Boston: The Hidden Hub of Music and Technology
It’s one of Boston’s best-kept secrets, but the city is a mecca—perhaps the mecca—for entrepreneurs who understand both music and technology. As Xconomy has spun up over the last three-and-a-half months, we’ve been intrigued to learn about one company after another that specializes either in music production and distribution or in helping musicians network with audiences, usually over the Internet. Indeed, though it may be news to most observers, the nexus of music, computing, and the Web qualifies as one of the region’s key technology clusters, right along with biotech, enterprise software, computer hardware, video games, mobile technology, robotics, and clean energy.
The Boston Redevelopment Authority estimates that the “creative industries”—music, film, design, media, and crafts—generate nearly 35,000 jobs in Boston, more than the city’s entire retail trade, and add $10 billion to local economic output. And that’s just within the city limits. It’s hard to say what proportion of the $10 billion comes from the music-and-technology cluster, especially since it overlaps with other clusters such as software and video games. But in an area that is home to such musical diversity—from the Lyric Opera to Aerosmith, from MIT’s Ensemble Robot to the student radio stations at Berklee College of Music, from the Boston Symphony to the bar scene on Lansdowne Street—it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that there are also music companies as diverse as Groove Mobile, the leading music subscription service for cell phones, and Harmonix, maker of the blockbuster PlayStation2 video game Guitar Hero.
“It boils down to two things,” says one of the leaders of the Boston area music and technology scene, Nimbit CEO Patrick Faucher. “First, there is an enormous amount of talent here, because Berklee is here, as well as a couple of other outstanding music schools. So you have an active, vibrant music scene that is constantly being fed by new young talent. Then you have MIT and Northeastern and a bunch of other great technical schools here, and they are churning out talent on the technology side.”
And, Faucher continues, “it turns out that those two skill sets, computer programming and music, are very closely related. You will find an extremely high percentage of programmers are also talented musicians and split their time between the endeavors, with one often being the vocation and the other being the avocation.” (Faucher himself is a brass player who still does the occasional gig.)
The second key ingredient that Boston offers, according to Faucher: capital. While Web music ventures are too new and risky to appeal to most of the city’s main-line venture capital firms, there is an emerging “middle tier” of venture partners who are “younger, more nimble, more aggressive,” and more receptive to Web-based business models, he says. Then there is the city’s large pool of angel investors, exemplified by Common Angels, one of Nimbit’s (and Xconomy’s) main backers. Faucher says of Common Angels, “They aren’t necessarily tied in with the music industry, but they understand what we are up to.”
But there are other key factors as well, such as Berklee’s strengths in both the technological and management sides of the music business and the presence of a rich network of Berklee alumni. The school not only stays on the cutting edge of music engineering, from synthesizers to editing technology, it also has one of the nation’s leading programs in music marketing and promotion. “From a public relations standpoint, the city has done a terrible job of promoting the fact, but Berklee is one of those hidden jewels that produces a lot of musical and business talent,” says alumnus Panos Panay, founder and CEO of Sonicbids, which connects organizations hosting musical events with musicians seeking gigs. “I’m a product of that. Patrick Faucher is a product of that. So what you have is this interesting combination—a city with a rich cultural history combined with capital combined with music and engineering talent.”
And gradually, the city government is working to promote the cluster. Many of the music startups we’ve canvassed have headquarters in Cambridge or along the Route 128 corridor. But for companies that stay within Boston, the Department of Neighborhood Development and the Boston Redevelopment Authority can help with low-interest loans, as well as tax breaks for those like Sonicbids that choose spaces in the city’s so-called empowerment zones. “The city does a lot of things for businesses like ours,” says Panay, a native of Cyprus who chairs an advisory committee for CreateBoston, a program at the redevelopment authority devoted to helping media and arts companies set up shop in Boston. “I wouldn’t change it for any other place in the world.”
In recognition of this growing Boston-area cluster, Xconomy has gathered the following catalog of local companies whose services in some way combine music and technology (we threw in a few particularly cool ones from further out in New England), and assembled as many details as we could find about each company. (You can click on any company name below to jump to its profile, or you can page though all the profiles by clicking “next page.”) If you know of a company we’ve missed, or care to fill in more details about the ones we have identified, please leave a comment.
(List updated 11/15/07; see Music and Technology in Boston, Round Two)
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