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 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.

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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 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.”

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It’s true that many of the innovators in the startup world have what Griggs calls a “purest level” passion for music. Andy Weissman, partner at the New York capital fund Union Square Ventures, quotes Fugazi on his blog; his colleague Fred Wilson was on Twitter promoting a Kickstarter campaign to fly the Jane Doze, a NYC Mashup/DJ duo, to Austin for SxSW.

At this year’s SxSW, Sonic Notify built the app for the Twitter FEED house, a highly branded interactive art space co-sponsored by everyone from Samsung to the City of Hamburg — plenty of electronica shows and huge interactive displays that leverage both music and mobile tech.

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Cantora is not alone in its push to mashup music and tech. Ghostly International records has created its own in-house Ghostly Discovery app. Red Light Management, home to bands like the Decemberists and Gomez, has recently partnered with a tech startup called Loudie (disclosure: I’m related by marriage to the Decemberists’ manager at Red Light). Downtown Records recently launch the MP3 service RCRD LBL.

And with the latest tech bubble in full hype, it seems likely the ties between music and tech — particularly mobile tech — will continue to grow. Cantora is bringing Sonic Notify to a number of summer music festivals, and this year’s CMJ in New York will also heavily feature tech. “There’s no ‘CMJ Interactive’ a la SxSW, but it’s there de facto,” says CMJ’s CEO Robert Haber. “This past year 30-50% of our daytime content was focused on tech startups.”

Will music and tech continue to get along? Justin Bolognino, head of Learned Evolution, the Brooklyn-based marketing agency that created the Twitter FEED house, rejects the premise of the question. “I just can’t even answer that,” he says. “We’re in 2012 and the lines have long since blurred. Take Radiohead. Are they musicians? Marketers? Visual artists? You can’t be a musician today without some form of interactivity.”

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