After four years of investing their own money, raising $80,000 through Kickstarter and working nights and weekends, David Wilson and his two colleagues ran out of capital for their new venture: JamKazam, which allows musicians to perform together over the Internet. They drew 5,000 band sessions per month, but that wasn’t enough; Wilson, an Austin, Texas, tech-company product executive, dropped user support and stopped updating social media by 2017. All the founders returned to their day jobs.
Until March. When the coronavirus pandemic forced millions of musicians into their homes, JamKazam’s free monthly sessions jumped to 135,000. In the first week of April alone, that number grew by another 100,000. Wilson was shocked. “As soon as social-distancing started happening, it just started going nuts,” he says. “We don’t have the ability to provide end-user support. We have some help videos and it’s like, ‘Good luck.'”
Bands not playing together in the same room may not seem like the biggest inconvenience of a deadly pandemic, but artists find themselves with upcoming albums, potentially rescheduled tour dates this summer or fall and no way to teach their bands the new material. “It’s really sad, because we were supposed to be rehearsing right now,” says Jess Williamson, a singer-songwriter. Katie Von Schleicher has the same problem, and is concerned that Zoom favors “audio from one source at a time” — the opposite of what bands do together. She hasn’t tried JamKazam, or rivals like NINJAM, eJamming, Jamulus or the Acapella app, but, she says, “It’s enticing.”
JamKazam is not a perfect service. Setting up the equipment can be a technical challenge, involving ethernet cords and an interface that connects a microphone or instrument into a computer; the latency of sending audio information back and forth between far-away internet connections can be rough on a band’s timing, especially for drummers; and many musicians play together as a social activity, not necessarily just the logistical process of creating songs.
JamKazam co-founder Wilson, 54, is a tech entrepreneur who helped launch a company allowing gamers to play Xbox and PlayStation remotely, then sold it to GameStop in 2012. Two years later, he and his brother, Doug, were learning guitar at the same time and wanted to play together — but David lives in Austin and Doug lives in Dallas. So David Wilson focused his three-man tech team, including a computer-science whiz and a software developer, on solving the new problem of remote music rehearsals.
“When you get into music and bands, it was a whole different set of issues,” he says.
The issue of timing has been a major hurdle for JamKazam and remains an imperfect science. While sound travels at the reliable pace of one foot per millisecond, over the internet it is not so consistent — data can travel online significantly faster, or much slower in the case of broadband services that route traffic through out-of-the-way regions. So Wilson’s team had to try to account for this disparity in speeds, but it’s also on the musicians to adjust their typical playing as well. “There’s a little bit of the luck of the draw in there,” Wilson says. “Mileage will vary.”
When first developing JamKazam, Wilson and his team patented algorithms and features (some of which he won’t divulge) and created software and hardware, including an optional plug-and-play device for smartphones called the JamBlaster. In 2015, they tested the product by sending members of an Austin band to Brooklyn, Chicago and Los Angeles to perform “live” — and the experiment worked. “Do we get an A+?” Wilson asks. “There are compromises, but we have clearly driven it farther than anybody else.”
Three of the service’s most loyal users are the Bennett brothers: Bob, 71, a retired towing-company owner in Chiloquin, Oregon; Carl, 58, a manufacturing repair technician in Jacksonville, Florida; and Roger, 67, who works in restaurant equipment repair in Salt Lake City. In 2016, they decided they wanted to play guitars together — and teach Roger how to play bass — on cover songs like John Fogerty‘s “Gunslinger” and Dire Straits‘ “Sultans of Swing.” They picked up JamKazam for weekly sessions from their own bedrooms, accommodating Bob’s super-slow local internet service, and eventually recorded four homemade CDs for their mother.
“This is in no way a negative thing about JamKazam: It’s not perfect,” Roger Bennett says. “It is sometimes a struggle to get it to work — and it’s partly Bob’s internet and it’s partly the amount of traffic on the internet. But it’s worth every bit of the aggravation that you have to go through sometimes. We’re 3,000 miles apart. Our mother plays the CDs all the time.”
But, despite the recent boom in use, the music industry may not be sold just yet. A prominent band manager is skeptical: “I know how precise our guys are. Maybe we’re just old-school, but if you want to be a better band, you actually need to be in a room together.” Adds Williamson, the singer-songwriter: “A big part of playing music is being in a room with people and sharing that energy — it’s not robotic. Doing something remotely feels too utilitarian and almost takes the magic out of it.”
JamKazam — like most of its competitors, some of which are open-source — is free, although it charges $1.99-$2.99 for JamTracks, or pre-recorded instrumentals used for playing along with cover songs. The JamKazam team has been expanding functionality due to the recent demand, planning a feature for remote bands to live-stream their performance to a webpage and sell tickets via online retailers. “It’s like virtual open mic. It’s a social gathering and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, did you hear John Prine has COVID? Let’s do some of those songs,'” says Jason Buecker, an IT director who drums for Atlanta cover band Her Majesty’s Request and has been using JamKazam for two years. “Once COVID hit, somebody I’d been playing with for months said, ‘Hey, with what’s going on in the world, do you think I could get my friends on?'”
Wilson hasn’t given up on the profit angle. The unexpected surge in interest during the social-distancing era makes him wonder if he can potentially sell the company or the tech to a Live Nation or an Apple. “Who knows? Could happen,” he says. “If anybody in the world can play together in their own country and half of America can play with each other, that’s pretty freaking amazing. It would be absolutely transformational for musicians in a variety of ways.”