Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Interview: Alan Lastufka

Today's post is something new and exciting that I've never done before: an interview with an actual living human being. Or perhaps he actually had a robot write his answers, but that seems unlikely, so we shall disregard that.
This Human Being's name is Alan Lastufka, co-founder and acting president of DFTBA Records. Thank you so much, Alan, both for helping me out with my Economics project and letting me post the interview on here, and for generally being very helpful and cool in all of our interactions upon this thing known as The Internet. 
I realize that since many of you are familiar with the company, some of the questions might be a little "duh" to you, but it was for my homework, and my teacher isn't quite as aware of the YouTube scene, and I included them for the sake of comprehensiveness.
Let it be noted that I was actually listening to DFTBA Records music while compiling the interview into a Powerpoint.
We shall pretend that I said hello to him, and he said hello back, because I really just emailed him some questions, and he emailed me back the answers. Anyways, onward. Interview to be seen after the jump.

Elf Army: Can you give a brief description of DFTBA Records?

Alan Lastufka: DFTBA Records is an independent record label that works with YouTube musicians exclusively. We sell digital and physical copies of albums and singles (on iTunes and CD), along with t-shirts, buttons and other merchandise items for musicians.

EA: What trends did you notice in 2008 that led you to believe a company such as DFTBA Records would be a lucrative endeavor?

AL: I had the idea for a YouTube record label after seeing a few of my friends post songs on their channels and be begged by their audiences to sell their music. Some of these musicians, like Alex Day or Charlie McDonnell, were receiving hundreds of thousands of views on average videos. If even just a small portion of those viewers were willing to purchase the music, I knew we’d have a hit. I’ve had some experience in online e-commerce and mail order. So I began setting up a company to handle a few of my friend’s first records. I told my friend Hank Green about the idea and he loved it. He offered to invest in the company and fund our first few releases if he could be brought on as a partner.

EA: The phrase “DFTBA” originated with Brotherhood 2.0. Can you explain the label’s relationship to that project?

AL: I originally named the label Blue Tape Media, it was an homage to the painter’s tape art on my bedroom wall in all of my early vlogs. When Hank came on as my investor, we discussed a name change to DFTBA Records. Hank and I both felt the name would appeal to a larger audience.

EA: How did the recession affect your sales?

AL: We started in the winter of 2008, at the height of the recession, so, if the recession has affected the sales we would have seen without it, we wouldn’t know. In 2009 we did a little over (number redacted) in sales. In 2010 we did a little over (four times previous number) in sales. So revenues have been growing at an incredible rate, recession or not.

EA: How many of your artists make a living without a day job?

AL: We represent about 25 artists and I would say half, 12 or 13 are making their living solely with their music. They tour, they sell albums, they sell t-shirts and they bring in the views on YouTube, which pays them in the form of the YouTube Partnership program and AdSense.

EA: What are the pros of owning a business that functions (almost) solely online?

AL: We have very little overhead. We started in my bedroom, then moved to the garage, and now finally have some commercial office and warehouse space. It took us about a year to get to that point. Having the low cost of just bubble mailers and my bedroom rent to worry about in the beginning allowed us to take a little bit of risk with the company and the rewards followed quickly. Also, we’re able to reach a huge audience. It’s literally global. We ship CDs to everywhere from Chicago to Cairo on a daily basis. It’s awesome.

EA: What about the cons?

AL: I can’t think of many. I wish Hank and I worked in the same physical location. I enjoy working with Hank and we really make it work, even though all of our business is done online and Hank and I have not met “in person” yet, even after three years of being in business together. But other than that, I see nothing but pros. 

EA: What demographics make up the majority of your customers?

AL: The majority of our customers are 16-24 year old nerds. They’re our peers. People we hang out with online every day. They like the same tv shows and movies and books and other artists that we do. We’ve noticed a slight lean to more females than male customers, but not enough for me to put that fact at the top of the list.

EA: So in other How do you take those trends into consideration when making decisions?

AL: We don’t. And we do. Basically, we ask ourselves if the next item we plan on selling is something we’d buy ourselves. If it is, we’ll sell it. If it isn’t, we pass on it. We’ve passed on a number of artists or projects that we just wouldn’t have paid for ourselves if someone else was selling… but because our customers are our peers, we feel that if we enjoy a new project, so will our customers.

EA: How does the label’s audience affect your marketing strategies?

AL: We recognize that our artists already know how to market themselves better than we ever could. They know their audiences intimately. They know their music intimately. And they are in a better position than us to “sell” their latest project. We do have a newsletter and a twitter account, but those are more for sending out reminders about sales and new products than they are for marketing.

EA: How did you learn the skills necessary to manage all of the aspects of your business without out-sourcing them?

AL: I had run a zine distro in the past. It was small and amateurish, but it taught me the basics of inventory and selling online and “keeping the books”. The rest I had to learn as I did it. It’s amazing the amount of information you can find online. And from asking others who’ve set up similar businesses. People love teaching and sharing what they know.

EA: In addition to running the company, you also write your own music. Approximately what portion of your time is devoted to each of those?

AL: The company requires time daily. Some days are a solid eight hours, other days only require an hour or two of my time. So the company would be a huge portion, as I don’t work on my own music every day. I tend to write in bursts. So, I’ll have an idea for a song, or a few songs and I’ll write and produce a new album over six months time. Then I might go a few months without writing anything new. So, if I had to put it into a percentage, I’d say 80% company, 20% personal music projects.

EA: I would think that working for oneself so close to all of the distractions of the Internet provides a lot of opportunities for procrastination and low-productivity. How do you cope with that?

AL: You learn to be an awesome boss at bossing yourself. Skype and Twitter and YouTube are daily distractions. But if I don’t get the work done, no one else will, and the company will fail. So I have to force myself to get everything done. Fortunately, I love what I do. And I want to continue to see it succeed, so I don’t mind focusing and putting the energy into it. Also, I have the 12 or 13 artists we talked about before counting on DFTBA or me for their livelihoods. If DFTBA or I fail, they’ll be out of a job. That responsibility alone keeps me on track.

EA: Do you maintain personal relationships with (some, if not all of) your artists, or is it strictly business?

AL: It’s mostly personal relationships. DFTBA would not have not been as successful as it has been at signing the huge artists we work with if they didn’t trust me with their music, their careers and their money. That trust came from friendships. Charlie and Alex and I all worked together on a year long project called Fiveawesomeguys before DFTBA Records. Hank and I had worked together on numerous projects for fun before we got down to business with DFTBA. Others saw the trust that our first few artists placed in me, and that lead them to trust that DFTBA was there to help them, not take advantage of them and their talent.

EA: How does that affect the dynamic between you?

AL: You’d think money puts strain on the relationships, but that hasn’t happened. At least not yet. Everyone we work with is so great, and we like to think we’re pretty okay too. Everyone involved in the process is understanding and really focused on creating something awesome. When you go into it with that mindset, you don’t get so caught up in the little details, you are a bit more willing to work with everyone to create something that’s bigger than any of us individually, and that’s an incredible thing when you see it actually happening and working as well as DFTBA does.

EA: Would you rather sell your share of the company and continue making music, or quit the music and keep the business in your hands?

AL: There are way too many variables to consider with such a question. How much would my shares sell for? Would I still be able to release my music through the record label? If I quit the music, does that mean I can’t even play in my free time? I don’t even want to think about how depressing that would be.

EA: Enough so that you could make a living solely off of your music, yes, and no, you can still play but, you can't upload to YouTube or make it otherwise public. But I didn't actually send you those answers, so moving on. Where do you see DFTBA Records headed in the future?

AL: I see DFTBA working with more YouTube stars, outside of just musicians. We’ve set up a really solid and efficient distribution method. That means we can sell shirts for YouTube stars like Michael Buckley and John Green and make them more money than if they were to go through other shirt order fulfillment companies. And it doesn’t hurt we’re friends with them, and their audiences overlap quite a bit with our own. It’s a natural progression. And I hope we’re continuing to help artists turn their hobbies into careers.

EA: Artists like Chameleon Circuit and The Oceanic Six write songs based off of TV Shows, and there’s a good deal of music both released through DFTBA and otherwise about books, such as Harry Potter. What do you think is gained and/or lost by interpreting material of one art form into that of another? (Readers! I want you to answer this as well!)

AL: It’s all just fandom. People love to share in fandom with others passionate about the same characters or universes or whatever that they are. I don’t personally write music based on other art, but I can understand the appeal and draw and community that sprouts up around other bands who do.

EA: Do you think DFTBA Records will continue to be successful in the coming years, given how the usage and functionality of the Internet is so prone to change?

AL: I think so. If I didn’t, I’d have to shut the whole operation down now, no? Even should the internet as a whole abandon YouTube, there would have to be a replacement website for the community. We’d all find ourselves over there, and continue to work with the talented musicians and video makers coming out of that community. Music has always spoken to generation after generation, whether it’s on vinyl, 8-track, cassette, CD or digital download, that doesn’t change what music means to us. And whatever format comes next will only make music more accessible and cheaper for fans to enjoy. And we’ll be there working in whichever format we have to to connect with our audience.

EA: What projects/initiatives are you most excited about right now?

AL: We’ll be pressing our first vinyl release very soon. We’re also in talks with YouTube that would give us a bit more clout with getting our artists featured and promotional help from YouTube. Personally, I just started a new band, and I’m excited to get our first release together. That should keep me busy for at least the next few months.

EA: Thank you very, very much for this Alan.

Fake Alan That's Really Me: You're very, very welcome. Thanks for having me.


  1. Ah! This was really awesome! It's so neat that you got to interview him, he seems like a really nice genuine guy. The way you interviewed him (writing style, tone etc.) was also really impressive!

  2. I enjoyed the interview. Since Alan Lastufka is part of the reason the world has Can't, which is one of my favorite songs (if still too short), he is pretty much a rock star in my opinion. It was also nice to learn more about the DFTBA operation, since I tend to send them my money occasionally.


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