Half a dozen years ago or so, the Pernikoff Brothers had just come offstage after a gig at the Old Rock House when they were approached by a fan who was disappointed that he had missed most of the performance.
“He was like, ‘You guys are one of my favorite bands. I didn’t even know you were playing,” Tom Pernikoff recalls the fan saying.
“And I’m thinking to myself, St. Louis is my hometown. I’m trying to build my brand, and here’s this fan who would’ve been there for the whole show and probably would have brought five friends and he didn’t even know we were playing. There’s gotta be a way to use technology to make this more efficient, because it was just a lost opportunity.”
It turns out that Tom and Rick Pernikoff were just the right tandem to make that technology happen.
Prompted by their band’s own need, the pair built and launched Tunespeak, an online marketing platform that keeps bands (and brands) connected with their most fervent followers. In exchange for streaming a song or video, joining a mailing list or spreading the word via social media, fans are rewarded with various perks: merchandise, VIP experiences, tickets and more.
Before hitting the worldwide stage, Tunespeak was first used by the Pernikoff Brothers themselves to reward a fan with an acoustic show at a house party.
“We made a bunch of money selling CDs and made a bunch of new fans,” says Pernikoff, who is the CEO of Tunespeak. “That was kind of like the test case for (Tunespeak).”
It was a novel idea that was ready for the spotlight. Six years after its launch, Tunespeak has been contracted by dozens of artists across the musical spectrum, including international titans such as Paul McCartney, the Dave Matthews Band, Miranda Lambert and Maroon 5, and has raised millions from investors.
“You shouldn’t start a company unless there’s a problem to be solved,” Pernikoff says. “We saw that problem and it was so clear, I think we knew right away we could build something to solve it.”
Tunespeak’s headquarters is located in the T-Rex incubator space in downtown St. Louis. In the corner of one room is an electronic drum kit, while out in the office’s open space, guitars sit at the ready.
Launching the company in St. Louis was possible, Pernikoff says, because “there was a little bit of a tech buzz happening” thanks to local startup resources like Capital Innovators, Cultivation Capital and T-Rex. The brothers, who are native St. Louisans, had spent several years in Silicon Valley helping to build a tech startup; compared to what they’d encountered there, they’ve found the entrepreneurial support system in St. Louis refreshingly different.
“There were more people [here] interested in investing and working with us because we were, from a music-tech standpoint, helping put St. Louis on the map. Also, it was just a different mentality. People in St. Louis want to prop St. Louis up, right?” Pernikoff says. “Of course, investors are always looking for their return, but there were a lot of people in the investment community here who care about a bigger picture.”
The city’s central location is beneficial to Pernikoff as a businessman. “I can go anywhere and it’s easy to get there from St. Louis,” he says.
The Pernikoffs grew up in West St. Louis County before Tom went to Brandeis University, where he studied economics and music, and Rick attended MIT, studying computer science, electrical engineering and music. Rick, now Tunespeak’s CTO, built the platform in large part while sitting in the Starbucks in Wildwood.
The brothers’ individual skills and personality types naturally complement one another, Tom Pernikoff says. “I think that goes into everything we do. It’s hard to imagine working with someone else at this point. We’ve done so much together since we were little.”
The pair grew up playing music but didn’t start singing together until they moved to Palo Alto for the startup life.
“We bought a Beatles score book and just started learning Beatles songs,” Pernikoff says. “We realized we could sing together in harmony really well without trying, because we’re brothers. So I would take the John part and he would take the Paul part. We’d take it down a couple of keys, obviously, because those guys could sing high!”
Eventually, the brothers returned to St. Louis to focus on their music, gigging around town before heading to Nashville and securing a booking agent. The first Pernikoff Brothers album, “On My Way,” was released in 2011.
The band has performed alongside artists such as Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real, Dave Matthews Band guitarist Tim Reynolds, and Toots & the Maytals. They appeared at the Austin City Limits Festival in 2011, and this year opened shows for Willie Nelson and Bonnie Raitt as part of the Outlaw Music Festival tour.
But Tunespeak was waiting. A second album was recorded in 2013 but shelved after they showed a prototype of Tunespeak to their agent. “He was like, ‘You guys are a good band, but you should [do this instead],’” Pernikoff says.
Their agent also introduced them to music management companies, which led to clients for Tunespeak. The first major act to sign onto the new platform was My Morning Jacket, and others quickly followed.
“The way the music industry is structured, there’s a lot of consolidation at management companies and labels,” Pernikoff says. “So if it works for one artist, they’ll want to use it for their other artists. And that’s kinda how it started.”
Tunespeak continues to grow internationally and has evolved beyond music clients; sports are a growth industry for the company, and the Pernikoffs have worked with the St. Louis Blues and the Los Angeles Lakers, among others.
But as Tunespeak expands its reach in St. Louis and beyond, the brothers want to make sure they maintain their other creative outlet. They’re writing and recording once again and are still performing live, playing twice a month at Sasha’s Wine Bar in Clayton, among other gigs.
“When you start a company, you just get in so deep that it’s hard to do anything else,” Pernikoff says. “One of the things we’ve said to ourselves these last two years is that we’re going to play music more, because it just makes us happy.”