Interview: The Heads of Headstash

Honest, techy, and unabashedly "heady," Headstash debuted about a year ago as a way for DC jam and electronica fans to find shows and each other. In the brief period since, it has quickly become an underground voice for the most passionate enthusiasts of bands like STS9, The Disco Biscuits, and countless up-and-coming acts. Today (er, 4-20), Headstash reveals it's 2.0 version, with new regional message boards and a special archival page dedicated to each concert it covers.

The founders, Alan VanToai, Andrew Duch, and Nick Rhodes bring just the right mix of entrepreneurial spirit and love of music to this endeavor, which isn't paying the bills but could become a lasting institution if all goes well. While they say they're not directly trying to compete with anyone, they are clearly trying to up the ante in the world of online music media.

Headcount: So, what is each of your roles with Headstash?

Alan VanToai: I’m doing mainly outreach, partnerships, marketing, branding, design, and some of the social media kind of stuff like that. And also just brainstorming general direction and strategy kind of stuff.

Andrew Duch:  I’m pretty much in charge of all the technical stuff. So basically building up the website, just managing our back end infrastructure and supporting either Nick or Alan with the content or the marketing. So anything along those lines. Also hopefully doing some mobile development. So pretty much anything technical and I’ll guest write a News-Nug every once in a while too.

Nick Rhodes: I’m in charge of the magazine and the news section.

So how did you guys get to meet and how did you get to start Headstash?

Alan: We were in a student group together, the [University of] Maryland Music Business Society. And we’d all kind of interacted in different capacities. Towards the end of our time at the University of Maryland we wanted to create a project that we could carry on after college into the real world with us. So Duch [Andrew] and I started working together on that, came up with a name.

Andrew: And we all went to a lot of STS9 shows together, so…

(All laugh)

So the music scene brought you all together?

Andrew: Yeah, I think that’s definitely how Alan and I connected was both through the music scene and the business school. I think we both had that relationship, which is kind of rare to a certain extent. I know a lot of people in the music scene and I know a lot of people in the technology business, but it’s kind of rare to find somebody who has the same interests on both fronts – so it was a really cool match.

Alan: I love you man. (High fives Andrew)

(All laugh)

So when you first envisioned Headstash and what it was gonna be, is it the same as what it is today? What was your original vision?

Alan: Actually, when we first started brainstorming, the first idea was a blog with a message board attached to it. Duch [Andrew] was the one who took that idea and was like “well what you actually want is like a magazine with a social network engine attached to it.” So as I originally pictured it, it was one thing, but it’s definitely become the reality that Duch [Andrew] imagined when Duch put his spin on it and it’s just been working to that.

Andrew: Yeah, I think the original goal was to write a very simple blog and just building a brand around this blog and this message board. And then I obviously wanted news content, but Nick made that reality. Without him, we really wouldn’t have anything. I wasn’t a journalism major, Alan’s not a journalism major, so I think I had what I wanted in my head, but Nick basically created it. And I guess my part was then more transition to thinking about the technology behind it and how were gonna integrate with social media and the big point of 2.0 is really trying to rethink how fans can interact via the web and via technology – how fans can interact and talk about the bands and about the shows and communicate and this whole idea you know of couch tour that you see on Phish message boards and all those kinds of things. We’re trying to build that up and I think there’s a lot of room to grow in that area.

You mentioned the launch you have coming up on April 20th. Why don’t you guys tell me a little bit more about some of the features that you’re adding, some of the things that you’re building upon for that launch?

Andrew: You know I think with the original Headstash we had this idea, ok, we’re gonna kind of replicate what other people have done – we’re gonna build a message board, we’re gonna try to integrate some social media to some extent and Facebook-like features. But we realized, we really need to take it a step further and think about how do fans actually want to interact and talk about shows and how do they want to connect and do they want to talk to their friends or do they want to just talk to anybody online who’s a Phish fan and those kinds of things. This 2.0 what we’re really trying to do is redefine how a user interacts with the show. The show is such a point of focus, right? We’re gonna have a shows database essentially and every show is gonna have its own page. And essentially what we want that show to be is its own little universe that has media connected to it – photos and videos and has discussion connected to it and also has connected to it what friends are going and what other fans are going from the community and all those kinds of things. In that way, before the show it’s just one entity, it’s this thing where people are talking about the show and get hyped up about it, during the show it becomes this living organism that set-list updates come in, photos come in, videos come in, people are talking about it. And then after the show you kind of have this representative archive of what that show was in terms of the people that went, in terms of the people that were talking about the show and reviews that came after it.

Alan: Also, on a simpler level we’re also doing the regional boards. We have the message board section on our website that hasn’t really gained much traction. There’s a lot of homogenous communities like The Disco Biscuits fans and the Phish fans are on Phantasy Tour. Umphrey’s fans are on Umphreaks, Sound Tribe fans are on The Lowdown. So there are a lot of separated communities, isolated communities. There’s no reason why anybody would leave those message board communities and come to Headstash based off bands alone. So we want to try something in the jam scene, which is segmenting by region. So we’re gonna start in five cities that we’re already popular in and hope to gain some sort of traction with regional communities as well. And we think in doing that – you know a lot of New York heads can for example, New York heads can rally around the New York boards whether its for the Disco Biscuits, or for actually Younger Brother last week or anything that’s happening regionally. So we think that that is something that is not being done right now in the jam scene, so we’re looking forward to that on 4/20 as well.

Do you foresee yourselves sticking to the jamband genre going forward?

Nick: Absolutely.  That’s one of the most important things, sticking with something that we think our readers really care about, are passionate about.  You know, we’re not trying to dictate them to like this band.  We’re not saying, look at this band, you may not like them now, but you will.  We want to cover things they like, they want to read about, they’re interested in, they’re passionate about.  Stuff like that.

What is it about the jamband community that drives your personal passion?

Andrew: The tunes. [laughter]  I think for me, it kind of became more apparent in college than it did before that no matter what to some extent I was going to have to go down that normal life path of getting a job, having that 9-to-5 thing going on, one day having a family and that kind of thing and the jamband thing for me is kind of this alternate reality. It’s this other part of my life that I can kind of escape to, that I feel like nobody can really touch because I feel really connected to the music and everybody there is so friendly, much more open than the people you meet in real life.  And to have that duality is just awesome.  I know I can go there and it’s this place where I can be the other half of myself to some extent.  And talk to other people who love music, live, improvised music, who like to have a good time, go out and have adventures and everything.  You’re going to festivals, camping out for four days, and you’re not at all connected to the outside world, you’re sort of shutting it all off and living in this little contained universe.  It’s something that, going to festivals for years and years now, I still find extremely exciting and I’m always looking forward to the next one.

Nick: And on a more superficial level, I think I speak for all of us when I say that the music is actually the music we think is the best out there right now.  It’s stuff that we really love listening to.  And I think a lot of the jam scene, there’s not a lot of people who just casually listen to it.  When people listen to it they get engaged, they’re passionate about it.  I think it’s really innate with the jam scene to get so enveloped in it and love it so much for all the reasons I’ve said.

Yeah.  Do you expect to make money on this, and is it the entrepreneurial spirit that brought you to this point, or is it just the love of the music, and you don’t really care if you make any money?

Alan: We were just talking about the kind of luxury we have where we’re not pressured to make this a business in any way.  It’s got the luxury right now of not being anybody’s support like – one day.  We’re all working on this, we’re our own outside investors so we’re not pressured for profit right now, and we have our own investment in it.  We do see that kind of potential and we’re obviously excited for that, but we’re also enjoying that…  We know people who are working on entrepreneurial projects right now that they’re doing for a career, and it’s a very hard pressure to be in.  Headstash has the benefit of not.  But we’re trying.  What do you think, Nick?  I definitely want to hear what you think about this.

Nick: I actually don’t have another job right now because I’m not in the business world.  I’m in the journalism field.  It’s not like I’m even trying.  Ultimately I’d like to make this my career, but am I feeling pressure?  A little bit.  But it’s not like I’m hounding them every day to be like, let’s make this a business, let’s make money, it’s really not about that, and I think that’s important.  That’s why we could ultimately succeed, because we’re not feeling that pressure, because we’re not rushing things, we’re not making rash decisions based on what’s going to make us a quick buck.  That’s not what the scene’s about, that’s not what we’re about, and ultimately that’s not what Headstash is about.