Depending on whom you ask, smartphones have either enhanced or ruined the live music experience, what with the livetweeting, glowing video screens, and constant pinging of notifications. But WillCall, a sleek concert recommendation and ticketing app that earned a lot of praise in 2013, is expanding this year in hopes of using mobile technology to remove distractions from the live music experience rather than add to them, while moving more revenue through music venues.
WillCall currently features a curated selection of concerts each week in New York and San Francisco, chosen by music-savvy staff and listed no more than two weeks in advance, as a sort of short-notice tipoff for worthy shows you might otherwise miss. Through a user-friendly design and a reputation for hip musical taste, WillCall saw five-fold user growth in the last five months of 2013, and has raised $2 million from investors including Sean Parker and SV Angel. With plans to expand to Los Angeles this year, then potentially Chicago, Atlanta, and Nashville, the app already sells tickets and allows users to buy selected merch and tip artists.
The company's next step is to help streamline transactions where venues already make 70% of revenue: the bar. The new BarTab enterprise app integrates with the consumer-facing WillCall app so that anyone who bought a ticket through WillCall can give their name at the bar and automatically have the drink charged to their stored credit card.
"Trying to grab a drink at a concert can be really frustrating—lines, credit card fees, cash-only policies, minimums—it's actually pretty difficult for people to spend money," says Donnie Dinch, WillCall's founder and CEO. "Our vision was to remove all potential frictions from buying a drink while enriching the person-to-person interaction that occurs between bartender and patron."
Dinch says the company started testing the platform with a weekly in-office happy hour, where WillCall staff "took turns playing bartender and trying to break things [in the app]." The company then invited four San Francisco venues, who were already using WillCall for ticket sales, to participate in a pilot program and test-drive event last December. By February 1, WillCall will invite up to a dozen additional venues in San Francisco or New York to the pilot program; venues can apply through the company's partner page.
"It's simple—people are going to spend more money," says Gordon Weiss, co-owner and entertainment director at San Francisco venue Vessel, an early WillCall partner that's part of the BarTab pilot program. "Transactions will be quicker, customer experience will be better, the bar will be elevated by it." As part of the pilot program, Vessel will host a WillCall event this month using BarTab for all bar transactions. The true test, says Weiss, will be mixing all the various payment options. "There are always going to be people who don't even have iPhones, or who will only pay in cash," says Weiss. "But I have confidence in this product."
Eventually, WillCall plans to extend the enterprise technology to things like the coat check, and expand the in-app merch sales capability to make it simple for any venue, promoter, or label to sell products through the app and have them shipped directly to customers, who won't have to leave their space on the floor to wait in line for the ATM and T-shirt table. Currently, the merch feature is set up with artists on a case-by-case basis.
"In the same way digital streaming has massively increased the casual consumption of recorded music, we believe there's an opportunity to do that in the live space," says Dinch. "We're creating tools specifically for the unique requirements of the live music space that pair seamlessly with the consumer app—essentially we're building the first unified transaction layer for live entertainment." This will also, says Dinch, allow venues and promoters to collect valuable data on music patrons and their actions from end to end.
It's this platform integration at all points of customer contact that Weiss says is most appealing to him as a venue owner. "There are apps to do everything—book tables, skip the line, pay at the bar—but they're always one-dimensional," says Weiss. "WillCall's benefit is that they're doing everything holistically."