A One-Hit-Wonder Strikes Back
It was a 1 a.m. like so many others before Steve Van Dam’s band, Everything, hit the big time: darkness hovers over a dank alley fit for John Huston noire, clumsy dumpsters and steam rising from a gutter vent in the distance. Steve loads the last amp and closes the rolling door of his band’s box truck. It was an unlikely touring vehicle.
With only seats for two people up front, you might imagine the rest of the band piling into a second rig to follow caravan style, but you’d be wrong. Alongside the drum cases, amplifiers, bass stack and monitors: two ratty old couches and a bean bag chair, where the four other ragamuffins would crash for the 8-hour ride to their farm house in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
“We laugh now, but it got pretty bad back there in the summertime,” recalls Craig Honeycutt, Everything’s frontman. “We’d head to gigs on the Outer Banks in North Carolina and if it was 100 degrees outside, it was 120º plus in the box.”
That night in Atlanta, Steve drew the short straw and picked up the first shift behind the wheel. Had he not, ORO may never have been conceived. ORO is Steve’s brainchild, an addictive visual music app that eliminates learning curve barriers for non-musicians.
“I was alone, everyone else was crashed. After playing all night and getting hopped up on Quick Mart coffee, your mind starts doing weird things. Whenever I had to do the late night run from Atlanta I’d tune in this AM station at the bottom of the dial that played trippy industrial music. The tracks would go on forever, really good for keeping me in the zone.”
Steve describes the almost psychedelic hypnosis of the road markers whizzing by, the starbursts of headlights and the dull red blobs of taillights up ahead. “There was this bizarre organic rhythm to it. And I remember passing a few billboards, right as the ‘music’ went — vooooom, voom, voom — and it hit me: how cool it would be if you could control all of these images and road sounds and music, kinda compose with them… It would make for a pretty cool experience.”
That was the mid-90s. In fact, Steve knows the exact date because he remembers sitting in the bar before the gig, watching OJ make a run for it in AJ Cowling’s white Bronco.
“I held onto the idea, kicked it around from time to time, but it seemed like to execute it in the way I’d imagined it, the technology just wasn’t there yet.” It would be 13 years and 12 days before the first iPhone hit the market, and almost twenty until ORO was conceived.
In The Meantime
The jet fuel of Everything’s ascent was their live show. It was more than a show. It was a raucous dance-your-tail-off event. Their fan base grew by word-of-mouth, friends grabbing other friends to come check out the band that would leave you sweaty and elated by the end of their three hour show.
A community quickly developed and Everything amassed dedicated followers reminiscent of the touring bands of the 70s. They were more than fans, they were grassroots fanatics. They spread the word, they shared music and videos, they wore their colors, and they felt like they were a part of something. The phenomenon was a perfect analog to the digital communities of the social media generation.
Behind the scenes, the band was a tight-knit organization sharing a farmhouse in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, their management office within eyeshot on the other side of the valley in a small log cabin.
“We weren’t living like kings by any stretch, but we were musicians and nothing else. There was a half mile of dirt road between us and our managers and merchandising office. It was pure,” says Craig.
Their business was a true cottage industry. They became masters of merchandising, viral media before viral media was a thing, and grassroots, fan-based promotion. “We attracted amateur filmmakers and visual artists and craftsmen who joined the parade,” Steve says, “so beyond our music, other waves of Everything-related art and media found their way into the world.”
This communal way of living and working, and interacting with their fans shaped their ethos both as artists and as entrepreneurs. Through their rise and their commercial success, national touring, and major-label contracts, Everything was the band it was because of these relationships.
Every weekend Steve, Craig and their other four bandmates piled into the box truck and played college towns and urban music venues from Portland, Maine to Miami. They were coming up alongside fellow Virginian and friend Dave Matthews and his band, and after nine years of living like long-haul truckers, they landed a major label record deal.
When their debut album hit, everyone had high expectations but no one was prepared for a breakout hit that was their first single.
“‘Hooch’ definitely took us by surprise,” Steve says. “It was really just a good-time a capella ditty that Craig came up with in the shuttle bus.” (Their next vehicle ill-suited to touring was a re-tooled airport shuttle bus.) “It was a fun song, but everyone agreed that our ‘home run’ was the second single, ‘Good Thing’.”
Best laid plans. ‘Hooch’ was released in the summer of 1998 and became one of that year’s chart-topping summertime anthems. Its unmistakable five-note intro prompted millions in convertibles and on beach blankets to “hey, turn it up!” The song landed in the Billboard Top 10 and Everything finally traded their misfit road rigs for tour busses and transcontinental jets.
“It was pretty insane,” Craig says. “Next thing you know we’re on talk shows, and playing in front of hundreds of thousands at radio shows across the country.”
Then the unexpected happened.
In what seemed like an unlikely union at the time — an Internet company melding with Big Media — AOL merged with Time Warner, one of the iconic great consolidations in the turn-of-the-21st-Century music industry. But this was the time of Napster and the entire music industry had been shaken to its core by a disruptive new platform: The Internet.
As happens with any big corporate merger, the suits started slashing, lopping off columns in spreadsheets that translated to thousands of label relationships, musicians on the rise, and the financial basis for Everything’s management infrastructure. Financial and promotional relationships disappeared overnight.
“You have to remember,” Craig says, “radio was a big thing back then, and if you lose your team that’s getting your music played, it makes it really tough to promote your record at that level. They were the gatekeepers.”
At the moment they were poised to release their second single, it was as if they showed up to work, only to find a blank, dust-outlined rectangle on the wall where their label’s shingle used to be. Just like that, this band that had played thousands of shows, that had created such community, became a one-hit wonder.
A decade passed and a technology revolution reinvented the way we consume and create media. The next chapter in the ORO’s genesis came as Steve was massaging his aspiration to compose a symphony.
“Yeah, I know,” Steve says, smiling a bit sheepishly. “I don’t talk to many people about that.” As he quietly worked on this opus, he started wondering how he could get the younger generation, his own kids, or really anyone for that matter, interested in that kind of music.
“How do you get people to go see a symphony written in 2011?”
Then his old Everything sensibilities and rising business acumen spurred him further.
“How you could create a musical experience that would appeal to fans, who go to shows as much for the event as for the music? What if they could lay a blanket on the amphitheater lawn and somehow interact with the performance?”
The ideas started tumbling over each other.
“What if people could use an app on their phone to interact with the visuals on the massive screens, and what if the sounds and visuals and everyone in the audience were all connected?”
And WHAM, it hit him.
Steve’s mind raced back to the idea he had on that overnight drive home from Atlanta. Touch screen technology was everywhere and the iPad was about to be released. Maybe that was the key.
Surviving a Mutiny
The next three years was a roller coaster ride into the world of tech development, a world that Steve knew hardly anything about. “It was not cakewalk, I’ll tell you that.”
He had a rapid succession of good turns: he pitched the app at a Hackathon, made a prototype, attracted some investors and an international EDM artist to contribute to the app’s content. But perhaps too rapid, because then things spun out of control and he lost the company.
“When the investors showed up I started the business, took on a couple partners and jumped headlong into development. But as time wore on, it was clear that I was having creative differences with the team. This was my baby, but I’d made the rookie mistake of giving away two-thirds of the business to my partners.” It became clear to Steve’s partners that his vision was irreconcilably different from theirs and they forced him out (a turn of events that bears a small scale resemblance to the plight of another Steve in the annals of tech history).
“I was devastated,” Steve says. “But I knew they were going to drive it into the ground. I just had to be patient. I had to wait it out and then I’d make my move.”
From the earliest days, as Steve worked on the development of ORO, the buzz circulated among the members of his old clan — friends and colleagues who had gone on to become attorneys and marketing gurus and writers and high-level music managers. When the fledgling company was wrested from his control, Steve came to realize how many people were rooting him on.
“It was heartening and heartbreaking at the same time,” he says. “Everyone was shocked, but a lot of people came out of the woodwork and wanted to help. More than anything, it showed me what I’d done wrong. From the Everything days I had a tried-and-true model for creating a business that felt like family. But I didn’t use it.” Given another shot, he vowed to form the new company organically and from relationships that already held value.
He only had to wait four months. When the mutiny of his former partners floundered Steve was ready. He tapped what was left of the nest egg he’d accumulated from his music biz successes and he bought the company back.
“It was a stretch, but I did it.” Steve says. “Don’t get me wrong, I would have stretched further. I had to get it back.”
In the intervening years, Craig and Steve remained close. Both became Dads, Steve launched a successful music house, and Craig stayed busy writing music and performing.
But Craig had also landed an MBA in Innovation from his undergrad alma mater, James Madison University. Not only was Craig a lifelong collaborator, he was now an expert in business innovation with an acute focus on his passion for music.
With Craig on board, Steve continued to rebuild the team. He reached out to many of the minds and imaginations that came together when they made their first ascent in the music world. “Along with seeing the app come to life, that’s been the most gratifying thing.”
It took over twenty years for his late-night, I-77 highway-hypnosis vision to be realized, but now with the launch of ORO, it’s a reality.
After four years of development, losing and rebuilding his company, ORO has officially launched. But Steve and Craig haven’t popped any corks just yet.
“The moment the app went live in the App Store was amazing. But it was like this enormous door swung open, revealing a new road and plenty of new hills to climb. We’re stoked, but now there are a million new things on our To Do lists.”
Although they relish in the positive feedback from users who find the app addicting, or old Everything fans who report that they love it as much as their kids do, for Steve and Craig ORO 1.0 is very much a minimally viable product.
“This is an experiment, a test balloon as much as anything. We’ve got huge ambitions with this thing.” Just as the 1.0 instrument set is based on their own hit single, Hooch, the business behind ORO, Light The Music, is building relationships with other artists to do the same.
“Down the road, we’re going to be featuring instrument sets from derived from other established artists. That proprietary blend of musical sounds and visual art is our secret sauce. We were talking to Elvis’s people for a while and they loved it. The demos were so cool, but the business people couldn’t wrap their head around it. It was just like 2000 when the big record companies couldn’t grapple with the disruption the Internet was causing.”
For Craig and Steve, the fact that some conventional music industry folks can’t grasp the big picture opportunities and implications is just a sign that their innovating. For them, it’s not about finding hundreds of strategic partners, but rather finding the right few.
The name ORO is derived from Ouroboros, the ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail. It represents cycles and duality of creation and these cycles are everywhere in the ORO ethos. “In the app itself where the cycles of the looping canvas fosters an endless cycle of creation. And in the history of our creative community. What seemed like the music industry eating us alive and spitting us out was really just a part of the process.”
And Craig and Steve believe they have a measure of benevolent disruption to serve back to the industry.
“We want to re-monetize music — we’re looking ahead to an ORO marketplace that will become another place for fans to interact with the music and musicians they love. In five years, no one’s going to question this format and ORO won’t be the only player in the field. But just like we did with Everything, we’re not stopping with the app. We’re building an experience.”
“It’s going to be awesome,” he says and a wry smile crosses his face. “Insanely awesome.”