SXSW: Music and Tech, Together at Last

Austin’s streets are so crowded during the 48 hours when SxSW Interactive is ending and SxSW Music is beginning that it’s easy to imagine the budding love affair between music and tech began as a romcom collision.

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J. Dennis Thomas / Corbis

13 Mar 2012, Austin, Texas, USA --- Flux Pavillion performs at the Warner Group Nikon event during 2012 SXSW festival in Austin, Texas on March 13, 2012

Austin’s streets are so crowded during the 48 hours when SxSW Interactive is ending and SxSW Music is beginning that it’s easy to imagine the budding love affair between music and tech began as a romcom collision. She, a waifish mashup DJ from Williamsburg, is walking south on Congress Avenue while he, a penny-loafered angel investor from Mountain View, is walking north. They’re both glued to their Foursquare apps on their phones, and accidentally bump into each other in front of the Twitter FEED house, the 10-day interactive art space that combines electronica music and mobile app technology, with heavy corporate sponsoring. A #romance is born.

However it came about, the union between the music and tech industries is in full ardor this year. This is the year of Spotify and Turntable.fm. Songkick, a UK concert site, just raised $10 million in Sequoia Capital’s first British investment of any kind. Rootmusic, which has a Facebook app for bands, raised $16m in second-round financing last June.

(MORE: SXSW Interactive Goes Political: Americans Elect Wins 2012 People’s Choice Award)

So it was perhaps inevitable that a couple days ago, behind The Side Bar on 7th Street, listening to a hard-driving band called Fort Lean (@fortlean, if you must know), were these guys: Will Griggs and Jesse Israel, record label founders turned angel investors and tech advisers. Their record label, Cantora Records, began seven years ago when they were undergrads at NYU. And now it has spawned Cantora Labs, a music-culture-cool tech fund that doesn’t lack for ambition. The tagline on their website: “Tech Changed Music Forever. Now We’re Returning the Favor.”

The fund, a combination of the profits from bands on their label and a round of financing specifically for tech investments, is aimed at startups that can use not just money, but a guide into the music industry. Case study: Sonic Notify, a company that delivers content to smartphones through inaudible sound waves, is one of Cantora’s investments. At last year’s CMJ music festival in New York, Cantora hosted a music showcase — a standard record label practice — with live acts like Gottye and some Turntable.fm-powered DJ sets, but they let fans know ahead of time that downloading a Sonic Notify app would get them into the show. Likewise, the concert wasn’t just a concert, but a chance to showcase the new technology by giving away prizes over concertgoers’ phones, having them vote on what songs to play.

“It was a conscious decision to make it a party about the music,” says Griggs. “And you bring in the tech in the most seamless way possible.”

So part of it is about getting what people at SxSW unreservedly call “tastemakers” to try a new product. But it’s also about making tech hip, connecting the tech people with the music people. “It’s an entirely different crowd, entirely different activities,” says Israel. “But the person who cares about music tends to be the same person that cares about the Foursquare app, the same person that uses Twitter, or Soundcloud or Spotify.”

(MORE: SXSW Watch: A Disruptive Conversation)

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