The 405 Meets: Shamal Ranasinghe (Co-Creator of Fluence)

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You may recall that article I wrote about Fluence, which is a new online platform created so that artists can connect to people within the music industry that they feel may help them (more often than not, for a price).

As it turns out, the music industry itself is divided very ruthlessly into two camps: those who want it to operate on a basis of hard graft and self-sufficiency and those who like their success with a very large side salad (because, y’know, salads are green… alright fine it’s money I’m talking about money). Anyway, when it came to discussing Fluence, the two sides clashed with more drama than the opening of Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet and the emotional tension of a year 10 co-ed PE class.

Everyone has their opinion (I think I made mine perfectly clear and it remains unchanged) so there’s no use arguing over it, really, but we thought it would only be fair to get in touch with the creators of Fluence to let them give their side of the story in their own words. So, we spoke to one of their co-founders, Shamal Ranasinghe. Here is what he had to say…

Hi Shamal, thanks for taking the time to do this interview with us. Let’s start off with the fundamentals: what was your aim when you started Fluence?

We started Fluence with the mission of helping creators of all kinds find their potential fans around the world. Our premise is that the best way to reach your full audience is to first connect with those who could recommend you to others. Ultimately, we wanted to create a venue where creators, influencers, curators, and industry professionals could help each other.

At first we built a simple application where any type of media can be submitted to people based on their tagged interests. We offered it to influencers including professional curators, producers, journalists, tastemakers, advisors, and experts in a variety of fields and industries who are actively seeking new media to work with or share. These influencers use the Fluence software to easily review submitted media, provide direct feedback to the creator, and if so inclined, organically share to their followers. The problem was that these submissions would become yet another email in the inbox that didn’t get read or if it did, nobody would ever know. On one side, we had creators telling us that they’d pay to get meaningful feedback or promotional help and be notified if their media was watched or heard. On the other side we saw a chance to help influencers get more income based on how people valued their time and attention.

Do you have a vetting process for the “influencers”? If so, what is it? Who gets to be one?

Fluence users invite others to be on the system. That’s how the initial set of influencers on Fluence is growing right now in this early Beta phase. There’s no vetting of referrals or invites. We trust our current users in making their own decisions on who to invite and how to shape the community. We’re a small team and still very early in the evolution of the application, so there are no hard and fast rules. The only requirement is that you’re passionate about helping others in their creative process with constructive feedback and opportunities for exposure.

Our current influencers tend to support or collaborate with creators in their daily work. Some are industry professionals. Others have non-creative day jobs but are tirelessly working to promote their favorite artists, filmmakers, producers, makers, etc. If you’re interested in becoming an influencer and using the system to help creators with feedback and exposure, reach out to me on twitter, and we’ll get you on board. The software is useful for anyone who receives dozens of submissions a day and needs an easy system for managing and reviewing media. It also lets you find media that you may not have come across before but has been liked and shared by others.

Obviously this is a service aimed at new/aspiring artists, but who is your specific target audience? Those looking to sign to a major label? Those who just want to “get heard”?

It’s important to clarify that Fluence is not a music company nor is it a service aimed solely at musicians. Although my career and mission have been focused on helping artists, Fluence is more than just me. It would be a disservice to my team to not say that Fluence is built to help all creators including but not limited to artists, musicians, film makers, entrepreneurs, YouTube producers, authors, game developers, software engineers, sound engineers, fashion designers, videographers, product makers who sell on Kickstarter, etc. and countless others.

For example, fashion designers can submit their portfolios to experts and influencers in the fashion industry. Software developers or device makers can submit their product videos to other entrepreneurs and investors for feedback on their product positioning and messaging. YouTube producers or game developers can submit their media to find collaborators in soundtrack or advert syncing.

Our target audience is anyone who wants a simple way to submit to people who are actively looking for collaborators or media to share. People who work with creators, such as managers, agents, and marketers also use Fluence to connect to tastemakers, producers, and sync agencies in specific regions or publications outside their domain of expertise. We see a future where hundreds of thousands of influencers around the world could help creators in a wide variety of ways from publicity to collaborations to technical feedback.

As I mentioned in my article, I can see the value of having label representatives on the list as they have a direct ability to offer a publishing deal etc, but Fluence is also full of bloggers, self-described entrepreneurs, models… Anybody, basically. What kind of service do you think these individuals can provide for a new musician that is worth paying for?

As referenced above, Fluence is not only for musicians but for creatives in all fields. Our goal is to have any creator quickly find people in Fluence who could help them. We let them connect directly with each other and step out of the way.

It’s worth noting that different brands and creators use Fluence to connect to influencers that they would otherwise not find. For example, an audio speaker company is submitting pre-release product videos to our music producers and bloggers to gauge their interest and reaction. A film studio is promoting a movie trailer to game developers on Fluence. Creators are finding influencers in other genres and industries outside their own, and they are helping each other with promotions and collaborations. Our goal is to get everyone under the same roof so they can at least be found and ultimately reached.

We’ve heard from our users that they value the feedback they receive from the experts in Fluence. Read some of the constructive feedback from curators and producer experts here. You can judge for yourself if that feedback is worth it. For those with finished media not needing production feedback, there’s still value in getting referrals to other influencers not on Fluence. Here’s an example of a Fluence curator giving actionable promotional help to a creator:

“Quite like this. Can imagine xxxxx@yahoo.co.uk would be into this. Also try Xxxx Xxxxx who’s a big fan of noisy bands xxxx@xxxxxxxx.com . I imagine Xxxx Xxxxx magazine would be really into this too! You should maybe try sending it to xxxxxx@xxxxxxx.com who has had success getting tracks like this onto adverts.”

In your response to my original article, you described me as an “expert”, which I thought was pretty interesting. I think this is an example of assigning a false level of influence to writers such as myself, who I sincerely don’t believe are in a position to be charging undiscovered artists to listen to their music. Discovering new music should be fun – a passion. Most people, generally, do not expect financial rewards from their hobbies. What is your response to those who feel that Fluence goes against the ethos of music discovery?

At the core of Fluence is a free service for influencers and creators to connect and help each other. We built a feature to let people set their own rate for their time and attention only after both creators and influencers suggested that it could be a more transparent way of exchanging value for useful feedback and promotional help.

I was referring to you more as a “curator” than an “expert” in that sentence as I’m not sure what expertise you have. I do know that you write about artists and are passionate about sharing the ones you love, probably every chance you get. You can use Fluence to help and promote artists without charging anyone money. I have set my rate to zero as have others. Creators can submit their media into Fluence for free and get discovered by other influencers for zero cost. When a creator submits media into Fluence, that media will still surface to other influencers for no cost if it fits within their interest profile and gets rated highly.

In terms of the “ethos of music discovery,” I believe that word of mouth recommendations from trusted sources are the best way to help artists find new fans. Influencers, curators, tastemakers, writers for The 405, etc. create a lot of value for both artists and their fans, but they typically do not see much of that value in return. It’s great that most people do not expect any financial reward for their hobby, but we want to still help them earn or be recognized for the crucial role they play in connecting creators to their fans. Just because they’re not getting paid now, doesn’t mean they do not deserve to be paid for the value they bring to everyone. Our hope is that curators and tastemakers will ultimately have more resources and freedom to help artists.

How would you describe an ideal relationship between an artist and a blogger/journalist/publication?

An ideal relationship between a creator and an influencer would be genuine and authentic. They would support each other in bringing great art to fans around the world. In the context of your question, an ideal relationship would ensure that artists are submitting something that is in the blogger/journalist/publication’s interest, and these influencers are most likely looking forward to receiving, reviewing, and providing some level of feedback on the artist’s submission. Honestly, those ideal relationships would not need Fluence, because they already have each other’s attention. Fluence is a place where creators and influencers can begin to start those real authentic connections. At that point we’re happy to see them move those relationships off Fluence and into each other’s direct inbox after a genuine mutual connection is made.

I would say that, in 2014, there is no reason why an artist wouldn’t be able to get free publicity via their own efforts or those of others. Surely, if the music is good enough and the artist has a strong online presence etc, the industry will chase them? Everyone loves a good song! Should we really still be encouraging aspiring artists to buy their way in rather than learning how to do things themselves? Or am I looking at it the wrong way?

I’ve worked with many artists in my career, and they mainly have the same problem: they’re only playing or selling to a fraction of their potential audience. They could be reaching more fans if only those prospective fans knew those artists existed. This has been the tragic inefficiency of our industry. I wish free publicity was enough, but it’s never been sufficient. If the music is good enough, the industry will chase them, but even if those artists get on radio or TV, they still may not reach all their potential fans. People rely less on broadcast media and more on recommendations from friends and trusted sources. The question we’re asking ourselves constantly at Fluence is what can we build to empower curators and tastemakers so they can better help artists find their full audience? (If you have the answer, let us know what to build for you!)

It may seem ironic that in order to get the creator paid, we created a feature that could require them to pay the influencer. But the entire reason we’re building Fluence is so creators can get paid. In order for creators to have more paying customers, they must connect with their true fans, and in order to find new fans they must first get in front of curators and influencers who can recommend them to others.

Fluence is challenging the status quo. We’re trying to create a better way that works for everyone. We would much rather find a model where creators do not pay, but in my Topspinexperience, almost all our artists have paid for some form of ads, publicity, or other types of exposure without being able to show an ROI or return for their spend. We wanted to create Fluence as a transparent and fair way to directly reward the people who are actually helping creators with their promotional goals and production feedback. It’s a super sensitive topic that’s generated a lot of debate. A model like this must be developed with 100% integrity or it will be a disservice to artists.

Let’s be honest, hosting sites like Bandcamp and Soundcloud cannot operate for free. There’s always a fee to cover the overheads somewhere. How much – if any – of a cut does Fluence take from the money given to the “influencers”?

We are constantly experimenting with the Fluence model and figuring out how to make it work best for everyone. We do not yet know what works optimally to balance the costs on all sides of the equation. Our initial thinking is that it’s better to take a percentage of the price to cover transaction costs including financial processing, application hosting, and bank fees. We are not going to charge a subscription fee to use Fluence nor will we support it with banner advertising. We’re open to suggestions if anyone has better ideas on how getting the model right.

There is obviously a demand for this kind of service – submissions have already been made to the site. Do you know if anybody has found something worth investing in/shouting out about yet? Do you have a way of being aware of success stories like that?

We see influencers naturally sharing Fluence submissions every day. We document a few success stories on our site. The best validation of the system is when great feedback is given and a share organically happens. The Glitch Mob have had great success with Fluence on multiple occasions, but it’s the emerging artists using Fluence that get me the most excited. One artist who lives in a small Native American Indian reservation in a remote part of the USsubmitted his music to several influencers and received positive feedback along with organic sharing on facebook and twitter. He has a full-time job supporting his family, but his Fluence experience motivated him to dedicate more time to make music. That was one of our first most exciting results of the system. The encouragement he received from Fluence users fueled him to make more great art. This has been the most fulfilling story for me, because even though he may never be a full-time touring artist give the reality of his life, he’ll be inspiring others locally with his music and creative passions.

“Influencers” now have the option of setting their price to $0. Do you think that changes the structure/original point of Fluence?

As mentioned, influencers have always had the option of setting their price to $0 and several still do. Many influencers change their price constantly as they figure out what works for them and how best to use the software. The original point of Fluence was to improve how creators and influencers connected and helped each other professionally independent of any cost. We wanted to build software that made the daily tasks of influencers simpler and let creators easily submit to them. The feature to let influencers charge for their time and attention was suggested by our users as a way of motivating constructive feedback and letting submitters know how much of their media was ever watched or heard. Giving the ability for influencers to charge for their time and attention gave them a way to be compensated not only from artists but all kinds of creators including designers, producers, and brands who are interested in their opinions on different products and media. I actually feel the ability to earn for your time and attention supports the original point of Fluence, because it encourages more thoughtful feedback and a more productive working relationship.

I understand you are working very hard on this service and it is in a constant state of change right now. How do you think Fluence can be improved? Where do you see Fluence going in the future?

Yes, we’re experimenting pretty radically on a lot of new features and figuring out different models that could work better for everyone. Some up and coming improvements will let influencers connect and follow each other similar to twitter so they can share their media and feedback directly with others within Fluence. More data in the system will help us deliver the right submission to the influencers who are most likely to be interested. We’re also creating features where users can directly message each other to collaborate and offer more feedback and help beyond the initial submission.

We are also letting influencers transfer their earnings directly to the charity of their choice. This was an idea from a very thoughtful influencer who didn’t feel comfortable receiving payment from artists but recognized the value of their direct feedback and how it can help artists. She suggested donating her earnings to Nordoff Robbins, and we were inspired to make that a feature available to all influencers. Any Fluence user can donate their earnings to any charity.

In the future, we’d like to see Fluence become a meaningful and lasting service for those in the creative fields to connect with each other, collaborate, and promote each others work. Ideally, Fluence will help move more art and ideas around the world and into the hearts and minds of those most likely to enjoy. We’re far from figuring out the problem we set out to solve and are only in the beginning stage. We invite you to make this a collective effort as we’re trying to improve the lives of those who help creators. Let us know how we can make the software and model better for everyone involved. My favorite sentence starts with “It would be better if it did this…,” so send us your suggestions, criticisms, and ideas on how to make it work. I honestly think we’ll only figure it out if we work on it together. Thanks for listening and asking us directly about Fluence.

Originally published on The 405 here.
Photography by Kate Beard

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