By Holly Beilin/Hypepotamus
Memphis calls itself the birthplace of rock and roll and the home of the blues. The city still sings the praises, on street signs and museums, of the late Elvis Presley. Nashville has been called “Music City” since the 1800s. The city still serves as the center of country music and draws artists across other genres as well. And Atlanta maintains its status as the hip-hop capital. with its longstanding scene of innovative rappers and producers, whose work consistently rides the top of the Billboard charts.
The South’s music scene has always been indisputably strong, but the industry as a whole is changing, largely due to technology. Music streaming services (Pandora, Spotify, Apple Music), which in 2016 became the industry’s largest source of income, flipped record labels’ revenue model. And digital recording technology has made it easier to produce great beats without big bucks.
Will live music also change with the advent of virtual- and augmented-reality technology? Imagine feeling like you’re literally on stage as you listen to your favorite band, or getting a backstage tour between sets. It’s an intoxicating prospect.
As the music-technology industry continues to grow, Southern startups are coming to the table (the mixing table, that is) with a strong presence.
One catalyst for the region’s growth in the sector is Project Music, a 16-week startup accelerator in Nashville. Part of the Nashville Entrepreneur Center and sponsored by the Country Music Association, the accelerator brings “music, tech, and business leaders together to nurture startups desiring to grow music-industry revenue.”
The startups get funding, space to work, education, and connections to a deep base of industry professionals. In 2017, that included the likes of Sony/ATV Music Publishing, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group.
One Project Music startup is RecordGram, an app which aims to turn your phone into a mobile recording studio. Founded by Grammy-winning producer Winston Thomas (aka DJ Blackout), music industry veteran Erik Mendelson and rapper Shawn Mims (aka Mims, of “This is Why I’m Hot” fame), RecordGram lets artists search from a library of beats by various producers, upload them to a virtual, private recording studio, and then, record vocals. The platform can merge up to six tracks — and even lets users record a music video and share the track with producers through social media or email.
Aspiring producers can test out new beats on the app, see what resonates with artists, and still retain 100 percent of their work’s copyright.
The Florida-based company has made waves lately — after graduating Project Music, they pitched as an underdog at the TechCrunch Startup Battlefield competition in May — and won. They also appeared on Apple TV's “Planet of the Apps” show, where they presented to judges like rapper will.i.am, actor Gwyneth Paltrow, and entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk. They came out of the experience with a new advisor in will.i.am.
RecordGram was one of five startups selected for a Spotlight presentation spot at the hip hop-focused A3C Conference in Atlanta this month. The Conference’s Music Tech Day allowed startups like RecordGram to connect with their ideal audience — aspiring and established musicians and industry leaders.
At A3C, co-founder Mendelson also announced that the startup was about to enter a new phase — the integration of blockchain technology and a transition to a cryptocurrency-based payment system. Blockchain, a decentralized digital database where data and payments can be stored securely, is valuable for the music industry on the payments side because of its inability to be hacked. Mendelson said they would soon move toward having all payments on the app conducted through the blockchain, putting them at the forefront of industry innovation.
Money was the focus of another Southern startup’s pitch at A3C, Nashville-based Jammber. Also a Project Music alum, Jammber’s founder, Marcus Cobb, was relatively new to the music scene when he zeroed in on a massive issue that has frustrated industry veterans for years: the difficulty artists experience getting their paychecks.
In fact, after research, he determined that 30-50 percent of musicians don’t see full, or any, of the money they deserve for their work.
Cobb decided to dig further. He observed that much of the problem was due to clunky processes on the production end of the industry, like complicated paperwork, poor understanding of regulations, and miscommunication. He founded Jammber as a tech-enabled platform to manage the whole process.
“Jammber’s web and mobile tools are designed with creatives in mind to replace legacy paper-driven processes and error-prone spreadsheets,” says Cobb. “Above all, Jammber is on a mission to give accurate credit where it’s due: to the creative individuals on which the music industry is built.”
He credits much of his success — which includes raising over $1 million in working capital to build out the product — to his experience in the accelerator.
“Project Music was life-changing for us,” Cobb says. “Project Music allowed us unprecedented access to the inner workings of the entire music industry. From labels to publishers, artists, managers, producers, unions: This program pulled back the veil of the industry, and we saw how the money moves.” His startup is continuing to grow in Nashville.
Music education is another place technology can help strike a chord. Three Georgia Tech marching band students saw the challenge band teachers had in spending time training individual musicians. But private music lessons are expensive and time-consuming.
With a background in app development and artificial intelligence, and $20,000 from Georgia Tech’s student startup accelerator CREATE-X, they began to develop an AI-driven music training app that allows a user to upload sheet music, play an instrument, and see how well their version matched the score. The app, Crescendo, employs a music analysis algorithm to rate the user’s performance and even generates a visual graph to show improvement over time.
The app already has over a thousand users in 10 school marching bands across the country, and the founders are planning a consumer version.
“What we have here is inherently international; music is universal across all languages and cultures,” says co-founder Seth Radman.
With the continued effort of innovative entrepreneurs, forward-thinking organizations like Project Music, and collaborative events like A3C, the South stands to build a music tech ecosystem to rival the likes of LA or New York. These hustlers are showing the world that the South has something to say — and even more to sing.