Live In Conversation: Roman Rappek

Roman Rappek

Co-Founder & Chief Creative Officer – Ristband / ristband.co

Our guest today is Roman Rappek who is not only the founder of Ristband but also the frontman of the electronic alternative band Pivots (formerly Miro Shot).

 “I run my band like a startup and I run my startup like a band”

Rappak has directed award-winning short films, soundtracked games and scored films, released and toured two full-length albums with his previous band Breton (FatCat / Warp), as well as creating immersive cinema experiences that toured from the BFI London to the ACMI Australia. His band Pivots (formerly Miro Shot) created the world’s first XR live music concert, touring art galleries, venues, cinemas, warehouses and festivals in the UK, France, Germany, Dubai and Holland, from the Institute of Contemporary Art in Amsterdam (CBK) to the Barbican in London. Rappak was tipped as one of Music Ally’s ‘Ones To Watch’ in music and technology in 2022. His band Pivots is currently touring and releasing new music.

Navigating the Metaverse: The Convergence of Music & Gaming

#HowWeListen Live: In Conversation with Roman Rappek took place on Wednesday, April 10th, 2024, live from Paris

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In part one, Roman talks about how the idea for Ristband developed as he took his band out on the road and income streams started to dry up. It became suddenly clear that maybe the next format was not like any others that had come in the past, but was gaming platforms.

Marc Brown: Hello Roman thank you for joining me for this edition of #HowWeListen Live: In Conversation. As I understand it, you are a working and touring musician but your day job is at Ristband, tell us a little bit about that company.

Roman Rappak: Sure! Ristband is a technology company and also a music company in the sense that we look at the music industry and music culture. The basic thinking behind it was that for everyone who has been working in music for the last 15 to 20 years, the clock starts Napster, Limewire or Emu depending on what generation you are from. The entire landscape has changed,  the value of music has changed, venues have closed down – things have gotten complicated. At the same time, the world of gaming and the world of AI, VR and experiential events have started exploding. So the real question originally driving Ristband was how we use this explosive new market to support artists, labels, A&R people, and radio pluggers. All of these people who traditionally were able to sustain a living through music, and now can’t. Is there a way that we can connect the dots and bring those two worlds together?

Marc Brown: That’s so interesting, but how did you end up heading down this path? What’s your background?

Roman Rappak: I entered the music industry as a musician. So my career started in the most generic of ways possible, forming a band and making beats on a laptop. I worked with various rappers and singers and then the unimaginable happened – we signed a record deal and started touring the world. Then we signed to another label for a few more albums and started to realize that touring and hoping to get a sync or a licensing deal was looking unsustainable. So we were touring and everything was going well – and we were getting sync and licensing deals. We would all come back home and realize everyone was still kind of on minimum wage. This was not a nostalgic, “the music industry is broken” kind of take on things. We were starting to think “There must be a new way that we can do this”. At the same time, all these exciting new tools and all of these huge cultural shifts in the way people consume media were starting to happen. The advances I got from my label went towards the traditional things: recording, making videos, mastering, PR, etc. Our perspective started to shift, we kind of looked at this money like a seed fund or a small startup investment, and people in the band were trying to find ways to use these opportunities. We began seeing that there were huge opportunities that we could not only take advantage of but in some ways, maybe, we could do better than a lot of tech companies because we could put on a great show – create music and make interesting things that go with it. That led us to come up with the world’s first mixed-reality live concert. A 10-minute mixed reality piece where audiences can watch the live band using augmented reality. It’s all on a multiplayer network and it switches between the real show and this new virtual world. It worked incredibly well – we started to make more money than we had been making playing tiny clubs and festivals.

Marc Brown: And so you were doing this with your band? What year is this?

Roman Rappak: The first time was when we got a grant from the Dutch government to do it in an art gallery in 2017. 

Marc Brown: That sounds pretty esoteric. Okay, fast forward to today. Let’s talk about this year’s South by Southwest thing. I watched your sizzle reel for that presentation and what I saw there sounds like what you described, this idea where people are in the room together, but there’s also all of this other stuff going on in the headset, right? If you rewind to 2017 was that the vision? Has the path remained consistent? 

Roman Rappak: The vision, broadly speaking, was to zoom out and go, “Okay, the music industry is in crisis, the value of music is going down, down, down, 160,000+ songs are getting uploaded to Spotify every day”. So the thing about being a musician, or any kind of artist, is that you have to be a mindless optimist to even wake up in the morning and think that this will work. It’s the same with any creative pursuit, because why wouldn’t someone want to do that every waking moment of their life?  Unfortunately, you don’t have to be too much of a realist to realize that mathematically speaking, the odds are stacked against you. Music discovery is next to impossible with that many songs being uploaded every day.

Marc Brown: It is so very unpredictable.

Roman Rappak: You can say that, but not everyone would agree. So the actual logistics of how artists could survive, and I’ll speak from a personal level and then I’ll speak from a global level, is that if I’m supposed to be able to have a quality of life where I can at least have a phone and keys to an apartment, that’s much more difficult than it ever was. I got started in music when people were starting to realize that no one’s buying records in the same way. Trent Reznor just wrote an amazing article where he said that the whole streaming thing has gone badly for artists. We were all told that, finally, we wouldn’t need labels anymore, but actually it’s become a nightmare. So I think the thing that we had fallen in love with was really just a business model, so it’s just the death of that. There’s a great Steve Albini quote, where he says, “The internet has facilitated the most direct and efficient, compact relationship ever between band and audience. And I do not mourn the loss of the offices of inefficiencies that died in the process”. Music has always evolved. It’s only 100 and something years old, right? Like think of when Edison invented a way of recording stuff and when publishing IP laws got solidified – it’s all relatively recent, so I’m quite optimistic. Music, musicians and art will always find a way. Most of all, fans will always fall in love with an artist and their music. The question then becomes – if this infrastructure that we relied on is broken, let’s not be sad about that, what are the next opportunities? 3.6 billion people are playing video/online games, so I say we need to look at ways to get our music in the AR and VR world. It’s one of the most unbelievable mediums that mankind has ever created, so why shouldn’t a band make some money out of that? How can an artist use the gamer demographic to bolster their career and support them?

Marc Brown: OK, so Ristband started as this skunkworks project, new R&D, and where are you at now after 6 years? 

Roman Rappak: The revelatory moment for me, and I’ve never thought of myself as someone in the tech industry, when people started to ask “Hey, come and talk at this tech conference and speak about your tech company, tech guy”. I actually was slightly embarrassed at first. I was like “Wait a second, haven’t I worked very hard to not go to these”. People around me with more clarity told me that I’d built this thing, and it works really well, and these people wanted to know how they could license the tool. At first, I was youthful, arrogant and ignorant and thought no way., Then I realized:  why are we fighting over record deals and streaming sales that are dying when the tech world is an exciting place where anything can happen? So I made the transition: maybe we could use these ideas for our music project, and we could support the musicians who work on the project. Maybe the new model for how an artist makes money in the music industry revolves around thinking of themselves as a startup that has something that they can promote, and something that they can share with people. So then Epic Games, the makers of Fortnight, reached out to us and said they were interested in the convergence of gaming, music, immersive technology and live events. They helped fund us, so we could take it to the next stage, which was to turn it into something that anyone could access and use. We also built a game build a game completely focused on music and music discovery. It all became this really interesting situation, I thought that it was wrong to mourn the old ways of the music industry. There was this sort of punk side to me that was thinking that maybe the music industry doesn’t know what’s going to happen next because traditionally they never have.

Marc Brown: They definitely have a bad track record.

Roman Rappak: Right! But then again, the tech and the gaming industry won’t be able to understand how to put on an incredible event quite as well as someone who is a musician or an Events Coordinator. I’m not saying that one knows more than the other, I’m saying that both of them have a piece of the puzzle and both of them speak completely different languages. So Ristband started to become this sort of online space. Imagine if it was Fortnight or Grand Theft Auto, it was somewhere where you could walk through a city in that world, and all the music you’re hearing is new independent artists or the places you go into are places that artists curated or made themselves. The most important part is that we had to be really transparent about how much money that platform was making and we had to make sure that all the artists were being paid as much as possible. What we really want to have happen is like what happened with everything from MySpace to Twitch to YouTube. It’s always the underground that picks up on these things first, it’s never the big major label artists who take a gamble on these things, or rarely. So the question became: what is the next battleground for new artists who are hungry to be discovered by their audience? Sort of in the same way that MTV was – it was a total paradigm shift into what it meant to be an artist. It didn’t mean that no one cared about albums and were only obsessed with videos but it did mean that artists started thinking in different and more visual ways. Bands got very good at making music videos, and it became a new communication tool that they used. The gamble with Ristband is saying that gaming is the next one of those ways of being seen and being heard.

Marc Brown: Let’s talk about this idea more! Could you talk a bit about the historical context and the advancement in gaming that has allowed this to take place, for us to get here?

Roman Rappak: Yeah! We think of these two industries (music and gaming) as completely detached from each other. For instance, my music publisher, the company had a special guy who would go and speak to the world of gaming, and he would talk to them about tracks, sort of like a music supervisor. He was the golden boy because he could go to this foreign country and speak their foreign language. The only reason this was possible was that games around the 90s – when the PlayStation One came out – could be put onto a CD and a CD could hold a hell of a lot more data than previously. The gaming industry was crushing it and making huge money and suddenly that became a conduit, these new games could license real music, not just “Beeps” and “Blips”. So now the biggest band in the world can suddenly appear in the FIFA Game. A giant milestone, it brings these two industries closer together, they are no longer competing, and they can work together. If you fast forward to now, we’re in an era where these worlds are dynamic. So it isn’t like you buy the game, and it’s got those songs on it and if I play that game in 50 years, it’s got the same songs on it. Now, it can change all the time with licensing etc. So that’s something super interesting. The other interesting advancement is the deals. So someone at Rockstar Games speaks to the music supervisor and says we need this kind of music, and then they speak to the labels and the label says they have the perfect thing. Then they make a deal. Up until now, there isn’t really a precedent for the way that music can be used in these games. So it’s terrifying for both parties to try and invent an entirely new contractual relationship.