“Many New York singers get paid to sing choir on the weekends; I do it for fun,” says David Steinberger. That’s because the Juilliard-trained vocal artist is also CEO and cofounder of comiXology, an Amazon.com subsidiary that’s the largest distributor of digital comic books. He’s been singing at Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood for most of the past 15 years–and he still follows theater and the opera with a passion similar to the one he has for comics.
“I’m a big English-language opera fan,” says Steinberger, a 45-year-old Midwest native who arrived in New York 22 years ago with dreams of singing professionally. “Peter Grimes is one of my favorites. There’s also an opera from Debussy that I really wanted to sing called Pelléas et Mélisande, which I adore.”
But in 1998, after graduating from Juilliard, Steinberger abandoned his artistic dreams of singing at The Met and instead began training Wall Street bankers and lawyers to present to audiences–first at Credit Suisse and then as a temp assigned to different firms.
These days, Steinberger’s time on stage is limited to 20 or so engagements a year at Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian and hosting town hall meetings for comiXology and Amazon employees.
Recently, Steinberger hosted an Amazon-sponsored “author fishbowl” for the award-winning creative team for March. The graphic novel series is about the Civil Rights movement told from the perspective of Congressman John Lewis. Cowriter Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell were also on hand for the event.
“I just finished the third volume of March,” says Steinberger. “It reminds me just how much art informs how we understand our world and understand each other.”
To this day, he credits singing for helping him find his business voice. “When you’re performing solo–just you and your pianist, which I love to do–you’re very exposed. You learn to be really, really prepared before going on stage,” says Steinberger.
From winning a business plan competition while still an MBA student at NYU, to raising an estimated $2.85 million in venture and seed financing in comiXology’s early days, to reassuring nervous fans at annual “ask me anything” open forums at San Diego Comic Con, to orchestrating the Amazon buyout in April 2014, Steinberger has built a lucrative business career by getting others to listen to him.
“Singing, connecting with audiences, there’s no question in my mind, that creates empathy,” he says. “And there’s no more powerful tool in business–whether you’re talking about employee relations or working with publishers who are sometimes a little hesitant to take risks–than being present and listening to where they are coming from.”
In July 2009, when the Comics by comiXology app for the iPhone and iPad first appeared, Steinberger says publishers feared what it would mean to give in to fan pressure to price digital comic books at 99¢ each.
Marvel and DC were particularly reticent. In response, Steinberger agreed to sell their digital comics for the same price as the print editions.
“We kept hearing from big publishers that they didn’t want to sell for 99¢, they wanted to sell at $1.99 [a copy],” he explains. “So we said, okay, let’s try that.”
Listening worked. By 2012, comiXology had signed an exclusive deal with Marvel. Many others followed, and today the company sells over 75,000 titles from 125 different publishers. Some are even sold at the sorts of discounts that publishers were once loathe to accept, while a new “unlimited” version of the service gives fans Netflix-like access to thousands of titles.
“Flash sales are now a great part of our business because we didn’t ignore the publishers’ fears about discounting,” Steinberger explains.
Solving the pricing debate helped comiXology grow, but it wouldn’t be the last problem Steinberger faced.
ComiXology’s servers crashed in March 2013 after the company announced a plan to give away 700 free Marvel comics at that month’s South By Southwest Interactive conference in Austin. Nervous fans who’d spent thousands of dollars on digital comics peppered Steinberger with questions about how he’d protect their investments.
Learning to breathe on the stage helped him get through then–and it still does today. “Singing is an athletic feat, especially in the operas. You cannot sing there if you are not breathing,” Steinberger explains. “You need to be calm, focused, take a big breath, and continue to sing. Otherwise, you’re done. The notes will just stop working.”
Steinberger and his wife are now living near Lincoln Center and taking in two to three plays and operas per month. He says he was especially happy to see the adaptation of cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s graphical memoir, Fun Home, win last year’s Tony Award for Best Musical. Steinberger pronounced Hamilton both “mind-blowing” and unique. “It starts, grabs a hold of you and drives, drives, drives, and doesn’t stop,” he enthuses, “They deserve everything they’ve gotten.”
If Steinberger sounds exhilarated, it’s because he treats attending theater and the opera as a form of catharsis. He says, “[It] takes me of out of the day-to-day madness,” he says, by allowing him to concentrate on something else for a while.
Singing at Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian gives him a similar feeling. “There’s not a device ringing, there’s isn’t the next email that needs to get written, nobody is sticking their head in your office. You get to practice full focus,” Steinberger explains, “and that’s super useful for everything I do.”