"A Johnny Appleseed of online concert recordings," according to The New York Times, Brad Serling has been active in the digital media space for 20 years. Established artists ranging from Phish to Metallica to the Grateful Dead turn to Brad for advice on digital distribution of their content. Serling started nugs.net in 1993 as a way to share the tapes he was making of Grateful Dead and Phish shows. With the artists’ blessing, nugs.net’s non-commercial live music download site mushroomed to 3 million free downloads a month by 2000. Seeing the business potential Serling had tapped into, The Grateful Dead hired Brad as a consultant in mid-2000. The Dead put Phish in touch with Serling and by 2002 nugs.net went from fan site to paid download provider with the launch of LivePhish.com. Today, 115 million downloads later, hundreds of artists and labels partner directly with nugs.net to distribute music directly to their fans. A tastemaker among fans, Serling hosts a show each week on SiriusXM’s Jam On channel, “The Weekly Live Stash,” showcasing the week’s best live music. Additionally, Serling is a regular guest on Bruce Springsteen's E Street Radio channel. In the Fall of 2016, MTV tapped Serling to produce the nugs.net Live Stash, airing Sunday nights at 9 on MTV Live.
How did you get into the industry?
In 1990 I started taping Grateful Dead concerts, and later Phish. Within a few years it got so time-consuming copying my tapes for all the friends who wanted to hear them that I called the Grateful Dead and asked their permission to post copies of my tapes on a web site for people to download. They said “What’s a web site?” (This was 1994). They went on to say “do whatever you want, just don’t rip us off!”
By 1997 I had registered the domain “nugs.net” and started posting MP3s of my Phish and Grateful Dead tapes there as free downloads. Traffic mushroomed to 3 million free MP3 download per month off nugs.net within a few years. In June of 2000 I got a call from the lawyer who represented both Phish and the Dead at the time who said “we either need to shut you down or go into business with you.” I sent him a business plan and the next thing I knew I was hired by the Grateful Dead and sitting in a meeting in San Francisco with members of the Dead, Pearl Jam, their attorneys, and tape archivists. The business side of nugs.net was born.
Any emerging industry trends?
Fans expect everything to be available everywhere at all times. It’s truly an on-demand world, and finally the rights holders are recognizing that and developing businesses around that instead of being afraid of it.
Any industry opportunities or challenges?
The biggest challenge we’re facing is the licensing of video content. The lack of a Congressionally-set rate for video rights like there is for mechanicals is making it very difficult to grow a business when you’re creating new content on a nightly basis.
Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?
The business grew out of a necessity. I wasn’t starting a business when I started nugs.net. I was serving a need. People wanted copies of my tapes, there wasn’t enough time in the day to copy them, and the web offered a means of mass distribution. I was operating nugs.net as a fan site under the good graces of the artists who owned the content and allowed non-commercial distribution of their IP. Because I was doing it well and was not actually ripping them off, they were interested in going into business with me. I suppose it didn’t hurt that I had legitimized myself in their eyes by having a “real” job as CTO of a pioneering VOD service, CinemaNow, which was the first company to license movies for download and streaming from all the major studios at the time. I was able to lay out my vision to the relevant stakeholders of applying the CinemaNow model of pay-per-download or pay-per-stream to their live material, and I could prove there was demand by showing the stats from the free nugs.net download site. And, most importantly, I could deliver on that vision.
What's next for the Business in the near future?
The near term will see growth in nugs.net’s subscription services and increasing frequency of our pay-per-views. We just completed a run of 12 PPVs in 7 days, so it’s been great to have such heavy rotation on nugs.tv.
Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?
We’re constantly improving the fan experience across nugs.net’s services, whether it’s improving the broadcast quality of an HD webcast or making our streams available across more devices, or breaking ground with new audiophile formats for our loyal download customers. We’re always looking for ways to improve our own personal enjoyment of the live music we’re delivering, so we’re sure that whatever would make it better for us will make it better for other music fans out there. Innovation always pays dividends when it results in better quality of service.
Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)
Frankly, Phish breaking up in 2004 was a rough one! We had turned nugs.net from a fan site into a real business with Phish in 2002, and then they broke up a year and half later. Our biggest client at the time going off the road for what seemed like for good really highlighted the vulnerability of our business. Our success is largely tied to the whims of rock stars. Rock stars have a propensity toward conflict, drug abuse, over dosing, and other textbook rock’n roll debauchery. Tying your fortunes to that can be a roller coaster ride to say the least. Thankfully we signed Metallica right at the same time Phish announced their break up, so that carried us through in a big way and the business grew from there. The lesson learned was a bit cliche but it holds true: don’t count your chickens before they hatch, and never rest on your laurels.Ideal experience for a customer/client?
What I hear the most from our customers when I meet them at a show is how we’ve changed their lives or saved their marriages. Usually both at the same time. By allowing the typically middle-aged dad with kids to spend Friday and Saturday night on the couch watching Phish live on their home theater system has kept a lot of families together. Dad’s no longer running down to Hampton Coliseum for a Phish weekend with the boys. He can stay at home and enjoy a clean bathroom while smoking some ribs on the back porch with the kids.
How do you motivate others?
Without passion, work suffers. Thankfully, we have artists on our roster that inspire our employees on a deep emotional level. Most of the people who work here would spend all day listening to their favorite band even if they didn’t work here. So the fact that they can do that and get paid for it is a huge motivational factor. It’s really the only way nugs.net can compete in the San Francisco market. We’re up against Spotify, Facebook, Pandora, Google, and Apple when we interview candidates. We can’t offer perks on the level of the titans of Silicon Valley, but we can provide a steady diet of tickets, downloads, and streams of their favorite bands!
Career advice to those in your industry?
What seems obvious to you isn’t obvious to an artist or their manager. We’re all motivated by different factors, and it is unreasonable to assume that your next great idea will move the needle for an artist. We work closely with artists who’ve sold hundreds of millions of albums in their storied careers. Something that seems like a no-brainer can take weeks or even months of cajoling to execute. Be prepared to hurry up and wait, and then don’t be surprised when they ask why it isn’t done yet!