Cleared for Blast-Off
Local indie web outfit blastro.com remains pure and profitable
Like many Internet-based companies, the offices of Austin's Blastro.com aren't much to write home about. I've been here a handful of times over the past couple of years, and the suite, located in the hive/warren of the 501 Group at 501 E. Fifth, right next door to Barna Kantor's Cinemaker Co-op and Center for Young Cinema headquarters, always strikes me as falling just this side of the line between geek chic and geek reek. Four dinky, glass-partitioned micro-hives radiate out from a less-than-spacious central meeting area dominated by a generic coffee table, a mangy-yet-comfy couch, and a recessed area sporting a deuce of Technics turntables and the odd assortment of clutter.
The 501 Studios, if you're walking north from, say, Fourth Street, are literally on the other side of the tracks; a rail line neatly bisects the open field directly to the south of the complex (also home to a brace of other film- and media-related businesses). That's fitting, especially for Blastro, the upstart online video-on-demand outfit that arose from the ashes of founder Rob Campanell's InterneTV some two years back.
At a point when most Net-based companies -- those that are still around, that is -- are having a difficult time staying afloat, Blastro is thriving. As its lanky, shaven-headed founder is quick to point out, they're not just the best independent online source for new videos, music, and animation -- they're the only truly independent online source for new videos, music, and animation.
Unlike other sites with similar ideas and ideals -- iFilm.com and Launch.com come to mind -- Blastro has managed to remain totally indie, with zero ties to major online players like Yahoo! and MSN, both of whom have made it their priority in the past couple of years to engulf and devour, as Mel Brooks would say, the competition like so many amoebic overlords, buying up and off those smaller media niche companies that may or may not pose a market-share threat somewhere down the line. Blastro has remained pure -- and profited from its purity, to boot -- moving from a core base of electronica and dance music videos and live, in-studio DJ sets to its current incarnation, which relies heavily on new and underground hip-hop and rhythm & blues videos. Astonishingly, business -- in the form of Web hits from longtime fans and newcomers alike -- is booming, proof, if any is needed, that it's possible to ride the online media/entertainment wave and keep your indie cred as well.
Campanell, who started Blastro.com forerunner InterneTV in 1997 with then-partner Jay Ashcraft, has long had a specific vision of what the Internet can do in terms of providing entertainment-on-demand. With InterneTV, he began creating original programming -- short, multichapter online melodramas like Austin, helmed by Tara Veneruso of Janis Joplin Slept Here fame. That site lasted until 2000 (and still exists at www.internetv.com) when Campanell brought together the quartet of talented Austin net heads -- Fletcher Lee, Michael Umansky, former Chronicle Art Director Ben Davis, and Casey Charvet -- that eventually coalesced into Blastro.com.
"I wanted to bring these people into InterneTV to kind of take it to the next level," recalls Campanell. "Everybody had different skills -- Mike had marketing, Ben had design, Fletcher had financial skills, and Casey was good with the technical and programming skills." The creative mix -- so difficult to achieve in the online world -- took hold immediately, and using the existing template of Campanell's previous site as a launch pad, the new site officially launched in early 2000.
From the beginning, Blastro's mission was clear.
Campanell: "I wanted it to be the top pop-culture Internet television network online. At the time there was Digital Entertainment Network and Pseudo, who were already online, had tons of money and backing, and were our primary competitors. What made Blastro different was that, unlike the others, it had original programming, live interactive TV, and music videos. From the start it had all three of those elements. D.E.N. had original programming, Pseudo had live shows, but none of them had all three."
"It was more or less in the state that it's in now by the end of the summer 2000," adds Charvet.
Surf into the current incarnation of Blastro.com and you'll find a site that mixes ease-of-use with a whopping slice of music and video, primarily hip-hop -- Alicia Keys, Corey, Pink -- with archived webcasts and animation from Spike & Mike animation festival favorite Jim Lujan. The live DJ sets date back to over a year ago, when weekends (and weeknights) often found the tiny Blastro studio crammed to the walls with 24-hour-party-people who'd heard about the live netcast of their favorite DJ and dropped by to say hey and get loose. That's changed over time, and the offices are quieter now, with fewer sticky spots on the floor. Hip-hop videos on demand are at the heart of Blastro's current success, which is nearly viral in its steady growth.
"In just the last year alone," says Campanell, "we've had twentyfold growth in video play alone. That's kind of how we measure our success, in video plays. We are pretty much the top music video site that's still an independent. And we're planning on staying that way."
But who, exactly, is behind Blastro's impressive growth surge? You'd think there'd be only so much of an audience for the smallish, streaming videos the site constantly rotates. Why not just turn on MTV or BET's Rap City, already a veritable fount of hip-hop and R&B, much of it the same stuff that plays on Blastro?
"We figure that during the day," theorizes Davis, "broadband users are logged in from work and school, and that's when we get our most hits. We just ran some stats and found out that most of our audience is composed of teenagers to early twentysomethings. And it's the people who have grown up with the Internet. We had a little survey online for a week or so recently, and the people who took the time to fill it out were clearly the same people who had grown up with computers and technology as a daily part of their lives. They're looking for something that they can't get on television, whether it's a Dirty South hip-hop video or something from our live broadcast archives, that's what they're seeking. And with Blastro, they can get it whenever they want to see it. As long as you have the connection, there's no waiting."
The site's eventual progression from DJ-oriented electronica and trip-hop beats to the current slate of underground and mainstream hip-hop reflects not only changing tastes at Blastro itself, but also those of its audience. Like any media entertainment outlet worth the time and effort of checking out, the content of Blastro is ultimately governed by its audience.
"In the beginning," notes Campanell, "we focused on electronic music, even with the live shows we streamed, which were mostly local DJs. Our audience has changed, however, and now they're coming for the hip-hop and R&B videos. We figured this out when we began looking at our video plays, which we do biweekly. At first what we found reflected a pretty broad mix that had elements of pop and dance music and hip-hop and rock -- and we still program all of those types of music -- but eventually it started becoming more and more evident that the hip-hop and R&B was what was really pulling people in. These days pretty much all of our top 40 videos are hip-hop."
"And I think that has a lot to do with really strong female R&B artists like Alicia Keys, who are just now really breaking out in a big way," adds Davis. "It's really just kind of what's out there that people are into. And it's not necessarily what's on the radio, amazingly. Right now there's Usher and some real poppy stuff that's getting big for us -- Usher was our top video of the year, in fact -- but there's also a real draw for music along the lines of Fatboy Slim's 'Weapon of Choice' video."
Given its willingness to play (and thereby promote) videos by artists, hip-hop or otherwise, that may be unknown outside their hometowns, Blastro has of late found itself in the admirable position of being able to give a leg up to deserving acts. There's almost a pirate-radio vibe here, with Blastro essentially saying "Check this out -- we dig it and you might too." That's something that commercial radio, with such a large percentage of stations now under the hellish Clear Channel corporate umbrella, just can't do anymore.
"We began two years ago," says Charvet, "just taking these videos from record labels that hadn't really broken yet outside of their local demographics and playing them on the site, and a lot of these have really taken off. Homegrown New Orleans rap videos, things like that, we've developed a reputation as a place that you can get your videos played outside of your home base. If it's a good song, we'll program it, and now [hip-hop labels] Cash Money Records and No Limit have really taken off and have national exposure. We like to think we had something to do with that."
A perfect example of that sort of underground boosterism, says Campanell, is the hip-hop group Little John and the East Side Boys, from Atlanta. "They were getting a fair amount of radio play in the Southern part of the country, but when we put their video up on the site -- three of their videos, actually -- their fans really discovered them. They were one of our top 20 videos for a number of months. It was a combination of the Internet and some local music shows on cable access that helped bump them out of their little local niche and move them up to larger record sales. And then from there BET picked them up for Rap City. They pretty much came straight out of the underground by way of Blastro."
Still, for all of Blastro's success, it's odd -- for me at least -- to be hanging out in the studio without a gaggle of bleary-eyed DJs dropping beats for those now-defunct live streaming webcasts. Quiet is not a word I would ever have associated with the world o' Blastro.
"If you had been here a year ago," says Davis, "then yeah, there would have been a ton of people here spinning records and dancing and whatnot and we'd have been doing a webcast, but that's not something we're focusing on anymore. Of course, the flip side of that is that now we have 10 times as many people watching from home. They're not all down here hanging out."