Neal Humphrey oozes passion over the phone. Not that fake “all I do is hustle” startup passion, but the real stuff. Nothing is genuinely more exciting to him than Flashband, the social media site and event platform he’s been working on since 2012.
What started out as a series of showcases meant to highlight and connect D.C.’s thriving music scene has blossomed into a website that is designed to keep those connections alive. While most musicians turn to Craigslist (or their friends) to find new bandmates, people to share a bill with, and jam session partners, Flashband aims to make all of that easier by tying those requests to a profile, and then eventually getting those musicians all in the same room.
We talked with Humphrey a few days before Flashband’s launch party about their goals, how Flashband can help stop bands from breaking up and how they keep the site relevant and honest, even though it can be hard to keep people from lying on the Internet.
Let’s start off from the beginning. Can you tell me about Flashband’s origin story?
So, basically, about five years ago, I was playing in a local D.C. bluegrass band called The Family Hammer that was composed of lots of the standard D.C. people. The NGO employees, people working for consulting companies and such. Inevitably they started moving away, and when they did, I was in the position where I wanted to find new people to play with, but I wanted to do it in a way that didn’t have any presumptions of what the outcome would be. I just wanted to find people I would really resonate with. During some brain storming with some musician friends, we came up with a concept to do these events where we had a group of musicians, about 30 or 40 of them, form bands that last for one month. They would put on a show with those bands, each one would put on a 15 minute set, and play at least one original song. So we put on the first event at a house party and it was a really big success and a lot of fun. I never ended up starting a new band, because I ended up getting excited about doing another one of these showcases, and with helping connect other people. It resonated with a lot of other musicians to have that same sort of need. It was easier to connect with other people, but also without a lot of the baggage that comes with traditional routes, which are either Craigslist posts, or your conventional friend network, which can be slow and time consuming.
Pretty soon after we did that first showcase I started envisioning a whole system of ways we could improve those collaborations between musicians. The idea of a whole website that helped musicians connect was one of those, and we had been building that in the background for a long time, but up until now, our core activity has been the events. We’re still doing those, even with the new website launch, but basically, you need to connect with people in person, in real life, to know if you want to play music with them.
The events do that really well, obviously, but the website lets you work independently, outside of us having to organize the event.
Do you have to be a part of Flashband to join the events? Or is it more like a recruiting tool?
Everyone that comes registers through the website, so that they can be connected with all the other people that are participating in the event. So they make a profile that has their name and instruments, and a bio, and pictures, and a portfolio of their music. We do that as a part of the event registration process so that you can go back on the site and say, “Oh yeah, I played with Joe, and there’s how I can get in touch with him.” For almost all of the events we use the website in conjunction with the event. When we do showcases, there is no registration for the non-musicians so to speak, but for the musicians it is a really integrated experience between the two.
How big is the user base now?
We have about 1,700 total musicians on the site. Signing up for a profile is free, so anyone who wants to do that can. About half of those have participated in our events the past couple of years, but most of them do multiple events. So more specifically, in some of the showcases we’ve done, we’ve had about 35 of those shows, and about 500 musicians have participated (on average we do it twice). That’s created about a 200 one time bands.
Is your user base mostly people who want to form serious bands or is it mostly casual musicians?
Historically, the musicians who have benefitted the most from Flashband are the serious hobbyists. The ones that probably played in a band in college, are maybe playing in one, but probably aren’t now, would like to play in a local band, but don’t have ambitions of touring. Thats especially been true of people who do the showcases, that was essentially who I was, and the fact that it’s appealing to that type of musician makes sense, since it came from that need. What we’re doing with the website launch is trying to expand in both directions. So having things that are a little more applicable to beginners who aren’t ready to go on stage yet, as well as the professional who can benefit from the networking tool. The new website is really intended to broaden that scope. It’s still going to be the core of members who are serious hobbyists, but it’s something that can be applicable with anyone who wants to play with people.
What feature on the new website are you most excited about?
What I’m most excited about is the collaboration section, and this is really an answer to the Craigslist post that most people know. It has a lot of the same features where you say, “Hey, I’m looking to find band mates,” or maybe you’re looking to find an opening band, or someone to split a bill with, or someone to jam with. The difference is that it is connected to the profile of a real person that is part of the community we’re building. Plus we can tag those collaborations with things that are human specific, like instruments that are relevant and genres that are relevant, so on the first level, when you’re browsing it, you see why it’s relevant to you. You can see the person it is trying to connect you with and you can filter a bit easier, so it’s not as much work. Because we have that info we can drive those collaborations out to the people who it’s most relevant through our weekly mailing list updates and that kind of thing, where we can say, “Hey, drummers! Pay attention to these opportunities.”
We’re in the beginning process of getting all of that fully up and running, right now you can go and post collaborations and respond to them, but there’s a lot of stuff that we can build on from there to make it a cleaner experience for both sides.
Was that a planned feature, or was it inspired by the current Flashband community?
Early on, when I was first envisioning the website, it was not something I had thought about or planned for. It really came from observing and talking to musicians who participated in the showcases, or didn’t, and found that a lot of people who had a specific need in mind didn’t benefit from the randomness that was associated with the showcases.
So, I have a little less than zero musical ability, but I was able to sign up for a Flashband account without hassle. How do you folks plan on keeping the non-musician riff raff out so the website stays relevant to the music community?
As you saw, we don’t have any explicit prohibition on it right now. The biggest thing is that it’s not going to be as relevant to you. If that is something you’re very interested in (or anyone who isn’t a musician), then it can still be valuable to do that. We’ll probably have some method in the future to designate a fan account that we can filter out to keep things relevant, but they can still have an observer status. We’ll put that in the priority list based on how much people actually demand that.
I was really surprised it didn’t require me to connect my profile to a Bandcamp or SoundCloud account to prove I have any sort of talent.
Yeah, all the stuff that’s built into your profile is specific, so you can put up the SoundCloud recordings or Youtube videos. You can add your instruments and you can put bands and organizations that you’ve been a part of, so anything you can add to your profile is based around music. There wont be much that’s relevant to people who are not musicians.
Do you think your focus is going to stay on the local music scene, or would you like to see huge touring artists like Rihanna or something on Flashband?
Our focus is always going to be on the local music community because that is the way you meet people who are relevant to you. if Rihanna wanted to make a Flashband account, that would be awesome and I’d want to be able to connect her with the musicians that she needed for wherever it was she needed to be, whether it’s in her hometown or it’s a city that she’s visiting on tour. It’s still going to be local focused, but it doesn’t have to be a permanent local focus. It could be wherever you’re going. That’s actually one of the things that drew us to launch this new version of the website, to build in that better concept of chapters, and a better concepts of local specific cities we could build on. The old site didn’t explicitly say it was D.C., but there was only one kind of grouping. This breaks things out so we can have a chapter with its own identity and we can really grow to a lot more cities.
Didn’t you recently open a chapter in Baltimore?
Yeah, we had a launch party about a month ago. It was a big success. We had a lot of people, about a 120 musicians came out for the event. It’s similar in style to the launch party we’re throwing tomorrow, although it’s a little bit of a different focus. We borrowed a lot of the same ideas about how to approach it. We’re learning how to start a new city, because when I started in D.C. I already had some connections to the music community. I wanted it to be more, but it was already a start and it grew really slowly over the first couple of years, and I was just doing events occasionally. I was trying to figure out how to jumpstart that faster in a community where we hadn’t made very many connections before. We had had a few musicians that traveled from Baltimore to participate in the showcases, but only a handful.
Would you say D.C. is still the larger market?
It is a larger market for a couple reasons. First, there’s the larger population base, and the other is that D.C. is a bit more transient, so there are a lot more people who are new to the town, or that don’t have the right connections for what they need, whereas if you’ve lived in one city for a long time and you’ve played music than you have to have built up some connections.
You’ll still probably need more connections, because there is a lot of nuance to finding the right person to play music with, basically the core criteria is instruments, the genre style, like broadly at least being similar. You don’t want metal and folk usually… unless you’re doing a metal-folk band. The biggest one actually, which is a little understated, is the commitment level. That’s how often you’re going to practice and how much of a priority are you going to put band rehearsal over going out with your friends, or work when you start touring, and that sort of thing. A little bit of misalignment with commitment between musicians is probably the biggest source in band breakups.
Are people honest on Flashband?
With our events it’s pretty easy to be honest because we set up expectations about what participating in an event means. It’s basically, this is a one month commitment. You’re going to practice at least once a week, you’re going to be here on this date and you’re going to be in the show on this other date, and then that is the end of the commitment. That’s pretty clear. It’s something that resonates with a lot of people because that’s a lot of the problem that people have with finding bandmates on craigslist is that people are flakey and they don’t show up and with this it’s like, you’re going to come to the event, and I guarantee that there will be 30 other musicians there that you will play with.
As far as being honest on the site, that’s something we’re paying close attention to as we get the details right. The small differences in how you present a question on a collaboration, like “What are you looking for? Are you looking to start a band or join a pre existing band? How committed are you to that? Do you want to be touring? Or is your goal to play one weekend show a month?” So we don’t have all the things in there that I would like to yet, but I would really like to push people in the right direction on that. Being able to watch a lot of people interact with the site can help us make the right choices to remind people to think about these things. Sometimes it’s not until three months later and you’ve been practicing a bunch do you have a conversation about touring and one person is like, “I can’t ever go out of town because of work.” So the role we can play is reminding people to have those conversations earlier in the process.
I read an article somewhere that described Flashband as a dating website for musicians, which makes sense because you want to present yourself in the best light as a musician, but how do you keep people from exaggerating their talent?
Looking specifically at profiles, we’ve made some deliberate choices with how we set those up. In the portfolio, we limit you to only four audio and video recordings, so we walk people through the process of putting their best stuff up there. So you can tell from watching the first video on the list if they’re skilled, and if it’s a recording of them playing it’s going to be a pretty accurate portrayal. We do have people self identify their skill levels, so there’s a long debate about honesty there as well.
The first step with that, that we have so far, is using a common definition of what the levels mean, so when you go to add an instrument, there is a definition of what a two stars is. It’s intermediate, which means you’re competent in your instrument, you can play most kinds of songs, but you might not have stage experience. Then, as you go up, we elaborate on those kind of characteristics. When someone is filling out the profile, they still have to be honest, but at least they’re using the same measuring stick.
Yeah, it sounds like you’re doing what you can.
Yeah, and we’ll go forward with that. I’d like to flip that process on its head a little bit and have them answer questions about themselves and then we turn that into a rating, but that can be gamed also. Anything that’s self identified can be gamed. The worry is less about people trying to deliberately misrepresent themselves and more about not having the same common understanding of what it means to be an expert or what it means to be a beginner.
Is there any band or musician in particular you would love to see on Flashband?
I don’t have a specific one. There’s two directions, on one side, anyone that is eager and passionate about playing music. It’s really exciting to see them join, especially when it’s someone that is feeling a little lost and doesn’t know quite what to do next for finding the right people to play with. It’s really exciting to watch them get reinvigorated and meet people and connect with people. That’s the whole reason it started. Those are hard to name before hand because I don’t know who they are. On the other side, there’s the kind of ideal… the measure of success is going to be not when someone who is a big deal now joins, but when the first band that’s winning a Grammy says, “Oh, yes, and we met through Flashband.” So that’s what’s going to be the most exciting for me, is when we can have a lot more bands that have formed because they had an easier time meeting and connecting with the right people for them.
Whats the next step for Flashband?
I think the next immediate one is that we have a lot of features that we held back on for this launch, because we wanted to make sure they worked just right. The biggest one of those, that’s upcoming, is how we treat the musicians network. It’s similar to a basic “friend”-ing relationship, but it means something different when you say, “This is someone I’ve played music with.” We have a lot of information about the people in our network because they’ve been playing together at events for the past three years, so we know these people were in a Flashband band together and these people were at a jam session together, so we can use that to jump start the concept of, “Hey, these are the people I know that I’ve played music with,” so I’m really looking forward to releasing that feature and that will probably come out in the next few weeks, we intended it as a part of the launch, but held it back so we could polish it up a little bit more.
On the events side, or rather, the growth side, it’s definitely moving to new cities and starting new chapters. A lot of that is learning how to grow the D.C. chapter. That’s all stuff that can be really relevant to how to grow a new chapter as well. We started with the Baltimore one and had a launch party last month, but starting new ones after that is going to be very interesting process to see the differences and what the cities are like, and being able to have new communities up and running and connect them to a lot broader communities. That’s going to be our next big step.
What’s been your biggest lesson learned so far?
That’s a loaded question.
It’s tough to identify one of them. So much is in the details. There are so many things that are hard learned lessons about what features people actually want, what types of events they really want, and how best to implement them so they go from being interesting, but a little bit dysfunctional, to being smooth and nice and fully operational. The biggest lesson I would tell myself from three years ago is that it’s going to be a lot harder than you think.
Do you think you’ll ever get back in a band?
I really do want to play more music, but I don’t have any ambitions to be a full time musician. I don’t have any ambitions to have anything more than just fun side hobbies. I definitely think I will be in a band again, but it’s going to be just for fun, it’s going to be on the side, it’s going to be when it’s really enjoyable, and right now so much of my time is soaked up in trying to get our business in a position where it can truly keep running and functioning. So for me, that is my band at the moment. Flashband. But I think there will be a time when this is all working a lot better and we have a lot of this stuff functioning better, then I can put some energy into that too.