’s at the merch table. You can still sell them through this.
So it’s a marketing tool, it’s a promotional tool, it’s a distribution tool, it’s an added revenue stream, and it’s an electronic press kit – pretty much all in one.
QRO: How did When I’m Mobile™ start?
JT: I’ve always been a huge music fan. Up until about 2000, all I had been exposed to was classic rock. Once I got the high-speed internet in my house, one of the first searches I did was high-bandwidth radio. I found a great radio station in northern California called ‘Radio Paradise’; very eclectic, lots of different kinds of music.
And the guy who was running the station also had a very interesting connection with his audience. Where they would have comment boards, where people could comment on the song – people could upload their own song. So I was hearing Sigur Rós (QRO live review) long before it was on the radio, because some listener of this guy’s station in Iceland was uploading their songs. I heard regionally popular stuff that never gets out of its region, on that station, that I’ve never heard anywhere else.
During the years 2000-2005 internet radio took off. That’s when Nic Harcourt started his stuff at KCRW, and KEXP starting going strong. In 2004, I discovered KEXP, and that just skyrocketed me into this arena. I was fascinated by how much amazing music was out there. Bands in New York that I didn’t know about, that Seattle was finding out about before New York.
So I would listen to the songs; I’d go meet the bands when they came to town. The fact that I discovered them at KEXP provided an immediate context. And I just became a super-fan – went to shows, wanted to become part of this, wanted to get to know the bands, wanted to learn as much about the industry so I could partake and pass on information to bands.
That’s what I was doing for several years. And then a couple years ago, my Wall Street job was clearly going south, and I started realizing that there was more than I could do. I got this terrible job at my Wall Street company – the one good thing was they gave me a cell phone with internet.
So I was like, “Great! Now I can use the internet on the phone.”
And I noticed that KEXP was cutting over automatically to a mobile version. It didn’t really do much, but the fact that they had figured out how to do it meant that I could figure out too. I set out to learn as much as I could, and that’s how it formed. I turned it into a business – it turned out that all these friends I had in music were my connections…
QRO: Why did you decide to focus, or at least start, with websites for indie music acts?
JT: Absolutely, absolutely. Because most alternative and indie bands have been put in a position where they can’t expect their history to go the way they would have expected it to ten, fifteen years ago. Before the major label system imploded.
Back then, you had tour support, you had distribution, you had part of the label promoting you, you had advance money, you had radio stations that weren’t just owned by one or two companies, where the DJs could choose what they played.
Nowadays, it’s hard to get new music out there. Because being a music fan, it’s almost like a full-time job. You can’t just turn on the radio and find the music you like. You have to go to your favorite internet station, you have to listen to it, you have to figure out when your favorite DJs are on. There’s only a handful of stations with the DJs of the caliber and the breadth of taste that they’ll share with you. There’s a fraction of that number that there was in the seventies and eighties, because of the change in the industry.
So now, it’s more upon the alternative/indie bands themselves to take care of all these things. And they just want to perfect their craft. So a lot of these bands are in a situation where they’re great, but their music isn’t out there.
And why is that? Well, some of it’s luck. Some of it is that the people in the band are working on the music, and not the promotion. And some of it is that they haven’t discovered the power of the web.
Everyone’s got a MySpace page. And MySpace is an essential part of a band’s web strategy – but it only helps you when people are sitting in their house and they’re at their computer.
If I tell you there’s this great band, and we have our phones with us, I say to you, ‘Hey, there’s this great band you should hear!’ Without my service, all I can say to you is ‘Check out their MySpace page when you get home.’ Maybe you will, maybe you won’t – depends on how many drinks you’ve had, depends on how many other things demand your attention.
With this service, I can say, ‘Hey, there’s this great band – check them out on my phone…’ ‘Turn on your own phone…’ ‘Where are they playing? Well, I have the tour date schedule…’ ‘Who’s talking about them? Well, I have their press page…’
If a band or small label learns with me how to use it right – and it would be a learning experience for both of us – I think they could get a lot out of this.
QRO: Have you ever gotten any flack from MySpace, with regards to your headline, ‘A MySpace page is not a web strategy’?
JT: [laughs] I’m not at that point yet. I think that will be a wonderful day, to have us on the radar enough for MySpace to notice.
And I am more than happy to work with MySpace. I think MySpace is an excellent service. I think it has been a windfall for bands. I think it’s one of the best things to happen to bands.
One of the reasons I can do this is because MySpace doesn’t. MySpace does not work on the phones. I think that there are plenty of people in that company that want it to work on the phones, but they’re not one guy in an apartment who doesn’t have to answer to anybody. Innovations don’t come from middle levels of companies; they come from guys in their apartments. Microsoft was started in a garage, not in the hallways of IBM.
The reason that tagline is there is, I actually came up with that first, as I was coming up with the idea. It attracts a lot of attention. It may not stay. And it may not stay either because I wind up working with MySpace, or because, at this point, I almost feel like changing it to, ‘The app store is not a web strategy’.
The other reason that I’m careful with that – and I only speak well of MySpace, except for the tagline – is I respect what MySpace has done.
If there were no MySpace, and if MySpace hadn’t created such a comprehensive music environment, I don’t know that I would have come up with this idea. So I definitely owe a debt of gratitude for a) introducing all these great bands, and b) for showing how quickly and efficiently a band can set up an electronic press kit for themselves.
And the other thing is, what if Pete Townshend decides to sue me for using “When I’m Mobile”? There’s no such thing as bad publicity…
QRO: When and how did you get involved with KEXP?
JT: I started listening in ’04. I started going to the sessions when they came to town almost immediately. I met John [Richards], I met Cheryl [Waters], I met Kevin [Cole]… and I was hooked. I would e-mail them a lot, and they would respond to my e-mails. One of the things that attracted me to the station was the ability to interact with them.
In ’06, before CMJ, one of the marketing people at KEXP went to Cheryl Waters and said to her, “We’re thinking we want to expand our reach to New York. Who do we talk to?” And Sheryl immediately said, “Talk to Jonathan.” So then, in ’06, I started talking to them.
Interestingly, I was ready for that conversation, because I’d already been picturing in my mind what they could do. It sucks that there’s this great station, and nobody knows about it. So I already had a bunch of ideas in mind, and how do I tell them about this? And then they wound up coming to me…
Through that, I became a volunteer, and then I became the lead New York volunteer, and I developed my personal relationship with them and the bands that they play.
When I tried to figure out who to start building this vision with, I remembered all the years of John & Cheryl teaching the audience about the plight of the indie artist, of how much more difficult it is for them to get their stuff out there than it used to be. So I saw this as a tool to do that.
QRO: How did you get involved with The Shackeltons?
JT: The Shackeltons is actually a cool story. I met The Shackeltons at an ’06 KEXP session at CMJ at Gigantic Studios. And I put them on my MySpace page – I actually met them at CMJ, but the relationship increased through MySpace, ‘cause when I put them on my MySpace page, Mark Redding of The Shackeltons actually looked at my page, and saw things that I listed, like when I talked about my daughter. He wrote, “Your kid has a cool daddy.” I wrote back, “I met you at CMJ, through KEXP.” He said, “KEXP is big in our hearts, so now you’re big in our hearts…”
When I was at my low point in my job on Wall Street, and was miserable, bringing this crap home to my family, there was a real turning point. I hit bottom, and my wife & I regrouped. She said, “Look – you’re going to get laid off. Just ignore them and do your own thing, and eventually they’ll let you out.” So I thought, ‘Alright – this is the time I should start working on this thing that’s been sitting around in my head.’
I was at a party, and I was saying to this woman who was a marketing person for IBM, “You know, I have this great idea, and I want to start selling it to bands. And I don’t know how to get someone to buy this…” And she said, “Why don’t you just give it to a couple of them?” And I said, “God! I never even thought of that…” And she said, “Who are your bands that are your friends? Why don’t you just send an e-mail to all of them saying, ‘I know you guys through KEXP, I love your music – I’ve come up with this idea, and I want to start getting it out there. The first two of you that respond, I’m going to give it to you for free, and you can compensate me by using it and telling be what you think of it, etc.’” And I thought that was a great idea.
I almost sent a mass e-mail to all of my MySpace friends, but then I thought, ‘Why don’t I focus a little bit?’ There was a lot that attracted me to The Shackeltons: one was that I knew them and I knew their work; the fact that Mark had been the only person that commented on my MySpace page; they worked with Loveless Records, which John Richards [of KEXP] was a partner, through my relationship at KEXP – I got a sense that I could work with them.
So I contacted them, they got back to me, said ‘We love the idea’, and that’s how it started. A couple months later, we had the site up and running.
QRO: How did you get in contact with BM Linx (QRO photos)?
JT: A friend of mine that I met at another show – I went actually to see Minnie Driver, who’d started performing. She played a show at The Living Room (QRO venue review), so I was standing in line, and there was this kind of important-looking guy standing next to me, and we started talking. It turns out he loves independent music, is on the advisory board of WFUV, and so we became friends.
Turns out he’s this ex-Shearson Lehman guy, who now is retired, and spends a lot of time focusing on music. He likes the same bands we do! He contacted me during that CMJ, ‘cause I told him I was doing KEXP. He e-mailed me and said, “I wish I had looked at that KEXP sign-up sheet, because I really want to see this band, Band of Horses (QRO live review).”
I was with Tom Mara, the executive director of KEXP. “Look, I have this friend who really wants to see them – he’d be good for the station…” He was like, “Yeah, we can set him up. You can have a special guest.” So he came down, and everyone was fascinated that this financial-executive-type was watching Band of Horses. Everyone thought he was really cool.
So we stayed in touch, and he was one of the first people I showed this too. He had a friend at Lehman Brothers whose daughter works at Atlantic. So he said, “I told her about you, why don’t you call her?” I called her thinking she was going to look at it for Atlantic Records, but as it turned out, she and a colleague at Atlantic had started this record label called Craze Factory, and had signed up BM Linx at CMJ ’07, I think. And she said, ‘You know what – Why don’t you do it for our band?’
So what I did was that I actually built their website, and fully integrated it with the mobile. And they’re my first paying clients.
QRO: You’re working in two industries, indie music and website development, that are both typically ‘a young man’s game’. Is it tough, translating to the kids, or do people find your maturity refreshing?
JT: I actually love it – I love it! Because I walk in, and everyone turns and says, ‘Whose dad is that?’ I look so un-hipster – that’s my MySpace page: ‘hipster replacement’.
I love it because they’ll look at me and make a judgment, and then they’ll start talking to me, and they’ll realize, ‘This guy really knows his shit – he’s really into this stuff!’
I’m in my mid-twenties up here (points to head). It doesn’t bother me at all. I think it actually gives me an edge, because I’m immediately differentiated from the crowd and a novelty of sorts. I actually see it as an advantage.
And I think that because this business was inspired by my love of indie bands, and labels, and music, I feel like the path that this is going to take to either success or failure is gonna be very similar to the indie bands. I have a great product, and there’s going to be some luck involved, need to show it to the right person.
And I don’t think this is going to take hold at the major label level. I’ve actually presented this to a couple of major labels, and they really don’t get it. If you talk to the mobile people at the major labels, all they care about is ringtones. The mobile guy at the label’s job is not to make mobile work – it’s to sell ringtones.
Do you remember the Far Side cartoon, where it’s like, ‘What you say to your dog: “Ginger, I’m so angry!” and what your dog hears: “Ginger blah blah blah’? I feel like there should be a cartoon, “Here’s this great thing! I can sell all your content, including ringtones” and they hear “Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah ringtones”.
The reason I bring this up is a band like this gets discovered by an indie label, and then the major labels discover through that.
QRO: Right now, you’re using your website development experience in the indie music industry – had you ever done the reverse, use your knowledge of indie music in prior, non-music-related business?
JT: I did a case study of Brooklyn Vegan for people trying to reduce meetings, using a blogging strategy to reduce meetings. Using a blogging strategy and sort of an open-ended meeting.
For instance, if you’re afraid of what your boss is going to say, you can post anonymously, or with your name. Topics are produced in real time – everyone has access to information at the same time.
I guess that was one of my first tries: there are ways to combine my passion with my skills. And then building this is where I see that really going.
For more on When I'm Mobile, go to the website: www.whenimmobile.com