What if—hear me out—what if we used empathy and altruism as a business model? That’s what Michael Angelakos asked during the FORTUNE Venture Stage’s music and tech afternoon at Northside Festival Innovation on Thursday.
The mastermind behind Passion Pit, which just turned 10 years old, isn’t interested in churning out hits or making albums based on what record labels want. “I think overemphasizing the sale of music is missing the point,” he said to an audience so packed that people were lining the perimeter of the room.
He reminisced about a time when Passion Pit was on the radio and young fans used to tweet at him to tour in their states—something he simply couldn’t afford to do. Looking back a few years later he says he realized, “There’s nothing more expensive or valuable than time.” The opportunity to connect with fans and have them spend time with his music was much more valuable than any record sale he could make. “I want to stop thinking about selling my music. I want to give my music away for free.”
And give it away for free he did; this past February and March, Angelakos uploaded a series of new songs to YouTube under the name The Wishart Group, his new project dedicated to supporting legal, educational, and healthcare services for artists—particularly focusing on mental health, a cause he has been vocal about for some time.
“I’ve always felt like artists are a bit underused,” he said. “We have a platform.” Angelakos wanted to use his platform of 228K Twitter followers for good. Shortly after releasing the demos (collectively titled Tremendous Sea of Love), he ripped them down, telling fans he would email them free digital copies of the album, complete with artwork and credits, if they retweeted tweets supporting his friend, Harvard neuroscientist Michael F. Wells, who was marching on Capitol Hill for science.
Wells took over the @passionpit handle for the day, using the hashtag #weneedscience to answer questions and share the facts about neuroscience and mental health. Angelakos gave out his phone number, asking other neuroscientists on the hill to call him for the password so they could jump into the conversation. By the end of the march, 15,000-20,000 people had participated in the hashtag, all of whom Angelakos personally emailed a copy of the album.
“All of these other people started taking over and it became this emotional thing,” he said. “I kept thinking, Where is the brand? Fund this, someone. We could have made so much for science because they didn’t have a system for taking in money.”
He remembers having the realization that people don’t need to do things the way they’ve always been done. There are other ways to align artistic careers with causes and brands. He asked, “How can I raise money for things that matter to me and also do what I do?”
Angelakos hopes his work will be a call-to-action for other artists to explore what they can do to support causes they care about. “I have thousands of unused songs, and yet I only have three full-length records,” he said, alluding to the fundraising ammo many musicians have at their disposal. “I think this is the most amazing time right now. It’s absolutely the greyest of grey areas and you can try new things.”
Relishing in the positive vibes as I was leaving the panel, my inspiration from Angelakos’ story quickly turned to apprehension when I saw him chatting outside the venue with friends. Starstruck, my instinct was to duck behind a ficus tree in the outdoor lounge, when I remembered that moments earlier he said Tremendous Sea of Love was released purely to connect with fans. “Tremendous Sea of Love is an album for us, for me, for you,” reads a typewritten letter pinned to his Twitter account. “…I wrote this album to tell myself and to tell you that you were always good enough.”
It was the boost I needed to say hello and tell him I was writing about him. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised since he’d just given an entire panel on altruism, but he was so kind, even to a complete stranger stopping him on his way out after a 45 minute live interview. The warmth of our thirty-second interaction was enough to ensure I’ll be following his work much more closely from now on, and rooting for other artists to join the fight.
Photos by Zane Roessell