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How a Brilliant Hunch Became a 10-Million User Ad Network

by Hanna Brooks Olsen
featured, music & audio

Social network in a courseTo those of us who had a cell phone (or even a landline) in the 1990s, the phrase “nights and weekends” conjures images of really long phone calls with friends or family in another state because those hours — evenings and on the weekend — were the ones that didn’t rob you of minutes or result in extra charges for long distance calls.  For creative people, though, nights and weekends are the time when you make the thing you’ve always wanted to make, in the hopes that it serves a great enough purpose to enough people that it’ll become your full-time job.

For Ben Umanov, founding partner of the ultra-successful ad network Blast Beat  and co-Editor-in-Chief of MetalSucks, one of the most authoritative websites for metal music, nights and weekends were when he developed not just one, but two enterprises that would later go on to become his life’s work. A result, he says, which was completely by accident — and the best thing that could have happened.

“I like to stress that a big part of me getting to where I am was actually by accident,” says Ben, who blogs under the pen-name Vince Neilstein. “I went into the industry and rolled with the tides. For me, that’s the best thing you can do.”

Ben didn’t just go into the music industry, though — he grew up around music. His father owned a guitar shop in New York City, where he logged hours when he was young. He’s also himself a musician, and has done everything from A&R to marketing and management. But it was when he was working for a major record label, promoting music that wasn’t exactly his taste that he realized that just being around music wasn’t the same thing as doing a job he really loved.

“I just found myself wondering, ‘why do I do this if I don’t love it?'” he says.

His experience working with labels, though, gave Ben “a good knowledge of the industry,” and prepared him for working around music in a way that was more in line with what he wanted to do. Ben and a friend, co-founder Matt Goldberg (pen-name: Axl Rosenberg) had already come up with the idea for MetalSucks, because “at the time [in 2006], there wasn’t any opinionated blog in the metal space.” So they started one.

ben umanov metal sucks

Ben Umanov: No longer doing a job he hates.

Next, he said, they needed to find a way to make money on it.

“The ad network was secondary,” he explains.

After steadily building readership for a year, he started building relationships with others who were also writing about the industry. He and the publishers at Metal Injection got to talking, he says, and began trying to come up with ideas that would be mutually (and financially) beneficial, while still retaining the individual personas of the sites. So, they started an ad network.

“There was already one ad network out there, but the thinking was, ‘it’s better to own it [ourselves] than not to.'” he explains. The network also filled a big void for a lot of other, smaller blogs, and the clients or companies who wanted to advertise on them. The name of the game was making life easier for everyone, says Ben — and it worked. And it continues to work; Blast Beat currently serves ads to over 10 million users of a very specific, very coveted demographic.

“What started off as a side business has turned into one of the main things we do.”

Now, Blast Beat and MetalSucks are Ben’s full-time job, rather than his nights-and-weekends gig. MetalSucks has won industry awards, started a podcast, and even hosted a music festival in 2011 (the Metal Suckfest). They remain one of the most-read metal websites on the internet, and their reviews carry a great deal of weight in the genre. Regular contributors include Eyal Levi and Dave Mustein. Blast Beat, meanwhile, helps music writers of all levels serve targeted ads to their viewers, while putting some money in their pocket. And the only reason they exist is because Ben and his colleagues saw a need and filled it.

Ben’s best advice for others — especially working musicians who are looking to turn their passion project into full-time work — is simple: Keep trying new things, and try to hard to plan your path.

“Keep an open mind. I don’t think that you can predict where you end up. If I hadn’t started a metal website, I’d be somewhere else,” he says. And if you see a need or a gap in your industry, don’t hesitate to come up with a way to use your skills to patch it up.

“Make it happen. Don’t be afraid to take a leap.”

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Hanna Brooks Olsen

Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.