Originally recognized for its Youtube series of intimate in-studio performance videos, Audiotree has expanded prolifically since its inception 7 years ago. Now boasting over 150 employees, live concert video production, off-site video production, management over multiple music venues, its titular music festival, and even ownership and management of a restaurant all in Chicago, it’s hard to believe that Audiotree started with humble beginnings: two dudes from Kalamazoo, Michigan. “We’ve always been entrepreneurial-minded,” Adam Thurston, the C.O.O. of Audiotree, quips.
“In the beginning we were writing our friends or bands that we knew from Chicago or Michigan like ‘hey we just started this thing called Audiotree,’ and everyone was like ‘what the hell is that.’ So it started with us asking/begging bands to come in and play, to the point where after 50 or 60 sessions we started to get a little trickle of bands that were writing us to come play a session. Almost 8 years later, we’ve done nearly 1,000 sessions, and people can see the value and love our ideas. Now bigger bands and even major record labels are writing us.”
The reason Audiotree has been able to thrive in an increasingly competitive market is the equitable terms they offer to each band they work with; “our core business model for Audiotree is we we pick [bands] based on a number of different metrics (growth, promise, or we just plain like their music) but we require every band to sign off on our agreement. So they come in for free, and we record the session, we put it out, and give them anything they want for promotion, but in exchange we stream everything and make downloads available. Then we split the profits 50/50.“
Each time Audiotree invests in a band for a session, and the band goes on to bigger and better things, it’s in part due to their mutually beneficial partnership early on. “It’s crazy, bands will write us and say ‘every single show we played, someone came up and said they found us on Audiotree’ and that’s very real and working for a lot of bands” explains Adam. “That was our whole idea all along, we wanted [Audiotree] to become…a talent discovery type of thing.”
Creating a music festival to showcase the talent Audiotree has worked with, along with some they haven’t in their traditional studio sessions, simply seemed like a natural next step for the company. Audiotree Music Festival began in 2013 and helped increase the popularity of the brand. Last year the fest expanded to two stages and two days of music and vendors. “Founder Michael Johnston and I and our CFO are all from Kalamazoo. It might seem crazy that we take all these bands and put on a festival there, but when we were growing up there wasn’t a lot of good music in Kalamazoo. So the idea when we started the company was, it would be really cool if we got to give back to our community.”
Now that Audiotree has its eggs in a lot of different baskets, it’s almost hard to tell what their flagstaff content is these days. After acquiring two Chicago music venues, Schubas and Lincoln Hall, they adapted their video production to these new environments.
“In early 2015, when we were approached with the idea of acquiring Schubas and Lincoln Hall, the reason it made so much sense for us [to buy them] was because they were our two favorite venues in Chicago. We’re finding ourselves there multiple times a week to see the bands who had played an Audiotree session, or bands we’re working with in other productions, and we knew what the possibility was if we owned those venues. It really opened up a lot of opportunities for us.” Audiotree now owns and operates both venues, giving them even more access to bands coming through Chicago to potentially book a studio session, or perhaps agree to a “Live from Lincoln Hall” or “Shows from Schubas” video.
At this point, why not add another interesting acquisition into the mix? Adam explains Audiotree’s newest venture into the restaurant business; “When we bought the two venues, right next door was an old restaurant that was out of date and needed some updating. So we went crazy and demolished that building, and built this large new restaurant, Tied House, which opened in late February. It’s been going great.”
The next potential opportunity for Audiotree will test the large scalability of their business model that has not yet let them down. “We’ve been approached by multiple people, from Budapest, Paris, Toronto, etc., who love our model and what we do and want to do something similar.” Adam states going global is a very real possibility, but when that will become a reality, he’s not so sure. “Buying the venues and starting the restaurant sort of put that on the back burner for a bit but I would say it’s a possibility.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity
Audiotree Music Festival takes place this weekend. More info can be found at www.audiotreemusicfestival.com