The good witches of music tech

Musicians and the tech industry don't have to be the strangest of bedfellows

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Eric Robertson and Duncan Wickel of the Boston Boys in the studio
PHOTO BY STEPHAN HAWK FOR ZOO LABS

esilvers@sfbg.com

LEFT OF THE DIAL When MTV debuted "Video Killed the Radio Star" at 12:01am on Aug. 1, 1981 — the first music video to air on the brand-new, much-buzzed-about network — producers knew exactly what they were doing. Amid all the excitement about the possibilities video technology presented to the music industry, there was an ambivalence, tinged with apprehension from musicians, about what the sea change would mean for artists. The song perfectly captured the current climate, a combination of brave-new-world optimism and flat-out fear of the future.

Two decades later, a scrappy little Redwood City-based file-sharing startup called Napster would be ordered shut down in federal court. ''It's time for Napster to stand down and build their business the old-fashioned way — they must get permission first,'' said Hilary Rosen, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, told the New York Times, speaking on behalf of five major record labels that sued the company. And, as everyone knows, that sealed it: Music was never obtained for free on the Internet ever again, all artists were paid fairly for their work, and everyone lived happily ever after.

Funny thing about technological advancement — it only goes one way. The collapse of the record industry over the past decade has given way to a sort of Wild West atmosphere when it comes to the ways musicians, fans, producers, etc. can interact, make art, and do commerce. It has been something of an economic equalizer: Anyone with a Wi-fi connection can throw his latest dubstep/witchhouse cover of "Under the Sea" up on Soundcloud one night, and wake up to a bevy of fans. But most musicians I know would agree that the availability of free or very cheap streaming and downloading services has made it difficult, if not impossible, to make a living from their work the way they might have 30 years ago.

And yet: There are those who would argue that the tech world has more to offer musicians than it might initially seem. In the spirit of our "good tech" issue, I reached out to some local techies who aren't using their powers for evil.

On the vast playing field of websites and apps that promise to help musicians get their work out into the world — without, ideally, anyone going bankrupt — Bandcamp may have built the most trust among artists, using a straightforward revenue-share model: The company takes 15 percent of sales on digital purchases; 10 percent on merch. Of course, it didn't hurt when Amanda Palmer decided to forego the traditional album-release route in 2010, releasing her ukulele Radiohead covers album solely on Bandcamp, bringing in $15,000 inside three minutes.

When founder Ethan Diamond launched the site in 2007 — after trying to buy a favorite band's digital album directly from its website and having "every single technical problem that could go wrong, go wrong" — people were saying "music sales are dead," recalls the SF resident, a programmer who previously co-founded the webmail service that would become Yahoo! mail. "Within a year or two of the business, you could see that wasn't true: Even in the digital era, fans actually want to support the artists they love. Right now fans are giving artists $2.8 million every month [through Bandcamp]. We have 50,000 unique artists communicating and marketing directly to their fans...our entire goal is to help artists be successful. That's really it."

And no, he doesn't want to name the band whose technical difficulties inspired the company a few years back — the band members don't know who they are. And they're not on Bandcamp yet.

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