The good witches of music tech

Pub date January 21, 2014
WriterEmma Silvers

LEFT OF THE DIAL When MTV debuted “Video Killed the Radio Star” at 12:01am on Aug. 1, 1981 — the first music video to air on the brand-new, much-buzzed-about network — producers knew exactly what they were doing. Amid all the excitement about the possibilities video technology presented to the music industry, there was an ambivalence, tinged with apprehension from musicians, about what the sea change would mean for artists. The song perfectly captured the current climate, a combination of brave-new-world optimism and flat-out fear of the future.

Two decades later, a scrappy little Redwood City-based file-sharing startup called Napster would be ordered shut down in federal court. ”It’s time for Napster to stand down and build their business the old-fashioned way — they must get permission first,” said Hilary Rosen, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, told the New York Times, speaking on behalf of five major record labels that sued the company. And, as everyone knows, that sealed it: Music was never obtained for free on the Internet ever again, all artists were paid fairly for their work, and everyone lived happily ever after.

Funny thing about technological advancement — it only goes one way. The collapse of the record industry over the past decade has given way to a sort of Wild West atmosphere when it comes to the ways musicians, fans, producers, etc. can interact, make art, and do commerce. It has been something of an economic equalizer: Anyone with a Wi-fi connection can throw his latest dubstep/witchhouse cover of “Under the Sea” up on Soundcloud one night, and wake up to a bevy of fans. But most musicians I know would agree that the availability of free or very cheap streaming and downloading services has made it difficult, if not impossible, to make a living from their work the way they might have 30 years ago.

And yet: There are those who would argue that the tech world has more to offer musicians than it might initially seem. In the spirit of our “good tech” issue, I reached out to some local techies who aren’t using their powers for evil.

On the vast playing field of websites and apps that promise to help musicians get their work out into the world — without, ideally, anyone going bankrupt — Bandcamp may have built the most trust among artists, using a straightforward revenue-share model: The company takes 15 percent of sales on digital purchases; 10 percent on merch. Of course, it didn’t hurt when Amanda Palmer decided to forego the traditional album-release route in 2010, releasing her ukulele Radiohead covers album solely on Bandcamp, bringing in $15,000 inside three minutes.

When founder Ethan Diamond launched the site in 2007 — after trying to buy a favorite band’s digital album directly from its website and having “every single technical problem that could go wrong, go wrong” — people were saying “music sales are dead,” recalls the SF resident, a programmer who previously co-founded the webmail service that would become Yahoo! mail. “Within a year or two of the business, you could see that wasn’t true: Even in the digital era, fans actually want to support the artists they love. Right now fans are giving artists $2.8 million every month [through Bandcamp]. We have 50,000 unique artists communicating and marketing directly to their fans…our entire goal is to help artists be successful. That’s really it.”

And no, he doesn’t want to name the band whose technical difficulties inspired the company a few years back — the band members don’t know who they are. And they’re not on Bandcamp yet.

At Zoo Labs, a less-than-year-old nonprofit based out of a recording studio in West Oakland, a handful of heavy hitters from the tech and design worlds asked the question: What happens when you apply a business incubator model — like the well-founded training grounds that typically nurture Silicon Valley startups — to a band? The Zoo Labs Residency, a two-week, all-expenses-paid program for musicians, offers practical skill-building workshops, marketing training, mentorship, and studio time to bands who have a vision but haven’t yet achieved a widespread reach.

“We started talking to musicians about their experiences and how they were managing their careers and accomplishing their projects, and it was really interesting to find that a lot of musicians and producers working in music are having very similar experiences to entrepreneurs in the startup world,” says Anna Acquistapace, a designer who founded the program with Vinitha Watson, an ex-Googler (she opened Google’s first satellite office in India) after the two met in California College of the Arts’ Design Strategy MBA program. Music producer Dan Lawrence (whom — full disclosure — I’ve known since elementary school, at which time he wanted to be a music producer) brought his working knowledge of the local music industry to the team.

“With all of these changes in the [music] industry over the last 10 years, musicians have been forced to take way more control over their marketing channels,” says Acquistapace. “They need to get their own fans, they need to bootstrap their own products in a similar to way to what startups do, whether that means funding albums or demos to pitch to a record label, reaching out to the media…they have to become entrepreneurs, out of necessity. From that, the idea of this artists’ residency-meets-business-incubator or accelerator was born.”

Thus far only one band, an Americana/roots four-piece called the Boston Boys, has completed the residency, participating in a series of workshops and recording sessions tailored specifically to their needs: They took a “sonic branding” class from Oakland producer Jumbo (whose credits include work with Blackalicious, Lyrics Born, and others), learned about music law, met with design professionals and leadership coaches. Meanwhile, recording engineer/producer Damien Lewis recorded the band live in the studio most days in sessions that ran from 2 in the afternoon until 2 in the morning; the two-week period culminates in a live show at the studio.

In total, the program costs about $20,000 per session to run, with much of it underwritten by private investors from Silicon Valley who are simply interested in developing new models for the music industry. “If there’s one thing that people are passionate across the board, it’s music,” says Acquistapace.'”I haven’t really seen any other art form that crosses groups the same way.”

(The application period for its March residency just closed, but look for new programming to launch in February; the Beat Lab, which will open next month, aims to be a combination recording studio/coworking space for musicians of all kinds:

And in, er, music/tech news of a much lower-tech variety: Tom Temprano, co-owner of Virgil’s Sea Room in the Mission, announced this week that the bar, which occupies the space Nap’s III left behind (both physically and in our hearts), will be bringing back the grand Nap’s tradition of sloppy, gleeful karaoke around the glow of a two-tone screen. Starting Jan. 23, every Thursday night at 9pm will find Nap himself back at home base, MCing the action, with songbooks and harmonicas in tow. Because technology will march forward — video may have killed the radio star — but drunken renditions of Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s “Shoop”? Karaoke, my friends, is forever.