Marilyn Manson to Little Dragon: Prototyping for the Music Industry

Lee Martin’s talents are highly sought after by some of the best record labels. But Martin isn’t a musician, he’s a prototyper. 

Around 11AM on a Monday a few weeks ago, 25,000 Marilyn Manson fans received an email containing an aerial satellite video of their house. A few days earlier, Foo Fighters fans around the world held their phones up to the stars to unleash the video release of ‘The Sky is a Neighborhood’ superimposed against a real-time constellation viewer. Also in September, the Steve Miller Band launched their Ultimate Hits with a visual timeline player that plugged into Spotify’s API. As it turns out, there’s a common thread between these sensory music experiences —Lee Martin’s back in the game and he’s discovered Framer.

One of 20,000 satellite videos emailed to Marilyn Manson’s fans

Martin is no stranger to the music world. Record labels give him carte blanche on projects and musicians like Dave Grohl and Manson ask for him by name. But he’s no slouch on the product end, with a stint in experimental development at Soundcloud and more recently, as Songkick’s VP of Design. Since re-entering the freelance world this month, Martin has gone full speed on multiple projects. We caught up with this non-traditional designer to get the lowdown on what it takes to prototype for the musical greats. 

All of your work marries design and tech to create singularly unique music experiences. How did you fall into this particular niche?

In the early 2000s, I created a fansite for The Mars Volta. It was mostly a message board but the tight community grew to thousands of users. That’s bigger than the population of Chauvin, LA where I’m from. I couldn’t afford to keep the server running so one day the band’s manager contacted me and made a donation to help. That chance encounter turned into a full-time role at Silva Artist Management, the band’s manager (at the time) which also represented Foo Fighters, Beck, Queens of the Stone Age, Sonic Youth, Ryan Adams, Jimmy Eat World, Beastie Boys, and more. After what felt like a lifetime of making websites, buddy icons, MySpace profiles, and splash pages, I realized two things: I was very curious about the convergence of music and technology and I wanted to become a better programmer.

Two weeks after leaving SAM, I became the first US employee of SoundCloud in the role of Experimental Development. In addition to being a liaison to the music business, I began to question how to develop scalable solutions to simple artist problems by using the SoundCloud API. 

By surrounding myself and befriending folks who were better than me at everything, I was able to rapidly grow in my developer skillset.

After leaving SoundCloud, I found myself in a 3 year period of freelancing where I decided to split my time between building unique music experiences for artists and developing products for the music business at scale. I had successes and failures on both sides. Similar to that moment at the management company, I realized if I wanted to build products, I should probably learn the basics by working at a product company again. 

That led to my recent move as the VP of Design at Songkick. I used this incredible opportunity to learn how to become a manager, work on a team, and read every single book on Product design and development.

I am now back on my own. As you can imagine, being a manager for close to two years impeded my solo creativity and I have spent my first month back going HAM on client work. However, if you look closely at the evolution of my career path, I’ve been setting myself up to build more products. While I love building these campaigns for artists, I am also extremely curious about solving problems at scale. I am very fortunate to be able to work on both.

You call yourself a designer & developer. Did one come before the other or do you consider the two indistinguishable when it comes to the nature of tech today?

Well I definitely grew up curious about art, music, and creativity. These days I am fully aware of my capabilities: I am neither the greatest designer nor the best developer. I live in a limbo between the two disciplines and I believe that is where the hyper creativity is born. 

Digital design and programming were just a natural evolution of my artist toolkit: Pencil > Photoshop > Programming. And now, hopefully, Product. 

Thank god they are all P’s.

Talk us through your process from conceptualization and pitching to developing the actual experience. How do you convince clients to sign off on your most novel ideas?

The concepts themselves are the product of my relentless curiosity and need to tinker. I spend all of my free time hacking away at new technologies and just building weird stuff. The outcome of this is a large array of components that I’ll fit together later like legos for a project.

I don’t have the luxury of spending too much time on pitching so these things typically move very quickly. A client will contact me and we’ll have a single conversation about the project themes and goals. I will then write a very concise proposal and if they’re lucky, mock up a few simple concepts. I regret the great mystery of some of my pitches but it’s mostly due to time constraint.

An early sketch of the Foo Fighters Celestial Navigator. View the live version on mobile at https://sky.foofighters.com

In terms of getting my ideas approved, I’m fortunate enough to have an incredible roster of clients who get it and allow me to be myself. Having said that, not all of my ideas are mischievous. In addition to conservative ideas, I actually build a lot of provided concepts as well because I like to take on new design and coding challenges. 

I try not to get too attached to ideas, concepts, or pitches, because that emotional drain can be detrimental to my creativity. 

If you know the concept is strong, the right client will come along. #JustKeepPitching

I’m not looking for huge contracts or a lot of back and forth with my clients so 99% of the time I propose a two week schedule for design, development, and deployment. I begin by allowing myself the freedom to think widely about the problem and then begin boxing myself into the final solution. Framer has allowed me the luxury to show so much of the user experience after a single session. I’m embarrassed to say that prior to using Framer, clients wouldn’t see much of my work until it was launched. I’m also notoriously distant when working. Phone calls (from non-clients) will be ignored and inboxes will fill. 

Sounds like you’ve gotten to work on some exciting projects. Any favorites?

Well my best idea has yet to find a home: Banana to Unlock. It’s a website that only plays a song if you show it a banana. I’m serious about this one. Chiquita, I’m looking at you.

I like when good concepts find good homes. I had an idea of this duel device campaign which simulated the experience of an artist calling you. Picture yourself visiting a website and seeing an artist (on video) sitting there patiently next to a phone. You would be informed that the artist has something important to tell you but has forgotten your phone number. By supplying your digits, the artist on screen would move towards the phone and dial. Your phone in the real world would then ring and you would hear them through your phone while seeing them through the screen. I originally wrote the idea for Tom Petty. He passed on it. I then pitched it to 4–5 other artists. They passed on it. It wasn’t until a year after I thought it up, that Little Dragon came along and seized the opportunity. They produced the video content in a week and I built and launched it the week after. It was a huge success.

While at Songkick, I became super curious about data visualization after swooning over the work happening at Polygraph. When Prince passed away, I decided to create a tribute data story project named Purple Rain Report which cross referenced setlist information with weather data to figure out how much rain Prince caused when he performed “Purple Rain” live. There was a 31.11% chance it would rain. Amazing.

How do you use Framer in your work? Is prototyping integral to your process?

I have never forced new software into my process without good reason. The only way Framer was going to make the cut is if it naturally became the best solution for the problem at hand. It didn’t take long before I realized that Framer gave me the ability to show my client much more of the complete vision without time consuming work.

 In the past I’ve felt like I could only do design or development, one at a time. Framer gives me this incredible platform in which I can quickly bring both of those disciplines together and the result is inspiring for my clients and I.

At the moment, I don’t personally use Framer to experiment with motion design because that always feels like a “good to have” in my concentrated timelines. However, I have noticed it’s beginning to naturally unlock that part of my brain and I find myself doing things in Framer which I don’t even know how to program yet!

When Drake said “what a time to be alive,” there is no doubt in my mind he was referencing the design software renaissance we are currently a part of. 

You’re a big proponent of immersive web-based interactive experiences for the music industry. How does technology help improve/enhance the music listening experience for fans? (Feel free to cite particular examples.)

First and foremost, this body of work has always been a product of the need of artists to differentiate themselves online. I would go as far as to call myself an artist-first developer but that wouldn’t entirely be true. If we agree that one of the biggest problems an artist faces when marketing online is reaching beyond their fan base, then we need marketing concepts that are interesting to a bigger audience. Concepts like Close Your Eyes attempt to create interesting accessible experiences which invite in the masses and subliminally market the band.

In terms of the actual experience, what I’m aiming for now is a personal link between the fan and artist. Whether that’s emulating a phone call with the artist or generating personalized videos for the fans, the outcome is the same. You should feel a bond because that is what the artist is trying to do with their music.

What would you tell a young designer looking to break into the music business?

The music business is a tiny place and like any other business, your reputation means everything. 

If you have an idea for an artist and some software like Framer, simply put a prototype out into the world and grab a manager, label, or artist’s attention. 

If you can get their ear, then they’re going to believe you can do the same for their fans. When an opportunity presents itself, give it all you got because there is a responsibility in making art that represents art. A successful project in the music business will snowball into more opportunities quickly.

What you get in return is an unmatched ecosystem for being creative and prototyping concepts to see how consumers react at scale. Oh, and a lot of free vinyl.