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White, his Next Big Sound co-founders Samir Rayani and David Hoffman, and their three Boulder employees have positioned their desks in a wide, connected semi-circle, like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. (Next Big Sound's only other employee, Colin Willis, a thirty-year veteran of Sony Music Entertainment who's old enough to be everybody else's father, recently relocated to Nashville to open a satellite office.) Their workspaces are largely bare aside from MacBooks connected on one side to giant LCD screens and on the other to big, chunky headphones each employee uses to listen to his music of choice. Rayani, the coding whiz, trawls blogs for obscure hip-hop remixes, while Hoffman, the design guy, prefers old-fashioned iTunes for his indie-music fix. White uses a combination of streaming sites Rdio, Hype Machine and Pandora Radio for a mix of alternative rock, hip-hop and shamelessly sugary Top 40s pop.
Everyone at Next Big Sound adheres to Boulder's jeans-and-sneakers dress code, and, in the few hours when they aren't working, they all crash at the same house in south Boulder. There's nothing in the setup to suggest that one of the crew was responsible for the tech behind website sensation Texts From Last Night, another worked at the world's biggest hedge fund straight out of college, and a third has been invited to speak at conferences alongside the founder of Pandora and Lady Gaga's manager.
"My style isn't flashy, in-your-face egomaniac," acknowledges White, who'll be on those panels. "That's the part of the music industry I hate, where everyone is like, 'I know so-and-so, André 3000 is my boy.' It's the same stuff I hate about the startup world. I prefer the idea of being the guy behind the scenes, pulling all the strings."
Growing up in Ithaca, New York, White initially didn't want to be behind the scenes; he wanted center stage. The son of a professional cellist, he and his friends founded a pop-rock outfit called Ricochet, for which White wrote and sang hook-heavy tunes like "Time":
Time goes by in an instant,
Drifts away, just disappears
At night, everything changes
Nothing lasts, it's a parade of years
But he soon realized he didn't have the talent or interest to be part of some 21st-century Fab Four. Instead, he wanted to be the unsung fifth Beatle: the guy working off stage, fueling the hype and orchestrating the buzz, the person ultimately responsible for creating a band that would change the world.
White started making inroads into the music business at the same time technology was drastically changing the landscape. While in high school, he worked at a local recording studio, helping audio engineers and sitting in on production; during his off hours, he was using Napster to download Goo Goo Dolls, Eagle Eye Cherry and DMX without paying for them. After his freshman year at Northwestern University, he interned at Universal Records, the largest record label in the world, calling record stores and asking clueless sales clerks how many copies of Kelly Clarkson's album they had in stock — even though at school, as one of the early adopters of Facebook, he'd been using a much more advanced form of information-gathering.
By the time he was a senior and elected chairman of A&O Productions, Northwestern's immense entertainment committee, the record companies he was negotiating with to bring Girl Talk, Flight of the Conchords and Counting Crows to campus were in a shambles. Although it was laid low by record-company lawsuits, Napster inspired endless file-sharing programs, music-streaming services and other new technologies that the music business seemed unwilling — or unable — to embrace.
"The record industry has always tried to kill new technologies, and in this case, they missed all their chances to capitalize on it, such as making a deal with Napster," says Steve Knopper, contributing editor at Rolling Stone and author of the book Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age. "Because of all that, CD sales have gone down, down, down." The best-selling album of 2000, 'N Sync's No Strings Attached, sold nearly 10 million units. Last year's top album, Taylor Swift's Fearless, moved less than a third that number.
Still, White dreamed of becoming a music mogul. In an entrepreneurship class his senior year, he teamed up with fellow students Rayani and Hoffman and created a website where users could listen to and "sign" unknown bands to their own virtual label. In essence, it was a fantasy sports league for the music business, one they called the Next Big Sound. The idea was promising enough to attract $25,000 in funding from a local investor by the time White graduated, so he bailed on the consulting job he'd accepted in New York City and stuck around with Rayani and Hoffman to see the project through.
Although the Next Big Sound caught the attention of the New York Times and other media outlets, publicity didn't equal paychecks. "It was difficult for them to get enough volume of visitors," says Troy Henikoff, the trio's Northwestern entrepeneurship professor. "It was a busy space, the online music-player scene, and they had an online music player for music you'd never heard of. They had thousands of people coming to the site and listening to unsigned artists and ranking them, but they really needed hundreds of thousands."