Reinventing Instruments, Winning a Grammy, and Beating the Odds: Artiphon and ElectroSpit Creators on Forging Ahead
Dr. Mike Butera and Bosko Kante don’t give up easily. In this Q&A, they discuss challenges they’ve faced and how backers kept them going.
Before Dr. Mike Butera created the versatile digital instrument company Artiphon, he was a touring musician, sociology professor, and electronics design consultant. Bosko Kante won a Grammy for producing music with Kanye West before putting his USC mechanical engineering degree towards the creation of the ElectroSpit mobile talkbox.
They’ve both hit some exciting milestones. TIME Magazine named the Artiphon INSTRUMENT 1 one of the 25 best inventions of the year in 2015, MoMA design stores stock it, and T-Pain featured it on his T-Pain School of Business web series. Musicians like Dua Lipa and Bruno Mars are working on records that use ElectroSpit’s ESX-1. But both inventors are just getting started on upending music tech.
In this Q&A, we hear how they became successful Kickstarter creators, and how their communities and their creative visions kept them motivated along the way.
Kickstarter: When you reflect on your experience running a campaign, what do you feel is the number one lesson you learned along the way?
Bosko Kante: It takes more preparation than you think. You look at a page, and it looks easy to put together, but when you start actually digging in and making the video, you realize that it’s more complicated than you thought, and you have to make a lot of revisions. It’s like when you’re making a song, it’s easy to sing. You don’t realize that behind the scenes, all of these tweaks were made to make it to sound just right.
How long did you think it was going to take, and how long did it actually take?
Kante: We first came up with the idea for ElectroSpit in 2014, and we said, “We’re going to do a Kickstarter at the end of this year.” Well, that went on for three years, and it’s not to say that we were actually building a page that long, but we were building a story. We were figuring out what we needed to do, thinking about our audience, and recording people’s reactions to our prototype. At first our product wasn’t as developed, and the reactions weren’t as big, but as it got better and better, we figured out how to capture those reactions and set up meetings with people like David Guetta to test it out.
Mike, what was the biggest thing that you learned from running a Kickstarter campaign?
Butera: I think the normal answers are that hardware is hard and that people contributing to something that doesn’t exist yet isn’t exactly like buying something from a store; it’s more of a relationship that you develop. Those are very true, and we’ve lived through a lot of that stuff. But I think the biggest thing we learned, post-Kickstarter and now with a global community of people, is that the shared vision of what we were doing was really driving the whole thing. Our backers are people who believe in the future of music expression as much as we do.
With them, we were able to make a revolutionary instrument that wasn’t possible before. A single instrument that can be any instrument was a weird idea when we launched. I think people caught onto that. As a philosopher and sociologist by training, I was setting out this big vision, like what I was doing every day when I was a professor. And I realized that our backers are in that with us. It’s not just about the product, it’s about the idea that’s driving it.
How would your products look different if you had released them in a more traditional way?
Butera: It just wouldn’t be out there. We chose Kickstarter because we knew we had something that just wasn’t normal. There’s no category for this, there’s no known market, and even the angel investors who supported us were people who believed in the vision, just like our Kickstarter backers.
We spent about nine months solid just prepping for the campaign, prototyping, and thinking about how to release it with a Kickstarter mindset. We made real product decisions in that direction. If we had done it another way, I think it would have ended up being a much safer, more predictable derivative of everything else we already see out there. Instead we were able to take a leap forward and do something that nobody expected, that actually does feel like the future.
What are some of the specific product decisions you made over those nine months?
Butera: We flirt with this line between the history of musical instruments and the potential of what digital music can be, which is very abstract. Most digital production gear is inaccessible to the majority of people, and yet so are violins and pianos and harpsichords and all that. So we tried to figure out how much it would be helpful for us to be skeuomorphic in our design of the product, to drive the conversation around this being like a guitar, violin, piano, and drum, or to go toward that abstraction of letting it be anything, sound like anything, do anything you want, total freedom.
The campaign itself, as a test of our ideas and vocabulary, really influenced how we built presets. This instrument has presets that radically change what it does, and part of the way we refined that was seeing how our backers responded to these concepts.
Bosko, you mentioned you were taking out your prototypes, testing them with people, and the reactions kept on getting more enthusiastic over time. What were some of the product features that got people really excited?
Kante: The sound quality is something that we iterated on over time, because we’re taking this big device, a talkbox that goes in your mouth and has a big amp, and we’re fitting it into something small that goes around your neck. So the acoustics and the actual mechanism that the sound is transmitted through make a huge difference in the quality of the sound. We had to make different decisions and design tweaks to accomplish that. The sound got thicker and thicker and eventually, I believe, eclipsed the original talkbox. And when people heard that, especially people who are familiar with the talkbox, they just started losing it.
And what was your process of refining the prototypes like?
Kante: I’m trained as a mechanical engineer, but I took the journey of going from making things by hand to doing 3D CAD modeling, print tests, building new circuit boards, and using SMD [Surface Mount Device] components instead.
The Kickstarter process pushed us to do that faster and faster to improve our prototypes, because when you’re getting ready for this meeting with an influencer, you’re thinking, “How can I paint it? Or what material should I use? How am I going to light it up?” All of these things that maybe I hadn’t thought of before when my goal was just making it work at all.
Butera: That goes back to something you were saying before, about capturing first impressions. We did that with our opening for the Kickstarter video and it was a scary commitment. Like you’re saying, we had prototypes that were increasingly functional, but it was still a hand-built model rather than a mass-produced thing. And then we got a dozen or so people in the room and captured the first time they played with it.
You put it in someone’s hands, and it’s so new that they don’t know where to start. I learned to ask questions like, “What kind of music do you like? Have you ever played a bass or something?” They’re like, “No, I’ve always wanted to.” Then you put it into a bass sound with a simplified tuning. You sort of plant musical ideas to help people find their unique thing, and then it pops.
I think it’s all about meeting someone where they’re at with what really gets them going, and they just get excited and laugh and say, “I need this in my life.” And if you can capture that and then you can show it to the world….
Kante: That’s the magic.
Do either of you have other tips for demos and showing people a new product for the first time?
Kante: One is practice. Doing these over months and months, we learned the right words to say to get a person in the right frame of mind, the best environment, the best camera angle. It’s just about trial and error and experimentation. So I wouldn’t recommend planning everything for one big demo event and spending your whole budget on one night of filming.
Well, I have to bring up, Bosko, you’re wearing your product right now. Do you do that a lot, so people ask you what it is and you can demo it?
Kante: At certain events, definitely. I don’t wear it all day every day, contrary to popular belief. But if I’m going to an event where I know I’m going to see other musicians, potential customers, or people who might be interested, I definitely bring it along.
Butera: Yeah, I do the same. I usually have an Artiphon sticking up out of my bag.
We’ve been talking about prototypes and taking those out into the world — but what about the difficulties of figuring out mass production? What are some ways that you successfully or unsuccessfully communicated that process to your backers?
Butera: We had a lot of communication with people, and saw how Kickstarter gives people a window into seeing the making of these objects that run our lives. We found people want to be a part of that journey — more so than we even expected. We went out for a $75,000 campaign and got $1.3 million, which is quite a scale difference from what we originally thought. It’s a totally different manufacturing and business model. Obviously we were thrilled to have so many people on board, but it forced us to take a major step up and we had a lot to learn.
Some people are super nerdy and were like, “Show me the circuit boards,” which is awesome, and we wanted to do that, but we couldn’t actually show every step of the process with our engineers and confidentiality agreements and manufacturing partners. As it turned out, the most well-received backer updates were about how the overall story was coming together, the narrative of what was going on that week, a milestone we met, etc..
And Bosko, what about you?
Kante: We’re still figuring that out. We’re right in the middle of it — and it’s taking longer than we planned — but I’ve been blown away by the support that we’ve gotten along the way.
Every time you have to make a little change, you have to actually change the engineering, send that to China, wait for the test to get to you, and then evaluate it, maybe making another change. So, that’s a month. Each time you do that, another month, another month.
As we communicated that to the backers, I would be scared to hit the button and send that update. Then the first response would be like, “Oh, it’s okay, you guys. We’re behind you. We can’t wait to get this instrument. Just keep pushing. We’re proud of you.” All of these things, it sounds cliché, but it really has pushed us through to deliver, to work harder, to work smarter, to just continue to improve the ElectroSpit EXS-1. The backers have been emotional backers as much as financial backers.
Butera: Everyone wants the same thing. We’re all on the same side of the table really.
Besides the backers, who clearly seem to be a huge support for you, what keeps you going and keeps you motivated when times are tough?
Kante: I definitely have this achievement side to me, and I never like to leave something unfinished, even to a fault. I want to be able to look back and say, “Here was this thing that I dreamt up, and now people are making art with it all around the world.” To a large degree, we’ve done that. We’re making records with this. I just made a record with Dua Lipa that’s going to be, I believe, a huge record. I’ve done records with David Guetta and Bruno Mars.
Butera: Yeah, I agree. It’s amazing when you finally get your idea out in the world and people make music with it. The road to get there can be pretty wild though. There’s a personal backstory that I haven’t actually talked about publicly. About two months after the Kickstarter campaign, I got leukemia and almost died. It was a total surprise and a really fast onset. My wife and I immediately moved into the hospital while I did all the chemo and stem cell transplant craziness.
At the time, I didn’t know if I was going to live another week, but I kept thinking, “This is my passion. Everything I have done in life was leading up to this” — lifelong musician, PhD in Sound Studies, teaching music and sociology, and designing products for other people, and then five years of Artiphon to get to that point. I was like, “I’m not going to stop now. If I’ve got another day to work on this, I’m going to do it.”
I’m totally recovered now, but I couldn’t go out in public for months. And through all that, somehow I didn’t stop working, which was a little bonkers. Our team was incredible and super dedicated, and a real inspiration for me. We held back on talking about it with backers because we never wanted it to look like an excuse. We all just powered through and delivered the product as fast as we could.
Really, I think that what Artiphon is doing for the future of musical instruments is inevitable, whether we’re the ones to do it or not. But I really wanted us to get to the future faster. It felt like if we didn’t do it, it might take another five years for someone else to figure it out. And that was five years of kids not making music they love, and five years of people still saying, “Maybe I’m not a musician.” So that’s kind of how I thought about what we were doing, just pulling the future a bit closer every day.
In terms of pulling the future closer, what’s the future you see and the impact that you hope to have? What’s on the horizon?
Kante: Inevitably, with each problem that I fix, I come up with a better idea of how I can continue to make something better, like making it completely wireless or making the batteries smaller. Things that seemed impossible in the past, you come up with a solution for.
That gets me excited about not just my own product, but fixing or changing or solving things in general. I have a more optimistic outlook on how you can solve any problem.
Butera: We’re talking politics now? [laughs]
Kante: Basically, yeah. I mean, it’s everything from clean energy to affordable housing to education, it’s the same way. You come in with that creativity and a belief that you can change things…
Butera: My experience every day with business isn’t about capitalism. It’s about bringing people together and organizing ideas and resources toward a goal that benefits the world. That’s the point.
Kante: Definitely. I used to think of resources as how much money I had in my bank account, but that’s the wrong way to think about projects. The resources are directly related to how well can you tell your story and communicate why your product is important. If you can do that, then the resources are unlimited essentially.
Butera: If you have the source, the resource will follow. Right?
Kante: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s about telling your friends and family about this thing that you have an idea for, and getting them excited. And if they want to help or connect you with somebody else that has the resources or expertise that you need, your resources multiply.
Mike, what does the future hold for you?
Butera: So many people are solving elements of the musical process: mixing and mastering and distribution and listening, all that stuff. But the musical instrument itself was kind of stuck 50 years in the past — or 500 years in the past, depending on what you’re looking at. So that was why I started there, but really the overall goal has been providing immediately fun experiences with sound. So we designed an instrument to give people all the options. You’re one tap away from this being a cello or a xylophone or a drum machine. It’s so many things, all the things.
Now we’ve learned from thousands of people what they like to do, what actually causes immediate joy and creative confidence. So our product design mentality is converging on those things that really seem to tap into our human desire to make music together.We just got an investment from Warner Music Group, which is exciting for us, and we’re thinking about the future of interactive music in general. When you give people an instrument they can actually play, how does that change how we think about the song? And what kind of interactions can artists have with fans, and fans with artists, and fans with fans? Music, social networks, gaming, entertainment; all these fields are converging now. The instrument itself is just the beginning.