By Brian Turk
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The shaggy-haired unknown, dressed in a faded T-shirt, perches himself on a wooden stool and begins plucking at his guitar strings. "There is no destination," he croons into the microphone before building to a moving chorus. "You are one...you are one."
He's at the Cup, a Boulder coffee shop, singing to a modest crowd gathered for the cafe's weekly open-mike night. But if he's like most unknowns, he's also singing to something else: a gleaming future where coffeehouses have been replaced by paying gigs at real venues, then sold-out concert halls, then spaces grander still. A future where the audience swells to include potential agents and music critics and A&R talent scouts and then, finally, oceans of screaming fans.
After all, John Mayer got his start playing in coffeehouses. And then there was that shaggy-haired unknown who played Harvard Square Theater in Cambridge back in 1974 and inspired local music critic Jon Landau to pen this now-famous line: "I saw rock and roll's future and its name is Bruce Springsteen."
Standing near the back of the Cup, watching the unknown play, Alex White knows all about such dreams. A few years ago, he would take his guitar and try his luck at open mikes just like this, imagining himself as one of the young Beatles before they went on to change the world. But White, now 24, knows just how long a trip it is from playing a couple of songs at the Cup to making it big, how seemingly overnight rock-and-roll success actually involves years of cruel obscurity, massive amounts of thankless toil and, in the end, a good dose of pure serendipity.
These days, the journey to music stardom is more difficult than ever before. Blindsided by file-sharing and other Internet revolutions, the recording industry is a shell of what it once was. The once-mighty labels have either collapsed or consumed one another, leaving just a few holdouts. Thanks to home-recording programs like GarageBand and social media and music-streaming services like MySpace, Twitter and Last.fm, it's never been easier for musicians to record and distribute their music — but that means there's also more competition than ever before.
How do you find rock and roll's future in all this noise?
That's a question White has been pondering as CEO of Next Big Sound. He and his partners in the tiny tech company think they've come up with the answer.
The music business has liked what it's heard about Next Big Sound. Billboard recently named the company one of the ten best digital-music startups of 2010, and White one of its 30-under-30 executive stars to watch. "We need the type of service they offer," says Tom Corson, executive vice president at RCA Music Group. "We are encouraged by what we see."
Ian Rogers, CEO of the direct-to-fan music platform TopSpin and former GM of Yahoo Music, is even more blunt about Next Big Sound. "There is nobody in this space that is even close to them in terms of pace of development and building a smart, modern, competitive product," he says. "These guys — everybody who has bumped into them knows it's clear they are the kind of people you bet on."
And they're in the right place to make that bet. Among the stereotypical Boulder touches that mark the scene at the Cup tonight — the dreadlocks and Allman Brothers shirts and water bottles wallpapered with funky bumperstickers — are hints of a different culture. White Apple power adapters snake across the floor, fueling MacBook after sleek MacBook whose screens are filled with spreadsheet cells and computer code. In the corner, customers quietly discuss venture-capital financing rounds. At the counter, twenty-somethings grab double espressos to get them through long nights at the office. Boulder has become a major startup mecca. In the past year alone, venture capitalists have invested tens of millions of dollars in dozens of fledgling tech companies here, drawing the attention of the New York Times and Fast Company, among others, and causing Bloomberg Businessweek to declare the city "America's best town for startups." All that Boulder really needs to solidify its reputation as the new Silicon Valley is one great, world-changing startup success story.
As he watches the musicians at the Cup, White is interrupted by the event's host: Does he want a raffle ticket? The winner gets a gift certificate to Boulder Organic Pizza, she explains.
"No, thanks," says White. From where he's standing, he's already won big.
Next Big Sound is located in a small, second-floor office just half a block from the Cup on Pearl Street, above a swank Latin American restaurant on Pearl Street. It shares the space with several other young startups. Like high-tech squatters, each company has requisitioned a patch of the wide-open room with no cubicle walls, glass dividers or administrative-assistant desks to mark their boundaries. In one corner is Everlater, an online travel journal website; around the bend is Gnip, a company that aggregates data from social-media sites. Next Big Sound is in the middle, where it recently expanded into the spot relinquished by Graphic.ly, a company developing an iTunes-type service for comic books.