It’s a Friday night and Portland gospel/folk/punk band Modern Kin is tearing it up in Barboza, a basement club in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Off to the side, an audio engineer hunches over an iPad and laptop, recording the show and mixing the levels.
Within a few minutes of the band leaving the stage, fans in the audience and those who couldn’t make the show download the audio through a new app called Lively. Lively is the creation of Dean Graziano, a serial entrepreneur and music lover who got tired of wishing he could relive concerts and decided to do something about it.
With the permission of the artist and venue, Lively makes audio, and occasionally video recordings, then sells them as downloads right after the show. It’s an idea that makes almost everyone who hears about it smack themselves in the forehead for not thinking of it first.
“It’s one of the first companies that I’ve ever started where it takes ten seconds to explain the concept and people get it right away. That doesn’t generally happen,” Graziano said.
It’s been more than 10 years since Napster and iTunes blew up the music industry, a decade in which it was predicted (once again) that technology would kill music. That prediction hasn’t come true in Seattle, a city full of music-loving techies where entrepreneurs are building new companies in which music and technology don’t compete, but complement each other.
“I’ve had several conversations with music industry folks who’ve said we’re done whining and it’s time to get on the train and technology is here. Let’s grasp it and leverage it and go,” said Graziano.
Startups in tune
Tech and music might have clashed at the corporate level, but anyone who has ever worked at a startup knows the natural affinity between creative types and music. So it’s not surprising that Seattle, full of musicians and geeks, is fertile ground for new music companies.
“The (entrepreneurs) that I know are music fans. It’s kind of rare to find someone who doesn’t like music around here,” said Rachel Sawyer of the city’s Office of Film + Music.
Entrepreneur Omri Mor thought it should be easier for musicians to pursue their avocation full time. His startup, Ziibra, uses technology to connect artists and fans in a model that reaches all the way back to the Roman Republic when wealthy patrons financially supported artists. Similarly, Ziibra allows fans to “subscribe” to musicians they like (the service is being expanded to include painters, photographers and others as well) in exchange for greater access to the band as well as premium content.
Subscription revenue will make it easier for bands to record, tour and pursue music full time while also letting artists identify and interact with their most zealous fans, said Mor: “That’s what we’re about, to get that person-to-person connection, that extra bit they’re not getting now.”
At 12 years old, Rhapsody, the Seattle-based music streaming service, might no longer be considered a startup, but it’s still scrambling to secure its footing in a marketplace full of competitors, in an industry still being roiled by new technology.
“You can’t have a successful music company now without an engineering department,” said VP for Business Development Brian McGarvey, a former Microsoft employee.
The future is on-demand music and subscription services, but the key to keeping customers is curation, said McGarvey, who added that Rhapsody has added more social media services and other features to its offerings to help listeners discover new music.
Even KEXP, Seattle’s revered alternative and indie rock station, is emphasizing digital. It’s the job of Scott Bell, new general manager of online services, to shift the station’s resources away from the FM broadcast and toward its digital offerings, including live and archival streaming, apps and podcasts. In-dash wi-fi will be standard on cars soon, he said, and listening to the radio will become even less popular.
Bell describes KEXP’s demographic as “music discoverers.” While radio used to be how people heard new music, there are other ways to do that now, from social media to Bandcamp to streaming services like Rhapsody. The edge KEXP has, according to Bell, is in curating the offerings and playing the role of the cool friend who always knows the best new music.
“That human element is critical,” he said.
Macklemore shows the way
It is impossible to talk to anyone in the Seattle music industry without them bringing up Macklemore.
The Seattle rapper is the hottest act in the country, if not the world. He and bandmate Ryan Lewis became the first indie artists to reach No. 1 on the Billboard charts, without a major label, just catchy hooks and great videos and a canny use of social media.
But the worshipful talk in Seattle is more than pride in a native son (who went to the same public high school as Jimi Hendrix and Quincy Jones) or relief that the city has reasserted its musical relevancy. People in the industry view his success as proof that the scary new business model in which artists sink or swim on their own is going to work. In other words, that everything’s going to be OK.
The days when musicians could depend on a major label to discover them, distribute their music and manage their careers are long gone. While it’s never been easier to record and distribute music, it’s harder than ever to break out from the pack of aspiring stars. To succeed today, artists need to harness technology, particularly social media, to be heard by and connect with fans.
Most young artists understand this, said Shannon Roach, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Chapter of The Recording Academy, but “there definitely is a tension between the creative side of things and the business side of things for musicians. If they’re really truly seeking success in the industry and they’re seeking that as their living, the musician needs to understand how to be a business person.”
Barbie Anaka’s smooth jazz could not be more different than Macklemore’s hip hop, but she has embraced the same model.
The former Nordstrom clerk and model decided 12 years ago to become a fulltime musician. To make it work, she not only performs live, she produces other artists, gives music lessons and directs a choir. She just released her third CD, which she funded through Kickstarter.
“I love the idea that when I wake up in the morning I get to create my own opportunities and it’s whatever I can dream up,” she said. “You don’t really have that in any other business where the world is just kind of open to you and how creative you can be to get to your goal. There are some tedious aspects of the business that you just kind of go, ‘Aaaagh, I hate this part’, but it’s a necessary evil.”
Seattle might never return to its grunge glory days, but the city’s tech and music industries are likely to keep playing together.