Adventures in Institutional Disruption

Sam Booker and Matt Wilder presenting @remixhits.

Yesterday I was privileged to attend the culminating event of “Project Music” — the Nashville Entrepreneur Center’s first-of-its-kind-in-the-nation startup accelerator dedicated entirely to businesses that focus on the creation, delivery, and experience of music. Yesterday was the “Startup Showase,” when the accelerator sent eight new businesses into the world, with polished pitches intended to make these new enterprises enticing to an audience of savvy investors.

When we entered the arena for the final event, I wondered out loud if it is possible for actual disruption to emerge from such a clearly institutional environment. The notion seems counter-intuitive: Disruption is by definition something that shows up on the periphery of the established business and power structures. But this event was hardly peripheral. Quite the contrary, it was staged at the Country Music Hall of Fame — in other words, in the belly of the very beast of Nashville’s music industry.

As if the choice of venue wasn’t paradoxical enough, the event started off with what struck me as a touch of irony that was probably lost on most of the assembly: In his opening remarks John Esposito — President of the Country Music Association and CEO of Warner Music Nashville — called upon the eight businesses that were about to be introduced to “save our collective asses.”

Hearing that, I was reminded that it is the very forces of innovation that have put the record industry’s collective ass in a sling to begin with. And there really wasn’t anything I saw in Project Music’s emerging cohort that addresses directly the issue of declining unit sales of music.

Quite the contrary, the presentations included several slides that contrasted that decline of music sales to other activities (like music software sales) that have been steadily increasing over the same period. And these new businesses all seem to be saying “the trend is obvious, so let’s do that instead…”

For some time, Nashville has aspired to become “the epicenter of the new music business” (as music/tech/entrepreneur Mark Montgomery likes to put it), but there has been only spotty actual effort in that direction since the 20th century music business started to implode with the arrival of the 21st century. Yesterday’s event — and the intense 14 week process that preceded it — went a long way toward establishing the beachhead that any “epicenter” is going to have to start with.

The Startup Showcase is an odd sort graduation ceremony in which every member of the class is asked to deliver a valedictory address — which to their credit, they all did with various degrees of polish and downright inspiration (and anybody who knows me knows that I use words like “inspiration” rather sparingly).

From my perspective, what was most encouraging is that at least three of these new businesses address the future of music from the perspective of the consuming public — rather than the perspective of the producing industry (as represented by Mr. Esposito, etal, whose “collective asses” need saving).

>KaraoQ wants to update the experience of slightly intoxicated individuals taking to a stage and singing their favorite songs for an adoring audience of equally intoxicated friends and strangers. It turns out that karaoke is one aspect of the music business that remains largely analog, and KaraoQ promises to upgrade the experience with a suite of digital apps and services.

>Remix Hits (aka RMXHTZ) wants to repackage popular “songs as software” — by making available to music enthusiasts and DJs the elements of a recording known as “stems” — the individual tracks that go into a recording — so that they can be remixed to the user’s taste.

>VideoBomb offers “to do for video what the photobomb does for still photography” by providing a suite of tools that let users add their own footage to their favorite artist’s promotional music videos. (Full disclosure, I have served on VideoBomb’s Advisory Board, so I have a little inside knowledge on that one).

What these three new business all have in common is that they are participatory. What they offer is not just music delivery, but the ability for the listener to engage with music in new ways. In that, they share what I keep thinking is the ultimate destination of the future of music: that music shall no longer be something that somebody else does, it becomes something that we all do.

When talking about KaraoQ with my wife at dinner that evening, we both expressed some surprise that Karaoke is still “a thing.” But why shouldn’t it be?

Karaoke is an expression of the natural human desire to sing. It is only the industrialization of music in the past century that has appropriated that natural desire; karaoke is one way that the industry gives it back.

It strikes me that the most promising businesses presented at yesterday’s Showcase embody some promise of ‘giving music back’ to the public from which it was confiscated in the 20th century. Those businesses are probably not going to save John Esposito’s collective ass, at least not so long as record companies continue to depend on the sale of units or their digitized equivalents.

I’m suddenly reminded of the joke that somebody would always make when we did those atomic bomb drills in elementary school (in, yes, the 1950s and 60s). Told to put our get under our desks and put our head between our knees, that’s when some class clown would say, “yeah, and kiss your ass goodbye…”

So yesterday’s event, and the process it culminates, is something of a paradox: On the one hand, the history seems to suggest that innovative disruption comes from the periphery. True, industry-changing innovation rarely comes out of corporate laboratories or executive suites, as the music industry’s ‘collective’ response to new technologies would seem to attest.

Typically, the big new things come from from garages, basements and — as with Napster — college dorm rooms. So it seems paradoxical that a venture like the EC’s Project Music would try to institutionalize that environment, to put enough polish on the process and to make it palatable to the very forces that would be threatened by any further disruption of the industry.

I went into last yesterday’s proceedings questioning whether true disruption could come out of such a regimented, institutional environment.

But I was sufficiently impressed with everything that was presented that I walked out questioning my own doubt.