A dozen years ago, Evan Lowenstein had a brief flirtation with fame when he and his twin brother landed the song Crazy for This Girl on the teen-angst TV drama Dawson’s Creek. (It peaked at No. 15 on Billboard’s Hot 100.) Today, Lowenstein’s second act features him running a Web service called Stageit. The site blends concerts—a part of the music business that’s still actually making money—with something akin to a pay-per-view version of Skype (MSFT). An artist fires up a webcam and plays live for 30 minutes in an intimate setting, such as his own kitchen. The talent controls the price—usually about $5—and caps how many people can watch. “It’s like a virtual campfire,” Lowenstein says.
While most shows are just a singer with an acoustic guitar in front of a laptop, Lowenstein has signed up a few bigger names, including Jackson Browne, Indigo Girls, and Jason Mraz. Stageit handles billing, ensures that there’s enough bandwidth, and includes a chat feature so fans can ask questions or request songs. There’s a “tip jar” so listeners can give more money if they want, and Stageit takes 40 percent of sales (yes, including the tips, which Lowenstein says account for nearly half of Stageit’s revenue). While many people have come to expect music to be free, Lowenstein says, they will pay to see live performances. “You can’t pirate intimacy,” he says, “and you can’t pirate an experience.”
Glen Phillips, former singer of Toad the Wet Sprocket, compares the idea with striptease sites, “but instead of clothes coming off, [viewers] get to see somebody play music.” Phillips, who has been doing weekly shows on Stageit, says he’d need millions of plays on Spotify or other streaming music services to match the $800 a week he can make from Lowenstein’s site. Bob Schneider, a singer-songwriter in Austin, Tex., says he made about $1,200 from a recent Stageit show, which is helping fund a new album. “You have no expenses doing the Stageit shows in your living room,” he says.
Lowenstein, an effusive talker who uses words like “righteous” and “ridiculously touching” when he talks about the company, has attracted high-profile backers. Napster founder Sean Parker invested last year, and Jimmy Buffett, whom Lowenstein has known for a decade or so, bought in after testing the service by sitting down in front of his laptop at a tour stop in Philadelphia and playing songs for Stageit employees in California. “It was like a private show, and the whole company gathered around,” Lowenstein says.
About 800 musicians have used the service since it launched in March. This year, as its popularity grows, Lowenstein expects some shows to top $25,000 in sales. Soon, Lowenstein plans to add channels for comedians, cooks, and athletes. In the meantime he enjoys putting Stageit to use himself, giving Dawson’s Creek fans renditions of Crazy for This Girl. A recent show netted him $600, he says, and “I have the time of my life.”