Before Mat Devine joined celebrity-to-fan video app Cameo as their Head of Music Partnerships, he spent two decades riding the music industry roller coaster as an artist. First, as the frontman for his Chicago-born alt rock band Kill Hannah, then for a brief stint acting in Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark on Broadway, then as a solo artist under the pseudonym Wrongchilde. Devine then spent a few years in artist management before accepting the Head of Music Partnerships role at an upstart company aimed at reimagining the artist-to-fan relationship.
"That entire chapter of my life as an artist informs everything we do here," Devine tells RootNote. "Not the least of which is a sort of 'anger' [laughs] at having been, in some ways, a casualty of a system that by its very nature kind of fucks artists."
Now, Devine sees himself in a position to help disrupt an industry that has perplexed (and in many cases, wronged) thousands of creators before him. "My personal mission, which is really the mission of the music team here, is to empower artists and their fans to disrupt and rebuild the industry," Devine says. "Look, I reached the end of my own personal runway at 40 years old. I rode the Peter Pan thing until the wheels fell off, and it's a sad day when an artist has to choose between making art and, you know, paying for food. So we want to extend that runway."
"An artist's success is not simply in their own selfish best interest — we all win when artists succeed." — Mat Devine
A Cameo Crash Course
For those unacquainted with Cameo, the premise is pretty simple. At its core, Cameo is a place where fans can pay "talent" (aka celebrities from all walks of life, from musicians and movie stars to famous chefs and social media meme legends) for a short, personalized video clip on their phone. Cameo's offerings for both talent and fans continues to grow, but the fundamental premise remains the same: allow a safe, monetized, personal interaction between a fan and a personality.
Fans are allowed to purchase a Cameo for themselves or as a gift for somebody else (there's also a brand option if you're looking for a sort spokesperson-for-hire scenario, though the terms and prices for these purchases are much different than personal Cameos). You can include a little information, choose an occasion to celebrate etc., or fill in other little things to help the talent make the video feel truly special.
The Chicago-based company began in 2016, though if you've heard of it, that probably started some time around 2018 when the app started to take off. Since then, more than 45,000 celebrities have used Cameo to connect with fans, earn revenue, and raise money for charity.
The Cameo Potential
When it comes down to it, Cameo works for artists who already have a bit of a fan base and who have the kind of personality (not just content) their fans crave. And when it works, it really works.
"Practically speaking, it's outrageous because the average length of a Cameo is only 30 seconds," Devine says. "As a rule of thumb, artists charge between $50-300, or whatever they would charge for a VIP meet-and-greet. We have artists on here making what they would make playing 20 shows a month — for what amounts to about 2 hours of their time."
That is, obviously, an exception more than a rule, but the point remains: fans really, really like getting personalized video messages and they really, really like supporting their favorite artists. "And every fan that receives a Cameo becomes like a triple down turbo fan and goes and buys whatever else they don't have from the artist," Devine laughs.
And one of Devine's most important roles is helping artists maximize their Cameo potential. "That's my favorite question to get, whether it's from a team or the artist themselves: 'How do I maximize this?'" Devine says. "The short answer is to lean in and trust us. All things being equal, two similar artists who join at the same time — the one who is going to have the most success is the one who asks that question and trusts us with the answer."
Each artist has a talent relations representative assigned to them to help them navigate the waters. But after a little while, the whole process becomes as second nature as normal meet-and-greets.
What Is A Tech Company's Role In Artist and Fan Relations?
"The short answer, is tech companies play a huge role," Devine says. "But we're in a unique position because you can all at once be anti-establishment, but still make a shit-ton of business sense. Ultimately, a music tech company's role is to learn from the major labels' mistakes over the past 30 years and their bizarre fear of innovation."
Devine has seen his fair share of a major label functioning out of misunderstanding and fear instead of foresight. Take, for instance, the early days of YouTube when his band Kill Hannah was on Atlantic Records and had a music video for their 2006 single "Lips Like Morphine" going viral on the platform.
"It had something like 11 million views at the time, which back then was impressive," Devine says. "And then one day it was just gone."
It turns out the entire Warner roster, including artists on all of the labels it owned, got scrubbed from YouTube because Warner didn't like the agreements they had in place with YouTube regarding monetization. Three weeks later the videos were back, but all of the views, momentum, engagement, data, and social proof were gone. "There couldn't be a better example of just how counter-productive their old thinking is," Devine says.
Expanding The Offering
Now, Cameo's music team is using its platform and understanding of super fans to expand well beyond facilitating paid shout-outs and virtual VIP experiences. Devine says the company is building out a suite of offerings to help artist businesses, from helping with single rollouts to highlighting them in socials and newsletters to positioning them in prime time on the home page to putting budget behind digital campaigns.
And while it has typically been up to each artist to more or less define what a "super fan" is to them, Cameo is certainly making it easier for those fans to gather and celebrate something as simple as a 30-second video.
Battling The Stigma
When Cameo first launched, the company scored several big celebrities on the platform. But the team had a difficult time, in particular, winning over artist management teams and labels. We know, shocking.
"When you’re talking about a team that’s surrounding a big name, they’re always in a sort of defensive posture," Devine says. "Because a new platform, a new partnership, whatever it is — anything new can be seen as a threat to what they’ve already built so painstakingly."
And in the early days of Cameo, plenty of managers and labels shut the door in no uncertain terms. "In the early days it was like pulling teeth to get a meeting in the first place," Devine says. "And then they would say no way, not in a million years would anybody on their roster ever use Cameo. They thought we were uncool, dorky, for D-listers or whatever."
Fast-forward to present day and some of the biggest acts and names in the world have used Cameo for a multitude of purposes. Many artists use Cameo as fundraising mechanism, too, when personal finance is no longer much of a motivator.
"Pushback from gatekeepers has evolved as we as a company have become much more established, but thankfully these days it's easy to pull very specific successes from an artist's 'lane' to alleviate whatever their reticence is," Devine says. And there's one point he makes clear to every team or artist who is afraid there might be bad "optics" around offering paid video interactions.
"I've never once seen a single example of pushback from fans when they found out an artist they like is on Cameo," Devine says. "There's nothing but positivity, and it's holistic in general. It creates unbelievably memorable and magical experiences for the fans. They scream, they cry, they watch them 1,000 times."
The Big Picture
At the end of the day, Cameo is another tool in an ever-expanding toolbox for artists and teams who don't want to be dependent on traditional revenue streams to keep their business growing. The potential is there — for those who want it enough.
Currently, the music category of Cameo features everyone from musical legends like Smokey Robinson, Paula Abdul, and Yngwie Malmsteen to cult icons like Boosie Badazz to songwriting superstars like Shane McAnally. But there are plenty of regional and developing acts, too. Artists or teams interested in applying to join Cameo can fill out the enrollment form here.
"Startup culture is as insane as band life, you know?" Devine says. "Personally, at this stage in my life, I would not make this sort of commitment [to join the Cameo team] if I did not believe to my core that Cameo is a huge opportunity for all the artists that I'm talking to. That's 100% undeniable."