Episode #43: Moby – A Strange Entrepreneur Guided by Activism
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“Somehow, humans overturned slavery. Against their own economic interest. And that is so encouraging. It means that even when it’s hard, humans ultimately do the right thing.”
I was so very tempted to title this one as Episode #43: Richard Melville Hall, just to allow you to go in without preconceived notions of Moby… the musician… that techno DJ from the 90s… or even Moby, that seriously weird dude.
Please try to leave them behind anyway. Sure, he’s best known for his music. A lot of it came out more than 10 years ago. And yes, he can come off as weird. But Moby is also an incredibly well-spoken dude with unique views on lots of topics, spanning from music (fun, but not a revenue stream) and tech (profoundly baffled by it, but excited at the same time), to business and veganism.
And of course, being guided by activism, which is what seems to be the main driving force in his life these days, and what last year led to the first Circle V Festival, which is just about to launch in its second iteration.
The tickets, unfortunately, have sold out already… but you can hear Moby talk about it. And I like to think that you can hear him talk about some things that he doesn’t discuss very often – like why you need to be very stupid to open a restaurant, how he ended up working with NASA, whether he prefers manned or unmanned spaceflight, and why he is, ultimately, optimistic about our capability for doing the right things.
Main things discussed in this episode
- Why he’s driven by veganism.
- Running a restaurant – the second time around.
- Virtual products vs tangible, brick-and-mortar offerings.
- Two sides of tech.
- Making business decisions with informed intuition.
- The Circle V Festival.
- The moral arc of the universe.
Jerry Sever [00:26] Hey, my name is Jerry Sever. You’re listening to Episode 43 of the Plant Based Entrepreneur Show, the podcast for and about the people creating a plant-based future and running vegan brands where you can inspiration and ideas, learn how they got to where they are, what their approach is, and what works when you’re setting up your own plant- based business.
Joining me today is a special guest who probably needs no introduction, but just in case you’re not familiar with Moby and his work, he’s often referred to as one of the most influential electronic music artists of the 90s. His albums have sold over 20 million copies worldwide, and he’s a devoted animal rights activist, but overall, I’d say he’s a guy who’s hard to label with just one thing.
We’ll be talking about some of his past business experience today, and about the upcoming Circle V festival in LA which will be his only live gig this year, and also a great opportunity to hear some amazing vegan musicians, talks from other activists, and of course enjoy the vegan food and drinks in a beautiful environment.
Right now, it’s a pleasure to welcome Moby to the Plant Based Entrepreneur Show. Before we dive in Moby, just to give a little bit of context, you’ve been vegan for 30 years now. How has that shaped your life and business path?
Moby [01:48] It’s interesting, because most people I grew up with what I think of as that strange western paradox, where when I was a child growing up in the suburbs, I loved animals but I also loved Burger King. I loved rescue animals but I also loved pepperoni pizza, bacon, and hamburgers.
Then when I was 19, I was petting a rescue cat that my mom and I had rescued and suddenly I realized this cat had two eyes, a central nervous system, and a rich emotional life, and a desire to avoid pain and suffering. Then I realized every animal has two eyes, a central nervous system, has a rich emotional life, and a desire to avoid pain and suffering.
So yes, that was over 30 years ago, so now I’ve been vegan for 30 years. It’s a very hard question to answer, because veganism and animal activism has really affected every aspect of my life, from who I am physically, who am I am spiritually, who I am emotionally, and also who I am as an entrepreneur and a member of this strange capitalist society.
Jerry Sever [03:02] Yes, so, speaking of business, Little Pine restaurant is actually your second foray into this restaurant scene. You opened a teahouse in New York about 15 years ago, Teany? Are there any lessons from that first one that you put in practice when you opened this spot in LA?
Moby [03:26] Well, sort of. I have to be very clear, my entrepreneurialism with Little Pine is very strange because any profits that are generated by Little Pine go to animal rights organizations. So it’s really more philanthropic in a way than entrepreneurialism, or a hybrid of philanthropy and entrepreneurialism.
I guess the lessons that I learned from running Teany in New York, the biggest lesson is that only a really dumb person would ever open a restaurant! So when I opened Little Pine I sort of knew what I was getting into. I was like you know what, this is going to be frustrating, time consuming, incredibility aggravating at times, but ultimately the reason I run little pine is to generate money for animal rights organizations, but also to represent veganism in what people think of as a bricks and mortar way.
Veganism and animal activism are very well represented virtually – amazing books, amazing documentaries, amazing activists posting online, but it’s still sort of lacking in the bricks and mortar sense. There are a lot of vegan restaurants, but I wanted something that could also really appeal to non-vegans so that non-vegans could come in and have amazing wine, amazing cocktails, a wonderful dinner, and leave feeling satisfied with a good impression of what veganism means.
Jerry Sever [05:08] Yes, and if I got the numbers correct from a past interview with you, I’d say you’re doing quite well even on the entrepreneurial side, because obviously even though the profits go to animal rights organizations, you still have to make those profits somehow.
Moby [05:24] Yes, well what I do is, because I have my own philanthropic charitable giving and then I have Little Pine, I combine the two for more impact. So last year Little Pine and I combined gave around $250,000 to animal rights organizations, and I’m hoping to do the same thing again this year as well.
Jerry Sever [05:47] Which is pretty cool. Like you said before with veganism being well represented in its virtual forms, I think I’ve heard you mention once or twice that you like creating things that can’t be downloaded, that you enjoy business where you actually need to put in work regularly to get results. Is this your overall approach to work in general, just enjoying the everyday process that goes with it?
Moby [06:18] Well, still most people know me as a musician, and I still love making records, but I don’t expect anyone to buy the records that I make. It’s 2017, I’m 52 years old, and I don’t tour, so when I make a record I’m just happy if anyone listens to it on Spotify. For me, music is something I love, but not something that I see as a business anymore. Some of my older songs still occasionally bring in some money, but because music, for me, is exclusively virtual and exclusively digital, there’s no way for me to think of it as a revenue stream. A lot of musicians find that very frustrating, I actually find that it keeps me honest in a way. The only way I could really do music as a viable revenue stream would be to make egregious compromises. So I’d rather not comprise and just enjoying making music, and not think of it as something I can make money from.
But then when it comes to entrepreneurialism or investing, the truth is, the tech world baffles me. Over the years I’ve invested in tech companies and sometimes they’ve worked out and sometimes they haven’t, but the problem is I have no idea why some have succeeded and some have failed. There’s some great companies I’ve invested in that went bankrupt, and then some mediocre companies who’ve done really well. That has made me profoundly cautious when it comes to the tech space. Like I don’t know why Facebook won and why My Space lost. I’m still just utterly baffled by that. I still don’t k now why VHS won, and Beta lost. I don’t know why Zip drives, at the time, won and SyQuest lost. So tech scares me and I invest in it, but very, very cautiously.
I’m much more of a fan of supermarkets and things that can’t be downloaded, so Whole Foods, and Kroger, and companies like that really appeal to me a lot more than something that just exists in the tech space.
Jerry Sever [08:46] This one’s going to be a bit off the cuff, but as a, I think, self-proclaimed sci-fi geek, is there anything in the tech space that really excites you as a concept? Not so much as an investment possibility, but just future possibilities?
Moby [09:02] Oh yes, it’s a wonderful question and it’s a very different way of looking at. There are really two broadly different ways in which I, or anyone, can look at tech. One is as an investor, and as I said, as an investor, tech terrifies me. As someone who likes to think about the future and who loves it on a theoretical level, tech is fascinating. We could talk for hours about what tech represents. I just have no way of evaluating how tech ideas translate into real world businesses.
So to answer your question, when it comes to tech, really and maybe this is an over simplification, but everything is reduced to code. That’s the lowest common denominator, or it’s not even the lowest, but just a common denominator of tech is code. How viably can you reduce something to code? The variables there are what is being reduced to code? Clearly things like music, books, movies, that’s easy to reduce to code.
Other things become a little more complicated, but then you look at precedent, you look at like the mapping of the human genome. They reduce the genome to code and it first that seemed like an absurd thing to even begin to try and it was so expensive. I remember when they first began mapping the human genome it seemed like something that was going to take decades, and now they can kind of do it in a day and it costs very little. So in terms of paradigm shifting that basically reducible aspect of bringing things to their code, that I still don’t think we understand. Then, even looking at DNA, all life is also coded, so theoretically and practically I find that to be really, really fascinating.
Also, just as a side tangent, I was talking to some friends of mine about space travel, because I’ve worked with NASA on and off for years. In NASA and in the world of space travel there’s this ongoing debate about manned versus unmanned space travel. Not to start fights, but I’m much more of a fan of unmanned space travel because it costs so much less and you can do much more with unmanned space travel. I was having this debate with some friends at NASA who were advocating for manned space travel and I sort of said to them, I was like well if you want to hear an orchestra from Japan you don’t go to Japan to hear the orchestra, you listen to it on Spotify. Why would exploration be any different?
Jerry Sever [11:59] I get you, and I think we could definitely talk for hours about that, so before we return to the business questions, can I just ask you what you were doing at NASA?
Moby [12:10] Years ago, it must have been 2002, and I don’t know how this happened, I got asked to give an inspirational talk to the NASA astronauts and employees in Huston. It felt really absurd, because I was a philosophy major who dropped out of college, and there I am talking to astronauts! Pretty much what I said to them, was like you might feel dispirited sometimes because you work for a government agency, but keep in mind you have the coolest job in the world, and the undying love and respect of every person on the planet. Then over the years I’ve done some creative projects with them and just have managed to sort of stay friends with a lot of the people who work in different facets, whether it’s a jet propulsion laboratory or people doing odd things in New York or Huston.
Jerry Sever [12:57] That’s pretty cool. I think it just ties really well with my overall perception that I get of you, that you’re just a guy who likes doing things that he enjoys and that mean a lot to him. Is it a fair assumption to say that this has been your kind of guiding motive in life? Or do you take a more measured planned approach to the things that you do?
Moby [13:26] I’ve never been very good at planning, and whenever I try to really plan there’s that whole truism that humans plan and god laughs. Because, as far as I can tell, I seem to lack omniscience so my plans are always based on limited flawed information and perspective. I think of that Malcolm Gladwell book Blink, where it’s like really trusting, to an extent, the power of informed intuition. Part of the way in which we interact with the world is we try to be rational, we try involve our prefrontal cortex, but we have three and a half billion years of evolution informing our perspective. So that’s coming from everything, from pheromones, to insights that happen in a trillionth of a second, and to discount those, I think, would really be doing a disservice to just the neural architecture that we have after three and a half billion years.
Jerry Sever [14:36] Yes, I get what you’re talking about here, and I like that term informed intuition. Of course, the reason for all of these past questions, apart from NASA that was just for my own curiosity, but it’s been to give the listeners just a bit of an idea of what Moby’s work ethics are like. What can be learned from your success?
Moby [15:01] These days, basically my life is guided by activism. I grew up very, very poor in Connecticut and I assumed, like many people, that when I had success and made some money that happiness would ensue. But for me, and for most people, that proved to not be the case. At one point 10-15 years ago I was having a lot of success, I’d made a lot of money, and I was being really selfish. At one point I had an assistant whose only job was throwing parties for me. I was drinking and doing drugs and being promiscuous and having these crazy parties, and the end result was sort of sadness and depression, the likes of which I’d never experienced. So I realized that hedonism and selfishness, as attractive as they are and as compelling as they are, really they don’t lead to happiness and wellbeing. Then I kind of took stock of my life, and looked at the things that do lead to happiness and wellbeing, and for me that tends to be activism, altruism, creativity, spirituality, and health. So my focus for the last 10 years has been on those things.
Also, I wish we lived in a world where we could all be completely selfish, but we don’t live in that world. We live in a world that is an inch away from catastrophe. We have all these doomsday apocalypse scenario that are unfolding in front of us, and that are largely self-generated. So if we don’t all step up and do our best to change things, the world might be uninhabitable pretty quickly.
Jerry Sever [16:55] And of course the activism definitely is something that gives life meaning, and meaning, as we can probably agree on, is something that usually leads to happiness as well.
Moby [17:10] Yes, I’m sure that you’ve had this experience as well. I grew up in and around New York City surrounded by people who work in finance. What I’ve noticed, and now I live in LA surrounded by entertainment people, the more selfish people are – and I don’t say that in a judgmental or critical way because I was way more selfish that anyone has ever been – but the more selfish people are, and the more they’re concerned with wealth and materialism, the less happy they are.
What I find is friends of mine who are very successful, and love what they’re working on, and really want to make the world a better place, and in their spare time focus on philanthropy and activism, they’re the happy ones. The investment banker who’s desperately trying to make more money than the next guy so he can buy a 2017 Ferrari, that’s the guy who tends to be miserable and on antidepressants. It’s no longer sort of anecdotal, meaning it’s no longer people saying oh you should be philanthropic because it might make you happy. We actually have tons of evidence now supporting that idea.
Jerry Sever [18:26] It’s like money can bring happiness, but it’s definitely not a given equation where more money equals more happiness. It’s mostly what you’re doing while you’re making that money, and what you do with that money once you make it.
Moby [18:41] Yes, certainly right now I’m happy that I live in a house that I like, it’s clean, it has good light, and it’s in a nice neighborhood. I’m glad that I just had breakfast so my stomach is full, and that if anything goes wrong I can call my doctor, I can call a lawyer. That is all the product of having a little bit of money and those things are nice, but as someone who tried to buy my way into happiness, I can attest that that absolutely doesn’t work. At one point I had this crazy compound in upstate New York, it was on 60 acres, the main house was 12,000 square feet, and my bedroom suite was bigger than the house I grew up in. We had a spa in the house, a disco in the house, and it was so over the top. I’ve never been less happy living anywhere.
Jerry Sever [19:43] And of course what you’re doing right now, we haven’t even touched on it yet, but it’s one of the reasons that we’re talking today, is your activism and the upcoming Circle V festival.
Moby [19:57] Yes, so I started this festival last year with my friend Tony Kanal from No Doubt, and also Nathan Runkle who started Mercy for Animals. It’s basically a music, food, art, animal rights festival. I’ll be performing there, it’s my only live show of 2017 and 100% of my fee goes to Mercy for Animals, and there are tons of other musicians and speakers.
The one thing I have to say is that you don’t have to be a vegan or an animal activist to come to Circle V. If someone wants to go to In and Out Burger on the way to Circle V, and just come and listen to the music, god bless. We’re not going to judge anyone because they don’t pass our ethical purity test.
Jerry Sever [20:44] So in what ways is this different, or what is it that Circle V represents compared to other vegan festivals?
Moby [20:51] I think part of it is the music. For example, my friend Nic Adler has a festival called Eat Drink Vegan. Eat Drink Vegan is wonderful, but the focus is really on food. They have some music, but the music is a small part of the festival. With this, we have great food, but really the focus is very much on the music and the speakers. If you look at the lineup the bands and musicians that we have are really special, and then the speakers who are speaking on the panels is just some of the best people in the animal rights/animal activism movement.
I guess the other aspect that makes us unique is that we’re a non-profit. Any profits that are generated go to Mercy for Animals. So it’s again in keeping with that same sort of philanthropic entrepreneurialism that I try to let inform a lot of things that I do.
Jerry Sever [21:50] Do you think there’s a space and need for more vegan events like this? I’m thinking a) on the music front, and b) on the philanthropic.
Moby [22:02] Well, it’s that question of what do we do with our limited resources. Organizing a vegan music festival, it takes a lot of work, but I think we’re willing to do it – one, because it generates money for Mercy for Animals, but also that it builds community. Again, because we spend most of our time in a virtual space, I think the power of physical space, and the power of physical community can be really powerful. So vegans and animal activists who come to this festival and meet up with each other feel like they’re part of a movement. I think that can be really strong and powerful. Also non-vegans and non-animal activists coming and being exposed to a world that they might not have a lot of experience with.
Jerry Sever [22:52] Yes, that’s been my experience of pretty much every vegan festival that I’ve visited. They’re usually very inclusive and they’re a good way to expose non-vegans to just a whole world that’s there and waiting for them.
So if this one goes well, and I can’t really imagine why it shouldn’t, what’s next?
Moby [23:15] Well we hope to do it every year. We’re doing it November 18 here in Los Angeles, downtown. It’s a good thing, but tickets have already sold out. As you and I are talking I think we still have a few more VIP tickets, but I assume by the time that you post this, all the tickets will be sold out. We might try and add a second day, we’re looking into the feasibility or the viability of that. So that’s great that it’s sold out, but it just means that there’s a lot of people who might not be able to come.
To your question, what it means is next year hopefully we’ll do it again and it will be bigger. Then maybe at some point we try doing it in other cities, or we take it on the road. I think if we look at other festivals like the Warped Tour, or Lollapalooza, as examples of what we’d like to sort of try and grow this into. Probably never being as big as either one of those, but the idea of just sort of like doing what we can to help it develop.
Jerry Sever [24:16] I like that, I really do. Since this one was about the future of Circle V, now the final question since we are just slightly pressed for time, this is one that we ask of all our guests. If we’re talking about the future, what’s your best-case scenario both for the vegan movement and the planet that we live on?
Moby [24:43] That’s a wonderful question, and I’m going to try and not spend three hours answering it!
The thing is, you know Cory Booker, he’s a Senator from New Jersey? Cory, when he was first elected Senator, he’s an old friend of mine and we were having dinner. We were talking about the Martin Luther King Jr. quote which is “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice”. If you look at human history, we bend towards justice, but we also bend towards reason and evidence – it just takes us a while. Look at human history, if we were doing this interview 1500 years ago, the only people who had rights were kings and their offspring. Slowly, over time we extend rights to more and more people, and more and more groups, and more and more things. We start talking about environmental rights and now we’re talking about animal rights. Slavery has largely been overturned everywhere in the world. When slavery was part of the status quo, the economy depended upon slavery, but somehow humans overturned slavery against their own economic interest and that is so encouraging. It means that even when it’s hard, humans ultimately do the right thing.
I look at animal agriculture and the fact that it causes 45% of climate change, 90% of rainforest deforestation, 75% of antibiotic resistance, 50% of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and 60% of commercial water use, etc. Not to mention the fact that 100 billion animals are killed by and for humans every year. There’s so many reasons for us to move past animal agriculture. I feel like we’ve done that with smoking on airplanes, we’ve done that with gay marriage, we’ve done that with women being able to vote, we’ve done that with slavery. If we’ve already done really hard great things in the past, it just means that we will figure this out.
The only question – and this regards other things as well, the sort of environmental apocalypse that we’re causing – is it makes me think sort of like a drug addict. The drug addict will only get sober once they truly see and accept the consequences of their actions, but you hope that that happens before their actions kill them. You hope that someone quits smoking before they get emphysema and lung cancer. As humans, I just hope that we figure it out and we change our ways before the current status quo, the way in which we’re doing things, kills us. At this point I’d say it’s 50/50, because a lot of us want things to change, but yet change is not really happening. I sadly think that it’s going to take a lot of catastrophe for humans to wake up and start living more evidence based, especially drafting policy that’s evidence based, I just hope that we don’t get destroyed in the process.
Jerry Sever [28:11] Yes, I hope so too. I hope that we just get a wakeup call, or two, and start moving towards justice and animal rights. That was actually a very good answer, and I’m really interested what the three-hour version would sound like!
Moby [28:32] Basically just me repeating myself!
Jerry Sever [28:34] For now Moby, thank you very much for sharing that, and thank you for coming onto the show.
Moby [28:41] Thanks our Skype just started cutting out, so I guess that’s the Skype gods telling us that we should say goodbye.
Jerry Sever [28:48] Well thanks again for joining us today, and looking forward to seeing more of you and Circle V in the future.
Moby [28:56] Thanks, it was a great pleasure talking with you.
Jerry Sever [28:58] Yes, likewise, have a great day.
Main website: Moby
Moby’s free music resource: Mobygratis
His vegan restaurant in LA: Little Pine Restaurant
An in-depth look at how informed intuition might work: Malcolm Gladwell – Blink*
Circle V on Instagram
Circle V on Facebook
Nic Adler’s festival: Eat Drink Vegan
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