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In one week, Starbomb sold almost 6,000 CD copies of its Player Select album through CD Baby, including 3,438 in pre-sales. The comedy synthpop/hip-hop group (comprised of Leigh Daniel Avidan and Brian Wecht of Ninja Sex Party and animator/internet personality Arin “Egoraptor” Hanson) went on to become Billboard’s third best-selling comedy artist of 2014.How’d they do it? YouTube.
“There’s no doubt in our minds that YouTube is a big part of the reason our albums have done as well as they have,” says Starbomb’s Brian Wecht. “Through YouTube, we reached the people we were trying to reach — and anybody can do that with time and effort.”
New media fueling old media
The business-y way to explain Starbomb’s success might be to say that they used collaboration and YouTube Channel cross-promotion to leverage multiple, loyal subscriber bases — using new media to power the sale of older, more profitable music formats, like CDs.
But here’s a better way to put it: the members of Starbomb work their asses off making songs and videos that fans love, and those fans are constantly connecting with the band via YouTube and social networks, alleviating any need for expensive, traditional album promotion. Whenever they release a new album, many of those fans are clamoring to pay for their music, whether it’s a download or a physical copy. It’s a numbers game, sure, but it’s more than that.
“The big tip I’d give to artists who want to sell more albums is to just keep providing real content, as much as possible,” says Wecht. “Make it clear where fans can get your stuff, but don’t constantly shove it in their faces. And then if the fans love your content, they’ll want to support you by buying the albums.”
This approach has not only yielded impressive CD and download sales for Starbomb; it’s also bringing in YouTube ad revenue that helps cover some of the costs of video production (their primary promotional tool). With CD Baby, the band has a single solution for tapping into multiple revenue streams: CD sales, downloads and streaming, YouTube monetization, and more.
“It really has taken a lot of the hassle out of figuring out how to sell our stuff,” says Wecht. “It just makes what once seemed like an impossible problem — how to get our music on the various digital outlets — now seem like the easiest thing in the world.”
I recently spoke with one of the members of Starbomb to learn more about their use of YouTube, and how they used the video platform to drive CD sales. Here’s our discussion:
An interview with Brian Wecht of Starbomb and Ninja Sex Party
Can you talk a little bit about the creative beginnings of Starbomb? What were you wanting to do that you couldn’t do in your previous projects?
The original idea was to do a single track collaboration between Egoraptor (Arin) and Ninja Sex Party (Dan & Brian), with Arin on rap vocals. I think Arin had the idea to make the song a very profane thing about the video game character Kirby, and we developed it from there. And once that was done, we were all like “That was awesome! Let’s do more.” And thus the album was born. So it didn’t really come from a desire to try something brand new — it just came from doing something that turned out to be even more fun than we expected.
How did you handle introducing Starbomb to your existing fanbases? Are there any challenges in presenting a new collaboration to existing (and slightly different) audiences?
It wasn’t that much of a challenge, since by the time the album came out (December 2013), Dan had already joined Arin on Game Grumps, and was well-known to that community. We decided to promote the album via our three related YouTube channels: Game Grumps, Egoraptor, and Ninja Sex Party. Since those channels had collectively around 4 million subscribers, that was a natural way to get the word out. Certainly there was a bit of a challenge introducing the project to fans on the Egoraptor/Game Grumps channels, since neither of those channels had done much in the way of music before, and some of the subscribers to those channels were skeptical. But by and large the fans were into it!
Since you’d already had experience with building up a community on YouTube, how much of the music for Starbomb was conceived alongside the videos, or at least with specific video elements in mind?
We always had the prospect of animated music videos in the back of our minds, but the songs weren’t written explicitly for videos. Some things were natural to write songs about — Super Mario Bros, Pokemon, and Zelda are perennially popular subjects — but generally it isn’t until the songs were finished that we started putting thought into the videos. For Player Select, our goal is even more music videos, so we’ll see how that turns out!
Do you think of YouTube as a way of driving CD and download sales? Or has it become a primary source of revenue on its own? I guess an easier way to ask this is, what is the place of YouTube in your career?
In most cases, the YouTube ad revenue from an individual video won’t even cover production costs, and we consider ourselves lucky if we break even. Thanks to our large fan base on YouTube, the videos do drive sales to the albums, so that helps a lot. From a larger perspective, though, YouTube is really what defines our personalities and our brands — people get to know us through the videos, and without those there’s no way we’d have the fan base we do. There’s no doubt in our minds that YouTube is a big part of the reason our albums have done as well as they have.
When it comes to driving album sales upon release, or even driving pre-sales, what are some of the specific things you do to encourage fans to buy the CD? Do you use calls-to-action and annotations in your videos? Emails? Social media blasts?
We do pretty much all of the above except emails. For Starbomb, our strategy is to put an announcement video on each of the three YouTube channels, one per week until the release date. On the release date, we put out a special announcement video, and then also animated music video for one of the songs. I think it’s the last thing that really helps out the most — if we make a fun and catchy music video, that’s something people will want to share. And at the end of the video we put an annotation with a link to the album, so that people who get through the video can immediately buy it if they want. We also do a lot of stuff on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at the same time, so we try to cover as many different ways to reach fans as we can. We don’t send emails because somehow they feel a bit more intrusive, and we don’t want to spam people.
Are y’all comfortable with the direct approach of simply asking people to buy the album, or do the sales happen just because your fans love your music? Any tips you can give artists to help them sell more physical albums?
We’re definitely not shy about asking people to buy the album, but we also make sure to not just constantly be selling stuff. The amount of content we put out where we don’t even talk about what’s buyable dwarfs the relatively small number of “hey, buy this!” announcements, and I think that’s an important balance to strike. It’s not cool to just be constantly selling to people, and people get quickly exhausted if everything they see is just a sales pitch. So the big tip I’d give to artists who want to sell more albums is to just keep providing real content, as much as possible. Make it clear where fans can get your stuff, but don’t constantly shove it in their faces. And then if the fans love your content, they’ll want to support you by buying the albums.
What are some of the strategies Starbomb, NSP, and Egoraptor used to build your YouTube followings? And what advice would you give to an artist that’s just about to post their first video on YouTube?
Let me speak to Starbomb and NSP, since those are the ones I know best. Basically, our strategy is to only put out content that we absolutely love, and then to try to promote (or cross-promote) with channels that have big followings. We’re very very fortunate to have a large presence on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and also very dedicated fans. Basically, we trusted that by doing stuff we loved, people would notice, and that’s what happened.
As far as advice goes, the big one is to just start doing it, set a production schedule, and adhere to it. We map out our year month by month in terms of when we’re writing songs, shooting videos, releasing videos, etc, and although things sometimes get moved around, we pretty much always stick to it. Always be creating!
Does Starbomb exist entirely online (as far as interaction with fans), or do you play shows/tour? Why or why not?
We’ve only done one live Starbomb song, which was during the Ninja Sex Party show at San Diego Comic Con in 2014. Arin joined us on stage for a song, and we had a great time. We’re definitely thinking about how to expand Starbomb (and NSP) into a bigger touring presence, but there are a number of logistical things we need to figure out first. But one of our goals for 2015 is to solve the problem of how to turn Starbomb/NSP into legit touring acts.
How do you balance all your various projects? Like, do you focus on one at a time in bursts, or is everything rolling at once?
Pretty much everything is going all at once. As I said above, we do set a production schedule, but Starbomb, NSP, Game Grumps, and Egoraptor are always producing content. We occasionally shift focus as needed, when an album is getting close to completion, but I can’t remember even a single week for the past couple of years any one of these projects had seen zero activity.
How exactly does your creative and collaborative process work for Starbomb?
The Starbomb creative process starts with a meeting where we brainstorm song ideas, or topics/games we want to write songs about, and that drives a lot of the focus for the album. For specific songs, typically I start things off by writing the music, and then more often than not Dan takes a first pass at the lyrics, though Arin writes a lot of lyrics too. Then we all pass the lyrics around between the three of us to sharpen them into the final song. After that, it’s just the usual mixing and mastering stuff.
The first album was full of all kinds of sexual innuendos (and out-and-out explicit humor). There’s less of that on your second record. Why the shift?
It was a conscious decision, since we saw that a number of the fans seemed to like the less sexual songs (e.g. Crasher-Vania, Regretroid) the most. It was also a natural way of distinguishing the second album from the first. I’m a big believer in laying down “rules” to inspire creativity (like saying “no dick jokes”), and the second album was a direct result of that.
It seems like whenever we share stories about artists who’ve had success making music that appeals to a specific niche (such as comedic video game-themed electronic pop/rap songs), lots of other artists say “yeah, but those lessons don’t apply to me.” Do they? What do you think a talented (but less thematic) singer-songwriter or rock band or hip hop artist could learn from your career?
That there really is an audience out there for everyone. If you had told me a year ago that Starbomb would be the Billboard number 3 selling comedy artist for all of 2014, I would have thought you were joking. But that totally happened, and I think it’s because we found a way of reaching an audience that was already out there. We also had established channels (YouTube and social media) that reached the people we were trying to reach, and anybody can do that with time and effort (though it’s definitely challenging to build a large audience). Another thing we learned is that it’s very helpful to have a hook, even a specific one. “Hey, listen to this song” is a lot more boring than “hey, listen to this funny song about video games.” Having a well-defined niche was, at least for us, the way we were able to succeed.
What has CD Baby enabled you to do with your music? What aspect of our services has been most helpful and why?
CDBaby has been amazing for us, and has enabled us to sell our music through a ridiculously large number of channels, certainly more than we ever thought possible when we started. Ninja Sex Party’s been with CDBaby since 2010 or 2011, and it really has taken a lot of the hassle out of figuring out how to sell our stuff. It’s still unbelievable to me that we can upload an album one day and then have it available to everyone in the world shortly thereafter.
It’s hard to pick just one thing that’s been most helpful about CDBaby, but I guess I’d say that it just makes what once seemed like an impossible problem — how to get our music on the various digital outlets — now seem like the easiest thing in the world.
Got anything exciting in the works?
2015 is going to be a big year. Ninja Sex Party will release our third album “Attitude City” this Spring, and we have a bunch of new music videos (and even a short film) planned around songs on the album. Starbomb’s third album is planned for December 2015, and in the interim we’ll also do more music videos for songs from Player Select. Plus, we’re going to try to start doing some live shows, so we have our work cut out for us!