Instant Karma: Propeller Raises Millions By Converting Music Fans Into Activists

ISSUE 19 2019 - DO NOT REUSE - ONE TIME USE ONLY
Leah Kuhn  
From left: The National's Scott Devendorf, Propeller winner Aaron Winden, Briggs and Propeller winners Eliana Samson McClain, Liam Russell and Daniel Hastings.

Backstage at Bonnaroo Music Festival in June, The National and Bishop Briggs held a cornhole tournament with a fan. Nearby, electronic producer NGHTMRE took two others to a beer-tasting. Later, Kacey Musgraves and Childish Gambino invited a few fans to watch their sets from the pit in front of the stage. These meetups and dozens more like them are the kinds of personal experiences music lovers are earning on Propeller, a website where users can exchange a wide range of socially conscious actions, from registering to vote to volunteering, for rewards like concert tickets and artist meet-and-greets.   

Propeller's Nashville-based founder Brandon Deroche came up with the idea in 2015, after years of touring in an alt-rock band: "I recognized the opportunity artists have to engage millions of people and use that platform for good."  

At the time, Deroche served as director of the Incubus-founded Make Yourself Foundation. He launched Propeller as an experiment, just in time for Incubus' summer tour with the Deftones. Users racked up points by sharing an article about sustainability or watching a video about the foundation's goals, which they redeemed for various prizes.

"Artists can engage fans in more ways than saying, 'Donate because I'm asking you to,'" says Deroche. His prediction was right. On that tour, Propeller gave out 100 rewards and raised $31,000 for the Make Yourself Foundation.

Propeller officially launched in January 2016 with even bigger prizes, like Lollapalooza tickets and a meetup with Alabama Shakes. Deroche left the Make Yourself Foundation last July to focus on Propeller, which so far has generated more than 3 million actions and spread $2 million in donations across 100 charitable organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and Everytown for Gun Safety. Deroche says that 350,000 of its half a million members joined in the past 18 months.

"I've been concerned with many issues facing our country," says Guns N' Roses bassist Duff McKagan, who is working with Propeller on giveaways before his performance at September's Louder Than Life Festival. "They've made it easy to drive real, tangible impact."

Propeller's next partnership is with Afropunk Festival Brooklyn on Aug. 24-25, giving away 1,000 tickets to the event. "We've been able to reach our core community with opportunities to make an impact," says Afropunk director of community affairs Manushka Magloire. This time, users can redeem a festival pass if they have accrued enough points.

Deroche sees the Afropunk partnership as an opportunity to diversify its user base and the kinds of charities Propeller benefits, especially with the 2020 presidential election on the horizon, by building voter engagement and promoting such politically oriented events as marches and webinars. Even at this early stage, Deroche says Propeller is responsible for helping 65,000 people become involved in the political process by registering them to vote and taking other actions with groups like HeadCount.

"We really consider Propeller a 'gateway drug' to activism," says Deroche. "They come in, they get a whiff of it and then they dive in."

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 10 issue of Billboard.


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