Illustration by Klaus Kremmerz. Courtesy of WeTransfer.
This week, artist Ryan McGinley released 15 never-before-published photographs from throughout his career in an online exhibition curated by New York Times photo editor Kathy Ryan. The project, which also features a Q&A between artist and curator, appears on an unlikely web platform: WeTransfer.
Since Bastiaan Beerens, Nalden, and the late Rinke Visser launched the company in Amsterdam in 2009, WeTransfer has quietly honed its popular file-sharing product. Today, it’s lauded for its ease of use, free from a clunky sign-up process, making it a painless way to send large files, including music, images, and videos. It’s no surprise that, according to the company, 74 percent of its users are creatives.
Since its inception, the company has been dedicated to fostering creativity. In addition to the file-sharing product, the company’s other projects have included a design studio, an Amsterdam art space (Gallery 33), and an initiative called Artists & Algorists, dedicated to promoting the boundary-pushing work of artist-developers.
The company has also long given away real estate on its site—the wallpaper images and videos one sees while downloading files from WeTransfer—to creatives for free. “We had these huge images in the background to showcase people’s work,” says WeTransfer president and CMO Damian Bradfield. “And to be honest, in the beginning we couldn’t sell advertising, so the easiest thing to do was put beautiful imagery there.”
Kamasi Washington’s WeTransfer project. Courtesy of WeTransfer.
“If we featured a young photographer on WeTransfer, we could crash their website based on the amount of traffic we would drive to them,” Bradfield says.
In January 2016, the company shifted all focus to the file-sharing product. But that’s not to say that its support for its creative base has faltered.
“Now, we’re in this position where we can run a business and we can still support artists and work we think is really important or interesting, but with volume,” Bradfield says. Today, 30 percent of WeTransfer wallpapers are dedicated to spotlighting work by artists, photographers, musicians, filmmakers, and illustrators, as well as collaborative projects with creative industry leaders. (The other 70 percent consists of what helps keep the lights on: revenue-generating ads for everything from Netflix to Woolrich parkas.) This year, WeTransfer gave around 7 billion impressions on the site to artists.
The company has hosted exclusive online projects with artists like Ai Weiwei and Matthew Day Jackson and musicians like Moby and Kamasi Washington; and it’s developed online experiences with the Museum of Modern Art, McSweeney’s Publishing, and Giphy, among others.
Many of the arts-related wallpapers link to This Works, the company’s blog, run by an in-house editorial team that tells the stories around the talent featured on the site. With 1 million monthly hits, it offers serious exposure.
© Ryan McGinley. Courtesy of WeTransfer.
There has been a certain learning curve along the way, Bradfield admits, with the company often following the lead of artists. Back in November 2013, for example, Prince wanted to give away his newest track to fans for free. He uploaded the audio file to WeTransfer and posted a download link via Twitter. Soon after, he’d do the same thing to promote the work of fellow musician Judith Hill. And later, Moby would follow suit, using WeTransfer to share his new music.
“Prince basically created a totally new marketing tool for us,” says Bradfield. “Suddenly, we saw this new thing happening that we didn’t know was possible.”
The company has built a strong following within the music industry, which influenced, in part, its decision to open an office in Los Angeles. (With a staff of about 100, WeTransfer is still primarily based in Amsterdam, with around 10 employees in L.A.) The company has been collaborating with the DJ Gilles Peterson, who also runs WeTransfer’s world music radio station, Worldwide FM; two dedicated employees in L.A. focus solely on music relationships. Recent collaborations include projects with LCD Soundsystem, FKA Twigs, and Kamasi Washington.
The company worked with Washington on the EP he was creating for the Whitney Biennial earlier this year. WeTransfer helped him to produce the work, funded a part of it, and showcased the project on the site. “In return, he gave us a track from the album that we then gifted through WeTransfer back to the community,” says Bradfield, who cites the project as one of the best the company has yet undertaken.
While WeTransfer is still growing its presence in the art world, Bradfield notes that the team has quite a strong relationship with the photography and design community.
Photographer Nadia Lee Cohen’s WeTransfer project. Courtesy of WeTransfer.
Indeed, design remains a critical priority. The company worked with Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam to build its own design school, dubbed University of the Underground. The tuition-free M.A. program launched this past September with a class of 15 students. “It’s a vehicle for people to produce design in the way that they see fit,” Bradfield explains. “We’re trying to encourage the next wave.” The eclectic advisory board includes Dave Eggers, Noam Chomsky, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Paola Antonelli; WeTransfer hopes to launch a similar program in New York with the New School in 2019.
Currently the company also supports creativity among art students and teachers in a simpler way: by giving away free WeTransfer Plus accounts—which allow a person to share massive files and store up to 100GB of files online indefinitely.
The latest project with Ryan McGinley, though, is evidence of an exciting new direction for the company.
WeTransfer played a critical role in initiating and executing the project. “I would say we’re an enabler in the project, and in general, that’s the position we take,” Bradfield offers.
© Ryan McGinley. Courtesy of WeTransfer.
WeTransfer is also keen to enable its users. A newly launched app allows individuals to develop shareable, multimedia “boards”—akin to digital mood boards—that cull together text, images, videos, and links to help hone ideas at the start of a new project.
“The more that we can associate and stimulate people to create and produce, to think about creativity and productivity, the more it benefits us as a company and the more it just helps people aspiring to achieve bigger and better things,” Bradfield notes.
“It doesn’t really tie back to the bottom line,” he says of WeTransfer’s dedication to creativity and the arts. “But when our audience is 74 percent creatives, it’s pretty important to make sure that we’re on the same page as them.”