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An Interview with Mark Steiner, Co-Founder of GigSalad – A Music Industry Innovator Setting the Pace

Welcome to Chicago Music Magazine’s (CMM) coverage of the 2nd Annual CD Baby’s DIY Musician Conference to be held in our City of Big Shoulders at the Congress Plaza Hotel, 520 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60605, on Friday, September 30th through Sunday, October 2nd, 2016. Don’t miss CMM’s in-depth interviews with Conference attendees and speakers; previews of sessions, products, and music; and reviews from each day’s proceedings too. This is a definite must attend event for any aspiring musician or any professional in the entertainment industry looking to gain in-depth knowledge. Tickets for the Conference are available at the following link here.

In this interview with Mark Steiner, co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of GigSalad, hear what a true creative music innovator has to say about how his company, GigSalad, was formed and fits within the business of music. GigSalad is an online platform for artists to promote their talent, connect with event hosts and planners, and receive bookings for private and public gigs ranging from weddings and parties to corporate events and festivals.

William Kelly Milionis: Thank you for this interview opportunity. I am looking forward to meeting you in person at the 2nd Annual CD Baby’s DIY Musician Conference beginning on Friday, September 30th and running through Sunday, October, 2nd at the Congress Plaza Hotel in Chicago. We’ll get into the particulars of GigSalad in a moment but would like to start at the beginning if I could. Were you raised in a musical family? Did you play a musical instrument?
Mark Steiner: My parents were not musical, however, they certainly were proactive in making sure that they could facilitate any interest me and my sister had and created opportunities for us to explore and discover whatever and wherever our talents might lie. I definitely had a natural propensity towards theatrical arts and music…both. Just a huge interest in movies and music. My first real brush with, “oh, I want to do that” was when we went to a pretty progressive Catholic Church that had a band that played “The Lord’s Prayer”. It was a rock band, and I was born in 1966, so I think there was this 60’s version of that song that was very ‘poppy’ or ‘rocky’ and had a hippie sort of feel to it. The drummer just rocked my world. I want to be like that guy. I want a drum set. So, I got my first kit, oh no, I got my first snare drum for a Christmas present and recently posted it on drillback Thursday on Facebook. It was drums. I was just enamored by drums. Then, later on, I dabbled with trumpet and guitar. I sang, but drums were probably my key instrument. My mom sang, she is a pretty talented singer. Besides that, they just made sure we got to lots of cultural events; we saw travelling Broadway shows and summer stock theatre. That’s where my passion for the arts started.

Kelly: Did you ever have the opportunity to go into a recording studio with a band and understand what it takes to record music?
Mark: No studio. I was a child of the 70′s and early 80′s. Back then it was tape machine, recording on a cassette player. There were other bands around me and other musicians around me that were certainly a lot more serious than I was. For as passionate as I thought I was, I also learned that I wasn’t a very disciplined person until later in life. I wasn’t the best at something right out of the gate. Like Neil Peart of Rush or John Bonham of Led Zeppelin, if I couldn’t sound like them then I just gave up. So, I didn’t practice. There is a difference with my own children. I have a daughter who is about to be 18 in a couple of weeks, she’ll actually be in Chicago with me. She is a very accomplished violinist. Her mom, my wife is a violinist, and Olivia is definitely a lot further along already than Allison was at her age, she has been playing since she was 6. She knows what it is to be disciplined, and to practice. My son, who is also a pretty talented cellist, but he hated it. He’s a tennis player, and even with tennis, he knows how to practice and work hard for something. I did not. And so, that’s what we thought of me becoming a talent agent, or booking agent, I was always just, not to overuse the word, but enamored by those who were talented, who had practiced something their whole life or had discovered something at an early age that they loved, and they worked hard at and got really good at. For me to be in that proximity, to be able to represent people like that, was a plus. I could live vicariously through talented people.
Kelly: …and, that’s how your talent shines. You receive that inspiration from those talented individuals and you give your inspiration to those individuals by becoming a talent agent and a booking agent. At what point did you believe you wanted to be an agent, and what was your first gig?
Mark: I grew up in NJ and moved to NY after a brief stint in college and went on the road and did children’s theatre. So I moved into NY to try to break into the business. I thought maybe I would go back to college, but I was a horrible student. I did end up getting a lucky break and I worked in the movie business for 10 years. I got married during that time and moved to Connecticut. When we moved to Connecticut, I got out of the movie business because to throw a commute on a long 14 to 16 hour day made no sense. So I said, “I’m done, I ran my course”. And, it really was an opportunity that presented itself. A friend said, “hey, would you like to come and be an agent with me?” He was taking over this small boutique agency and he had been doing it for about a year or so, and he said, “I think you’d be good at this”, and he invited me to join him. I was looking for a job and that sounded really interesting, so I took him up on it. His instinct was I was gregarious enough, I was personable enough that I could certainly get on the phone and make deals happen and talk to people. I never necessarily thought that about myself but, sure enough, it turned out to be exactly like my sweet spot. I loved it. And, that was my first agency job. It was happenstance. I wasn’t looking for a career in that field, it just came along. By golly, here I am. That was 1994. I am 22 years in now.

Kelly: Do you recall the first gig you booked?
Mark: I do, absolutely. The agency was owned and operated by the same guy who owned the license for the Glenn Miller Orchestra; the old big band. That was my job; to book the Glenn Miller Orchestra and then other ancillary big bands when they couldn’t get booked. It was Holyoke, Massachusetts. It was probably a park event, or at Holyoke College, or a performing arts center date, or some theatre. Yeah, that was it…the Glenn Miller Orchestra.

Kelly: At what point in your life did you think you had an idea that could literally change the face of the music business?
Mark: That’s an interesting question. I worked for that small agency from 1994-2001. In 2001, I started my own agency. It was when I started that agency and had my friend create my website. All of a sudden, I started fielding calls. For the first time, I wasn’t making outbound calls, I was now receiving e-mails and calls. I was getting lots of calls and e-mails. This was 2001, it wasn’t the infancy of the Internet, but it was certainly, in my industry you would have thought there was no booking agent that had a website yet. I felt like I was getting all the calls. And, it was artists that were looking for representation, looking for gigs, looking to be listed on the roster. I wanted to always be helpful, but I was not in the development business. I wasn’t looking to discover talent. I worked with established artists and I was a middle broker for those established artists. That was my particular business model. So, the fact that I had been that starving artist at some point in my life, I always wanted to be helpful. I always wanted to encourage these people, and keep doing what you are doing, and here’s some tips. But, it really started consuming my time. I was having these conversations that took longer and longer. I was answering e-mails and always wanted to send a word of encouragement out but it was keeping me away from day to day business. I got to find a solution with this. And the solution was really, I just want to help people. I just want to help people. I’m getting contacted by event planners looking for these artists and these artists are looking for these event planners. So, I went to Steve [Tetrault, co-Founder of GigSalad], my friend who designed my website, what can we do here? So, we started conceptualizing what we imagined it would be. Very simply, it was just a directory. Let’s just tell these people that call, we’ll put a listing up on this other website and hopefully when people are searching for those things they will find that website instead of your website. And, there you go. It was kind of, sort of, very much a hobby. It was like, let’s just give it a shot. I didn’t think in terms of this is a startup. I didn’t think in terms of really starting this amazing business. At first anyway, it was really just let’s see how this goes. Conceptualizing to the creation of GigSalad.

Kelly: Sounds very similar to Derek Sivers and the founding of CD Baby…he was fielding calls and wanted to help artists.
Mark: Yes, same story you are referencing with CD Baby.
Kelly: At what point did you really take the ‘leap of faith’?
Mark: Also, a great question. There was a very pivotal moment of the leap. It was July of 2011. Up until that point, I continued to run Steiner Talent. Our official launch of GigSalad was January of 2007. We were in beta stage a couple of years prior to that. Up until then, I continued to run Steiner Talent. That was my bread and butter. That’s where I made my living. That’s how I supported my family. And, Steve was running Tetrault Design. He had clients and was designing websites, logos and such. That was his bread and butter. And, meanwhile, as GigSalad was starting to grow, and after the official launch, we bought a building, and we moved into the offices, and the team was growing, all the while we were putting every cent back into the company and not drawing from it…until 2011. Then, we said, “listen, we are doing pretty good by doing this part time. How much better could we do if we devoted everything?” We basically said, “I’m prepared to give up my safety net and I am going to put all of my attention into GigSalad”. From my business, I was able to take Steiner Talent and basically say, “I am going to give this company to us. I’m going to fold Steiner Talent into the common interest of GigSalad. Whatever income was there, we’ll just share now”. And, within a month, it was a little more difficult for him to sort of phase out clients, but by August, the next month of 2011, he did the same thing. He just shuttered the doors and said, there’s no more Tetrault Design. So, here we are 5 years later. We’ve been rocking the world ever since. Literally, when we made that decision, we had the best month ever, the next month. It was amazing, it was like, that doesn’t make sense entirely, but I’ll take it.

Kelly: When you were surveying the business landscape pertaining to your opportunity, what set you apart from your competitors like GigTown or GigMasters?
Mark: Well, you know, there’s not as many as you would think. When we started there was one other company and they had started in 1997. So, they had a 10 year jump on us. And, to this day, as far as companies that do exactly what we do…it’s just us and them. We’re very niche. We are an event marketplace company and nobody else does what we do and certainly in the way we do it. There are some other bigger companies that went and got venture capital like Thumbtack and like Angie’s List. They also do some things in events and have DJs and things like that. But as far as solely entirely events like bands, musicians, speakers, event service providers, that’s all that they do. It’s just us and them. It was my goal from the beginning of this, where I said about playing instruments, I only want to do it if I do it great. Now it’s, I only want to do stuff if I do it the best. And that was my goal in this. I don’t care if those other guys have been doing it. I don’t care that they have been doing it as long as they have been doing it. We are going to do it better. And, that was my sole priority. I am going to own this market. I am going to be number 1. That’s where I believe we are at.

Kelly: There are other companies that have similarities like ReverbNation and Sonicbids…
Mark: ReverbNation and Sonicbids were often compared to us. They’ll say, “Oh, are you like ReverbNation and Sonicbids?” We’re not really. Those are places that you can create those platforms or you can create profiles or EPKs or whatever you want to call them. The idea is you create these promo kits and then their festivals would find you and they would hire you or you could submit yourself, register to be considered for those fairs or festivals or what have you. But, in a lot a ways that’s not what it’s turned out to be. Certainly at ReverbNation, that’s a place where people definitely utilize that platform to either supplement their website or just add to their website, their personal website. Sonicbids, same thing to a greater or lesser extent, I suppose. For the most part, you won’t find people that say, “oh yeah, I book gigs from being listed on here”. It just doesn’t happen. If you Googled Jazz bands in Chicago right now, or String Quartets in Chicago right now, you would be really hard pressed to find Sonicbids to come up on that. But, you are going to find GigSalad. So, as an event planner, that’s where the gold is. We wish we didn’t have to be so SEO reliant. The good news is we are very strong in SEO, but that’s where it’s at. I just don’t think people are going to those other places to book artists. They might discover artists there, they might listen to artists there, but I don’t know if they are going to hire artists there.

Kelly: What is the difference between William Morris Endeavor and GigSalad?
Mark: Good question. William Morris Endeavor and GigSalad would be an apples and oranges comparison. If you want a celebrity, a national touring act, a name act, you are going to go to William Morris Endeavor. If you are a mom planning a kids birthday party; if you’re a bride looking for a DJ or string quartet or a cover band; if you’re a corporate event planner and looking for a jazz band to play the dinner at your shareholders meeting; those sorts of things, that’s where GigSalad comes into play. We’re there to service up to $100 dollars to $10,000 dollar range. And, when you get there, how do you distinguish or differentiate one talent from another. It’s just like you would do when you shop on eBay, or when you shop on Amazon or when you go to Airbnb. As in a marketplace, we are heavily reliant these days on reviews. What do other people say about that service. You could go there right now and create a promo kit, tell everybody you are a face painter, and I don’t know if you are a face painter or not, but you could, and, you’re only going to get as much work as those reviews say and how your promo kit looks. Do you look like a professional? Does it look like you actually do that? That’s it. It comes down to that. We’re streamlining. We’re constantly changing the nuances of how that works and how to make that seamless and how to really provide the validity and support where you know as a consumer that when you start looking, how would you choose that act, how good are they, are they professional, all that sort of thing based on, on what other people have said about that experience. If people have not said other things, or have said disparaging things that you know you shouldn’t hire that plumber. You know, if you went to Angie’s list kind of thing. So, that’s the way it works.

Kelly: Thank you for presenting a brief glimpse into GigSalad. Am looking forward to hearing a more in-depth presentation at the 2nd Annual CD Baby’s DIY Musician Conference on Friday, September 30th through Sunday, October 2nd, in Chicago, at the Congress Plaza Hotel. Thank you again for this interview and your time.
Mark: Thank you. Looking forward to seeing you in Chicago at the 2nd Annual CD Baby’s DIY Musician Conference.