“Music is the greatest form of communication. It possesses the information of language, the emotion of poetry, the creativity of art and the passion of love.”
That’s a thought I shared almost two decades ago with a Yahoo! time capsule (yes, there was such a thing); a sentiment I put down for posterity, digitally. Music played an important role in my life well before technology, as I was raised on my mom’s appreciation of Neil Diamond and her oft-repeated story of not being allowed to go to a Beatles’ concert while my dad sang classics from the 40s and 50s as he wandered the house. The very first website I built, coded from scratch from my dorm room, was called The Octopus’s Garden; I was an introverted computer geek at Arizona State University before most knew what the internet was so I found myself translating the childhood I had into the technology of the future. The first article I published was a piece I’d written that became popular for explaining the lyrics to Don McLean’s American Pie but it was a later article I’d written, about The Beatles, that drew the attention of and an email from a Music Producer on the other side of the world, Sir George Martin. In that moment my past and passion was forever hooked to the internet and the potential of technology to change everything.
In April, 2016, in Austin, Mayor Adler asked of the public what could be done to save the city’s music industry. Yes, “save,” as a recent report from Austin Music People, Austin’s music trade association, found that the industry here had lost 1,200 jobs between 2010 and 2014. How?? What with the history of music in Texas? With the entrepreneurial spirit of Austin?? Something is wrong here.
“The affordability crisis is hurting everyone, but the fact that we’re losing jobs in the local music industry during an era of unparalleled job growth indicates that something is really wrong here,” said Mayor Steve Adler in a statement on the matter.
At a time when Austin’s population and economy was, and remains, booming perhaps we tech entreprenerurs were needed to invent a new way of supporting the ecosystem. The majority of the advice offered was related to the growth of the city: Affordable housing, music in schools, accessible venues. I and a few others offered what is hardly a secret to some but clearly not well enough embraced by most: the answer is in technology.
Music and Technology
What I’ve learned in the years since is that my quote was shortsighted. I couldn’t have had a more blessed start to my career; having built a website in the nineties, I was recruited out of college to work for Yahoo! just as Mark Cuban’s Broadcast.com was being integrated from Dallas into Yahoo’s Music Radio and Video. Incredibly young and ignorant at the time, I had no conception of that fact that I was entering the halls of Silicon Valley at the dawn of Yahoo’s golden era and their evolution (attempted) from internet portal to media company. I certainly couldn’t even fathom that my college career as a radio DJ, student of music history, and practitioning web developer would ever find a convergence decades later in Austin. But for now, at a time before iTunes, Spotify, and Pandora, Yahoo held the promise of forever changing the way we consume music, and for a time, it did, with the help of a technology company from Dallas, TX.
What I learned of my shortsigntedness was that technology and music were not just being conjoined but forever had been; music evolved because of innovation. What has driven demand for music since the invention of the drum is not just the art but the market, the audience, and that audience is driven by the innovation of music through technology. In the consumption of music, from microphones and speakers enabling larger audiences, to record players bringing music into homes before radio and then cassette tapes, CDs, MP3s, and streaming, technology brings music to our lives, driving the market, and with it the money. In the production of music, from the instruments to the recording technology and sound engineering, the fact that we have a generation of auto-tuned artists is because of engineers. And there is absolutely nothing new about the evolution of music’s sacred business models and royalties – streaming has merely demanded that we change the economics again; like technology, because of technology, music is always changing.
My shortsightedness was in that music is much more than language, poetry, and love. Music and our music industry are the result of math, science, techology, and economics driving investment, not in artists but in genres, software, instruments, and the changing landscape of music that keeps us all wanting more.
From the rise (and fall) of Yahoo, my career took a turn to that of Silicon Valley entrepreneurship and music again found my door. In Events. Indeed, the technology underlying the music industry is as pervasive as the way in which we find concerts and live music.
There is a school of thought with regard to the evolution of the economics of the music industry, that since streaming is driving the price paid per song to infintestimal measures, the value in the future of music is in the engagement with the artist. That a song is merely a commercial, an advertisement for the product; that the product isn’t the song but the artist and what people will happily pay for is that connection. I paid $16 for a Beatles album and $300 for a ticket to see Paul McCartney in Las Vegas.
Think about that. Which do we truly value more? The content or the creator? The day the music died, the day music is mourned is not when a song falls from the charts but when an artist is lost. The passing of an icon in music is as gut wrenching as the loss of an investor, sciencist, or entrepreneur: John Lennon, Waylon Jennings, Michael Jackson, or Buddy Holly – that’s the loss that we mourn, not the fall of their hit from the top 40 chart. What we want, what we value, is the artist. No more is that more evident then in the classic song that happens to also be driving home the significance of Texas. American Pie’s broncin’ buck and the pickup truck call to mind a Texas youth, and the artists celebrated in the song, Richie Valens (a forefather of the Chicano rock movement in which San Antonio’s Sir Douglas Quintet brought R&B influence), The Big Bopper (born in Sabine Pass, Texas), and Buddy Holly, define an era, born of Texas, mourned.
Lubbock, Texas’ Holly’s first Fender Stratocaster, which became his signature guitar, defined his “innovative” sound and playing style. An era largely define as a result of a country music technology applied, loudly, to Rock and Roll.
Texans have pioneered musical developments in tejano & conjunto music, western swing, jazz, punk rock, mariachi, religious, country music, hip hop, electronic music, gothic and industrial music, psychedelic rock, and the blues. Did you know Scott Joplin, considered the King of Ragtime, was born in and spent his youth in Linden and Texarkana, TX? Janis Joplin, famous for her career through San Francisco, is from Port Arthur. Houston has its own Hip Hop sound and though the Blues were born in the Mississippi Delta, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Henry Thomas, Willie Johnson, Big Mama Thornton, and T-Bone Walker, are all Texas musicians thanks to the economics of the Great Depression driving artists to east Texas. For some reason the economics of our music industry are driven by Los Angeles and Nashville yet Beyoncé, Kelly Clarkson, Roy Orbison, Kenny Rogers, Christopher Cross, The Crickets (w/Buddy Holly), B.J. Thomas, Johnny Nash, Meat Loaf, Lisa Loeb, Lonestar, Chamillionaire, George Strait, Pantera, Selena, LeAnn Rimes, Dixie Chicks, Norah Jones, Hilary Duff, Jamie Foxx, Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, and Miranda Lambert are just few of the artists who are Texan, let alone Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Texas, arguably the most influential in American Music, is stuggling to sustain its music industry and it became clear to me through my past that the reason for that struggle is not too dissimilar to the disparity between Austin’s tech founders and Series A funding challenges: economies are driven by industry and industry is driven by market, innovation, and the substantial amount of money that’s required to invent. Money in Texas, by many measure, underfunds technology and thus too our music industry remains far flung, underfunded, and under produced. The solution to sustaining our music industry is not in making it affordable but in investing in its innovation and market development.
Austin’s Music Community is Everywhere
It was about 6 years ago that I arrived in the Live Music Capital of the World only to find that no one in the tech community really even knew of the significant impact of Broadcast.com, just 3 hours up the road, on the music industry. That “live” music industry was largely relegated to the impact of the musicians on Red River and East 6th, with the occassional festival spiking some attention on Austin. The affinity between technology and investment to music and production was imperceptible and as the Austin economy changed and downtown became expensive, it started to feel as if we were losing it.
As an example of the disconnects in tech, money, and music, when I was in the Valley, TabbedOut was a notable innovation with tremendous potential, garnering the attention of the West Coast – that company was a reason I was intrigued by Austin. What does paying your bar tab with your phone have to do with Austin Live Music? If you can’t see the leap from that technology to the audience for music, you’re probably also oblivious to how and why so much money is being thrown at Uber to own the ridesharing market. The market for music, for bars, for restaurants, for retail, for education is EVERYWHERE and it’s reaching it wherein investors find the value worth financing.
Believe or not, because of those Yahoo roots, my family and I almost moved to Dallas and would have had in not been for a role I had advising an Austin entrepreneur, Nik Daftary, who was, in 2000, working on that blend of music with audience. He tapped me from California, given my work with the successful local event platform, Zvents, to help him think through the monetization of local events in a music discovery app. It’s because of him, TabbedOut, and my intrigue in the Live Music Capital of the World that we looked to Austin as an alternative to Dallas.
Clearly the right choice as just this past weekend, new neighbors moved in across the street from my home in Steiner Ranch. Imagine my subtle smile, as we met the couple and their kids, upon discovering that he was remodeling a front room to house his recording studio. Joey Ramirez then mentioned he had recorded a local musician’s recent albums and he asked if I knew, “Mr. Rudy;” of course I knew Mr. Rudy, former Broadway actor, the artist is an icon in Steiner Ranch having brought music into the lives of hundreds of children. The coincidences didn’t end there, Joey formerly worked for Ticketmaster and before that Listen.com. Music. And it was after those seemingly destined coincidences that I realized our meeting really wasn’t a coincidence, such collisions are as commonplace in Austin as bankers meeting in New York. Then he shared that his wife Erin was working in crowdfunding for one of Austin’s most vibrant media industries, gaming, and that she had previously worked with MP3.com.
The Market for Music
Downtown Austin’s ACL, SXSW, and 6th Street hardly comprise the Austin music scene and, like much of the technology startup community in which I largely work, Austin music is everywhere. From Driftwood to Georgetown to East Austin, local entreprenuers and musicians run the risk of having a symptom of the same shortsightedness I had years ago – Austin music is everywhere and failing to recognize the breadth and implication of Austin’s innovators will leave musicians struggling.
Some of Austin’s finest venues are as far away as The Backyard, Steiner Ranch Steakhouse (in the neighborhood where I walk my kids to school with one of the band members from Blues Traveller and his kids), and Lucy’s on the water; notably, where most of Austin’s Venture Capital community can be found. Evidence therein of the physical, local, embrace of technology? Events such as Solstice, SXSWi which is the convergence of SXSW and “Interactive” (tech), ainnovative venues such as Antone’s which often hosts music & tech discussions, and the Mosaic Sound Collective’s work to incubate new ideas.
Austin Music Tech
Austin’s artistic community helped popularize artists such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac, The Police, and Elvis Costello but it’s the recognition of the breadth of our music industry and an investment in developing it technically that will drive our future.
Just last week, Austin Music People’s Executive Director, Jennifer Houlihan, shared during a symposium on how technology can sustain our live music capital, just how that looks:
- Music discovery
- Music production (studio and live)
- Booking and scheduling
- Streaming and webcasting
- Rights and royalty administration
THAT’s the music industry. That’s what enriches musicians by enabling new production, reach, consumption, and monetization in ways that aren’t new but are merely an embrace of the way in which the music industry has flourished for centuries – funding the technology that keeps the market hungry for more.
Merely as an attempt at plotting all of the innovation born of Austin, developing throughout Austin, in the music industry, we can look to:
But I want you to think bigger than that. Austin’s embrace of and investment in travel technology, accomodation platforms such as HomeAway, edtech, mobile, and transportation technology (I’m looking at you Ridesharing) are all direct investments in our music industry. Yes, a direct impact because our music industry is not merely comprised of our musicians in East Austin nor our celebrated venues downtown but everywhere, and if we limit access to that market, we handicap the ability to monetize the industry, invest in the technology, and fuel the art.
Austin is Where the Future of Music Lives
As I wrote this narrative, in which I’m indebted to you for putting up with my story telling, I couldn’t help but wonder if we’re thinking about Austin music in the wrong way by branding it “Live.” Austin’s distinct culture, vibrant economy, and passion for others is reflective of a future many in America want. Just as I’ve suggested technology is coming to life in Austin, so too should music. Music isn’t just a live experience someone can have in Austin, it’s a part of our lives; it’s where the future lives and everyone everywhere wants to experience that.
More than Austin Music People, is patroning musicians, All ATX Music, with Clark Nowlin and Gary Keller, and Austin Music Box are advocating for local musicians, Dan Redman is fostering the Mosaic Sound Collective to build sustainability into music, while Jake Sussman and team have launched Music Tech and Food to foster the impact of how this convergence is really at the heart of what drives the community. Notably, Austin Blues Revue, and the work Pete Monfre therein is doing with “FairPay,” is successfully enabling new monetization models for artists and realizing the profitabity of local music.
Want to get involved and connected? Start with atxmusictech.com and the meetup that Alex Mitchell and Luis Berga have been organizing and where I’m doing what I can, starting with what I do best – sparking a conversation and a community. I’ve set up Austin Music Tech on Facebook (join here) and hope we all continue supporting one another by way of our best talents as artists, entrepreneurs, investors, producers, engineers, marketers, and more, as it takes a village to bring music to life.