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San Francisco MusicTech Summit Attempts To Save Rock And Roll


First Posted: 02/13/2012 8:10 pm Updated: 02/13/2012 8:10 pm

SAN FRANCISCO -- For the past decade and a half, Silicon Valley has been gleefully sticking its digital stake further and further into the rapidly decaying heart of the music industry.

File sharing dropped CD sales into the toilet just as iTunes and an endless array of music blogs proved the death knell for the previous monopolizers of music sales and discovery--record stores.

Critics believe the Internet is killing the music industry. But if a single word uttered at the SF MusicTech Summit is to be believed, the Internet will also be its savior.

It used to be that when people talked about "saving rock and roll," they meant the volume of guitars or the quality of lyrics. Now, it's mainly about social media, killer apps and file sharing. It may not be quite as sexy, but it's almost undoubtedly the only thing that's going to work.

San Francisco's annual music technology conference draws companies that seek new ways to bring music from guitars to ears. Somehow, in the process, those organizations generate enough revenue to keep the people holding said guitars enjoying the rock star lifestyle. And while some participating companies travel from across the world to attend the summit, the majority are either based out of the Bay Area or very strongly thinking about moving here.

Take Gary DeWaard, for example.

DeWaard is the founder of Songdish, a small, Des Monies-based start-up that provides one-stop shopping for songwriters hoping to get their songs licensed, pitched to radios stations, sold to record labels, recorded by big-name performers and/or marketed to fans. Young and scrappy, Songdish has only four full-time employees and is seriously considering opening an office in San Francisco.

"I know we're going to be expanding west and we're looking to see if San Francisco is the best place to do that," DeWaard told The Huffington Post after a discussion group at the conference. DeWaard knows the Bay Area has both the critical mass of engineering talent to turn a tech company into the next Google and the bevvy of venture capital firms needed to keep those engineers in the geek 'n' code lifestyle.

However, DeWaard voiced concerns about suddenly becoming a very small fish in a very big pond should he relocate. "I'm a little worried that if we move out here, the big guys like Twitter and Apple will swallow up all the top engineers and we'll only get the best of the rest."

"You're going to have a tough time getting a lot of top people to go someplace like Des Moines," countered Ellyn Parker with a laugh.

Parker runs San Francisco's efforts to encourage businesses to move into the city's once-blighted mid-Market area. "You have Berkeley and Stanford here too. When you're talking about at technology, this is the place people all over the world look to."

Even so, the Bay Area doesn't boast the same monopoly on innovative tech companies it once did. "Ten years ago, this stuff was pretty much only happening in the Bay Area," said Stephen White, the president of musical information management firm Gracenote. "But now its happening all over the world--in New York, in Europe and in Asia."

That spread of tech firms isn't just going from the Bay Area to the rest of the world. It's also moving from Northern California's long-time centers of innovation to areas not usually thought of as technological hubs.

Since its inception during the heady days of the Dot Com boom, Gracenote has always housed the vast majority of its 350 employees in the East Bay: first in Berkeley, then in Emeryville.

White admitted headquartering across the Bay from the traditional Silicon Valley tech corridor was initially difficult, especially as the conventional wisdom of needing to be within San Francisco proper to attract the top talent becomes more and more held as gospel.

"It's always challenging for East Bay tech companies because we get a different type of engineer--more family-oriented, usually a little bit older," said White. "Although it's easier now that we're a little bigger and have a little more cred than when we were a small start-up."

Largely because of companies like Gracenote and Oakland-based internet radio pioneer Pandora, areas like Emeryville are starting to grow their own community of start-ups and venture capital firms attracted to the significantly cheaper rent and Oakland's steadily growing hipster quotient.

No matter where their engineers hang their laptops, virtually every company at the conference focused on essentially the same priority: making the music industry work again. (Even if what they mean by the term "music industry" is something bearing little resemblance to the way music has been created, sold and consumed for the past half-century.)

Of course, there are no guarantees. At a presentation by the Future of Music Coalition, a speaker told the assembled crowd the majority of artists didn't make a single penny from having their music played on streaming services like Spotify, which have often been held out as the music industry's next great hope.

Attendees remained optimistic. But everyone still a has a whole lot of coding left to do.

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