Robb McDaniels, Beatport CEO: "We Came Into 2020 With an Audacious Plan"

We spoke with music tech entrepreneur Robb McDaniels, the CEO of Beatport, about the challenges, prospects, and surprises of the Electronic Music scene in 2020.
Beatport CEO: "We Came Into 2020 With an Audacious Plan"
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Daniel Sheppard

When it comes to innovation and tech-savvy entrepreneurship in the music business, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better person to talk to than Robb McDaniels. Making a name for himself with INgrooves, a forward-thinking music distribution company that is today owned by Universal Music Group, McDaniels was soon recognised as one of the top players on the executive side of music things.

In 2017, he took over as CEO of Beatport, and today, the platform is one of the most important resources for Electronic Music artists and fans all over the world. In short, when McDaniels speaks, it pays to listen, so listen we did. 

"Once in a generation 'shocks' to the global system, like this pandemic, generally accelerate cultural and business trends that were already beginning to emerge."

Quite obviously, the main topic on everyone's mind these days is the coronavirus crisis. Even though lockdowns restrictions are easing, at least in Europe, it's clear that the real challenges for the music industry are just beginning. But before we delve into all that, let's try and look for the silver lining. Is there any aspect of the whole coronavirus situation that has turned out to be beneficial, positive – for you personally and for the music industry in general?

My team has often heard me say “there are pros and cons to everything in life, nothing is all good or all bad”, but global health pandemics definitely lean towards being mostly not so good. While it’s been nice to spend more time with family, I certainly miss the daily interactions with my colleagues and partners and the various industry events and concerts that have created so many good memories in the past.

Beatport has adjusted quite well to the current situation, but so many other music companies and artists are struggling, and we hope a full return to normalcy will happen in 2021. One “pro” to this situation for the creative community is that they are now at home writing and producing amazing music that we’ll all enjoy in the coming months and years.


A couple of years back, you stated: "The biggest concern I have about the industry today is the same concern I had back in 2002 when I launched INgrooves: entrenched companies, systems, and methods impeding progress in the name of historical precedence or job stability." Covid-19 has certainly thrown a spanner in the works there. Do you view this as an opportunity to reset and restart the established systems, or would it be best for all involved to try and get back on the same track as before as soon as possible?

Once in a generation “shocks” to the global system, like this pandemic, generally accelerate cultural and business trends that were already beginning to emerge. At the end of the day, I think embracing new technologies, methods and processes are healthier for our industry. Perhaps the people who are resisting change because of some fear suddenly realize that what they feared isn’t as powerful as the fear of the current “shock” to the system, so they let down their guard and the new thing has room to gain traction. I think we are seeing that now in the music industry with the success of artists performing via online video stream, collaboration tools and services for producers, and deeper integration with video game platforms. 

"We have seen a 10–20% increase in the number of releases coming through Beatport and I would expect this to continue well into 2021."

Looking at the long-term, what needs to change in order for the music industry to be more resilient to such calamities? Perhaps any single improvement you've thought about and said "this needs to be this way", or any advances you've already noticed?

That’s a tough one because hindsight is always 20/20. I actually think the music industry has adapted fairly well to this situation, and that has largely been driven by the artists themselves and their management teams. I know touring has crashed, which impacts so many people who work on those tours, but for many in the industry, touring doesn’t actually make that much money. The artists who had already embraced digital media and connecting with fans on a variety of platforms were the ones who saw the least impact on their ability to monetize those fans in other ways. 


Considering Beatport has offices on both sides of the Atlantic, how would you compare the governmental responses when it comes to supporting the cultural sector? Do you feel this is an area where the initiative for assistance lies with the governments (ie. with direct financial support), or should artists be trying to find solutions on their own?

I have been lucky enough to have spent my life between the two continents, and was actually born in London. Thank heavens for that because I used my UK/EU passport to escape the US just last week so I could visit our Berlin team and roam freely around Europe this summer, and perhaps even into the fall. While so many of the people in the US have stepped up to support their favorite artists or local venues, it’s not enough to sustain over the long term and we are starting to see the dramatic impact from staying shut down for so long. I think the US government’s response to supporting the arts has been far inferior to many countries in the EU, and the long-term ramifications are going to be dire.

"What we saw happen with our DJ community was nothing short of amazing – within weeks they all jumped online and started DJing for their fans from their living rooms or gardens."

As Beatport is an online music store and streaming service, it seems to be well-prepared for the lockdown world. Which were the biggest problems the company had to deal with in order to adapt to the crisis?

While it’s true we are an online music platform, 100% of our customers are DJs in some way, shape or form. They generally rely on live gigs to generate some income, and without those gigs, there was the real prospect that they wouldn’t need to download music from us. But what we saw happen with our DJ community was nothing short of amazing – within weeks they all jumped online and started DJing for their fans (for free) from their living rooms or gardens. We also saw a massive jump in aspiring DJs wanting to try out our new Beatport LINK streaming product that gives DJs access to over 10M Beatport-curated songs directly from their favorite DJ software or hardware. It was truly an incredible response and showed how adaptable our global community can be.


How did the world going into quarantine affect Beatport's operation? Did you record an increase in usage, purchases? 

Overall, yes, we did see an increase. There was a momentary week or two when everyone was going into shutdown mode where they were focused on grocery shopping and other preparations, but once they were in their home, music became one of the key ways to soothe their souls. 


With many producers saying that they now have more time for making music, have you noticed an increase in releases? Are we in for a flood of new music once it's all finalized in a few months?

Yes, absolutely. We have seen a 10–20% increase in the number of releases coming through Beatport and I would expect this to continue well into 2021.

"Even with a vaccine, I think you’ll see a good number of people wearing masks at many music events for a year or two."

A recent study also showed that music discovery among people has increased during quarantine. Has this been the case with Beatport as well, or are users sticking more to their preferred genres? 

Anecdotally, we have seen a rise in experimentation and a willingness to explore the store in a more robust manner.  More registrations, page views, playlists created, etc. Undoubtedly, human curiosity needs to be satisfied in some way, and learning about new sub-genres and styles is one way to do it.


Beatport came into 2020 off of a very strong 2019, announcing the launch of "innovative tools and services". How has Covid-19 affected your plans – did it change priorities in any way, have you had to cancel any, change direction on any?

We came into 2020 with an audacious plan and have done our best to stick with it. So far, so good, but we definitely look forward to a return to normalcy after we solve this public health crisis. 


Beatport has also had one of the more high-profile live streaming events with the ReConnect series. How satisfied are you with it? Did the response meet your expectations?

ReConnect started as an idea to simply help raise money for the global dance music community in a time of crisis, but it has become so much more. Heading into 2020, we had a partnership in place with Twitch to broadcast live electronic music festivals on Beatport’s channel, but when that all shut down, we pivoted to these massive 36-hour online events featuring the world’s top DJs. We have gone on to do more than a dozen smaller ReConnect events that feature a genre, label or cultural day (like Pride). All said, these online events have generated tens of millions of views, hundreds of thousands of dollars for charities, and countless new fans of dance music around the world. 

Viberate's own co-founder UMEK participated in the first ReConnect event with a set that's gone down as one of the highlights of the series.

In the first days of lockdown, live streams seemed to be the "salvation" the music industry was looking for and everyone was jumping on board, but it soon became clear that it's not a sustainable solution – there's little money in it, there are tech issues, oversaturation leading to viewer fatigue, etc. Do you see live streams having a more prominent place post-corona, or will they be relegated to special occasions and "treats" like before?

I definitely think it’s here to stay and will become part of an artist’s performance strategy for years to come. I saw some recent survey where nearly 80% of fans said they would continue to watch online streams even when they are allowed to return to live music events. 


Speaking of live events – though the situation varies daily and country-to-country, do you see live events returning at previous levels before a vaccine is discovered? 

Unfortunately, no. Even with a vaccine, I think you’ll see a good number of people wearing masks at many music events for a year or two.


Electronic music events seem to be particularly disadvantaged – whereas a seated classical music concert is already the norm and you can even imagine Rock concerts with seating only going through, the defining image of live Electronic music is a sweaty, packed nightclub writhing away on the dancefloor. Combined with the difficulties facing smaller venues and travel restrictions making international tours difficult, is this a death knell for club culture, or can it weather the storm? 

I always have preferred outdoors to sweaty packed nightclubs, and there’s plenty of room on this planet to dance outside!


 

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Daniel Sheppard

Daniel Sheppard

Guest Writer at Viberate
Daniel spends most of his work listening to music and swiping on his phone. In his free time, he likes to relax by listening to music while swiping on his phone. It's a nice arrangement.