With StageIt, Fans Use 'Notes' To See Artists Play Online

It's a given that artists need to stay connected with fans in this age of always-on social media.

But not everyone is adept at using tools like Facebook and Twitter. Communicating with fans within a 140-character limit isn't a core competency.

This is the challenge that former artist-turned-entrepreneur Evan Lowenstein is hoping to solve with StageIt, a San Francisco-based startup that went live last October. StageIt is a pay-per-view online broadcasting service where artists can invite fans to view live performances, chats and music lessons. The idea is to let artists communicate in their preferred format-through performing, or as Lowenstein calls it, "Twitter with a guitar."

"Artists like to communicate through music," he says. "Anyone can tweet. Anyone can use Facebook. We're giving you the ability to chat with fans in a live environment."

Not to mention make money while doing so. Unlike other live streaming services like Ustream or Justin.tv, all broadcasts on StageIt are pay-per-view, and every session has a tip jar option where fans can make an additional donation if they wish.

It works like this: Users who register for the service buy credits-called "notes"-that they can use to pay for performances or for tipping. One dollar buys 10 notes, and StageIt sells notes in bundles of 50. Artists schedule the date, price, duration and even audience limit of their performance. Sessions can be as short as five minutes or as long as a half hour.

An artist might make an unlimited number of tickets available for notes equivalent to $2 each, while another may make only 50 tickets available for a more exclusive engagement and charge $10 per head. Or an artist could schedule a half-hour performance for 500 fans at $5 each followed by a 10-minute chat session open to only 20 fans at $15 each. Or sell the first 50 tickets for $2, the next 50 at $10 and the last 50 at $15 to reward early-bird fans. The possibilities are almost endless.

There's also an "encore" feature that lets artists play a bit longer than their scheduled set time (something that Lowenstein says regularly results in fans leaving extra notes in the tip jar). And all sessions include live chats between attendees and artists.

For those artists who would rather put on a free show or get rid of the tip jar during their sessions, Lowenstein has a simple answer: no. He wants all bands operating on a common playing field to provide them cover to ask fans for money.

"It's nice to know that you're not charging when everybody else is offering stuff for free," he says. "Myspace took our fans and made them our friends. Since then, fans have gotten much closer and there's more immediacy and transparency with the artists. Because they've become our friends, we have a damn difficult time asking them for money."

Artists take home about 60% of the gross receipts after StageIt takes its cut. Lowenstein says the average ticket price is around $5. To date, StageIt has paid out more than $10,000 to participating artists.

About 250 artists use StageIt. Hundreds more are on a waiting list, as StageIt verifies each act before allowing the artist to schedule a show. Most are smaller emerging talents with local followings, but a few more recognizable acts like Plain White T's, Korn and even Debbie Gibson have used the service.

In hopes of drawing more big-name artists to the site, the company is scaling up its servers and staff. The angel-funded company has about 13 employees and expects its servers to crash at some point as it grows.

Whether the startup ever becomes large enough to have that problem remains to be seen. Sure, music fans who have shown resistance to paying for recorded music still happily pay for live events. But bringing that experience to the Internet can be a challenge.

StageIt's approach is interesting in that it provides access to the experience of a live show (which can't be replicated or pirated) using digital music economics. The shows are shorter that a normal live performance, and they cost less. StageIt performances are to live concerts what single-track downloads are to albums.

What's more, it encourages bands to offer something different from a typical onstage experience, such as video of the band jamming on the tour bus or in a hotel room. "A front-row seat to a backstage experience" is the company's motto.

Upcoming features include giving fans the ability to buy each other virtual gifts, letting unregistered users buy tickets so they can attend shows and a mobile app. Also look for integrations with larger social networking sites like Facebook.

"We are constantly thinking and iterating with artists in mind," Lowenstein says.