Billboard Music Cities: The Future of Nashville

Nashville
Getty Images

Five tech startups that represent Music City's new cutting edge.

Nashville is more than country music. Yes, the region of 1.7 million people is ground zero for cowboy-hatted superstars, legendary Music Row songwriters, major labels and publishers, and, of course, the Grand Ole Opry and other bastions of country music-biz tradition. But Music City is also home to a growing number of innovative music-tech startups that don't focus solely on the country genre, and belie its stereotypically old-school approach. Here, Billboard spotlights five such companies that represent this new side of Nashville.

NoiseTrade

Web-based music distribution platform NoiseTrade is like a well-curated record store with a tip jar rather than a cash register. Fans exchange an email address for a free download-offerings range from samplers to EPs and albums. Tips are accepted, of which the artist receives 80% through PayPal.

Some well-known acts have partnered with the company. Radiohead released a recording of a 1995 concert at legendary, now-defunct venue Tramps in New York. Sheryl Crow put out a four-song sampler containing the first single from her Warner Nashville debut, "Feels Like Home," along with three songs recorded live at Nashville's Ocean Way Studios.

"At NoiseTrade, we build tools that we want to use," says co-founder/musician Derek Webb, who hatched the idea for NoiseTrade in 2006 when he asked fans to give him their email addresses in exchange for a free album download. "Being a blue-collar artist who uses NoiseTrade myself puts me in a really strategic position to know where we need to focus our attention in terms of products."

NoiseTrade also helps artists, who get the emails of people who download their music, grow fan communities. "We provide artists with the tools they need to identify and make meaningful connections with their tribe, their core audience, that they can then monetize," Webb says. "We're a tribe-building business." 

Artist Growth

Launched in early 2012 as a tool to support the business and financial tasks of independent artists, Artist Growth has recently seen what co-founder/CEO Matt Urmy calls "tremendous growth" from tools added to support enterprise clients. Management companies like Vector Management, the Collective, Red Light Management and Spalding Entertainment Group currently use the product.

As artists get bigger, more people need access to their schedules and related information, Urmy explains. Artist Growth offers a multilayered calendar that allows for sorting, filtering and data exporting. So, for example, a publicist with access to an artist's schedule could filter for confirmed events while leaving out promotional and tentative ones.

"There's really not a system like ours that's so nuanced for the entertainment industry," Urmy says, adding that film studios have inquired about using the service for actors and productions.

The company has raised $2 million from angel investors and has six employees, but Urmy claims it has recently had enough growth to justify a Series A round that would allow for additional hiring. Being located in Nashville has helped Artist Growth win the support of local music executives and a budding entrepreneurial scene. "Everybody wants to see this company grow," Urmy says.

FLO{thinkery}

Business consulting firm FLO formed in late 2011, according to founder Mark Montgomery, with the following credo: "Let's do cool shit with smart people or smart shit with cool people," he says.

In its first year, FLO projects included medical devices and health-care technology (health care is Nashville's biggest economic driver), the flagship store for sports apparel company Under Armor and a local event hosted by Google. But it was a project with Morris Artist Management and its client Kenny Chesney that helped FLO find its calling. Clint Higham, Chesney's manager at Morris, asked FLO to think about ways to expand the country star's business. The result was Chesney's Blue Chair Bay Rum, a full-fledged company with its own sales team and growing staff. Blue Chair Bay Rum helped FLO change its focus: If it could launch ventures for Chesney, why not do the same for other successful musicians? "What we're great at is starting companies," Montgomery says. "Our sweet spot is where music, branding, consumer products, technology and content meet."

FLO's business also houses a startup incubator that focuses on content and technology. Montgomery says that in the first year the company took ­equity in a dozen companies and is currently incubating two ventures.

Songspace

Songspace represents both the old and new of Nashville -- a city with a strong music-publishing tradition that's also making a concerted effort to foster a tech startup community.

Currently in beta and set for a public launch this fall, Songspace was co-founded by Robert Clement, publisher/co-owner of American Songwriter magazine. It grew out of AmericanSongspace.com, a social network and contest platform for songwriters developed by the publication. "It's not a social network," Clement says of the new Songspace. "It's a network around songwriting."

The first phase of Songspace is a business-to-­consumer service that will allow songwriters to organize their catalogs in a cloud-based platform. Such information as co-writers, splits, associated performing rights organizations and genre metadata can be added to each composition page, which can be kept private or made public to help attract business. Songspace will also eventually feature a business-to-business service that will help publishers manage their content as well. Clement sees an opportunity in being able to reduce the time and effort publishers spend keeping track of information about their compositions.

Nashville has been good for Songspace's development -- and not just because of the large potential clientele. Clement says the company has recruited local music publishers who visit the Songspace office to get hands-on experience with the product. "We're lucky to have a user base and a testing ground here," he says.

MusicSynk

Founded in 2010 and launched in 2012, MusicSynk is an online platform that facilitates synchronization licenses. Think of it as a marketplace for buyers and sellers of synch rights -- or as a dating service.

"It's like eHarmony for rights holders," CEO John Pisciotta says. "We're creating tools that allow you to date all over the globe and still be in control of the process."

The seven-person team -- which includes employees in Nashville, New York and San Francisco -- is attempting to streamline how rights holders and licensors find one another and negotiate synch licenses. "The problem that MusicSynk solves is a completely fractured process," Pisciotta says. "It synthesizes steps in a way that respects copyright owners and licenses. It has a suite of apps that accelerates the licensing process."

MusicSynk gives rights holders total control over content and licensing decisions. It works with the kind of holders that tend to shy away from music libraries and negotiate offline. Clients include the estates of country legend Hank Williams and Jimmy Van Heusen, Bluewater Music, Dixie Chicks and George Strait. On the licensee side, MusicSynk has Showtime, the BBC and various music supervisors and ad agencies.

Being based in Nashville gives MusicSynk an insider's perspective on publishing and copyrights, says Pisciotta, who is a songwriter. It's a perspective that may be lost on Silicon Valley startups. "A lot of companies get into trouble because they don't understand what they're dealing with," he says. "Copyright is core to what we're doing and is baked into the Nashville DNA."

THE BILLBOARD BIZ
SUBSCRIBER EXPERIENCE

The Biz premium subscriber content has moved to Billboard.com/business.


To simplify subscriber access, we have temporarily disabled the password requirement.