Case spotlight: Vulfpeck

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This case was featured in Connect, issue 54, November 2021.

Who – the protagonist

Jack Stratton, co-founder of music band Vulfpeck.

What?

Vulfpeck is an American funk group founded in 2011 featuring a core group of musicians and rotating guests through its recordings and live sets.

The innovative band was one of the first-ever headliners to sell out the historical New York venue – Madison Square Garden – without a manager or top record label behind them.

Determined to buck the conventional music industry trend and be in charge of their own affairs, Vulfpeck have built their success in such ways as posting an album of silent tracks on Spotify in 2014, earning them much publicity and $20,000 to fund a five-cities US tour that fans attended for free.

music, mixing

Why?

The rise of independent artists is one of the most important changes to happen to the modern record business.

The increase in streaming has been the catalyst for independent artists, enabling them to find global audiences and pursue their careers on their terms.

Vulfpeck are firm believers in this approach, with record labels needing to reimagine both their value proposition to artists and underlying business models.

Where?

The band’s founding members, Joe Dart (bass), Woody Goss (keyboards), Theo Katzman (guitar, drums and vocals) and Jack Stratton (keyboards, drums and guitar), created Vulfpeck when studying at the University of Michigan’s music school.

The quartet and accompanying guest musicians have largely toured around America, with their music released on Bandcamp (vinyls and digital copies) and YouTube and streaming services (digital copies).

When?

After forming in 2011 and releasing a trio of EPs over the following three years, Vulfpeck first started to make waves with their Sleepify album on Spotify, which led to their 2014 tour of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Ann Arbor and New York.

A bigger, 15-date US tour followed in mid-2017 to support the second album, while they sold out Madison Square Garden in September 2019.

A year later, at the end of September 2020, Vulpeck released their latest single Santa Baby ahead of the release of their fifth album.

Key quote

“As more and more musicians can just make records in their bedrooms and have more access to their data, there’s just more control for musicians and artists than ever before.”
Jackie Nalpant, one of Vulfpeck’s agents.

What next?

Jack, who was behind the strategy of the band, wanted to take the ‘independent’ route as far as he could, summed up by Vulfpeck auctioning off the content of the last song of their fifth album for $70,100 in August 2020.

But how does this unusual band keep maintaining its original approach? And what can be learned from Vulfpeck and be applied to other musical talents?

AUTHOR PERSPECTIVE 

Learning economic principles through music

Alexandre said: “Creative industries are ruled by some economic principles such as winner-takes-all effects (also known as Blockbuster effects), the Long Tail distribution pattern, or the Paradox of Choice.

“Under the influence of technology, the supply of music has dramatically increased while the demand is now served with subscription-based models.

“Music is a fascinating industry when it comes to explaining the effect of bundling on price elasticity or the use of scarcity in the Attention Economy. The case method helps me to illustrate these notions in practice, as it gives ‘flesh and bones’ to these concepts by ‘personifying’ these strategies: Radiohead who provided an album ‘at your own price’, Beyonce who dropped a surprise album on iTunes, or Vulfpeck who are using a silent album on Spotify to finance their live tour. Artists are usually the drivers for change in the creative industries…we should analyse them and understand their leadership styles.”

Streaming ,music, iphone

Understanding the modern music industry

Alexandre continued: “Through the case students can learn how the modern music industry works. By the modern music industry, I mean a digital-driven one with streaming platforms, mobile phones and short sharable videos. Students will get a good understanding of the value chain of music distribution (how do you get your music on Spotify?). They will also discover the challenges that independent musicians are facing. While the Indie music segment is growing fast, the structure of the market is still in favour of the major labels. A vast majority of music streams are generated by 0.4% of artists, and 85% of this 0.4% goes to the major labels.

“Students will also learn how musicians can apply economical concepts such as creating a limited distribution with digital scarcity, increasing the value of music with online auctions, and building a strong brand identity to decrease its market substitutability.

“Finally, they may discover this band, watch their concerts on YouTube and listen to them on Spotify! It is really a great band to listen to, both musically and professionally/businesswise.”

Underlining the dilemma

He explained: “When I teach this case outside my own institution, Berklee College of Music, I underline the fact that Vulfpeck are illustrating the dilemma that any creative talent is facing: being recognised by their peers for their creativity and capacity to ‘change the rules’, while being applauded by their fans and getting paid for their art. Fame v money.

“Musicians do not only want to gig and play music, they also want to change the world. A few years ago, Vulfpeck were very loud about the fact that the amount of money paid by music streaming platforms was too low for musicians. They were right, see how the DCMS in the United Kingdom is currently scrutinising this question.

“We know that the number of streams an artist needs to make a sustainable living in 2021 is significantly higher than five years ago. The overall streaming pie is not growing as fast as the number of artists who are releasing new music. Vulfpeck anticipated that trend. This is not only a great music band, but also a collection of smart and visionary people, especially the founder Jack Stratton.”

Overcoming the challenges of the pandemic

Alexandre concluded: “The main challenge when writing the case was the eruption of COVID-19 and its impact on the music scene.

“While I was writing the case, the band cancelled its tour and, ironically, most of their revenue may have come from Spotify whose adoption grew faster during the lockdown.

“But this situation also underlined the importance of anticipating what the fans want. That is why I have included a question at the end of the case study about pivoting from live performances to live streamed performances: How can musicians create a hybrid model without cannibalising their concert revenue?”

THE CASE 

The case

Who – the protagonist

Jack Stratton, co-founder of music band Vulfpeck.

What?

Vulfpeck is an American funk group founded in 2011 featuring a core group of musicians and rotating guests through its recordings and live sets.

The innovative band was one of the first-ever headliners to sell out the historical New York venue – Madison Square Garden – without a manager or top record label behind them.

Determined to buck the conventional music industry trend and be in charge of their own affairs, Vulfpeck have built their success in such ways as posting an album of silent tracks on Spotify in 2014, earning them much publicity and $20,000 to fund a five-cities US tour that fans attended for free.

music, mixing

Why?

The rise of independent artists is one of the most important changes to happen to the modern record business.

The increase in streaming has been the catalyst for independent artists, enabling them to find global audiences and pursue their careers on their terms.

Vulfpeck are firm believers in this approach, with record labels needing to reimagine both their value proposition to artists and underlying business models.

Where?

The band’s founding members, Joe Dart (bass), Woody Goss (keyboards), Theo Katzman (guitar, drums and vocals) and Jack Stratton (keyboards, drums and guitar), created Vulfpeck when studying at the University of Michigan’s music school.

The quartet and accompanying guest musicians have largely toured around America, with their music released on Bandcamp (vinyls and digital copies) and YouTube and streaming services (digital copies).

When?

After forming in 2011 and releasing a trio of EPs over the following three years, Vulfpeck first started to make waves with their Sleepify album on Spotify, which led to their 2014 tour of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Ann Arbor and New York.

A bigger, 15-date US tour followed in mid-2017 to support the second album, while they sold out Madison Square Garden in September 2019.

A year later, at the end of September 2020, Vulpeck released their latest single Santa Baby ahead of the release of their fifth album.

Key quote

“As more and more musicians can just make records in their bedrooms and have more access to their data, there’s just more control for musicians and artists than ever before.”
Jackie Nalpant, one of Vulfpeck’s agents.

What next?

Jack, who was behind the strategy of the band, wanted to take the ‘independent’ route as far as he could, summed up by Vulfpeck auctioning off the content of the last song of their fifth album for $70,100 in August 2020.

But how does this unusual band keep maintaining its original approach? And what can be learned from Vulfpeck and be applied to other musical talents?

AUTHOR PERSPECTIVE 

Author perspective

Learning economic principles through music

Alexandre said: “Creative industries are ruled by some economic principles such as winner-takes-all effects (also known as Blockbuster effects), the Long Tail distribution pattern, or the Paradox of Choice.

“Under the influence of technology, the supply of music has dramatically increased while the demand is now served with subscription-based models.

“Music is a fascinating industry when it comes to explaining the effect of bundling on price elasticity or the use of scarcity in the Attention Economy. The case method helps me to illustrate these notions in practice, as it gives ‘flesh and bones’ to these concepts by ‘personifying’ these strategies: Radiohead who provided an album ‘at your own price’, Beyonce who dropped a surprise album on iTunes, or Vulfpeck who are using a silent album on Spotify to finance their live tour. Artists are usually the drivers for change in the creative industries…we should analyse them and understand their leadership styles.”

Streaming ,music, iphone

Understanding the modern music industry

Alexandre continued: “Through the case students can learn how the modern music industry works. By the modern music industry, I mean a digital-driven one with streaming platforms, mobile phones and short sharable videos. Students will get a good understanding of the value chain of music distribution (how do you get your music on Spotify?). They will also discover the challenges that independent musicians are facing. While the Indie music segment is growing fast, the structure of the market is still in favour of the major labels. A vast majority of music streams are generated by 0.4% of artists, and 85% of this 0.4% goes to the major labels.

“Students will also learn how musicians can apply economical concepts such as creating a limited distribution with digital scarcity, increasing the value of music with online auctions, and building a strong brand identity to decrease its market substitutability.

“Finally, they may discover this band, watch their concerts on YouTube and listen to them on Spotify! It is really a great band to listen to, both musically and professionally/businesswise.”

Underlining the dilemma

He explained: “When I teach this case outside my own institution, Berklee College of Music, I underline the fact that Vulfpeck are illustrating the dilemma that any creative talent is facing: being recognised by their peers for their creativity and capacity to ‘change the rules’, while being applauded by their fans and getting paid for their art. Fame v money.

“Musicians do not only want to gig and play music, they also want to change the world. A few years ago, Vulfpeck were very loud about the fact that the amount of money paid by music streaming platforms was too low for musicians. They were right, see how the DCMS in the United Kingdom is currently scrutinising this question.

“We know that the number of streams an artist needs to make a sustainable living in 2021 is significantly higher than five years ago. The overall streaming pie is not growing as fast as the number of artists who are releasing new music. Vulfpeck anticipated that trend. This is not only a great music band, but also a collection of smart and visionary people, especially the founder Jack Stratton.”

Overcoming the challenges of the pandemic

Alexandre concluded: “The main challenge when writing the case was the eruption of COVID-19 and its impact on the music scene.

“While I was writing the case, the band cancelled its tour and, ironically, most of their revenue may have come from Spotify whose adoption grew faster during the lockdown.

“But this situation also underlined the importance of anticipating what the fans want. That is why I have included a question at the end of the case study about pivoting from live performances to live streamed performances: How can musicians create a hybrid model without cannibalising their concert revenue?”

THE CASE 

The authors

Alexandre Perrin
Professor in Global Entertainment and Music Business

The protagonist

Read the case

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CASE - Reference no. 321-0225-1
TEACHING NOTE - Reference no. 321-0225-8
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