INTERVIEW: RYAN J. DOWNEY OF STREAM N' DESTROY
It's one of the Top 20 Music Newsletters on Substack!
Ryan J. Downey is a reporter, podcaster, writer, manager, and a million other things, and still finds time to publish his Stream N’ Destroy newsletter a few times a week - and it’s one of the
Top 25 Top 20 (as of Sunday, March 20, 2022) music newsletters on Substack!
Why Substack, instead of something like Mailchimp?
Joe Escalante told me about Substack in November 2019. I liked the functionality, business model, and simplicity of the platform. Substack was far from ubiquitous at the time. In fact, it was new enough that my initial rush of subscriptions earned me a phone call from the CEO. I’m sure Stream N’ Destroy is small potatoes for them now, but I took that as another positive sign, encouraging me to continue down this path. I’m not supporting myself entirely with Substack by any means, but it earns plenty for me to feel great about investing so much time into it.
I was on MySpace in 2003; Facebook in 2005; Twitter in 2007; I’d like to think my early adoption of Substack is actually providing a great return.
The feedback (questions, suggestions, support) I receive from people is fantastic. They haven’t converted to the Substack comment section, but I suspect that’s because most of my readers are prominent figures (band members, managers, agents, label staffers, etc.) who don’t necessarily want to chat about this data in a public space. They just email me.
I enjoy finding new sources of data, organizing what’s relevant, and knowing that I’m making something that directly helps people I like and respect to put their art out there in the most effective and efficient ways possible.
In 2013 you planned to retire the email. Can you speak a bit to the work of just doing something like this for years? There's up and downs, of course. What stuck with you, to keep doing doing this?
I sat at a dinner table with about a dozen colleagues after a show in 2013 when someone mentioned “Downey’s Scans email.” I made an offhanded comment about how I planned to retire it as it became harder to justify putting so much time into something I wasn’t sure meant anything to anyone else. A loud protest erupted around the table. People told me stories about how and why the weekly emails were of value to them. The positive reinforcement from that dinner propelled the newsletter for another six years.
Shortly afterward I moved the newsletter to Constant Contact (a platform similar to Mailchimp), primarily to give it a more “polished” look with a few graphics and space for a small amount of advertising. Over time, the metrics that matter multiplied. I changed the name from “A Few Scans…” to “Stream N’ Destroy” in recognition of the dominance of digital service providers like Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora over traditional retail sales and physical media.
Social media, YouTube, concert attendance, merchandising — my goal is to gather all of the relevant numbers and distill them into something easy to read, saving my subscribers the considerable time and effort involved in tracking all of that down on a regular basis. Moving to Constant Contact and selling a small amount of advertising was a great and necessary step. But as the newsletter continued to expand - in readership, content, and frequency - that ad revenue no longer covered the time invested into the posts.
With the holidays approaching in 2019 I decided to “flip the switch” with monetization. (I set the weekly subscription rate to the bare minimum the platform allowed.)
I prepared myself for a flood of indifference, or even scorn, but I was pleasantly relieved by the outpouring of support from longtime subscribers. That encouraged me to continue this thing indefinitely, to work harder at it, and to constantly evolve and expand it to meet the needs of the folks who depend upon it.
You said, "I prepared myself for a flood of indifference, or even scorn;” where do you think that comes from?
A handful of people I know, myself included, sort of scoff that we could be compensated for this "thing we do," without realizing, oh wait, "I know what I'm talking about, this might be of value to someone, so here's a price tag." How long was the debate with yourself about the move towards monetizing?
It’s probably left over from my experience in the punk and hardcore scene, where the spirit of the DIY/counterculture values is often coming from the right place, but the practice is messy and complicated. I did have one colleague/friend tell me I should never sell advertising for the newsletter, let alone subscriptions, as I should “do it for the love.” This same friend is a record executive with millions of albums sold by bands he personally A&R’d and handled. I wouldn’t expect him to do that for free and the more I thought about it, I shouldn’t work for free, either.
I run a Danzig fan account, This Day In Danzig, with close to 30k followers on Instagram. That is a labor of love. I’m happy to continue doing that for free. The newsletter, however, is fairly labor-intensive to put together and provides a unique service to some great people who have told me they rely upon it for various reasons.
(Keep in mind, I DID write these emails up for free for many years.)
I suppose the internal debate was in stages. First, whether to sell a small amount of advertising and later, whether or not to offer subscriptions.
Thankfully, the response to both measures was overwhelmingly positive.
You also said, "I’m not supporting myself entirely with Substack by any means.”
I see this a lot, among artists who believe their "one thing" should pay all the bills, and if it doesn't they're not really a photographer, or artist, or musician... that they aren't really "doing it."
Can you elaborate on this "multiple income streams" thing, a bit? It sounds very BUSINESS-like but man, if we can't pay the rent it's hard to be this artist person in the first place. Like, you do several things, just like a lot of people that work in music.
You make an excellent point! The last full-time job I had was with MTV News and that ended in July 2004 (though I continued to freelance for them for another decade after that). I do believe in the adage “jack of all trades, master of none” but as with many things, it’s about balance. I like having a handful of things happening both in terms of personal fulfillment creatively and from a practical standpoint. I have a couple of colleagues who are now executives at MTV who started before I did. But dozens more were swept away during layoffs and reorganizations of many kinds.
In 2022 I’m aiming to get more out of fewer things, but I can’t imagine being married to a single “thing.” I abandoned that notion that something wasn’t “real” if it wasn’t my “one thing” a long time ago. I mean, as a teenager, I was playing in a hardcore band, publishing a fanzine, putting on shows, working with Anti-Racist Action, going to school, and doing restaurant jobs part time.
As Ryan says, “Stream N’ Destroy is tailored to hard rock, metal, and punk(ish) music and culture, delivering relevant data about streaming, sales, concert attendance, and social media, distilled it into easy-to-read metrics for industry professionals.” If that’s your thing, you need to subscribe!
What I love about Stream N’ Destroy is it’s not Ryan’s “main thing.” He could have started a newsletter about all the interviews he’s done, or talked about the bands he’s managed, but instead he covers topics and trends that are helpful to those in the heavy music orbit.
Hit reply or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org - absolutely here to talk about all things email marketing for your heavy metal minded projects!