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In-Depth With Roger McNamee, The Tech Investor Who Shaped The Music Business

When they’re not being sued by the Doobie Brothers (a lawsuit that has since been dropped, according to McNamee), the Doobie Decibel System continues to bring some of the best jams around. The group is led by Roger McNamee, who spent the majority of his career in the emerging tech industry before returning to his roots as a musician. Our very own Rex Thomson sat down to talk to the one and only McNamee in this exclusive interview.

Check it out below:

L4LM:  As I’ve been researching you for this interview, I’ve come to the conclusion that you might be one of the coolest people on the planet.

Roger McNamee:  Oh stop!  Please.  That certainly isn’t true!  I will tell you that I am living the dream, and living it in a lot of different ways.  Life always presents you with a lot of ups and downs, and the secret to having a good life is to always have at least one up after every down. 

L4LM:  First of all, you’ve gathered one heck of a band together for the Doobie Decibel System live shows.  How’d you get all these guys in one place?

RM:  We are so lucky in the San Francisco Bay area because Bobby Weir, Phil Lesh each have a venue out here.  Sweetwater for Bobby and Terrapin Crossroads for Phil, and they have each created an environment that encourages local musicians to come and experiment.  There are a ton of opportunities to come and play with folks whose regular gig is another band.  So for Jason and me, who play with Moonalice…and we got together before Jason (Crosby) started playing with Moonalice, were playing at an event together, but separately, and he suggests we get together and just play.  So when we got together and played it was just like magic.  We each found the we had a really great vocal blend, it was just so much fun.  Then when we started playing our first shows together we got a chance to participate in another one of the what we call “Friends” shows…somebody organizes the players and we kinda mix and match.  Lebo was there, from ALO, Animal Liberation Orchestra, Jay Lane was there, from Ratdog and Pete Sears, from Moonalice was there so we wound up doing a song together and everyone was like “Wow!  That was fun!”    We got together at a studio and tried to have a little practice and again it was like “Wow!  This is really cool.”  We did our first show at the Moonalice 420 event at Boz Scaggs‘s venue, Slim’s in San Francisco.  Everyone went “Wow!  This is really fun!  We should do this again!”  Then the challenge came up…everyone’s gotten big.  Pete, Jason and I are playing with Moonalice, Lebo is out there with ALO, they’re recording a new album and getting ready for a tour…Jay is playing with a variety of bands…so the scheduling was a nightmare.  So we said “Okay fine,  let’s pick some dates that are way out there at the end of September and..here we are!  (Chuckles)

L4LM:  (Chuckles) Funny how that works.

RM:  Exactly.  We got this amazing opportunity to play at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, which is a free festival in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.  I think it’s the largest festival in America, like 750,000 people come, so it’s huge right?  And if you’re a band, it’s really cool to play a festival like that.  Here we are…just a year old band and we got the invitation and we realized “We’ve got to go out and play a whole bunch of gigs!” so the timing of our whole East Coast thing worked out perfectly.  

L4LM:  You just eliminated my “You’re gonna be playing the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.  Are you excited about that?” question.

RM:  Listen, getting to play at all is a privilege…getting to play a big gig like HSB is just really something else.  There’s a guy named Warren Hellman, an investor who was just really, really successfulHis philanthropy has been all about making San Francisco a better place to live…so we can go see the arts, have an education, enjoy the parks and things like that.  When he died, in his will he left a trust to support the Bluegrass Festival, which he has been paying for since it started fifteen years ago.  He pays 100% of the costs so it’s free to everybody. 

I think he initially did it so he could give the biggest payday of the year to his heroes in the bluegrass world.  So it was Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs and people like that.  He would have them out, give them a huge pay day and have them play in front of their biggest crowds of the year.  Then the thing morphed into something that was bigger than just bluegrass…and became “Hardly” Strictly Bluegrass.  When that happened we (Moonalice)  started getting invited, and it is pretty special.  There’s a ton of great festivals out there, and if you’re in a band getting to play at a festival is really an awesome thing.  It’s just a great vibe, being at a festival. 

L4LM:  You traveled an inverted path to the stage.  Most musicians are looking for fame and fortune, but you had that covered before Moonalice started. 

RM:  Here’s how it worked.  When I was in college, I was in a really awesome band called Guff.  I think we really had a real shot.  It was 1980 and we were playing really at the intersection of the Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa and punk, and it was a good time to be playing that kind of music.   We were a quartet and the guy who wrote the songs fell in love and ran away.  I had been supporting myself through all of this and I had all these student loans and then, suddenly, the notion of going off and trying the band thing without our core songwriter just seemed really risky.  So I went off and got a day job.  By a series of total miracles…it worked out really, really well! 

What was weird is the fact that I was a musician turned out to be the key to it.  I got involved in the personal computer industry when it was just starting out, and the thing that was so funny was that everyone that was in that business was my age.  We all listened to the same music, we all liked the same drugs, and at the trade shows and conferences people would bring instruments and we would have jam sessions…and I knew more songs than everybody else.  (Chuckles) So I was sitting there paying with Paul Allen from Microsoft and the head of R & D from Apple, and I got to know all these people as musicians, and if you know some body from playing music you know them a lot deeper than from just a conversation.  I just…I was just really lucky.  I showed up in the right place at the right time.  The only place a hippie could be successful in business was the tech world.  Steve Jobs, bless his heart…famously said “Never trust someone who hasn’t taken acid.”  And that WAS the personal computer industry.  And that felt pretty normal to me, weirdly enough right?  (Chuckles)   I’m not really a business person, but I did have a really lucky run in the tech world and that allowed me to get back to playing on my own, being able to play in bands.  I’m blessed.

L4LM: Your digital technology and music connections are far reaching. You helped pioneer the “Direct Artist Download” model so many bands are using today.

RM:  Let me tell you about the background of that.  You know the producer T-Bone Burnett, who scored the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?, ” “Raising Sand” and a gazillion other Grammy winning albums?  T-Bone put us together, he put Moonalice together.  He said, “Roger, I want you to take everything you know about technology and create things that other artists can use to help them survive in a world where essentially the labels, and everyone else, is either unable to help you or they’re actually out there to hurt you.”  We were consciously created to apply technology to the music industry.  Being our age, and playing original music and not being a tribute band, we had to use technology to reach people.  So the combination of Facebook and Twitter, and then, especially, the video broadcast of every concert.  That has been transformational.  What’s been really funny is it turns out it wasn’t that expensive to broadcast all the shows.

L4LM: Really?

RM:  We had to spend some time figuring it out, just how to do it.  And sure, some of the broadcasts didn’t look that good at the beginning but once we figured it out it turned out to be really cheap. Doobie Decibel System has just glommed on to all that technology, with equally great results.  The benefit is…if you’re not a fan it means you can know whether you like a band or not before you go pay a nickel for a ticket.   Anybody who goes to ddsband.com, you can literally watch any show the Doobie Decibel System has played and watch videos for every song we’ve recorded…I think we’ve recorded 27 songs so far.  Our notion here is that it’s really cheap for us to put that stuff out and if we pay it forward that way…you spread the love, you spread the music…you give the fans a chance to have a great time.  And when they come to a show it’s an extra value…you’re not sittin’ there feelin’ nervous wonderin’ “Did I spend too much money on this ticket.”

L4LM:  That’s a cool trail you’ve blazed.

RM:  The cool thing is, Moonalice would broadcast our set from the HSB Festival each year, and finally somebody said…”Well, you should do that for the whole thing!”  We said “We’ve been trying to do that from the beginning!”  Over the last few years, we’ve broadcast four different stages from the entire festival.  This means people can go to the HSB site and watch the whole thing while it’s going on!  In HD.  On their phone or on their computer.  For free.  Music and art are two things where a small number of people can do their work and make lives better for a large number.  That’s why we not only broadcast every show but we commission a unique poster for every single show.  So when people come to the east coast tour, at every show there’s gonna be a different poster by one of the great San Francisco artists.  Now, we have 31 different artists on our poster team who’ve now done over 900 unigue posters in 8 years and that is something we’re real proud of.

L4LM:  You should be.

RM:  The artists are proud as well.  Imagine…everybody from Stanley Mouse to Wes Wilson who are the original San Francisco poster artists other folks from that era like David Singer and Lee Conklin all the way up to the brand new up and comers like Lauren Yurkovitch and Alexandra Fischer and Wendy Wright, John Mavroudis and Dave Hunter.  It’s really incredibly exciting to be in a really creative scene.  That’s just one of the things that’s really cool about San Francisco right now.  

Because Phil Lesh and Bobby Weir have these venues, because Boz Scaggs has the Great American Music Hall, we have musician operated venues encouraging really creative stuff. And there’s just a ton of creative people in the community.  There’s just something going on right now that wasn’t true five years ago and ten years ago and even twenty years ago where the San Franciscan music scene has got this energy level…it’s just got everybody motivated and it causing all this creative energy to happen.  The Doobie Decimal System is a direct result of those creative juices getting unleashed. 

L4LM: It sounds like you have a dream team of artists to work with.

RM:  One of the things that we’re most proudest of is that our artists have formed a collective.  They work together for their benefit and later this year, we are taking possession of a facility called the Haight Street Art Center.  They’ll have a 12,000 sq. ft print shop, gallery museum.  With all the technology they need…databases of past poster…all the stuff they need to monetize their art.  We’ll open it up to the public some time early next year…March or April of next year.  That came directly out of this creative process, from Moonalice to Doobie Decibel System.  If you’re in a band, and there are these other things happening as a result of your doing what you’re doing…it just brings a smile to your face.

L4LM: It sounds like you’re fighting the good fight!

RM:  I was raised by parents who taught me to try and make a positive impact on the world.  I’m a dyed-in-the-wool hippie who happened to get really lucky, okay, and I just try and share that good fortune with everyone I meet. 

L4LM:  That’s the highest calling anyone can aspire to, in my opinion. From what I’ve seen in my research, you’ve been an adviser for some of the most influential men on Earth over the last twenty something years.  Do you get a sense that you were involved in shaping the world, to an minor extent?

RM:  No but I do have a sense that I had a front row seat for the evolution of technology over the last 33 years, and that has been pretty fun.  I showed up at a time when people my age were about to change the world…I just happened to be at the right place at the right time when that happened so I got to know people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, when we were all young.  Those guys weren’t rich…I mean…Steve was already famous, but only barely, and Bill wasn’t at all yet.  Being in the right place at the right time turns out to be the most important thing that can happen to a person.  It’s really helpful to be lucky.  (Chuckles)  I was lucky later on to get to know Mark Zuckerberg when he was first building Facebook.  The notion that I helped those guys out is something I’m really proud of…but..y’know…would they have been successful if they had never met me?  Absolutely.  Did I move the needle?  MMMM…maybe.  I’m just as proud of the work I did for the Grateful Dead, the work I’ve done for U2…Pearl Jam and the rest…I just try and help people…that’s the goal.  The truth is I don’t know if I moved the needle that much, but I was lucky enough to be there and I was lucky enough to have these people seek me out and ask me for my help.

L4LM:  Wow.

RM:  As someone who grew up a Deadhead, the day I got the call saying “Hey, can you come down and help us rebuild the business?  Jerry‘s dead.  We’ve got all these employees and we wanna keep them employed…we need your help.”  That was incredibly gratifying.  I got to do that for three years, and remained friends with those guys ever since.  I’ve had lotsa chances to play with most of them…and that was a huge thrill too.   I have been really really lucky.  It could have been anybody, it happened to be me.  I don’t have any illusions.  I’m not great.  But I have a good heart and a good spirit.  I try to treat everyone fairly, even more than fairly.   The flip side is everybody has bad days too.  I’ve had some health problems that have slowed me down…it’s good to have the good days to balance out the bad.  Life’s a series of ups and downs and the trick is to always end with an up.  Everybody has a dream, and I feel like I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to realize portions of mine.  And I kinda feel like it’s my job to help pay it forward, and to help people realize their dreams. 

L4LM:  Again, as noble a thing as possible. 

RM:  I think part of the reason that i’ve been so lucky is that I’ve never expected it from this stuff.  The first time I met Bono I could not have named a U2 song.  But they sought me out because of the work I had done with the Grateful Dead.  Here was this guy…I couldn’t name a song that they did but he was fascinating.  He had great insights.  He had just persuaded the big countries of the world to forgive a gazillion dollars in debt in Africa.  And I’m thinking “Wow!  This guy wants to talk to me!”  We became business partners, and I got to spend ten years, attached to him.  Now I know quite a few of his songs! (Laughs)

L4LM:  (Laughs) 

RM:  I’ve been to thirty five or forty shows.  It is funny how these things work.  People go “Well…waitaminute. You hooked up with the Dead, how did you end up working with U2?”  And I go “Well, he called.” (Chuckles)  This is one of my favorite stories.  You know how, every once in a while something happens, and ten seconds later you realize you shoulda said something different?

L4LM:  Oh yeah?

RM:  In this case, I get a phone call.  When I was working with the Dead, I was also working with Bono very closey.  I had my strokes coming back from Ireland and they never knew this.  I didn’t hear from them for like…two years.  “One day, my phone rings, and I answer it.  And I hear “Roger!  It’s Bono.”  And what I shoulda said was “…Bono who?” (Laughs)  I missed that chance, and i’ve been regretting it ever since.

L4LM:  That’s great.

RM:  Just remember, it’s not about me.  I feel really lucky.  To the extent my story can inspire people, then god bless, right?  But the key thing to understand is, I’m a musician.  I play music because the spirit moves me.   We do poster work because we can, and poster art is a beautiful thing.  It’s a relatively inexpensive way to improve people’s lives.  The same reason why we broadcast shows.  Because we can.  I wish everybody could do that.  All I know how to do is lead by example.  I don’t wanna judge or be critical…I wanna do what I think is right and be prepared to live with the consequences. 

L4LM: Hell yeah.

RM:  What I would say to anyone who is reading this is just remember…if you’ve got a dream, never let go.  Not ever.  You’re gonna have setbacks.  I’ve had dozens of them.  Some of them really horrible.   You just, you don’t ever really want to let go because there’s always a chance to have an up after a down.  And, in my case, each down has lead to a more interesting up.  I don’t know what the next one will be, be, but I look forward to it whatever it ends up being.

L4LM:  So you guys are out on the road right now, correct?  This comes out Monday, the 28th.  Where ya gonna be?  

RM:  Well, on Tuesday, the 29th, we’ll be playing at Garcia’s, at the Capital Theater in Port Chester, New York.  This is the venue owned by Peter Shapiro, who just put on the “Fare Thee Well” shows in Chicago and Santa Clara

L4LM:  You gotta love the man.  He saved The Wetlands.

RM:  Pete is my hero.  Like the second coming of Bill Graham.  But maybe with more heart.  He’s a fans fan.  The way he did the “Fare thee Well” shows, especially the ones in California, where he was able to do a complete ticket buyout from Ticketmaster so that all the tickets were available from Advance Direct.  I mean…NOBODY does that except Pete Shapiro.  We’ll be there, and we hope everyone comes out, even though it’s a Tuesday night y’know?  Then on Wednesday next week we’re gonna be at the Rising Sun in Pennsylvania.  On Thursday we’re at the Ardmore Music Hall, in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. Then on Saturday we’ll be on the Arrow Stage at the Hardly Strictly Blueegrass Festival. 

L4LM:  So…The Doobie Decibel System made some unexpected news recently.  It seems like the Doobie Brothers is going after you in court for the use of the word Doobie in you name.  Pretty much the coolest lawsuit ever.  Is this something you can comment on?

RM:  I can now talk about it.  Believe it or not I had a phone call this morning from Tom Johnson, one of the founders of the Doobie Brothers.  He is one of the nicest people I have ever met.   What happened was, somebody went off the reservation.  Someone that worked for them decided they were gonna be a hero and that they were gonna sue us.  The person who did this called us ahead of time and yelled and screamed at us. (Unintelligible grumblings)   Very sad. 

What we discovered, subsequently, was through back channels is that the band knew absolutely nothing about it.   The band got in touch with us through the back channels and said “We don’t know what’s going on, we didn’t do this.”    We were at the Lock’n Music Festival, Moonalice was on the bill at Lock’n and they were on the bill too.  But because of the bad weather they got pushed back from Thursday and they ended up playing DIRECTLY before Moonalice on the main stage.  So Jason and I were there.  So they came off the stage and came up to us and said “Guys!  We’re so sorry and so embarrassed.  We feel terrible that we did this to you.”  And they couldn’t have been nicer.  

L4LM: That sounds like the feud is over.   

RM: I look at it like this.  There are people out there who make mistakes.  You just have to allow for that.  But these are really good people.  We feel no ill will.  It was just really weird, because when the first phone call came in, I had no idea what the guy was talking about.  Our name is a play on the card catalog. 

L4LM:  The only real problem I have with the name is that the initials remind me of the dentist.  I don’t like the dentist. (Laughs)

RM: (Chuckles) Well, sorry about that.  You’re the only one who’s ever expressed that sentiment.  Most people just get that it’s a play on the library system.  We’ve even played two shows IN libraries.  We are a play on a word that they know. 

L4LM:  Speaking of libraries, you’re a tech guy.  Are you worried that we are seeeing the death of reading and attention spans?

RM:  The answer is…I worry a lot.  I worry about the changing of society that have come at least in parallel with the evolution of technology, because it’s not always a direct result of it.  I worry about it a lot.  I worry much more about people losing the ability to write and communicate well than losing the ability to read. The problem with reading was ingrained long before the internet came around.   I think things like Amazon’s Kindle have made it easier for people to read a lot.  I think people are reading more than they used to.  It’s much easier to get book and read them anywhere.  I really worry about the loss of civility  in our country.  The narcissism.    The…sometimes really..VICIOUS…attack on people you don’t even know, over matters they don’t even understand.    That is disturbing.  I don’t wanna lay it all on technology.  I don’t think it’s all technologies fault because there’s been a lot of help.  But when you look at society today it’s very troubling.  I find what’s going on in our politics right now deeply disturbing.  I think the unwillingness to acknowledge things like climate change are incompressible.  This whole notion that things were better in the 50’s?

L4LM: (laughs)

RM:  Or the 1850’s.  I will say this.  Let’s assume you think the 50’s under Eisenhower were better.  There’s no chance that if climate change had shown up Eisenhower wouldn’t have done something, much less denied it.  I mean, when the Russians fired up Sputnik, we did a national campaign to teach science, technology, engineering and math to our students, starting very young.  And that resulted in our space program and all the wonderful technology that came out of it.  And now you have a whole generation of politicians who believe that education is the enemy.  I find that horrifying.  There’s something wrong.  Technology is clearly a factor.  I hesitate to put all the blame on technology, though, because I think a lot of the people who are part of the problem are technology phobic.   I am very anxious for the future.  

Catch the Doobie Decibel System on the road, and every one of their shows on their site HERE. 

Doobie Decibel System Tour Dates

Sep 26    Washington, DC    Doobie Decibel System @ Gypsy Sally’s
Sep 27    Asbury Park, NJ    Doobie Decibel System @ The Saint
Sep 29    Port Chester, NY    Doobie Decibel System @ Garcia’s at The Capitol Theatre
Sep 30    Franconia, PA    Doobie Decibel System @ The Rising Sun
Oct 01    Ardmore, PA    Doobie Decibel System @ Ardmore Music Hall
Oct 03    San Francisco, CA    Doobie Decibel System @ Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival
Oct 07    Applegate, OR    Applegate River Lodge
Oct 08    Applegate, OR    Applegate River Lodge
Oct 10    Eugene, OR    WOW Hall
Oct 11    Portland, OR    Aladdin Theater
Oct 16    Berkeley, CA    Ashkenaz Community Center
Oct 17    Healdsburg, CA    Rocktoberfest @ Healdsburg Memorial Beach Park