(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is another in a series of articles on participants in the inaugural “MediaWorks Accelerator” hosted by the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center. The group’s “Demo Day” is Tuesday, August 5.)
By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
One is a musician who plays in a band and helped start a record label; the other is an English major who has founded a start-up in the apps development space.
Together, Nathan Fray and Austin Church have teamed up to start a new company called Closeup, LLC. Their goal: to bring something new to the music industry, which they say isn’t broken but in transition. In the process, they want to create a bigger musician middle class.
When we chatted with the Co-Founders on a late Friday afternoon at Remedy Coffee, we were struck by how different they appear, yet how much they share a common vision. Heck, they could even complete each other’s sentences.
Closeup clearly melds the duo’s complementary skills.
Fray is a Knoxville native who says he “did the music thing with my friends” after high school. His “thing” included playing drums in a six-member band named United Pursuit that got a major break when its “Live at the Banks House” album and a song called “Set a Fire” went viral in 2010, thanks in large part to social media.
Since the band’s breakthrough, Fray has devoted his time mostly to the band and managing the record company for indies (independently-produced music). The lessons that he learned over those years are at the heart of Closeup.fm.
Church is a Nashville native who moved to Knoxville to earn his Master’s Degree from the University of Tennessee. In 2009 he founded Bright Newt, which provides brand consulting, creative copywriting, marketing strategy, and app development.
“We had been friends for a while and collaborated on a few projects,” Church told us. With Closeup, they’re taking their relationship to a new level as part of the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center’s inaugural MediaWorks startup incubator.
Their primary product, Closeup.fm, is a DIY touring platform that enable musicians to bypass middlemen in the concert business, specifically traditional venues and promoters. Bands work directly with their fans to transform private spaces like living rooms and backyards into free music venues.
In fact, that’s the way that United Pursuit found success – using social media and word of mouth, particularly in churches, to earn fans one at a time.
Fray told us about a fan in South Africa who “wrote on our wall asking us to come to his town.” Others following United Pursuit jumped on the bandwagon, and a multi-stop tour emerged. Fans even arranged housing, food, travel and other logistics.
“Before there was a name (for the band), we learned that we did not need a promoter or booking agent,” Fray explained. “We just connected directly with fans.”
The Co-Founders are Millennials, and that is the core demographic they are targeting.
“Millennials may be reluctant to pay for CDs or digital downloads, but they will pay for premium access to artists they love,” Church said in noting why “house shows” make sense.
You can also tell that he is a born storyteller.
“We’re the Airbnb for small concerts,” he says in painting a vivid picture of the space Closeup.fm occupies.
The duo is focused on getting to market quickly.
“We have a product in the wild,” Fray said. About 50 artists had signed-up on the day we chatted, as well as more than 2,000 users around the U.S.
The start-up was spotlighted in a recent Paste article, an online source for information about trends in areas like music, movies, and video games.
Church noted how important their approach is to musicians. Speaking about Fray, he said, “You guys found a way to cobble together enough money to support five or six middle class families per month.”
The Closeup.fm goal is to do that for thousands of other musicians.