Oliver Franklin-Wallis Wired.co.uk 11/30/15
With more than 63 million Facebook fans and a billion-plus YouTube plays, Linkin Park are, according to their social media and YouTube activity, the biggest rock band in the world. But when they’re not playing sell-out stadium tours, they have a new project: helping startups become rock stars, too. In January, the band launched Machine Shop Ventures, which is designed to invest the band’s money – and their expertise – in technology companies.
Musicians investing in tech is nothing new: in the past few years, artists-turned-investors range from Jay Z to Bono and even Justin Bieber. Some of their funds are successful, others (much) less so. What makes Linkin Park unusual is the companies they’re backing: hot, high-growth companies such as ride-sharing app Lyft, logistics startup Shyp and Blue Bottle Coffee.
Early investments also include stakes in Robinhood, a stock-trading app; storage startup PlugAir; software company OpenLabs; and Turnstile, a live events startup. Even more unusual: it’s the band members themselves behind it.
“The impetus was that we want to build relationships with really smart people who are doing innovative things, because it helps us grow,” says guitarist Brad Delson, 37. “We didn’t want to say, ‘Hey, let’s give money to one of these fund managers.'”
That do-it-ourselves instinct goes back to 1999, when Linkin Park itself was a startup of sorts. “I remember packing up boxes of cassettes and stickers in Rob’s apartment and sending them off to fans,” says Mike Shinoda, the band’s 38-year-old co-vocalist.
”It was street-team marketing.” When the band’s debut album, Hybrid Theory, sold 27 million copies, other artists asked what the secret to their success was. ”They were looking to us, saying, ‘How did you do it?'”
Traditional artists might withhold their secret sauce; instead, Shinoda and his bandmates set up their own marketing company to help other new acts do the same. Now known as Machine Shop, the creative studio houses everything from production to management to Underground, the band’s fan club.
“Our modus operandi has always been to try and interact directly with our fans, and to have control over everything we’re working on creatively,” says Delson, in Machine Shop’s HQ in downtown LA. “We don’t want middlemen.”
Through Machine Shop, the band has built a reputation for being prolifically creative, whether through solo projects or collaborations with other artists and companies such as the messaging app Line and the fashion label BAPE.
Some of the band already had experience in startups: Shinoda has personally invested in Sonos and Spotify, and had been involved with two funds managed by Lowercase Capital. They also spent time with investors at Y Combinator, the respected Silicon Valley incubator, and meeting VCs and founders. When any company is considered, the bandmates test the product and meet its creators.
The priority, Shinoda says, isn’t returns: it’s about finding companies that the band can partner with and vice versa. Lyft’s ride-sharing, for example, ties into the band’s environmental concerns (their charity, Music For Relief, raised money to fight climate change), “and it’s a sober driving solution for people coming home from Linkin Park concerts,” says Shinoda.
It’s not all one way, either: the band provides advice to growing companies (Shinoda consulted on the user-experience for OpenLabs’ music software StageLight).
“If you’re a company looking to build a worldwide community, the band has phenomenal experience in that,” says Kiel Berry, vice president of Machine Shop Ventures. “If we’re talking to a company about China, we know people in China.”
According to Berry, Machine Shop — both its venture arm and creative studio — reflect a wider trend: with musicians reliant on technology for distribution and reaching fans, the creatives’ personal involvement is inevitable.
“We’re seeing tech and entertainment starting to merge,” he says. He points to the band’s use of drones (used to film live concerts), virtual reality and even gaming. ”The guys are engaged in technology in ways that would surprise you. They’re like Tony Stark with a guitar.”
That won’t stop the haters, of course: when Machine Shop first launched, some in the startup and music industries questioned their motives. But in the end, Shinoda says, that doesn’t even matter. “Linkin Park and our music is the core. Everything else is built around it.”
Delson gestures to the room. “Ultimately, if what’s going on here isn’t serving the music, it wouldn’t exist.”