Fueled by venture-capital funding and a love for unknown bands, can Boulder's Next Big Sound predict the next rock star?

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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 But if he's like most unknowns, he's also singing to something else: a gleaming future where coffeehouses have been replaced by paying gigs at real venues, then sold-out concert halls, then spaces grander still.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."


Next Big Sound

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.

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."

By early 2009, the three were ready to shut down the operation. Like most of the obscure bands the website was tracking, the Next Big Sound seemed destined to fade away. But then, on a whim, they applied to TechStars, a startup boot camp in Boulder with the motto "The geeks shall inherit the Earth."

Out of hundreds of applications, the Next Big Sound was chosen for one of TechStars' handful of slots. So the three packed up their belongings and headed to Colorado, ready for one last gig before they'd have to break up the band.

Their first night in Boulder, Andrew Hyde, a 25-year-old who'd founded three startups and organized the popular geeky speaker series Ignite Boulder, had White, Rayani and Hoffman over for dinner and drove them to the top of Flagstaff Mountain. Looking out over Boulder, they knew they were going to be part of something special.

"As soon as we rolled into town, something felt different here," says White. In Chicago, he and his co-founders had struggled to find like-minded entrepreneurs and mentors, people who could give them advice on how to find customers, scale their product and, most important, make money. The city was just too big, the business community too entrenched. It seemed like the right place to be if you wanted to be part of a large, established tech company, but not if you wanted to strike out on your own.

Boulder was different. Places like the Cup, the Kitchen and Bitter Bar are usually brimming with engineers and entrepreneurs like Hyde (who has since sold his latest startup, discarded all but fifteen of his possessions and is now traveling the world for a year). There are startup-oriented coffee-shop meetings, happy-hour parties, even poker games — and hundreds of people attend the monthly Boulder New Tech Meetup, one of the largest regular tech gatherings in the world. The University of Colorado at Boulder has launched its own entrepreneurship initiative, a program it calls Silicon Flatirons. At one point, Hyde and his friends attempted to count all the serious startups based in the city of 100,000 full-time residents. They lost count at 250.

That number includes a few high-profile successes. Socialthing, a social media service, was picked up by AOL. Kerpoof, a multimedia platform for children, was acquired by the Walt Disney Company. And MX Logic, an e-mail and web-security company, was bought by McAfee Inc. for $140 million.

Cities around the world are eager to create vibrant tech hubs like this — but in Boulder, it developed almost by accident. Most in the startup community trace the beginning to when Brad Feld, a successful tech investor, relocated to the town on a whim. "I moved to Boulder randomly in 1995," Feld writes in an e-mail. "We only knew one person when we moved here — he moved away a few months later." But Feld wasn't lonely for long. He co-founded the Foundry Group, now Boulder's biggest tech venture-capital firm and a powerhouse nationwide, and helped organize an entrepreneurial community that spawned such early tech successes as WebRoot, an Internet security firm, and Raindance, a teleconference company. While other startup scenes were marked by competition and secrecy, Feld and his Boulder colleagues launched blogs and podcasts where they offered public musings on venture capitalism and technology.

"Brad managed to become a lightning rod for conversations about startups and did that with a national reach, but with a focal point in Boulder," says Tom Higley, a serial tech entrepreneur based in the town. "That's been huge." He credits the arrival on the scene of David Cohen as the other key ingredient.

Cohen, the founder of several software and web technology companies, soon teamed up with Feld to launch TechStars, a new kind of tech accelerator. "I loved angel investing but thought the process sucked. I'd meet somebody in a coffee shop, write a check and cross my fingers and hope for the best," remembers Cohen. "Second, I didn't think the Boulder ecosystem had enough interesting stuff going on, and I wanted to help change that over time so that I could do more investing locally."

So along with selecting ten companies a year, bringing them to Boulder and providing them with up to $18,000 in seed funding, TechStars would offer something even more valuable: support from some of the brightest minds around.

While TechStars doesn't charge for its services, it requires a 6 percent equity stake in each venture that goes through the program. So far, that's proved to be a profitable arrangement. On average, seven out of the ten companies that have taken part each of the past four years have gone on to become profitable or score outside funding, and TechStars has spawned divisions in Seattle, Boston and New York. Some of the ventures that weren't accepted into the Boulder boot camp moved to town anyway, in hopes that the magic would rub off.

White likens what's happening in Boulder to the music scene in Brooklyn, which has become renowned for producing such hitmakers as TV on the Radio, MGMT and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. "It's the combination of lifestyle and liveability, and the right type of people all trying to do the same thing," he says. "Just like Brooklyn has become the best place to get a band off the ground, Boulder's become one of the best places to run a startup."

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.

To test-drive its concept, the team e-mailed reports to ten band managers who detailed their acts' weekly activity on such sites as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, slick PDF documents they'd spent hours compiling and refining. They heard nothing in response. When White called the managers to find out why, they all explained that their schedules were too hectic to bother with opening attachments on their BlackBerries. So the next week, they sent out plain-text e-mail reports — and within hours, all ten managers had responded, raving about the data and asking the company to keep it coming.

But while industry insiders seemed on board, their big idea still needed some big money. So for the last few weeks of TechStars, White practiced his pitch speech eighty, ninety, a hundred times, preparing for what he calls "the biggest eight minutes of my life."

Those eight minutes came on August 6, 2009. In front of 200 of the most important venture capitalists and angel investors around, White introduced the new, improved and slightly renamed (they dropped the "the") Next Big Sound.

"While the record business is dead, the music business is very much alive," White told them, and his company was there to track it. That summer, Michael Jackson had passed away — and within a week, the media was reporting that his album sales and terrestrial radio spins had jumped 1,000 percent. But what everyone missed, White said, was the online surge only Next Big Sound had been able to track: a jump that was closer to 10,000 percent.

And that was just the beginning. "Our goal: Anytime a decision is made by anyone in the music industry, we want them to consult data from Next Big Sound first," White declared. Then he smiled, adding, "The bottom line is, we listen, we work efficiently, and we are cheap to keep alive."

Within minutes of his pitch, White and his partners were approached by one of the biggest investors in the room. While the team had been aiming for $300,000 in funding, that figure soon doubled, then tripled. The trio's entrepreneurship professor got in on the action, as did the venerable Foundry Group. When it was all over, Next Big Sound had roughly a million dollars in financing.

For three guys who'd spent the better part of a year living on couches, sometimes scrounging free coffee from McDonald's, the sum was incomprehensible. The day they signed the financing documents, they went out to a steakhouse and spent more on food than they'd spent all summer on dinners of ramen noodles.

Then they had to use Hoffman's parents' credit card to pay, since none of them had a personal credit card that wasn't maxed out.

On a late-summer afternoon, Boulder-based band manager Brian Heisler stops by Next Big Sound's office to check out the company's newest offerings.

Like White and a surprising number of others in the Boulder scene, Heisler has dabbled in both the tech and music industries. (Two of the Foundry Group's four managing directors are lifelong musicians.) As a former startup employee, Heisler met the Next Big Sound guys through TechStars, and he uses their services to monitor the online presence of the three bands he now manages full-time.

To gauge how people reacted to a free album that Euforquestra released on line, for instance, he's used the company's free weekly e-mail reports detailing the band's changes in fans, plays, views and comments on sites like Facebook, MySpace, Last.fm, Twitter and eleven other social-music sites that Next Big Sound scours to track the real-time web chatter for just under half a million musicians. And on nextbigsound.com, Heisler's compared Euforquestra's online stats, its social-media highs and lows, against those of similar bands to determine which would be a good fit for multi-act shows.

Heisler isn't the only industry insider who's found the services useful. "It's cold data. It's not fluff, it's not hype, it's not anyone telling you how your band is doing," says Kyle Wofford, head of the local indie label United Interests. "You can see for yourself how many plays it's getting, what sort of traction it has on a national scale." Thanks to Next Big Sound, Wofford discovered that for one of his bands, a mention on NPR, of all places, produced more buzz than a reference in a national daily — so the next time he has a hot tip to leak, he knows which reporter to call. And after learning through Next Big Sound that artists similar to his clients had a huge presence on Last.fm, Wofford beefed up his musicians' profile on the streaming-music site and saw an immediate surge in plays.

"I view this as a half-step ahead of sales," says Wofford. "You see an upswing in traffic, and then, if we do our work right to cultivate it, it will translate into sales."

White believes Next Big Sound is about to generate a whole lot more music sales. To demonstrate, he puts Heisler in front of his computer and fires up Next Big Sound's just-launched Premier platform, a service that costs $10 to $65 per artist per month, depending on the amount of add-ons. Along with producing graphs that capture the buzz around a given band, Premier tracks how these numbers relate to such events as blog mentions, live performances and chart appearances, taking the guesswork — and legwork — out of the equation. Using this, Heisler can find out what, exactly, caused the spike in his band Mountain Standard Time's MySpace page on June 30.

Premier, which Next Big Sound calls "a Bloomberg Terminal for the entertainment industry," also features map-based geographic tracking. With it, Heisler can see just how many fans his client Chris Gelbuda has in Minneapolis, how their ages and gender break down, and even zoom in to scrutinize a particular fan's Facebook profile.

"This is dope," gushes Heisler — and he's not the only one who's impressed. Next Big Sound Premier already counts Domino Records, Provident Label Group and Country Music Television among its paying customers.

"This filled the void for me," says Tom Mullen, director of interactive marketing for EMI Music, who's been testing a beta version of Premier for months. "There is so much noise going on, and everyone has about sixteen blogs. I have three myself. Do you really think you're going to be able to see through it? This is really that clear light that lets you see through and understand it all." Mullen has relied on the program to determine where to spend Internet advertising dollars, discover which bands are big on Facebook rather than MySpace, investigate if Yahoo banner ads resulted in more online fans and see if a big radio campaign launched in Phoenix actually spurred more spins on sites like Last.fm.

"Radio has the Top 40 charts and retail has SoundScan, TV has the Nielsens, but online, there isn't a clear-cut thing yet," explains Mullen. "Next Big Sound will hopefully be the Nielsens for online."

To help secure that title, Next Big Sound has just unveiled NBS25, a new kind of music chart. Each week, NBS25 will list the 25 fastest-accelerating artists across all the major social-music sites, musicians the company has determined are statistically most likely to become "the next big sound."

As far-fetched as the system seems, "it works," White promises. As evidence, he points to the Next Big Sound's project at South by Southwest in Austin this past March, when it tracked which of the 2,000 bands in attendance had the most online activity during the four-day event, then released a chart of the most buzzed-about bands. At the time, most of those highlighted were largely unknown — but that's changed. The third-place artist, a Kansas City rapper named XV, signed a contract with Warner Bros. Records this summer. Second-place Neon Trees, a Utah rock band, scored a number-one track on Billboard's Heatseeker charts in July. And the first-place band, the Brooklyn outfit Fang Island, has boasted a number-three album on iTunes and is now touring with the Flaming Lips and Stone Temple Pilots.

NBS25 isn't the only new music chart to integrate social-music data. In July, BigChampagne Media Measurement, a California-based analytics company that gained attention for tracking downloads on file-sharing networks before the major labels were willing to acknowledge their significance, unveiled what it called the Ultimate Chart, a ranking of bands based on album sales, radio airplay, online plays and social-media attention, among other things. "It's such a gold rush," says BigChampagne CEO Eric Garland of what he calls the "social scraper" industry, a category in which he includes Next Big Sound and such other data-analytics companies as Buzzdeck, RockDex, Bandmetrics, Wearehunted, Radian6 and ReverbNation. "The list goes on and on and on. Anyone could get into this business. All of this information is available in the public domain."

According to Garland, the challenge for social scrapers — a label that does not apply to BigChampagne, he says, since his company no longer scrapes information from sites but instead partners with them to obtain data — is, "How do you differentiate yourself? How do you become the one? We know the market isn't going to support all of them."

But White believes Next Big Sound has already set itself apart. While BigChampagne now tracks all popular media including music, film and television, White's company is "built for the music industry," he says. Despite its numerous data sources, the Ultimate Chart ends up looking very similar to the Billboard 200, he points out, while NBS25 charts are filled with largely unknown names, artists like Runner Runner, the Clientele and Smoke Fairies.

"The barrier for entry for this is not that high. The information is freely available. The thing that Next Big Sound has done better than anyone else is doing something with that data," says TopSpin's Rogers. "People know data can be useful for the music business, but people are flying blind, having to go to a hundred different sources to aggregate that data, and a tool that puts it all in one place is really the labels' and managers' dream. People have had that vision, but nobody has executed that vision like Next Big Sound has."

Still, the presence of competition like BigChampagne suggests that while the Next Big Sound team may be well on its way to success, "they are not there yet," as TechStars general manager Nicole Glaros puts it. And they may never be: Some of the companies coming out of TechStars that appeared just as promising as Next Big Sound and scored major funding shut down a few years later.

As with the bands the company is tracking on the NBS25, Next Big Sound's future is no sure thing. It has the right elements in place — but the rest could be pure serendipity.

"Even after years of doing this, I still don't really know how a band becomes famous," White admits. "I have a much better sense of that pathway to fame, but it's becoming clearer that that pathway is always changing."

Back at the Cup, as the unknown musicians continue to try their luck in front of the open mike, White heads outside for a seat by Rayani and Hoffman, who are fueling up for a long night of coding.

Not too long ago, their most immediate concern was how to call a potential backer when they'd already used up their cell-phone minutes for the month. Now they worry about things like how to arrange payroll and health-insurance benefits for their employees, how to plan a national press conference, how to divide up stock options. "It's a slow march," says White, staring into the night. "Nothing's an overnight success. It's all about little by little getting recognition. Like a band, it's all about how big you can get and how far you can spread."

But in the world of tech startups, the band analogy goes only so far. In the music business, success means hitting the top of the charts, going platinum and then, as a band, selling out stadiums year after year. For a lot of startup teams, though, success is often getting bought out or acquired by a bigger player — and in many cases, breaking up the band.

"It's heartbreaking, the stories of people who sell companies that are then totally botched," says White. They've all heard these stories of promising websites purchased by corporations that were then never updated — or worse, wiped off the Internet entirely. They don't like to think about such things. They'd rather dream big and bold.

Drinking their cappuccinos and pondering their future, they take little notice of the musicians still in the coffeehouse, the unknowns serenading the crowd. Not that they need to: If one of these musicians happens to be rock and roll's future, Next Big Sound will let them know.

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