Michael Franti Spearheads the Virtual-Concert Revolution While Keeping His Small Business Afloat
The groundbreaking musician Zooms in from Bali about the mutual benefits of remodeling his music career and bolstering his yoga retreat hotel.
Michael Franti has been around a minute. The 54-year-old Northern California native first debuted on the music scene in the mid-1980s as part of underground noise-rock raconteurs The Beatnigs. By the early '90s, he'd moved on to seminal political hip-hop outfit The Disposable Hereos of Hiphoprisy. But it was his next and ultimate project — the band Spearhead — that brought all his influences to the fore, leading to more significant airplay on radio and MTV and a following that has endured for more than a quarter-century.
Today, Spearhead remains a melting pot for Franti's excursions into everything from rap and punk to jazz and dancehall reggae, with a steadying emphasis on melody and uplift that tracks with the singer-songwriter's evolving spirituality — as well as his decision, in 2011, to open the Soulshine Bali Yoga Retreat Hotel with longtime creative and business collaborator Carla Swanson.
Nine years on, Soulshine is still in business, and Franti is very much still in demand as a performer. But the pandemic created immediate challenges to both sources of income. (His wife, Sarah Agah Franti, is an entrepreneur in her own right, helping to run Soulshine while selling custom jewelry.) Naturally, he tried to address them both by launching a series of paid-admission, livestream virtual concerts from the Soulshine property, the next of which takes place September 19.
Flexing a high-profile white cap embossed with the words "Stay Human" in all caps (a nod to a popular Spearhead album and a 2019 documentary of the same name) and otherwise flanked by a simple indoor palm plant and acoustic guitar, Franti connected via Zoom video with us one recent, hot August night from Bali, where he's been quaranting with his family and the Soulshine staff. Over the course of a half-hour conversation, he reflected on summoning the kind of chemistry he's accustomed to at packed venues for fans tuning in remotely, the brass tacks of keeping Soulshine's doors open and people on the payroll, and what he learned from all those years as an independent musician that's helped him navigate the current circumstance.
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You have a pretty irrepressible spirit, but has this cirumstance challenged that, even for you?
When I started earning a living in music, I said to myself, "I'm not going to spend my money on stupid shit like cars and jewelry or clothes." I would invest my money in things that could make me money in the future. And so I built this hotel here in Bali. Little did I factor in a global pandemic. I have optimism in the sense that when music does come back, it's going to be a sign that everything has gone back. And when people are able to travel around the world, again, it will also be a sign that everything has gone back, so I'm hopeful for the future.
We are starting to see a few small glimmers of light in the hotel business, but we've really had to retool what we do. It's been a lesson in being creative and nimble and not sitting around going, "Woe is me," but saying, "What can we do to make the best out of this situation?"
Did you pull anything from your earlier DIY ethos as you plotted how to handle all of this?
I had come here [to Bali] in 2007, and I bought a piece of land, and there was an old Indonesian house on it with a squatter toilet, and it was in this banana field. And I was like, "We're going to build a yoga hotel." [Laughs.] I know there's at least, you know, 20,000 people in the world who love yoga as much as I do and at some point in their lives would love to come here and just practice yoga. And so that's how it gets started. We built five rooms and then eight more, and now we're 32 rooms and two restaurants with four different yoga studios.
People said, "Did you have an investor who helped you out?" And I was like, "Yeah, I had the best investors that anybody could ever get: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club." [Laughs] At one point I had $350,000 of credit debt, and I just told myself there was a magic number that I needed to make on tour every month. And then for three years, I went out on the road and paid off those credit cards. That's how the DIY spirit lives in me.
The same thing with music. This has has been not just a challenging six months, but 16 years in music. We used to make these pieces of plastic or vinyl called CDs or records, and we'd sell those things, and we would go out on tour in order to promote that bit of plastic that we were selling. Then when downloading came in, all of those sales went down, and we had to find a way to make a living by actually touring, and the CD and the music just became kind of the calling card to support the tour. And then iTunes came in, and you were able to make a little bit of money there, but it was like, a tenth of what you could make on CD sales. And then when Spotify came in and the other streaming platforms, it was like, "Oh, we're making point-zero-zero-zero-zero-one each play." So we had to find new ways to engage our audiences, and now with this pandemic, we had to figure out: How do we earn a living productizing our knowledge, our spirit, our voice and our music just virtually? It was a challenge.
Was there any self-doubt about whether people would be enticed by the livestream concerts?
There was a lot of nerves and uncertainty, because I had seen so many artists, myself included, stepping up and doing all this free content online, and I was like, "Well, why would anybody pay to sit in front of their computer? You can do that anytime. And I told my wife and I told my manager at the time, "We're not just competing against other bands. We're competing against cat videos, pornography, news, social media." [Laughs.] We're competing against everything on the internet to get people's attention and to do something that is the opposite, at least on the surface, of what I normally do in concert, which is: to have this really visceral, you're touching my sweat and I'm touching your sweat [experience]. And we're doing that with 10,000 people at Red Rocks.
The thing I learned was that it's like playing two different sports. There's basketball and there's volleyball, and the ball is kind of the same size, and you're kind of trying to do something with a team, but they're really different things. If you're trying to play basketball with the rules of volleyball, you will forever be frustrated and fail, same vice versa. But if you just change the rules and you say, "Oh, there's a little dot on the screen, and I'm focusing on that dot, how can we make this be a super-engaging thing to someone who's in their living room, seeing it on this little thing?" And so we got the idea of, "Let's let the audience see themselves. But then we also have a Zoom room that's available for the first 500 fans who buy tickets to it, and then we put their images up on the screen so they can see each other and I can see them, and now it becomes this interactive thing, like a concert. We just started trying to figure out ways to make it be as compelling in livestream as we can make it be.
Are you anxious to return to normal touring, or might it be nice to spell that schedule with a break where you do these livestreams?
I feel like the cat's out of the bag, just like there's no going back to selling CDs. That doesn't mean that we won't tour. We will tour, and every band in the world will tour. It just means that this new way of communicating that we found is going to become a part of our life from here forward, and that that's a good thing.
When I first started in music, I would get snail-mail letters from fans, and I could maybe answer a dozen the entire year. Then email came in, and I could maybe answer a couple hundred a year. Then social media came in, and now suddenly I'm communicating with people in real-time and reaching hundreds of thousands of people with each post. Being able to do the livestream thing has taken that one step further. The one word is community. That's the most important thing that I've learned in any business.
Anytime someone is delivering any product or service, it's about identifying who you are and what you have, and then putting yourself into that as much as you can. You just got to reach the people who dig what you do.
But as someone running two businesses, how are you going to account for the employees and crew who've come to rely on you?
When the coronavirus hit and we realized we weren't gonna make any income as musicians, we had to figure out how we were going to stop the bleeding. We applied for a PPP loan. We did all the things we could do to keep the salaried employees that we have. And then with our nonprofit, we had to do different things.
Here at the hotel, we had to put people on quarter-time, but we didn't lay anybody off. Now they're back up to 50 percent of the time. But it's been filled with anxiety for me, because although I'm the frontperson of the band, there's a whole team of dozens of people throughout each layer of the business who earn a living from what we do onstage, and it's hard. I never would have imagined it would come to this.
Given that your wife runs her own business as well, are you circling the wagons as a family to counter what you're all up against?
We've done it ourselves for so long that it wasn't like, "Oh shit." We had one day when we kind of had a cry together as a family, and then it was like, "You know what we're going to do? We're going to come out swinging. We're going to come out better than we were before. We're going to make this hotel even better, so let's just go after it." And I think being a musician prepared us for this and toughened us for it.
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When during this last six months did it finally click that everything you were trying to improvise to survive was working?
I spent time in Richard Weitz's "Quarantunes" one night. He's a Hollywood agent at WME, and he invited me to join this Zoom conference that he was doing every Friday night. And I went in there, and he had a bunch of incredible artists who were singing, and people stayed for three and a half hours to watch shaky video of someone singing with no microphone into their computer. And I was like, "If people sit around for three and a half hours to do this, if I can do it just a little bit better technically, people would probably pay to buy a ticket if it was at a price that seemed fair to have their families enjoy a concert by an artist that they would have normally gone to see on tour."
And we put it out there, and our fans responded in kind, and it's really moved me and my wife are just to see the way that our fans have taken this on. Not just the financial aspect of it, but just that they feel a sense of community there — that they want to support each other and support us as one giant family of thousands of people who love the music and are concerned about the planet and want to help each other get through this challenging time.