3Minutes30 with Sparkplug CEO and co-founder Julia Wilde

December’s #3Minutes30 is with Julia Wilde, co-founder of SPARKPLUG – a new service being likened to an Air B’n’B for musical instruments. We’re always on the look out for ways of helping musicians increase their income, and increase their contact with each other. What we love about Sparkplug is not just the fact musicians can make money from renting out their gear or space; but the increased contact with each other – who knows how many friendships and working relationships/gig swaps etc can come out of meeting each other this way. We’re right behind them anyhow – there’s no doubt we’ve all been crying out for something like this for ages. Chris had a coffee and a ludicrously flaky croissant at St Pancras a few months back to find out more…

/// So… what is Sparkplug? ///

www.Sparkplug.it is a community marketplace connecting musicians so that they can rent instruments, gear, and space from one another. Musicians harness their naturally collaborative community all over the word and rent whatever they need, wherever they need it in one transparent, secure place. And they do so directly from one another, putting money in the hands of peers when they’re between sessions or shows.

/// How do musicians know their instrument is safe being loaned out? Will clients build up ratings like on AirBnB and eBay? ///

We have a variety of trust mechanisms in place to encourage transparency at every step, including a required condition field, real photos of each listing, and (yes!) a review process at the end of every reservation. Our members do indeed accumulate reviews and ratings like on Airbnb. We also charge 30% of an item’s value to the renter as a security deposit once a reservation is booked. That 30% is calculated from the value specified by the owner at the time they list their item (they also set their own daily, weekly, and monthly rates). The deposit is returned to the renter 24 hours after the successful completion of a reservation. Should any damages occur, we deduct directly from that held 30% and we also have the right to bill up to the full value of the item.

I like to think of the 30% as a carrot more than a stick. It keeps people aware that they are responsible for another artist’s property. Sure, the stick is there if we need it; our greatest responsibility is to our members’ listings and we make sure to protect them. So far, though, we have not had any incidents and we have not had to tap into any security deposits.


Julia and co-founder Jennifer Newman presenting the delegates of #NYMusic Tech with the good news…

/// What motivated you to set it up? ///

I’m a musician and I worked at a label doing A&R for a few years. Three out of our four founders work in music. We were all familiar with the limitations and challenges of gear ownership and rental, both monetary and logistical, but like everyone else we’d just accepted the situation as the status quo. One Sunday morning, my husband was routing a tour for one of his bands and running up against the usual cost, transportation, and logistical issues with backline. We had also both received an email from a band who had had their gear stolen and were desperate to borrow or rent replacements for their tour that week. We happened to be watching a profile on the sharing economy, which I had been following quite closely but only because I’m a bit of a hippy at heart – never really connecting the dots to its implications in music. In that moment, I turned to my husband and said “How does this not exist for musicians?” That was it. We believe it should be easier for musicians and artists to create and perform. This model makes that possible. We are already such a naturally collaborative, supportive community and there are musicians with gear in every corner of the world. What could be more natural than a community marketplace for artists to draw on and support each other by sharing their resources?

/// You have a background as a musician? ///

I grew up as a session singer on kid’s records and commercials, so, yes I have been a working musician since I was about six. Here is where you insert the obligatory joke about singers not really being musicians. I also play guitar and I used to perform as an artist. I still write quite a bit, though it’s mostly just for myself these days.

/// For all the problems that the internet has supposedly created for musicians, the online world keeps turning up treasures to help musicians survive. What other tools, aside from Sparkplug, have you seen recently where you’ve thought – ‘I wish I’d come up with that’? (Like we did at Karousel when we saw Sparkplug!) ///

Well, I can easily return the compliment and tell you that I love the concept behind Karousel. Seems like we’re motivated by the same thing – empowering the artist and giving folks the tools they need to be that much more creative. I’m such a fan of your ethos. I am also rather enchanted with these booking platforms like Fanswell that aim to help artists route tours through unusual venues, like fans’ homes. Between that and Sofar Sounds, I am really excited by what seems to be a refocusing on close-knit listening environments, outside of typical venues. I love this idea of getting back to basics – music as something communal and personal. People crowded around a piano or sitting on a floor – really listening. I’m struck by how the internet – this big scary place just a few years ago – has created new levels of intimacy between strangers who love the same things.


* We’ll be uploading some of the gear from our studio to the site over Christmas…*

/// Best record you’ve bought this year from a new artist? ///

I am absolutely in love with Asgeir and Sharon Van Etten’s new records. I love darkness and intricacy – and, of course, beautiful melody. Even though they are quite different, both of those records have a sort of haunting intimacy to them that really hits me.

/// Best hidden treasure of a record you’ve unearthed? ///

Love this song – – Liz Cuesta is just astounding live. Insane guitar player, but super understated about it. Highly recommend seeing her if she gets to London anytime soon!

/// The Item I’d most like listed on Sparkplug so I could hire it is… ///

A 1920s Martin mandolin. They are no match for the holy grail of Gibsons made during the same time period. But I play Martin acoustics, and I’m a loyal lady. I’ve wanted to learn the mandolin for a while but don’t want to splurge on an instrument that I’m not sure I’ll take to (been down that road before, ahem, autoharp), but I also don’t want to even slightly invest in some laminate I won’t want to play for a long while. This way I could take some time to play and know how I’m getting on before fully jumping into owning.

/// And finally… Best ingredient for a dish that no one else puts in? (Like using a Vox Continental tucked under a piano riff) ///

Oh, I love this question. A grand piano with the dampers lifted on a vocal track. This will require a little explaining. On one of my songs, I tracked my lead vocal the ordinary old way. I think it was on a U87 in a medium sized liveroom – no booth, just gobos. I then threw a sandbag on the sustain pedal of a grand piano in the same room, mic’ed the inside of the piano, and stuck my head in there, too. Had to edit out all of the proper vocal, obviously (and god – not the best performance technique to crouch while singing), but I hyper compressed the very quiet reverberations coming off the piano strings and created what sound a bit like whales singing. Every engineer who has heard this one song asks me what it is. I wish I were half as gear-proficient as these guys, so the fact that I’ve managed to think of this one trick makes me quite happy indeed!

Sparkplug is available now in the UK, US and most of Europe (check the site). Get your stuff listed folks!