The Beatdown

Beatport.com turns the tables on the art of deejaying.

It's five o'clock Monday, January 17: Do you know where your beats are?

If you're like most savvy digital-music fans, your beats are on your desktop or iPod, courtesy of iTunes, eMusic or any of the countless other digital dealers online. Dance-music enthusiasts, however, know that the hottest beats come from the third floor of the Jonas Furs building at 1037 Broadway. Although that's the address of Serengeti, a stronghold in the Regas Christou empire, where music is dispensed for very public consumption, it's also the physical home of Beatport.com, the dance-music savior for vinyl junkies and DJs across the globe.

Although this particular Monday is a holiday for some folks, at Beatport.com headquarters, you'd never know it. The space -- an Ikea throwback to the glory days of dot-comicide, with hardwood floors and exposed brick -- is full of frenzied activity. The crew of this embryonic company is working furiously to launch version 2.0 of its burgeoning network, slated to debut worldwide this Thursday, January 20.

When Jonas Tempel, Beatport's president/ CEO, explains 2.0, his nonchalance belies the impact it will have on dance culture. "You know, theoretically, it's exactly the same, a big catalogue of music -- you click it, you buy it, you download it," he says. "That's the business model; that's kind of consistent. We changed, basically, the user experience from top to bottom. So it's completely -- I think we rethought it out in a more streamlined way -- easier to get to the music, faster."

As Tempel finishes this explanation, it's clear that he's as excited as the other members of his team -- Brad Roulier, vice president of business development; Kelly Isaacs, e-marketing and PR manager; and Shawn Sabo, director of marketing and PR -- who've assembled in his office to recount Beatport's growth trajectory over the past year.

In November 2002, Beatport.com was little more than an idea. Eloy Lopez, a DJ friend of Tempel's, had purchased a copy of Final Scratch, the cutting-edge software that allows DJs to manipulate digital music with the ease and control of traditional turntables. Lopez was frustrated by the amount of effort required to use the technology -- buying a piece of vinyl, burning it onto the computer and then loading it onto Final Scratch -- and casually mentioned to Tempel how much more efficient it would be if there were a site dedicated to circumventing that cumbersome process.

Four months later, Tempel, then the CEO of Factory Design Labs and a fellow DJ, started hashing out a business plan with Jeff Giarraputo, Factory's vice president. Before long, a new team was taking shape. Along with Roulier and Lopez, who quit his job as an engineer to work on the project full-time, Bad Boy Bill came on board and helped recruit the artists and labels that would be featured on the site. John Acquaviva and Richie Hawtin -- the pair who own the trademark to Final Scratch and helped pioneer the technology -- signed on as strategic developers. By June 2003, the plan was in motion. And after seven months of hard-core development, Beatport was born.

Beatport's entry was unprecedented in terms of innovation. Ideologically, the new online vehicle encouraged users to forsake vinyl purchases in favor of digital. But in order for Beatport to be successful, this meant DJs had to make a paradigm shift in both their mindset and approach -- a daunting task when you consider that for DJs, there's always been an inherent romanticism in visiting the record store.

"It took me over a year to deal with it," Tempel confesses. "But for the touring DJ, the CD is a must-have. They lose records all the time. And there's extra freight charges and all that extra crap. You take a book of CDs, you've got more music -- a lot more music -- and it never leaves your hand.

"The whole philosophy of the culture is shifting," he continues. "And it's shifting more towards kind of this awakening of like, &'Wow, we were really trapped, and everything else progressed around us.' And now the DJ has kind of woken up. Vinyl is a collector's medium. Dance music is a disposable product. I have 10,000 records down in a basement over there that I didn't even bother to move up here. Why? Why the hell would I do that?"

"With digital medium, you can do more stuff than you could ever do with vinyl," adds Roulier, who's also the director of entertainment at the Church and Vinyl. "All you could do with vinyl was slow it down, speed it up and mix it together. With Final Scratch and CDJs, there's loop functionality, reversing, effects -- there's all sorts of things you can do."

Beatport is striving to stay on point as more DJs transition into the digital realm, with renowned jocks like Jazzy Jeff and Sasha leading the way. Even so, Tempel understands that some will be reluctant to make the move.

"There is an intimidation factor of learning something new," he admits. "It's like going from skiing to snowboarding: You've been skiing your whole life, but now you can't get off the lift. Every logo that you've ever seen of DJs has a turntable in it. It's a hard stereotype to break. And we don't want the DJ to lose any credibility. We want to give them more of what they want."

"This is kind of like iTunes, but for us," offers Wyatt Jenkins, one of the four DJs on staff at Beatport, as he runs through a demo of the Beatport Traktor player offered in 2.0, courtesy of the company's partnership with Native Instruments, a German-based enterprise. "It's a little cooler. I use it instead of iTunes. I was an iTunes fan, but I'm a DJ. So when this came out, all of a sudden, it's all I'm using. It's so much more oriented for what I need."

But Beatport's not just for DJs anymore: When Tempel and his team started working on 2.0 last June, the goal was to allow everyone to get involved with the culture at all levels -- from consumers to jocks. And Beatport's user base continues to grow. Last year when the site launched, there were 72 labels on board and 2,000 tracks in the database. Now, as Beatport closes in on 14,000 users, it's working with over 700 labels and offering 20,000 titles.

Tempel continues to be the tireless visionary as he explores synergies with like-minded tech companies such as Orb Networks, a San Francisco-based outfit that is pioneering streaming technology for mobile devices, allowing consumers to manage and access all their digital content. But he insists that Beatport's success is because of the foot soldiers, not the general.

"I really want to recognize people like Shawn, Liz Miller and Wyatt, for their commitment to this," Tempel says. "Because, quite truthfully, it's made the difference, and we all know it. When we talk about Beatport, these are the people that have made the difference."

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