“Why I’m Doing This,” by Milana Rabkin, Co-Founder & CEO of Stem

When I told my very Russian immigrant parents that I wanted to go to film school, they told me that it sounded like a good hobby, but not a viable career option. I couldn’t accept that, so I had to con them into letting me leave Michigan to attend UCLA “just for the summer film program,” when really I had already applied to transfer for the fall. Something you should know about me: when someone says “No,” I hear, “try harder.”

Here’s the thing; their response was a result of their experience. Music and storytelling is in the Rabkin DNA. My grandfather was in an orchestra and played the baritone in Poland to signal that the Nazis had invaded. He was one of a few survivors.

Here is my Grandpa Misha, his baritone and my dad in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Victory Day in 1956. Across the street from where this photo was taken was my Dad’s music school.

My dad toured in a Jewish folk band throughout Eastern Europe for most of his twenties and thirties, my mother graduated from a musical conservatory and my brother was in a high school band. Come visit a Rabkin household any day, and you will always hear live music being played.

This is not a special occasion, my parent’s living room looks like this year-round — speakers, multiple keyboards and all. That’s my dad on the keyboard, my grandfather Misha on the mic and my niece Arie being held by a relative.

Ironically, the only Rabkin who made any “real money” from music was my grandfather, who in the years before his passing became quite a popular wedding singer among the Orthodox Jewish community in Borough Park. However, in most of my family’s lifetime, being an artist was not sustainable, so they had to sacrifice their passion in order to sustain.

Creating was a hobby, not a career. This really upsets me, and the need to change it is at the core of my being.

My first attempt to make a career out of creation was to go behind the scenes and work with as many creators as possible. I spent the last eight years representing talent, introducing artists to technology that could enable them to create more freely.

The entire time, these words were my motto:

“It’s fun to make the impossible, possible.” — Walt Disney

It began in 2008 when I took a leave of absence from UCLA because I couldn’t afford out-of-state tuition for my senior year and landed in the mailroom at Endeavor (now WME). It was the beginning of the “no” days in Hollywood, a stark response to the glorious but short-lived era when studios threw money at young voices to option original ideas into films. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before the writer’s strike started, the stock market crashed and Hollywood panicked. The only projects that survived were the ones championed by the impassioned and empowered. Good stories died in studio development while great indie projects and Blacklist scripts sat on shelves.

Quite honestly, the role of being a talent agent never felt right for me. I’m not incentivized by money; I’m driven by novelty and pioneering new ways of bringing ideas to life. My biggest frustration was getting my hands on material for which I knew there was an audience, only to discover that no executive or financier was willing to make the bet because the “numbers didn’t add up.” Movies with big names attached and guaranteed international sales won over great niche projects. I remember learning about the tiresome indie financing model in film school, but I couldn’t accept this disempowerment, especially as I witnessed emerging self-distribution and social media platforms changing the game. As a result, I became disenchanted with the film business, left WME and returned to UCLA to finish my undergraduate degree.

It was then that I began to notice a divide forming in the creative class, between artists who struggled to operate within the traditional system and artists who decided to circumvent the conventional. Fortunately, I found a place to dive deeper into that divide. The day after graduation, I started at the United Talent Agency as a “Digital Media Agent,” where my mandate was to identify emerging platforms that would create more opportunities for the agency’s traditional clients — actors, writers, directors and producers. As a company that values entrepreneurship and creative thinkers, UTA was the first agency to invest in having a digital department. The partners at the agency appreciated that technology was redefining the industry, and they wanted to be at the center of it all. This was the perfect environment for me to discover new models for creating, distributing and monetizing content. During this time, I witnessed the democratization of it all.

I advised clients on crowdfunding to raise enough money to make their passion projects, helped filmmakers craft digital strategies to promote their films and armed my colleagues with social media data to negotiate better deals for their clients. I spent considerable time in Silicon Valley and Silicon Beach, in search of the best new tools for our clients and platforms to self-distribute their content. I helped drive the evolution of the online video ecosystem. YouTube’s 100 Funded Channel strategy led to the proliferation of multi-channel networks, which in turn engendered a new breed of creative talent most commonly referred to as the “YouTube Star.” (I personally dislike that title because many of the talent have successfully crossed over into mainstream music, film and TV with our guidance), and we signed and developed many of these stars.

I love this NY Times article by Steven Johnson, The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t, because he uses data to illustrate how the turbulence of the last 15 years seems to have fostered a thriving economy in which more people than ever are creating for a living. I’ve searched for numbers to size this population, but the closest data is from 2012, reporting at the time that 40 million people in the US alone identified themselves as part of the creative class and these people made up more than 40% of the workforce in 40 nations worldwide.

These creators are also making real money, as Steven Johnson’s data from the New York Times proved:

From 2002 to 2012, the number of businesses that identify as or employ ‘‘independent artists, writers and performers’’ grew by almost 40 percent, while the total revenue generated by this group grew by 60 percent, far exceeding the rate of inflation.

According to the O.E.S., songwriters and music directors saw their average income rise by nearly 60 percent since 1999.

And this population of creators is expanding at faster rates than ever before, as a result of emerging platforms that generate new sources of revenue. I can’t wait to see the statistics for the last five years because I’ve seen insane growth first-hand.

As Yancey Strickler so eloquently describes, the monoculture’s reign is impermanent. We are in the middle of a bottom up democratization of media, fueled by technology. It’s now easier than ever before to fund, distribute and market content. However, this progressive ecosystem remains archaic in many ways; in particular, it lacks an accounting and administration solution to eliminate the stressful elements which creators despise.

My perspective was shaped through my work with two types of talent: the “DIY Creator” who emerged from platforms like YouTube, Vine and Snapchat, and talent who came up the traditional way but wanted more control. Through both, I realized several things:

  1. Collaboration is the key to growth and audience development.
  2. Once a creator reaches a certain stature, profit-sharing becomes more important than simple cross-promotion. Enter: The Collaboration Agreement.
  3. Since Collaboration Agreements were the first of their kind and lacked precedent, contracts between creators, multi-channel networks and brands took way too long to negotiate.
  4. Even once there were precedents, it still took just as long to negotiate a $5,000 social brand endorsement as it did to negotiate a six-figure acting job. Considering the volume of digital deals in the pipeline, I was frustrated with this inefficient process filled with legalese.
  5. New metrics from digital deals (likes, follows, etc.) were confusing. Talent and their representatives just wanted data in dollars.
  6. Unlike in the traditional space, transparency with data was not an issue for these DIY creators; but, nobody had the time to aggregate or make sense of the data readily available to them. They assumed their “team” (lawyers, parents or managers) did this for them…shocker: they didn’t.
  7. Despite the accessibility of data, none of my clients knew how much money they were making, or what they should expect to receive on a monthly basis. They also didn’t understand the basics of digital rights management and as a result, were often leaving money on the table.
  8. And finally, chasing money sucks. For everyone.

I wished for a tool that solved these pain points for my clients, and I kept waiting for someone else to build a killer app that could do any one of these things.

Ultimately, just when I couldn’t wait any longer, I met my co-founders Tim and Jovin. They were also ruminating this problem and their skills and experience supplemented my own. We knew that someone needed to invest in building new pipes which would distribute content more efficiently and ensuring the rights-holders are compensated in a more timely manner, with clarity as to where the earnings originate. Creators require and deserve better infrastructure in order to ensure their sustainability.

I left my job as an agent in April 2015 to start Stem and am lucky to have assembled a team of people who are self-motivated to solve these problems because they either have witnessed or live the struggle. Over the course of the next year, they too will be sharing their own stories on this blog.

Together as Stem, we are putting our collective skills toward solving these problems for all of our creator friends. We have a lot to build and a long way to go. This is not going to be easy, and we are not naive to the hurdles we must overcome. However, the timing could not be any better. We are driven by a common cause — to eradicate the notion of the starving artist.

In my brief lifetime, I’ve witnessed the rise of the creator. What was once a grandfather’s hobby is now a teenager’s career. And now we strive to make it a sustainable career. Some may say it’s impossible, and that’s why we’re determined to make it possible.

Stay tuned…

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“Why I’m Doing This,” by Milana Rabkin, Co-Founder & CEO of Stem

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