In 2002, Brad Serling received an unexpected call from a representative for Phish, inviting him to a meeting at the then-disbanded jam act’s barn in Burlington, Vt.
A well-regarded tape head, Serling had founded the website Nugs.net in 1993 as a shared, free streaming site for jam band fans to trade recordings of live shows. He had crossed paths with Phish years earlier when they and other groups, including the Grateful Dead, had batted around the idea of an artist-owned online music site.
When he arrived in Burlington, the band and its managers told him the group was reuniting — and the members wanted him to help them launch a live-music site of their own. The result was Live Phish, which later merged into Nugs.net when the group broke up again in 2004.
Today, Nugs.net offers over 30,000 hours of live music from top touring acts like Dead & Company, Metallica, Pearl Jam, Phish, Bruce Springsteen and Wilco through a subscription streaming service, live webcasts, downloads and CDs.
“We don’t compete with Spotify,” says Serling, 47. “We’re more like the music equivalent of a premium sports channel that gets you all access to all your bands.”
Like Serling, who began trading Grateful Dead concert tapes in 1988, Nugs has grown increasingly sophisticated and ambitious through the years. Largely self-financed until 2017 and still privately held, Nugs has doubled its $12.99-per-month subscription base since May, says Serling, adding that download splits mirror iTunes, while Nugs pays triple Spotify’s rate for streams. That provides artists a consistent way to stay relevant — and get paid — even while off the road.
Just how much that money means depends on the band. While it’s key for some jam bands, Serling knows Nugs isn’t uppermost in the minds of a global stadium act like Metallica, which nonetheless has 600 shows on the site. And it’s also a way to keep live music fans engaged when a band isn’t on the road. When Springsteen was on Broadway last year, the site continually added older, historic recordings for his fans, including a legendary 1978 Darkness on the Edge of Town era show at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, N.J. that became one of the most sought-after Springsteen bootlegs, Piéce de Résistance. Serling predicts the recording will ultimately become the most popular Springsteen download on the site, which, in addition to the older landmark concerts, offers recordings of virtually live show Springsteen has played on tour since early 2014.
Pay-per-view webcasting, which the company first staged with Phish for its New Year’s Eve 2010 show, is a growth area at additional cost, and the company showcased the quality of its technology this summer with a free show by Wilco from the Paridiso in Amsterdam. It offers live webcasts of every Dead & Company show, select Phish and Widespread Panic performances, and recently offered New York shows by the Tedeschi Trucks Band.
Also on the rise: demand for hi-end audio. Serling estimates that approximately one-third of his customers will pay the $25 per month Nugs charges for high-definition audio streams and downloads. The company generally offers five options, ranging from MP3 quality to 24-bit high resolution technology. For fans of Bruce Springsteen — who sells soundboard recordings of every concert he has played since 2014, as well as legacy shows — the company even offers DSD, the download version of the SA technology used in CDs. “That’s the $50 version of the MP3 that sells for $10,” Serling says.
Nugs.net’s diverse menu means that as the company’s CEO, Serling has to balance a wide variety of requirements and variables across an extensive list of artists. That can mean exactly how the music is delivered – for instance, Pearl Jam’s fans remain unusually committed to having CDs for every concert; Bruce Springsteen’s performances and albums are available for download but not streaming – to clearing rights for webcasts. “We just did our first pay-per-view video from the Beacon in New York,” he says. “And we had to negotiate all kinds of fees for things like the union and origination.” As arduous as it is, Serling sees it as contributing to Nugs.net’s unique institutional knowledge: managers for other acts are already asking him how it was accomplished.
While Serling notes that ‘’the mission is still to spread the music far and wide,” the platform’s greatest value for bands may be in marketing. “We created a mousetrap that’s incredibly effective,” he says. In the case of Phish, which offers a download of each show to ticket holders, the “cheese” is the download and the “mouse” is the ticket that has to be swiped to get it. That brings in more fan data than Ticketmaster, which normally only identifies a ticket buyer, but not the ultimate ticket holder. All of that information belongs to the artists, not Nugs.
“The band, at the end of the night, settles and moves on to the next town. But we’ve found a way to identify and keep those fans coming back,” Serling says. “And that’s the holy grail.”
Still, all that information is empowering: though not a paid consultant, a fair number of managers and large live music players such as AEG and Live Nation have been looking to the site for clues to the future. “I never really looked at it as a consulting business, but a lot of time that’s essentially what I do,” says Serling. “They want to know how pay-per-view works on free and pay versions. And on the data collection side they’re fascinated by our ability to capture real fan data through the ticket bar code scanning. They’re intrigued because we’re getting great consumer data for the secondary market.
“But ultimately,” he continues, “What every artist and manager is after is that connection with the fans. What started as a simple way to share my tapes is now the most valuable thing an artist has to connect him to his fans.”
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of Billboard.