Founder’s Story: Ethan Clift

Hey there! I’m Ethan. I’m one of the three founders of Tonic Audio Labs. It’s exciting to be working with musicians again! There are few endeavors in life that are more creative, soulful, and require as much effort to sustain as writing music. It’s a worthy endeavor, and I hope to use my experience in branding, sales, and product to create delicious tools for songwriters to lean on.

I was never very musical as a kid. I had three loves–school, soccer, and quilting. But music was always tagging along–sometimes in the background and other times in the foreground. It was always right alongside me in everything I did, I would listen to music in my room for hours and I had a thing for playing the same song over and over again. I would easily get obsessed and comfy with a song, like an old shoe that I would return to over and over again. Every song made me feel different feelings and by listening to them I could feel those feelings that I otherwise wasn’t letting myself feel as a queer, closeted teen in Suburban Orange County, California. I created mix tapes that became soundtracks to different times in my life, and when I hear those songs now it immediately takes me back to that place in time. Music is like a time machine.

In 2012, I became acutely aware of how hard musicians were struggling to make a living. I would dig through Bandcamp, searching not for any particular artist or genre, but instead for something that slapped me across the face. Something that woke me up from my daily slumber–sleep, wake, work, sleep. Maybe it was a unique sound, or a great hook, or maybe even a voice like I had never heard before. It felt like mining for gold. I would come across so many musicians who had a few tracks laid down, but who had no physical presence in the world. They weren’t playing shows, and many of them didn’t have any way to make money from their music unless they were going to either a) be discovered by a label (the “Hail Mary” approach), or b) sell a bazillion downloads of a song nobody would know about. They would need to build an audience, but most of them were working day jobs to get by, and all I could think about what how many lattés were being made instead of songs. Yes, lattés can facilitate connection, but I’m sure we can all agree that music does it so much better. I wanted to see more musicians get their time back in order to create more music.

My logic was this: “If musicians could make more money then they could quit their days jobs, and they could make more songs and more songs meant more beauty and connection in the world. For the next 2 years I would go about recruiting musicians to play house concerts and giving them the lions share of the profits. My company, Parlor Shows, would sell the tickets on our web site and recruit music lovers to host house concerts . It seemed like a great way to help musicians.

It was a hard business. We learned a lot. A few competitors raised millions of dollars in order to scale their operations, but I wasn’t comfortable raising money to take on this endeavor. I knew that having stakeholders would require me to compromise on my vision. And at the same time, Allison was working on a startup that was venture capital-funded, and it was important to create a good balance. So, I went forth by bootstrapping Parlor Shows. We needed a lot more house show hosts around the world to create a safety net of venues that paid well and introduced musicians to new audiences. So, in 2017, I shut Parlor Shows down I went to the state legislature on a 3 year journey that would lead me to working in public policy advocating for tech companies, LGBTQ+ folks, same-sex marriage, and many other worthy causes. And this is what I learned as look back on Parlor Shows. Musicians don’t care as much about the money as they do other things. They care about money, but they care a lot more about creating more music, finding an audience who appreciates their art, and collaborating with others. So, when Allison’s VC-backed company started winding down this autumn, we got our heads together to figure out what we were going to do next. What type of company could we create that would be in alignment with our values, talents, and skills? We both got extremely excited about the prospect of building an employee-owned, sustainable company that was bootstrapped (i..e. not funded by outside investors who would have LOTS of OPINIONS).

We both agreed that starting a music technology company fit the bill. And the focus would be to build simple tools that musicians need to succeed in music–whatever that means for them. We saw how much power individual artists were grabbing back from the big labels, and how that market is just growing leaps and bounds. Enter stage left, our first collaboration in 7 years, Tonic Audio Labs! We’ll share more about our company ethos later, but for now, just know that we believe that 1) all humans are capable of creating; 2.) their creations matter, and 3.) more of these creations need to come to life.

Thank you for joining us on this journey. We’re honored you’ve come along!


By Ethan Clift

Ethan is Co-founder and CEO of Tonic Audio. His favorite things to do are sew quilts, take walks, make music, and his morning ritual of waking with Evie June, feeding the animals, coffee + a jaunt to the dog park with the pocket-sized Yorkies. His favorite tool is a Nintendo Wii controller Allison hacked for him to use to control a synth during live performances.