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And that's where the three members of the Next Big Sound team found themselves at the beginning of summer 2009: in the center of all the action, part of the hottest startup accelerator around. There was only problem.
"On the first day of TechStars, we told David Cohen we wanted to switch ideas," remembers White.
So, Cohen asked, what's your new idea?
That's the problem, responded White. "We have no idea."
It was a problem that White, Rayani and Hoffman were going to have to fix fast. At the end of the three-month boot camp, they would be pitching their concept — whatever it might be — to a hall full of big-name investors. It wasn't the kind of crowd that would write checks based on good intentions.
For the first few weeks, the three brainstormed with their mentors and bounced around ideas in the TechStars bunker, a basement-level former gym in central Boulder now outfitted with state-of-the-art computer workstations, arcade machines, a ping-pong table and miscellaneous handles of hard liquor. The one thing they knew for sure was that they were all obsessed with how a band becomes famous. Their original idea for the Next Big Sound let users play around with that concept, but now they wanted to actually document it. In a sense, they needed to reverse-engineer the Billboard charts, travel back in time to figure out how Lady Gaga had gotten to her number-one spot from her number-ten slot, the 25th spot, all the way back to her very first fan.
But then they realized they didn't have to travel back in time. Lady Gaga had already made it; what they needed to do was find and then anticipate the rise of the next Lady Gaga.
When a new band hit the scene in the past, there were only a few ways the music industry could track its popularity: through record sales, ticket sales and radio requests. All of these had their limitations. While Nielsen SoundScan could track when and where an individual album was purchased, for example, it couldn't tell whether that album was played constantly for weeks on end or played once and then chucked in the trash. But now, with the rise of social-music sites, music consumers interacted with bands in myriad new ways. They could download their songs legally or illegally, stream their music from MySpace or Pandora, set one of their tunes as their ringtone. They could friend the band on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and favorite its video on YouTube. They could edit info on bandmembers on Wikipedia, e-mail tour updates to friends and profess their undying love for the musicians on blog posts. And since all of these actions were online, theoretically they all could be tracked.
But were these online interactions significant enough to matter? To find out, the three built a basic tracker program to count the number of times people played a song on the MySpace page of Akon in a single night. When they got up the next morning, their program had tracked more than half a million plays.
Although no one was officially recording such stats, savvy folks in the music business were beginning to recognize the importance of web chatter. After college, before getting the original Next Big Sound concept off the ground, White had toured with the band Sing It Loud and managed its Internet presence. He'd do it all, from writing daily tweets and updating the band's online profiles to watching Facebook and MySpace hits. But staying on top of all that was hugely time-consuming, especially as new social-media sites continued to proliferate.
If Next Big Sound could track, compile and, most important, make sense of all the ways people listened to and interacted with their favorite bands online, the company would be providing a killer service to artists, managers and other industry professionals — one they're likely to pay good money for. After all, record execs were already shelling out thousands of dollars a year for concert ticket sales data and up to $48,000 annually for weekly SoundScan reports.
The three had hit on Moneyball for the music industry, explains White, referring to the best-selling book on how Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane used statistics and objective measurements rather than time-honored baseball instincts and gut feelings to create one of the most cost-effective teams in the country. No longer would record execs have to base big deals solely on the hunches of A&R talent scouts; no longer would a small-time band manager have to guess just how well a show had gone over with fans. Now they would have the cold, hard facts.
"The idea is that lying in these massive, massive data sets are untapped correlations and value that can be harnessed," says White. "If you can sift through and track and filter this data in meaningful ways, there is a huge opportunity in identifying the next big sound and understanding how markets and bands grow in popularity and spread."
Now the team had an idea, but they still had to build the product. So while Rayani and Hoffman spent eighteen-hour days hunched over their computers, building web crawlers to collect data from social-media sites and designing their new website's user interface, White called every band manager, record exec and music-industry operative he knew to find out what sort of information service they could use. "He better have had unlimited plans on his cell phone, because I never saw someone talk on the phone so much," says Nicole Glaros, TechStars' general manager.