While Jon Barber is known for his innovations onstage with The Disco Biscuits, it is his latest offstage venture that is making waves. Ahead of the Biscuits’ recent month-long run of drive-in concerts, the guitarist announced the launch of Couchtour.tv. The new service served as the exclusive online carrier of the band’s 10-show run, but the new venture won’t end with the Philadelphia-bred trance fusion outfit.
Still in its infancy, Couchtour.tv isn’t quite a fully-formed product and its developers still have plenty of surprises to unveil. Between stops on the tour, Live For Live Music got a chance to catch up with Barber and talk about this latest innovation, which comes at a time in which livestreams are many musicians’ only outlet to connect with fans. [Note: Transcript has been edited for clarity].
Live For Live Music: What made you want to start your own streaming service, Couchtour.tv, when there’s other ones out there like Nugs, LiveXLive, and all of those other ones?
Jon Barber: Well, we’ve been livestreaming for five or six years as The Disco Biscuits using YouTube – we’ve been livestreaming longer than a lot of those services have even been around. So we really understand the process, and for a while we were able to get a lot of the features we wanted to offer fans out of YouTube. It’s a good platform, but there have always been things that were missing – to me. We have a really good idea of what we want our livestream service to look like, and we have the ability to get it there. It makes a lot of sense for us to control our own destiny, especially during this pandemic – that’s why we did it ourselves. Those other services are all excellent. We just had a distinct idea of what we wanted the service to be, how we wanted the service to behave and what type of user experience that would create. As a member of The Disco Biscuits, I think I’ve livestreamed more concerts than almost any other person on the planet – that gives me a whole lot of experience to go off.
Live For Live Music: So in your own words, when you say you knew what you wanted Couchtour to be, what is that? What did you guys want it to be?
Jon Barber: Well, I think you’re going to hear a lot of buzzwords on that type of question, and [other services] are all going to use the word “community” and “fan outreach” and “connectivity” and all the same old things. I’m going to say new things to the industry, things that are new to the video industry. And in coronavirus, these things have really become really important for people because they don’t have the amount of human contact that they normally have. I know that we’re going to have a particularly different take on it and then as Couchtour gets rolled out, you’re going to see what I mean by that. I don’t want to give away the secret sauce in an interview, but you understand that we’ve been livestreaming for years.
We know exactly how to do this.
Live For Live Music: So then, what is your role at Couchtour? Obviously besides being the musician.
Jon Barber: Well I built the original prototype. Now I think I’m just kind of like the person who’s really waking up every day and being the founder of the company, I guess you would say is what [my role] is.
Live For Live Music: And then, you’re willing to put yourself out there, because as you said, not everything is completely done yet with Couchtour, but you’re willing to kind of be the guinea pig on a lot of this and do these past runs with the Disco Biscuits.
Jon Barber: Well, I’ve been working with Andy Gadiel of videos of JamBase, and he worked for Gracenote which is a huge music database and company. And he’s also had the most popular Phish page in the world at one point in time, and he’s a superstar, and we’ve focused on what the fans really want upfront, which is just a terrific broadcast. And we’ve done a great job [at that]. And as you spoke with Derek [Haviland], Derek’s very good at this type of [outreach] campaign and getting in touch with people and bringing people to the site. And I think that’s a good starting point, but we’re going to go a lot further than that.
Live For Live Music: What kind of further, how far do you see going with us?
Jon Barber: I think I’m going to be building Couchtour itself for maybe the next six months, and then it’ll be really great. And I’m going to start putting people into roles of doing different parts of the site that match what people are good at so people are building stuff that lets them be really creative. I’ve built a couple tech companies already, so I know what I’m doing there. And I would just basically continue to do that with [Couchtour.tv] while having a very consistent outlet for my music as well, which was great.
Live For Live Music: I know you were saying you’re going to try to steer clear of these kinds of buzzwords, but what would you say is that principal difference that sets Couchtour apart from all of the other streaming sites?
Jon Barber: Well, I think Couchtour is gonna be better in every category. So you name the category, Couchtour is gonna be better. I just think that’s what we’re going for. We’re going for the best single livestreaming experience on the internet. In your house, the best single livestream experience available in your house.
Live For Live Music: Okay. That’s on the side of the fan, what about the advantages for the artists?
Jon Barber: Well, the advantage for the artist is we aren’t this huge conglomerate corporation. It’s a very small company. It’s a small group of people who are dedicated and passionate. So the artist is going to be able to do their job in the highest quality possible and do very well from a Couchtour broadcast.
Live For Live Music: And you’re talking six months down the road when Couchtour.tv is really reaching its full potential. But what happens six, eight, ten, twelve months from now when real concerts are much more accessible to people. What happens to Couchtour then?
Jon Barber: Well, Couchtour—as the Disco Biscuits have couch toured for a long time, as I said earlier, and those were all real concerts. The way that I see the concert business is that everything is couch tour, everything. And I know that a lot of bands can’t do that because they play a similar set every night and they really are just looking to release maybe a DVD of their best show of that tour or something like that. I think Couchtour is useful for a band like that once or twice a tour, for sure. And I think a lot of bands that are doing different stuff every night, Couchtour is an every night process for everybody involved, and we’re building it with that in mind. I really feel like everybody, every band, should broadcast every single show they play, in my opinion.
Live For Live Music: And as far as other bands go, are there any other bands signed up on Couchtour that you’re able to talk about?
Jon Barber: Well, we’re going to be announcing all the different shows that we have planned as it goes, not let them out of the bag ’til deals are fully signed, but we’re not really signing bands like the Yankees sign Alex Rodriguez. Bands can use the Couchtour service whenever that suits them. And then they don’t use Couchtour, they go do something else. We’re not trying to create some kind of system where—there’s a lot of dynamics where parties are responsible to each other, having existed in the music business for a long time [that’s often been the case]. And we’re not trying to create another one of those dynamics. We’re just trying to make a very great website, super high quality that fans love, that the band can really mobilize and excite their fanbase by being a part of.
Live For Live Music: And then in one of the quotes I read from you about the launch of Couchtour, you had talked about some bells and whistles that will be coming to the service in the future. Are you able to go into more detail about any of those?
Jon Barber: We can’t announce them right now because we’re going to use them all as promotional events going forward. So every month or so we’re going to do something great for the service and we’re going to make a promotion out of it and do a concert and have a band play and have all their fans come watch and enjoy the new feature—get a lot of use on it so we can see what’s good about it. Maybe do the iteration thing, make it better. That’s our plan there.
Live For Live Music: And then, one of the big things that hit me when I was reading about Couchtour was about it functioning as a promoter as well as a streamer. What does the marketing for live streams look like when everything’s just socially-distanced and online? What does that mean for Couchtour playing the role of the promoter?
Jon Barber: Well, we invite promoters to use Couchtour, everyone’s promoting digitally nowadays. Something like 50 percent of all [people’s] information is received from Facebook. And I’m sure Instagram is another ten [percent] on top of that. There’s a lot of digital information, but digital connection with people—we are going to leverage that in a big way with Couchtour because Couchtour is a digital product. So we’re going to be out there trying to integrate Couchtour in the digital life of trying to… It’s really important for us that the artists that use Couchtour feel like it is a positive and impactful marketing and promotional tool for their careers, as well as broadcasting to them.
Live For Live Music: Sounds like just a one-stop shop for everything from all stages of the operation.
Jon Barber: Yeah. I’ve been in the business of making a rock band happen for 25 years, I’ve done every stage it’s on, every part of it. So I’ve been taking those things—and a lot of it is the “I wish I had”—there’s a lot of this stuff going into Couchtour, it’s like “I wish I had this”, “I wish that was doable.” And we’re building a lot of those little, “I wish I had”‘s into the app.
Live For Live Music: How long have you been working on Couchtour, or how long has this really been in the process of being made?
Jon Barber: Well, I bought the URL years ago and, as I said, I’ve been livestreaming for years, so it was always on the roadmap, but in 2019 I wrote music all year, there was priorities in place. And then when coronavirus hit, a bunch of people called me up and said “Get ready to not have a career again, for the next five years” [or] “get ready to not be able to play a concert until 2030”. These are things that people called me and said to me on the phone. We just had a baby, at that point my baby was three months old.
And there’s people calling me up going like, “your particular career is going to be the one that gets really, really hurt.” So I basically was very depressed. It was hard to write music. It was very hard, the whole country was very depressed at that time. And I bought the URL. I was just like, “I can still make music if I can make this work.” And then I just got after it. Now, here we are.
Live For Live Music: Do you think we’d be sitting here having this conversation if the pandemic didn’t hit?
Jon Barber: No. I think we would have be having this conversation probably another year down the line, but the pandemic accelerated this plan by a year or two.
Live For Live Music: Okay. And then it sounds like there’s a lot really planned out right now. What’s the next hurdle for Couchtour to clear?
Jon Barber: Well, we’re focused on our development right now. We’re focused on our business development and our technological development. I think the next thing for Couchtour to clear is to do, like, a large volume. We’ve done a lot of concerts in the past couple weeks. They’ve all been really successful, but really we haven’t done anything where it’s like a 100,000 people watching—maybe 200,000 people. And I want to see the system hold up under those conditions.
So, a few years ago I built a high-frequency currency exchange when I was living in New York, and it was an incredible experience because there were certain conditions which would change the way that all the technology worked together, and you had to simulate those conditions so you could make sure that the technology works. And I want to get a couple of concerts on Couchtour.tv where we do a 100,000 [or] 200,000 tickets. So I can see that the system can work really well under those conditions.