D.A. Wallach: Bringing An Artist’s Touch to Technology

It’s extremely rare to find people who seem to have an amazing balance of everything. D.A. Wallach is one of these people.
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For one, he’s an accomplished scholar who attended Harvard University and graduated with honors in African-American studies. Secondly, he’s a successful musician and producer who caught the attention of Kanye West, Jermaine Dupri, and Pharrell Williams, all who waged a bidding war in the past to sign his band Chester French. Thirdly, he was handpicked by billionaire Sean Parker and Spotify founder Daniel Ek to be the official artist-in-residence for Spotify. To top it all off, he’s made a name for himself in the startup world as an investor and adviser for a wide array of companies.

All these amazing talents across different spectrums makes me wonder what in the world he could possibly be compensating for. But I digress. Advice from startup founders on entrepreneurship and success is plenty, however, it’s quite fascinating when you get the advice from the perspective of an artist like D.A.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with D.A. Wallach for an interview. Here, we discuss his philosophy on marketing, his position over at Spotify, and his advice to young entrepreneurs.

You can read our full interview below.

What was your very first job?

“My first job was, it’s really embarrassing I’ve never told anyone about this, but when I was a little kid I was a magician, and I actually had quite a business going, opening bookstores for Barnes & Nobles in Wisconsin where I’m from. Whenever they’d open a new store I would do a show there for all the kids and I also perform at kid’s birthday parties so I was entertaining at a very early age. The money wasn’t great but it was an awesome experience.”

Did you have a stage name at the time?

“I did have a name. Now this is even more embarrassing, but my name was ‘The Little Kabuki.’ This was a version of my father’s former magic name ‘The Great Kabuki,’ which he went by when he was in high school in Cleveland, Ohio. He was even on the Mickey Mouse Club show… I was his apprentice and it was kind of like our activity, other dads and kids would play catch or whatever- we would do magic tricks.”

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What lessons in business have you learned from your experience in entertainment?

“I guess my thing is that I don’t like to put myself in any boxes, so I don’t really view myself as an artist or a business person. I’m just a person and I like to create things. When I’m working on music, I’m just trying to make the best music that I possibly can and then if I’m writing essays on my blog or investing in companies or trying to help people realize their dreams, that’s just an extension of creativity in my mind. You have different vehicles for making things happen in the world that you want to happen and so I kind of view them all equally. I think the experience I have in each informs the way I approach the others.”

You’ve always seem to be on the cusp of what’s hot, how do you keep up with current trends?

“I think for me, what’s really exciting is that we’re living in the midst of maybe a twenty, thirty year period of extreme acceleration in the progression of technology. That’s really an exciting moment to be alive to witness, it’s not a case that everyone gets to witness something like that. It’s only happened a handful of times in human history and I’m part of those. For me, one activity that I enjoy is just keeping up with what people are developing, what people are inventing. It’s a natural outgrowth of following those ideas that I try to embrace when I distribute my own work, a beat, music, or ideas if I’m writing or any of the businesses that I work in as well.”

Chester French was one of the first bands to be on Facebook. What drew you to the platform?

“When we started the band Chester French, I just graduated from high school and everyone was on MySpace and so we were of course using that to try and build our audience. MySpace, at that time, had a pretty robust music product which Facebook didn’t have and still doesn’t really have, so we were pretty committed to MySpace. Then, Facebook came out one night when we were in the dorm and I mean it really spread like wildfire at school so I was one of the first couple of thousand users on the product. And what we love is the group feature that they used to have, where you just create groups of people- now they kind of have revived that in a different form. But we created a group for our band and it basically was just the quickest way for us to get in touch with all of our classmates who we we’re hoping would come to our shows.

So we used it in that way and then as time went on it became a really significant channel for us to reach fans, particularly as Facebook grew to other colleges and then to the broader world. So all of these tools, Facebook and Twitter and MySpace, for us they were amazing because they just allowed us to reach people at a very low cost and really efficiently and that hadn’t really been possible before.”

What’s your philosophy on marketing?

“I think when it comes to marketing I’m a little bit contrarian because I don’t really like the idea of marketing and I particularly don’t love the idea of advertising. I’m somewhat disappointed by how advertising has come to define all of the really significant internet companies of our times. I don’t think it’s the only way to make money in the world and it’s certainly, in my mind, not the coolest way to make money. But what I’ve always tried to do is just figure out how we can be as cost effective as possible, expose as many people to our work as we can reach and really I think the marketing has to be in the product itself. You hear a lot of people talk about this with respect to Apple, but for all of the acclaim that their advertising generated, it was really just a picture of a beautiful product on a white background, something that they put a huge amount of energy into and so when it’s my own music or when I’m giving the companies I work with advice about how to share their story with the world, my focus is always on making the product amazing. If what you’re doing is as good as it possibly can be, we’re now living a world where you give it to the people and they really decide. That’s how I feel especially about music. If you look at something like Spotify, when you put music on Spotify, it’s no longer in the hands of the radio programmers or the record labels or anybody else that used to have all this power. The power is really in the hands of the people. If they really like something, then it spreads with a speed that is unprecedented in human history. So I just try to make all my work be good as it can be and to let it speak for itself. I think the same goes for companies that offer people a product or service. If it’s really useful and it’s really good, then it sort of automatically will find it’s audience.”

What is your opinion of the current state of the music industry?

“I think what’s always been important about artists in a society is that they don’t fit in. And they’re able to bring a sort of outsider’s perspective to all of us and with that perspective inspire us to think differently about things or to question our assumptions or to explore the sort of unforeseen realms of beauty. So it’s hard to generalize about how artistry has changed with the age of computers. What I can say is that there’s always been a lot of different ways that great music has been produced. Some of my favorite music in the sixties, particularly motown music, was sort of made by a committee in a certain sense. There is a team of songwriters and a team of session musicians, the artist was really more of a singer who would come in and do a great song and I don’t have any problem with that. I sort of don’t care how the meal gets made as long as it’s delicious. So I think right now we’re [n a transitional moment for music culture. One of the great things about today is how easy it is for people to get started making music and how inexpensive it is to start flexing your creative muscles. So I think all of my friends and I are constantly excited to discover new artists who a year ago were just making stuff in their bedrooms. That really is a pretty new thing, I mean you couldn’t totally do that twenty years ago and that’s amazing. The flip side of it is that it makes music a lot easier to make or asks of the artists far fewer technical skills in order to create something that’s basically professional sounding. So you can go and get some of these programs like Garageband or even Logic and use all the default sound and default synthesizers and drum machines and have something that sounds like a real pro song in five minutes.

For me personally as an artist, what I've found is that whenever I learn more about music and how music works, how to use my voice and instrument or how to explore the piano, the ideas come from that exploration. It’s not so much that I get creatively inspired and I wake up with a song in my head and sit down and make it. It’s that the creative choices arise as you dig into the medium itself and what I worry about a little bit is that some of this technology discourages artists from fully developing their skills as technicians and any creativity sort of rests upon the foundation of technical skills. If you want to be a great novelist you have to have a masterful grasp of language.  and if you want to be an excellent basketball player you have to spend countless hours shooting free throws and working on your fundamentals. The exact same thing is true of songwriting or performance or anything like that, anything really in life. I think the world needs musicians who are deeply professional and serious about their pursuit of excellence in whatever medium they’re choosing to explore.”

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How did you get involved with Spotify?

“I got involved in Spotify about three years ago and it was just before the company had launched the service in the United State, and I really just discovered it as an rapid music collector. I always, since high school, just had hard drives upon hard drives full of music and I love sort of collecting and organizing, cataloging the music I loved. So when someone told me that there was a service that allowed you to have pretty much everything humans have ever recorded available at anytime on any device I knew I had to have that. I became obsessed with it just as a user first, then felt compelled to meet the people behind it and to find some way that I could help them bring this incredible invention to the world. In particular what I’ve been charged to do within Spotify is making sure that this company is incredibly friendly to artists in the creative community. I’m someone who in my own career as a musician has somewhat frequently encountered the more callous and disrespectful elements that are out there among retailers, record labels or otherwise. I thought that it was really important, that if there was going to be this huge technological leap forward on the way people consume music, that the company to do it should really have at it’s core a concern with the livelihood of artists and their creative goals and the possibilities for new forms of expression that these technology might introduce.

So I’ve been Spotify’s artist in residence now for a few years and it’s been an amazing journey to watch this become something that everyone knows about and a lot of people are using.”

Tell us a little bit about your role as Spotify’s “Artist in Residence.”

“I really do two things. First I’ve been in charge of building an incredible team of people, largely musicians actually, who work all around the world to represent Spotify to the artists and managers that help them. And so what this team does is provide a lot of support and education around how you use Spotify and how you can maximize your ability to share your music with people through it. And what we really want is for Spotify to be a company that cares so much about artists that any artists in the world who wants to get in touch with us really easily can, and can speak with someone within twenty four hours and you can help them with anything they might need. And so that’s one side of what I've done and then the other has been to try and build product features within Spotify that really open up the possibilities for the people who create music. So as one example we’ve introduced the ability to sell merchandise to their fans right in Spotify. We’ve done the same with ticketing. And the one I’m really proud of is a really cool initiative we launched to give artists data about what’s happening with their music. So if you’re a musician and you’re music is on Spotify, you can actually now go and see who’s listening to your music, what the demographics of these listeners are, where they are in the world and use that information to guide your strategic choices as you tour or release the music or anything else.”

What do you think it takes for a musician to succeed today?

“Well you know I guess a lot of new demands are put on musicians today in terms of sort of understanding how to market themselves, understanding how to have a real time constant relationship with their fans through Instagram and Facebook and Twitter and otherwise. As much as things are changing the sort of core imperative for any artist remains the same which is to make really really good music, hopefully. And just as I said about companies, I think every artist is best served by putting the vast majority of their time and energy into their work and actually what I hope Spotify or other technologies do over time is allow artists to return to a lifestyle where they focus primarily on the work and they don’t need to spend as much time thinking about marketing or tracking the data around their music or other things that are non-musical.”

As an investor in startups, what are some things you personally look for?

“I think there are a lot of qualities that set entrepreneurs up for success if they have them, but creativity is certainly one of the most important.  What I look for in the companies I invest in are entrepreneurs who aren’t just primarily driven by just a business interest. I think there are a million great business opportunities out there all the time, lots of exciting companies that are seasonal, but what always excites me is when somebody is viewing business as a vehicle through which to change the world in some way that they really care about. I don’t mean that as the sort of patronizing way I view a charity model. I’ve never really liked things like Tom’s shoes or bag or giving away a pair of shoes or things like that; in my mind are kind of superficial. What I love are entrepreneurs who believe that the world is going to look a very specific way in five or ten years from now and they think that all that stands between us and that future is them building some things that will enable the transition. So Spotify is listening to more music than they ever had and putting more songs humans have ever made in everybody’s pocket; [that] is really compelling. Daiquiri is the leading augmented reality software developer in the world, they’re based here in L.A. and I’ve been extremely fortunate to have worked with them in the past few years. They similarly have a very broad vision for how human computer and actions are going to change in the next couple of decades. They are trying to invent a lot of things that would drive us there. Most recently, the thing that really excited me is in the digital currency space; I’ve been helping a company called Ripo Labs that has been developing a decentralized protocol for not only doing things like moving financial value around or the sort of stuff that Bitcoin has achieved, but I also think they are heralds of a future where all sorts of application can be decentralized. People around the world could benefit from the intelligence of thousands and thousands of developers and aren’t subject to a centralized sort of control with corporations that may not have interests aligned with theirs.”

What are some things or maybe a few things that you think young entrepreneurs seem to not get still?

“There is a piece of wisdom that people throw around in Silicon Valley about ideas being cheap and execution being expensive and execution is everything. I think there is a lot of truth to that, a lot of people with great ideas fail to execute them, and a great idea is nothing unless it can be capably realized. But I actually put a huge amount of weight in really good ideas and find them quite rare. Most of the time what I’m looking for when I invest in things is, first of all, an idea that if executed right should work, should definitely work. And I think those are actually pretty hard to come by. Ideas that nobody else is really going after but that make complete sense for the World. Beautiful ideas.

So one thing that I’m always hoping to find are people with really simple ideas  that are irresistibly logical and that really seem to address  a deep need that people have right now. As always, there is no shortage of real problems to solve. Inequitable distributions of resources. Injustices and inefficiencies in the food, education, and health industries. Great informational asymmetries all over the place. These are not unsolvable….we just need to, as a society, incentivize capable people to devote themselves to solutions. Capital allocation excites me in part because it is a way of providing these incentives.

People complain about Snapchat’s valuation or this or that raising tons of money on an exuberant view of communications products, and I sympathize with that view but also realize that these products, whether stupid or not, have millions of customers using them, and you can’t argue with the people. I’d like to focus on companies and entrepreneurs who are going after problems that I personally care about most, but there is plenty of room in the World for all sorts of companies doing all sorts of things and financed by all sorts of people. Christian Audigier has built several thriving clothing businesses, but I wouldn’t wear his products or invest in them. That’s sort of how I think about the startup marketplace.”

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What are some cool things you’re working on?

“It’s a great time in my life right now because I’m super busy trying to finish a bunch of things that I’ve started for a long time. The most [important] to me is my first solo album ever. I’ve kind of written off music for a little bit and made it a hobby as I did more and more technology  projects, but about a year ago I went and bought a keyboard and started writing songs a hundred percent by myself. I always use to rely on collaborators to come up with chords and I just didn’t think I was capable of it. And when I got a keyboard and started exploring it, it opened up a huge creative frontier for me. So this album is really a collection of songs that captured me exploring harmony and the whole world that it opened up to me and I’m really really excited about that. I’m almost done with it and I’ve been working with some really awesome people on it. The only collaboration in the past I did was with Pharrell; he did a song with me that I’m really excited about. But I’ve also gotten a chance to work with some older artists and talent who have been teaching me, including a guy name David Campbell who did all the strings arrangement for this record. Right now I’ve been writing essays lately on my blog DAWallach.com about all sorts of stuff. Anytime I have an idea, I’m trying to commit to the written words so I’ve recently been sort of fleeting from obsession to obsession; [the] most recent thing I got really interested in was the fine art world and thinking about how technology may change the fine art economy because I think it’s really messed up. But I’m having a lot of fun with that.Then there are about nine companies that I’ve invested in or provided for in some capacity. Spotify continues to do really awesome stuff and then others like Fancy.com and RipoLabs and Daiquiri are all building really amazing stuff and they continue to produce new and interesting problems for me to think about all the time so I’m having a lot of fun.”

Follow D.A. Wallach on twitter at @dawallach

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