Sep 30, 2014 · 3 minutes

Gumroad CEO Sahil Lavingia calls them "The SMBs (small- or medium-sized businesses) of creative content."

Patreon CEO and Pomplamoose singer Jack Conte calls them "the creative middle class."

They are the musicians, filmmakers, and comic book artists who instead of flying around in private jets and trashing luxury hotel rooms are quietly creating art people love and making a living off it. For them, Spotify or Hollywood studios or big publishing houses do not necessarily represent the most viable or realistic economic model. But platforms like Gumroad, where artists sell directly to fans, do. Along with Patreon and Bandcamp, this is like the Internet equivalent of the early days of indie rock and indie filmmaking in the 90s.

Now Gumroad is making the customer experience behind purchasing and consuming their favorite artists' wares even easier with a new mobile app. In the past, users purchased an audio, video, or PDF file on Gumroad, saved it to their computer, and then it was up to the user to find software on which to consume it and to move it onto other devices manually. Now, not only do purchases sync between desktop and mobile, but fans can now watch, listen, or read what they just purchased directly in the Gumroad app immediately after buying it.

It's a monumentally ambitious effort and one Gumroad has been heads-down on for the past 18 months. It's no easy feat to build an audio player, video player, and reader software that are up to the standards of modern Internet consumption.

"At the end of the day," Lavingia says, "a company focused on building the best functional video player? We're not going to be able to compete with that."

Nevertheless, Lavingia says it was crucial to offer a native consumption option.

"A lot of people have this issue where they buy the product on their phone, and they assumed they'd be able to play it natively," Lavingia says. "I bought it, I should just be able to hit 'play.'"

This point is further underscored by the fact that mobile commerce is poised to explode over the next few years. According to BI Intelligence, 29 percent of mobile users have made a purchase on their phone, and Bank of America predicts that next year Americans and Europeans will spend $67.1 billion on mobile purchases.

Lavingia believes that getting people to buy those products directly from artists on sites like Gumroad, and not merely through Spotify subscriptions or free consumption on other streaming sites, requires building an amazing user experience. The truth is, right now it's not only cheaper, it's also far easier to listen to your favorite band on Spotify or YouTube than to buy one of their songs on Gumroad or one of its competitors.

"The reason Spotify won isn't because it's a better economic model for everybody, but that it's a pretty good consumer experience," Lavingia says.

The other commerce trend Lavingia hopes to capitalize on is social. When Twitter launched its "Buy" button, Gumroad was announced as one of its pilot partners. Many are skeptical that social shopping will take off, but Lavingia is bullish on it. After all, social media is already a powerful discovery tool for shoppers. Why not close the loop so consumers can make the purchase without leaving the network?

"I think with Gumroad, we've been sort of allowing customers to pseudo-sell on Twitter and YouTube and Facebook for years," Lavingia says. "You might not be able to buy it in Twitter, but it was as close as you were going to get until two weeks ago. Every Kickstarter project I've ever backed I've probably found through Twitter."

In terms of funding and usage, Gumroad is still behind Patreon, having raised $8.1 million to Patreon's $17.1 million and hosting work from around 10,000 creators compared to Patreon's 25,000. But Gumroad did beat Patreon to having a mobile app, and we don't know if the competitor's offering will have the same slick native consumption features. Patreon's model is also a little different from Gumroad's, promoting pledges and patronage from fans to encourage artists to create more work. It's more of a hybrid-crowdfunding platform than a strict direct sales site. In any case, it's early days in this space, and there is no shortage of creators both large and small that can benefit from these services which seek to cut out as many middlemen as possible between artist and fan. Eminem, for example, is one of Gumroad's most popular users.

"We want to build a product that it doesn't matter if you have 50 followers or 50 million followers."

[illustration by Hallie Bateman]