Startups get plenty of attention. But in some ways, starting a business is easy; growing an established business can be even harder.

But not if you're smart about how you grow.

Last year I wrote about Mark Lieberman, the co-founder of a private equity fund who then launched The Artists Den, a (literally) living room business he turned into a critically-acclaimed television and digital music series known for presenting small, intimate concerts by extraordinary artists in non-traditional and often historic settings.

And while the settings may be relatively small, the artists are not: The Artists Den has featured performers like Ed Sheeran, Adele, John Legend, Mumford & Sons, Zac Brown Band, and the Lumineers.

When I talked to Mark last year, he hinted that since The Artists Den had built a global community, some form of direct-to-consumer relationship would be in the works, and now that brand extension is in full swing.

Today marks the release of (((artists den))) ONE, a live album that captures some of the best tracks from the past four seasons of the show. Below is a conversation I had with Mark about the project.

Was releasing a live album always in your long-range plans?

Maybe in the back of our minds, but our original focus was producing outstanding television.

In the process of doing that, we listen to the audio tracks incessantly during production, and we're incredibly proud of that audio... but when people watch the series, they know the audio is great but it's not the main focus. The main focus is the visual.

But we live with the archives. They're really special to us. The versions of the songs the artists play at our shows, and the way they're recorded, they have a magic to them beyond a studio recording.

So at some point we said, "I don't know if we can pull this off, but these songs need to be heard. The fans will love them."

But just because you want to release a live album, that doesn't mean the bands and the labels will agree.

We went to the artists and every one of them said, "Yes."

When we turned to the labels, they naturally asked, "What's the deal?" I said, "The deal is 50/50." That split is not only fair, it makes us partners. We're partners with the artists and the labels.

Even so, I'm surprised the labels were so agreeable. After all, your versions compete with their versions.

True, but some of these songs are three or four years old. Hopefully our album helps re-awaken those studio recordings and those albums. That is certainly our hope.

Plus, we've built a longstanding, trusting relationship with the labels. If we hadn't, if we were a new player, they probably would have said no.

Each of them believes there's a good business reason to do this, especially with an equal split relationship. For them it's found promotion and found money. We have millions of fans on television, we have a global audience some of the artists don't have. It's another way for the artists to engage.

And we have relationships with all the digital services. We're releasing on 50 different systems, from Spotify to Tidal to Amazon Music. Obviously the labels can do it themselves, but again, we have fans of our TV show in markets all around the world. 

So it's a way for us to extend our brand, and for the artists to extend their brands.

Speaking of brand extension, appearing on a compilation album allows artists to cross-pollinate.

Absolutely. Playing The Artists Den makes you part of a community of great musicians.

A band like Lady Antebellum loves to be on a compilation with the Lumineers, with 
Alabama Shakes, with John Legend. It's definitely a way for the community to cross-pollinate. 

And it's really exciting that every artist is leaning into it with their fan bases and their communities -- together they have a combined 85 million Facebook friends. They're using social media to promote a trailer that celebrates all of the artists involved. They're talking about it and really, really leaning into it.

That shows the artists really believe in what we're doing. That's incredibly gratifying.

With all that said, then the hard part of putting this together had to be deciding what to include -- and what to leave out.

You're right. We can talk about partnerships and promotion, but what it all comes down to is whether it's a great album. Deciding what to include and what to leave out was a big challenge.

For starters, we only picked from the past four seasons, so that limited the universe. Then we listened to all the tracks and said, "What is the best recording from that night? Which track is symbolic of the setting?"

And then we said, "How do they all fit together?"

For example, Gary Clark Jr. played some wailing, Jimi Hendrix-style solos during his set, but the song "Cold Blooded" had the vibe of the rest of the album. It fit really nicely.

Again, though, it all comes down to whether the fans enjoy it. We've gotten a great reaction from the digital service providers; the people at Spotify told us it's an awesome project, and that's coming from an organization that probably receives 100,000 new albums every year.

We love the album, and it's nice to get that kind of reaction from the DSPs, but what we care about most are the fans.

If they react the way we think they will, we'd love to make this an annual event.

Aside from the album and producing new seasons of The Artists Den, are there other plans in the works?

We're launching a new series called Artists Den Creators Series. We've produced two episodes so far.

Basically we're taking the conversations we've always had with artists and extending them to focus on their creativity, their craft, the process they go through, and most importantly, what they want to do in terms of having an impact on the world.  

With the Creators Series, the costar is a cause, not the venue. For example, Bebe Rexha

talked about being an immigrant and how being in a chorus helped her build a bridge to a community, and how music helped her thrive as an adult.

She talked a lot about that during the interview portion of the taping, and then 34 kids from the Young People's Chorus of New York performed one of her songs as a five-part harmony. 

That was definitely a feel-good evening, but the overriding goal is to use the platform to help artists take their voice beyond their music and have an impact in a broader sense.

You'll see more of those pairings from us.

Published on: Mar 16, 2018
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