Boston: The Hidden Hub of Music and Technology

10/17/07Follow @wroush

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)

  • AdME
  • Bandsintown
  • Cakewalk
  • Emergent Music
  • Finetune
  • Groove Mobile
  • Harmonix
  • LiveWire Contacts
  • Matchmine
  • Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU)
  • Nellymoser
  • Nextcat
  • Nimbit
  • Ourstage
  • Sonicbids
  • Sonivox
  • Tourb.us
  • Tourfilter
  • Venue Czar
  • Virb
  • Yellow Brick Road Entertainment
  • AdME
    Headquarters: Somerville, MA
    Year Launched: 2007
    CEO: Peter Eggleston

    AdME (for Advertising-driven Mobile Entertainment) is a spinout of Sonivox. The company makes “advergaming” content for cell phones, and is best known so far for its games GuitarStar and DanceLord, available over the AT&T Wireless network. In GuitarStar, which takes some inspiration from Harmonix’s Guitar Hero videogame, users attempt to capture a guitar pick flying across the screen, and can use musical cues to help synchronize their actions. The games include ads, but “with AdME applications, everything delivered to the end-user is consumer-aware and context-sensitive, giving customer something they want and replacing interruption with value,” the company writes on its website.

    Bandsintown
    Headquarters: Somerville, MA
    Year Launched: 2007
    CEO: Todd Cronin

    Bandsintown is a social networking site aimed at helping live-music fans connect with live-music events and fellow fans. It relies on users to collect, post, and rate information about events, creating what founder Todd Cronin calls “the most intelligent, comprehensive, and easy to use live-music event filtering, notifcation, and discovery tool.” The site uses tag clouds to display information about upcoming bands and events, and allows users to narrow down this information according to distance, date range, ticket prices, musical genres, and the like. On October 5, Thrillist lauded the site as “a new free service that’ll aggregate info from all over the Internet to return only those shows that meet your exacting criteria, or the criteria of the people you stole your taste in music from.”

    Cakewalk
    Headquarters: Boston, MA
    Year Launched: 1987
    CEO: Greg Hendershott

    Cakewalk makes “DAWs” or digital audio workstation software such as Sonar 7, used by musicians to record and edit music for CDs, films, TV, and videogames. The company has also developed virtual instruments, ringtone creators, and a range of other professional music software. For consumers, Cakewalk offers an easy-to-use $39 program called Music Creator.
    Emergent Music
    Headquarters: Portland, ME
    Year Launched: 2004
    CEO: Diane Sammer
    Funding: Friends, family, and angel investors, plus debt funding from the Maine Technology Institute.

    First of all, forget the definition of “goomba” you learned from The Sopranos. Emergent Music says the word actually means “a companion or associate, especially an older friend who acts as a patron, protector, or advisor.”

    Emergent Music’s first offering, Goombah supplies companions in the form of users of Apple’s iTunes music management program. When new users download Goombah’s small application, it scans their iTunes music library and matches them with a group of 20 other Goombah users that the software judges to have similar tastes. Then users receive recommendations based on songs that appear in other members’ libraries but aren’t in their own. “This process democratizes music by putting the promotional power in the hands of music lovers, rather than the traditional model that relies on commercial tastemakers,” Goombah’s site says. Users can adjust Goombah by requesting new matching members or turning up the “Adventurousness” slider.
    Finetune
    Headquarters: Newton, MA
    Year Launched: 2006
    CEO: Martin Kay

    Finetune is a free, personalizable streaming Internet music service that combines a large catalog of music (more than 2 million songs, from both major and independent labels) with a recommendation technology that can assemble playlists based on a few initial suggestions from the user. Finetune keeps the service free by requiring that playlists consist of at least 45 songs, played in random order; labels charge much lower royalties under these conditions than if Finetune allowed users to play songs on demand.

    Founder and CEO Martin Kay was part of the original Napster, which, as everyone knows, shut down under legal attack by the mainstream music industry. Kay says he’s still surprised by the industry’s resistance to the Internet as a medium. “Never have I seen anybody spend so much money trying to prevent people from consuming their product,” he jokes. With Finetune, he’s trying to “thread the needle,” Kay says. “Most Internet radio is too passive. But Rhapsody and the other subscription services are too expensive. We said, let’s find some middle ground where we can keep the experience essentially free and advertising-supported, but give users some level of control over the programming.”

    Finetune streams music at MP3 quality; in the future, says Kay, Finetune may introduce a subscription service that sends music at CD quality. “What we’re seeing in our user base is not that people would like to avoid advertising, but that they’d like to hear higher-bit-rate streams on their home stereo systems,” he says.
    Groove Mobile
    Headquarters: Bedford, MA
    Year Launched: 2004
    CEO: Eric Giler
    Funding: Backed by venture capital firms Egan Capital, Charles River Ventures, Kodiak Venture Partners, Star Ventures, and ORIX Venture Finance

    Groove Mobile built the first service allowing direct song downloads to cell phones over cellular data networks. It works directly with mobile companies such as Sprint in the United States and 3UK and Vodafone in the United Kingdom, licensing a service called the Complete Music Gateway. The service provides full-track downloads from labels such as EMI, Sony BMG, and Warner Music International; personalized recommendations; and a peer-to-peer music sharing mechanism called “Tell-A-Friend.” In September, Groove Mobile announced that it had received an additional $6 million in venture funding from ORIX Venture Finance, bringing its total raised to $32 million.
    Harmonix
    Headquarters: Cambridge, MA
    Year Launched: 1995
    CEO : Alex Rigopulos
    CTO: Eran Egozy
    Funding: Acquired in 2006 by MTV Networks, a division of Viacom

    Few people could explain the relationship between the cult hit video game Guitar Hero and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But Harmonix, maker of Guitar Hero, is actually a spinoff of the MIT Media Lab, where founders Alex Rigopulos and Eran Ergozy met while working in the computer music group. The pair’s first products included a Theremin-like device for Walt Disney World’s EPCOT Center that allowed users to make music simply by waving their hands in the air. In 2001 and 2003 the company published Frequency and Amplitude, respectively, addictive “rhythm-action” games for the Sony Playstation. The company’s breakthrough hits, Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero II, turn air-guitar experts into real players who must compete with the game to strum specified tunes on a special guitar-like game controller. Anticipation of the company’s next title, the networked multiplayer game Rock Band, is at a fever pitch. It’s designed for both the Playstation3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and is expected in time for the 2007 holidays.
    LiveWire Contacts
    Headquarters: Cambridge, MA
    Year Launched: 1999
    Co-founders: Holt Hopkins and Jaime d’Almeida

    LiveWire Musician is a product of LiveWire Contacts, which makes a suite of database-driven Web applications for small businesses. LiveWire Musician is a popular Web-based program that artists and their managers use to book shows and tours, share performance calendars and newsletters with fans, and track industry contacts and radio play. A basic account is free, and additional services such as extra storage space and performance-tracking are available for a monthly fee.
    Matchmine
    Headquarters: Needham, MA
    Year Launched: 2007
    CEO: Mike Troiano
    Funding: Backed by The Kraft Group

    Matchmine has built what it calls a “portable personalization platform:” a program that lives on your computer, monitors the music, films, blog posts, and other media you consume, and creates an always-evolving mathematical representation of your tastes. When you visit a Matchmine partner website, the site can use this so-called “MatchKey” to retrieve new items you might like. Matchmine’s first partner in the music area is Fuzz, an artist-centric music-sharing site. See my longer profile of Matchmine here.
    Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU)
    Headquarters: Cambridge, MA
    Year Launched: 1984

    MOTU is famous among musicians for its Macintosh and Windows audio recording software. The company created Performer, one of the first MIDI music programs for the original Macintosh, in 1985. Its current products include Traveler, a small, portable, audio-recording console that plugs into a Mac’s FireWire port and allows users to record up to eight audio tracks at a CD-quality bit rate of 192Khz. Musicians can plug their microphones, guitars, synthesizers, keyboards, drum machines, and effects synthesizers directly into the Traveler, then mix and monitor these channels through the device’s headphone output, while the attached computer can concentrate on recording or playing back the audio signals.

    Nellymoser
    Headquarters: Arlington, MA
    Year Launched: 2000
    CEO: Susanne Bowen

    Nellymoser’s software creates mobile-friendly bits of video, audio, or photography from content published in other media. It is largely known for its Music Companion pack, a mobile service that lets fans use their cell phones to browse for tour information, news, and new tracks by their favorite bands. Billboard magazine, for example, uses Nellymoser’s platform to serve up charts and related information and to help readers purchase and download songs and ringtones.

    Nextcat
    Headquarters: Quincy, MA
    Year Launched: 2006
    CEO: Jeffrey Pucci
    Funding: Private seed capital

    Nextcat is a professional networking site for musicians and other “creatives.” Think of it as a cross between MySpace and LinkedIn, with special features for artists such as the ability to enhance personal profiles with media such as MP3s, photos, and video demo reels. Musicians use the site to advertise their availability for gigs or to find bands needing members. “We’re trying to create a community hub for the global entertainment industry and provide a place for people to network with their peers and find work,” says CEO Jeffrey Pucci, himself a working guitarist. See my interview with Pucci from August here.
    Nimbit
    Headquarters: Framingham, MA
    Year Launched: 2005
    CEO: Patrick Faucher
    Funding: Backed by Common Angels

    Nimbit offers a number of automated services to help bands promote themselves, including the Nimbit Online Merch Table or “OMT.” It’s a software widget designed to be embedded in blogs or other sites, where it functions as an online storefront and information desk. Artists can use the OMT to upload MP3s, album art, and performance schedules, and sell MP3 downloads directly to listeners. Nimbit takes a 20 percent cut of music sales.

    “A great many of our clients are independent artists acting as their own label, if you will,” says Patrick Faucher, CEO of Nimbit. “A certain number of them are coming to us because they’ve exited a label contract and have decided that they want to sell on their own, self-publish, self-promote, and sell direct because there’s more control and much more upside for them.”

    To Faucher, part of the reason for the flowering of new Web-basic music distribution in Boston and other areas is the breakdown of the traditional relationship between bands and record labels. “The role of the label is transforming from one of being the owner and controller of the distribution mechanism—where the artist essentially worked for the label—to being a partnership with the artist, where the [label] is an investor and a marketing partner,” says Faucher, who last March wrote a controversial CNET editorial article entitled “Where Did the Music Industry Go Wrong?” He adds, “The artist is the brand, and they have the means to go directly to fans, and the smart labels are figuring out that that’s actually all good, and what they need to do is leverage the value of the relationship the artists have with their fans and help them to monetize those relationships.”

    The online marketing tools at the heart of Nimbit have been available since 2002, but Nimbit itself was formed only in 2005 when CDFreedom, a CD publishing house for independent bands, merged with Artist Development Associates and Trilby Systems.
    OurStage
    Headquarters: Chelmsford, MA
    Year Launched: 2007
    CEO: Ben Campbell

    OurStage is like YouTube meets MTV, with voting. Bands submit their music videos to one of about 20 channels separated by genre. Members of the site listen to “battles” between bands—pairs of music clips—and the winners of each battle ascend in the overall rankings. The top bands in each channel ultimately compete for a monthly $5,000 grand prize.

    To keep the judging from turning into a pure popularity contest—where highly ranked bands tend to get more popular, because they’re the only ones that get noticed—OurStage has developed two patent-pending algorithms that mix up the content to be judged in each channel. Each video in a channel is guaranteed equal exposure across many user sessions.
    Sonicbids
    Headquarters: Boston, MA
    Year Launched: 2001
    CEO: Panos Panay
    Funding: backed by Edison Venture Fund

    Sonicbids is a website that helps bands and people who book or license music connect with one another. Over 120,000 bands are registered with the site, as well as 10,000 music promoters responsible for scheduling musicians for venues as diverse as music festivals like South by Southwest, cruise ships, restaurants, museums, wineries, and video game soundtracks. Bands pay a fee to upload electronic press kits, which Sonicbids shares with promoters (who also pay a fee). “We’re not a matchmaker, in terms of proactively putting musicians and promoters together, but we provide a platform and a marketplace,” says CEO Panos Panay. “It’s up to them to make the connection.” Nearly a quarter of Sonicbids’ user base is outside the United States, according to Panay.
    Sonivox
    Headquarters: Somerville, MA
    Year Launched: 1993
    President: Jennifer Hruska

    Sonivox (the company spells the name SONiVOX, but we just can’t deal with that many capital letters in a proper noun) makes software that allows mobile devices to play MIDI digital music. The company also makes Jet, “an interactive music engine for games and applications requiring advanced interactive music playback.” It is the only company contributing MIDI audio software to the Open Handset Alliance’s Android project, a Google-led effort to build a complete open-source software stack for mobile phones. It recently spun off “advergaming” company AdME.
    Tourb.us
    Headquarters: Cambridge, MA and Ashland, MA
    Year Launched: 2006
    Developers: Mike Champion, Gary Elliott

    Live-music search engine Tourb.us (one of those sites, like del.icio.us, that cutely incorporates the “.us” top-level domain into its name) helps members learn about upcoming music events in their areas. It’s initially focused on the music scenes in Boston, Seattle, Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and the San Francisco Bay Area. Registered members can submit information about bands or upcoming concerts, receive e-mails when their favorite bands are about to perform, and make tourb.us badges that can be embedded in their blogs or MySpace profiles. The listings seem fairly comprehensive: for Thursday November, 15, 2007, Tourb.us showed 16 live music events in the Boston area alone.

    “Tourbus is the response of two guys who like music a ton but are dissatisfied by the services out there to track bands and find new, live music,” the founders wrote last year in their blog. “We live outside Boston, which has an energetic music scene, but one that can be tough to keep track of. And, believe me, I’m lazy with a capital L. Lots of bands I like play at the MidEast, but I’ve missed shows because I don’t check their page that often…And the less said about the quality of the emails I get from Ticketmaster and ClearChannel the better. There should be a better way.”
    Tourfilter
    Headquarters: Cambridge, MA
    Year Launched: 2005
    Founder: Chris Marstall

    Tourfilter helps music fans track their favorite bands. Members can create calendars of upcoming shows, see their own calendars and their friends’ calendars together, listen to MP3 and RealAudio tracks by their bands, browse music blog posts by band, and get show alerts via e-mail, RSS, or iCal. “We used to miss too many shows—we’d hear about them after tickets they sold out, or worse, read about them in the Globe the day after,” the founders write in the site. “So we wrote a program to download all the area club listings daily, search for bands we liked, then send out email.” Rolling Stone said Tourfilter “could become the Craiglist of the concert-info world,” and the site was nominated for a 2007 Webby Award in the music category.
    Venue Czar
    Headquarters: Montpelier, VT
    Year Launched: 2007
    President: Jess Campisi

    Venue Czar is a free site that makes life easier for bands and venue managers by handling booking, contracting, and promotion of live music performances online. Bands can use the site to organize their performance calendars, send music listings to local media outlets, create contracts, and inform fans of upcoming shows. Fans can search the site’s listings for upcoming performances, organized by band or venue. More than 60 bands and almost 80 venues are already using the service, most in Vermont and upstate New York.

    Virb
    Headquarters: Boston
    Year Launched: 2003
    Founders: Nate Hudson, Mitchell Pavao, Brett Woitunski

    PureVolume, owned by Virb, is a straightforward site that links musicians and listeners. Artists and bands can upload songs, photos, blog posts, touring schedules, and the like to their own mini-websites. Listeners can download MP3s free of charge, track their favorite bands, and share music recommendations with friends. Over 400,000 musicians—mostly alternative, indie, and punk rock genres—have used the service, according to the company’s website. The founders at Virb (formerly Unborn Media)—Brett Woitunski, Nate Hudson, and Mitchell Pavao—are all alumni of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and say they started PureVolume partly to fill the vacuum left by the (temporary) shutdown of music-sharing site MP3.com in 2003. The company has also launched Virb, a social networking site that focuses on uniting people with common tastes in music, art, fashion, and film.
    Yellow Brick Road Entertainment
    Headquarters: Windham, NH
    Year Launched: 2007
    Founder and CEO: Garry Wheeler
    Funding: Private

    Yellow Brick Road Entertainment’s BandDigs provides bands with webcam-based video chat and live video streaming services. The service has been praised by music promoters such as Joe Fletcher and bands such as Angry Hill and Violet Nine for giving bands the opportunity to connect face-to-face with fans without the expensive video conferencing technologies sometimes used by big record labels for publicity events. BandDigs earned Yellow Brick Road the 2006 “Rookie of the Year” award from the Software Association of New Hampshire.

    Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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    • http://www.theinformati.com J Mark Inman

      This is all true, as a Boston area musician, I can say that there are much more opportunities here for musicians than most anywhere else. I believe Boston has the most shows than any other city on any given night. The technology is also very true, with MIT, etc. however, it is a very tough business to be in. I own a record label and just released an album for the band theINFORMATI http://www.myspace.com/theinformati And we believe it will explode because of the Boston/Cambridge scene.

    • http://www.sturtevant.com/contact Reed Sturtevant

      Don’t forget Tourfilter, the most popular concert notification service: http://www.tourfilter.com

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    • gary

      In addition to Tourfilter, there’s also http://tourb.us and http://bandsintown.com. Boston appears to be a concert tracking hub!

    • Kyle

      In terms of local area software companies with some sort of music/media technology, there also is Peermeta (www.peermeta.com) in Acton with a mobile content / Web 2.0 twist.

    • http://www.venueczar.com Michael Howe

      So it seem like after Venue Czar conquers Vermont, they should target Boston? Venue Czar is the ultimate localized online booking platform.

    • http://www.conduitlabs.com Nabeel Hyatt

      You could add us to this list as soon as we’re out of stealth mode. (http://www.conduitlabs.com)

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    • http://backbone.com Paul Kamp

      Backbone Networks is another local company in this space. We provide internet radio automation systems and is the system behind the IBS Student Radio Network. There are over 30 station on the network and a number of them are local including:

      Simmons College
      New England Art Institute
      Babson College

      Separately, a non-profit start up is the Public Radio Exchange in Cambridge. They are the online clearinghouse for Public Radio content.

    • http://www.EccentricNewEngland.com Glen Peladeau

      New England has a great recource of musicians who have many opportunites and folks who are ready to help them with their careers. The cites Boston, Providence & Worcester all offer great venues and support services.

    • http://www.artistir.com Derek

      I’m from the Boston area and am in the process of creating a music promotion website, Artistir. It’s not just for local musicians or bands either, but we’re steadily getting more and more.

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    • Mason

      Thanks for this, I just finished my AD in programming after working as a sound engineer for the last 7-8 years so I really appreciate the compilation of these companies because I want to eventually work writing audio software.