I’ve been meaning to interview Matt Derda for a while. Along with his band the High Watts, Matt delivers catchy rock tunes with a country lilt. Personally I’m reminded of the late, great Tom Petty in that his songs tell stories, and the stories come from the heart. One of my favorite tunes by Matt is called “Life You Didn’t Know.” Described by the band as their poppiest tune yet, it imagines the secret life of a TV star – a life unknown even to the star herself, at least if my interpretation of the lyrics is correct!
Recently, Matt shared a blog post in which he aired some concerns about the practice of using “stream teams” to increase play-counts on platforms like Spotify. It’s an incredibly thoughtful piece, so I decided to reach out to him to find out more. But first, I had a few questions about his music…
Before we get into your concerns about stream teams, I just wanted to say how much I appreciate your music. Who are some of your influences—both as a musician and as a songwriter?
Thank you for having me and appreciating my music! I appreciate you and Brian Lambert a ton. I mean, we’re aligned at the hip with our ‘listeners also like’ section on Spotify.
My favorite songwriter of all time is definitely Paul Westerberg, which I’ll talk about later. Jeff Tweedy is also a huge influence on me, especially Uncle Tupelo. Pretty much any band from Minneapolis I love: Soul Asylum, High on Stress, The Jayhawks, Husker Du, Golden Smog, etc. Gary Louris from the Jayhawks is another one of my favorite songwriters. Just to name a few more I love Pearl Jam, Cat Power, Brandi Carlile, Drive-by Truckers, Jason Isbell, Old 97s, the Ramones, Social Distortion, Lindi Ortega, the Temptations…I could go on forever.
Hopefully a lot of those influences come out in my music.
I know you’re a fan of the Replacements. What draws you to their music?
Pretty much everything about the Replacements resonates with me. I have a tendency to dislike anything that is cliché or overdone. The Replacements were unique. They didn’t do what was supposed to be done and didn’t care that they weren’t perfect. I liked that people went to their shows not knowing what was going to happen. There is comfort in the unknown for me. Aside from that, I just loved the sound and the lyrics. I don’t know any other lyricist who resonates with me as much as Westerberg. Hearing Bastards of Young was like reading Catcher in the Rye for the first time.
You mention in your Bandcamp bio that although you live in Chicago, your music is rooted in Eastern Kentucky. How did life take you from Kentucky to Chicago, and how do the two places you call home influence your music?
It’s funny, I never actually lived in Kentucky. I’ve lived all over the place, Connecticut, Ohio, California, West Virginia, but I have consistently gone to Kentucky every year for my entire life. I spent the summers there as a kid and still travel from Chicago multiple times a year to visit family and just be there because I love it. I was always around Bluegrass and Country music there growing up. I didn’t really care for it much back then though. When I was in high school I got my first guitar and started getting into alternative and punk music. I played in some bands in high school, but my true passion was improv comedy.
Improv is what brought me to Chicago. While I lived in Ohio I started doing improv with a group called Smarty Pants. This guy, Joey Greene ran the company and he got me into all of the music I listen to now, especially The Replacements. After shows, we would stick around the theater and he would use the sound system to just play me CD after CD. He’s the one who turned me onto Uncle Tupelo. We were on tour one summer, and he played them and it blew my mind. Alt Rock + Country, like it was meant for me.
After I graduated from college, Joey moved to Michigan and I moved to Chicago to study at Second City, Improv Olympic and the Annoyance Theater. I wanted to be on SNL, but Joey and I ended up started a band called The Disappointments instead. Then,I started a career in Marketing and met my wife. Now I’m in Chicago permanently…and we changed the name of the band to Matt Derda & the High Watts (Joey also came up with the High Watts).
Who are the High Watts, and what do you like about working with them?
The High Watts are a rotating cast of characters, but it is mainly Jason Benefield on guitar, lap steel and harmonica, Michael “MJ” Johnson on bass and Steve Ramsey on drums. We have other people pop in and out. Joey Greene from my Smarty Pants days will hop in on bass sometimes.
The best thing about the High Watts is we just have fun. There’s no drama and we’re super low maintenance. We just like playing and hanging out with each other. They also like to play my songs, which I’ll never get over.
I’m also wondering what it’s like working with a band, particularly in the “Person’s Name and the…” format as opposed to, say, “The Bandname.” Do you view yourself as a bandleader? And, perhaps from a different angle, how much of a say do the High Watts have in how the songs evolve as they’re coming together?
Steve, MJ and I were in The Disappointments together. It wasn’t too far from the music we do now, but it was definitely harder and a little more punk. We wanted to move to a more Folk Rock sound and change the name. We got tired of people saying to us after shows, “I wasn’t disappointed.”
We mostly picked my name because so many band names were already taken, it was just easier. I do primarily write all of the songs, but the band does help round them out and experiment to find what works. Actually, last week I had two new tunes I was working on and both Jason and MJ helped me figure out a couple of parts that made the songs pretty much finished and much better.
You recently shared a blog post about “stream teams.” For anyone who might not know, what does that term mean?
Stream teams are when indie artists put each other on a playlists and constantly stream it to drive up their play counts and earn more revenue. A lot of times they aren’t even listening to the music, they are just putting the playlists on repeat and streaming over night or something like that.
And why are they problematic?
There are a lot of reasons why they are problematic, but some of the main reasons are that it hurts your profile more than it helps and it can have a negative impact on your discoverability. One issue is that these playlist only consists of other Indie Artists and are a mishmash of different genres, styles and recording quality. The problem then becomes that the only people who listen to the playlists are the artists that are on it. Then, on your Listeners Also Like section on platforms such as Spotify, you are lumped together with artists you may not be similar to at all other than you are both Indie artists.
Also, Spotify and other streaming services have figured out this trick and their algorithms can tell these aren’t real streams. There have been bands that tried to fund tours using this tactic. People who enjoy music as fans have a much different streaming pattern.
I’ve noticed through data and testing that our fans like artists like The Replacements, Bottlecap Mountain, Drive-by Truckers, the Vandoliers, etc. We want to try to get discovered by people who are listening to those artists because it’s more than likely they will like us too. If they come to our page and see we are similar to other artists they like and already listen to, they might try us out.
It’s great to support our Indie friends, but it’s important to find people who aren’t musicians themselves that will listen to you on a regular rotation. Sorry to be blunt about this, but none of us are known. If we’re all on each other’s similar artists sections, it’s just a listing of artists nobody has ever heard of and doesn’t help you understand what your sound is before they even hear you.
It’s already an uphill battle to try to get discovered, get plays and be put on playlists, let’s not make it any harder than it needs to be with vanity plays.
I love the phrase “indie loop.” It really captures the place where a lot of indie artists find themselves. It’s a little like the idea of the “artist’s artist,” where an artist’s fan base consists only – or at least mainly – of other artists. How do you keep from falling into the indie loop yourself?
The indie loop is like deja vu for me. It’s almost exactly like what I experienced as an improviser in Chicago. Almost all the shows you end up doing are just for other improvisers, not people who are there to enjoy comedy. The people who pay for tickets to a mainstage show at Second City or iO are going because they’ve heard of those places and they have a well known reputation. They don’t know who’s going to be on the stage that night, but they know who has been on that stage before.
However, only a handful of people get picked for the mainstage shows. Most improvisers are performing in the basement of a bar to an audience of the other improvisers who are performing that night. You wonder, are we any good at improv or are our friends just laughing because they are our friends? It’s the same as being on a stream team playlist. Is our music any good or are people just listening to it because they’ve committed to listening twice a week to this playlist?
If you can find an audience that is going to be fans of your music that aren’t artists themselves or your family, it’s a crazy good confidence builder. I also found when I have real fans, my friends and family were more inclined to listen to my music because I wasn’t bugging them all of the time haha.
In your blog post, you talk a little bit about the algorithms behind Spotify recommendations. How were you able to find information about how those algorithms work?
I’ve gotten information from a lot of places. I’ve talked to some PR agencies with knowledge on how the algorithms work (it’s weighted towards who your followers are following right now), I’ve spoken to other artists and managers who have had success with streaming platforms, and I work in an industry where I have to keep up with how social media and streaming platforms trends and best practices. They are constantly changing too. Which means your strategy has to constantly change.
A lot of the stuff I’m talking about is the same concept as product market fit for any product. You want to place yourself in a category that has a good search volume, but has reasonable amounts of competition. I don’t need to be compared to the Rolling Stones, but I might get noticed more from being lumped in with the Drive-by Truckers.
I got the sense that you were being somewhat cautious when you shared the post. A lot indie artists do participate in stream teams and work through their playlists religiously. Have you gotten any pushback in response to the blog post? What has the response been like in general?
I didn’t get any pushback and actually not a lot of response at all from a lot of the Indie artists on Twitter. I wanted to be careful no to make anyone feel bad. It’s not like they are doing anything wrong. I think the lack of response also says a lot about what is the real objective of some of the Indie artists on Twitter. It’s mostly about follow for follow and plays for plays and that’s fine, but I prefer to grow relationships with people and engage more often on deeper topics or having more fun. Not just endless follow lists and what not.
Now, I have to say, participating in a lot of that stuff helped me at least get started. After a while though, you look at your stats and it’s not sustainable. You’re getting the same plays from the same users on the same playlists. You’ve got to reach more people. For us, it’s critical because we play live. We need to generate buzz to get people to come out to shows and we’ve seen an uptick in audience over the last couple of years, which has been a huge motivator.
Before I let you go, do you have any projects on the horizon?
We’re currently trying to put some shows together for the summer and fall, but the big thing we are working on is a new EP. We’ve recorded bass and drummers so far and I’m scheduling the rest of the sessions right now. Hoping to have something out very soon! Also, we are planning to release and acoustic version of our song “Only Have Lies for You” in the next couple of weeks.
Definitely something to look forward to!
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