A crowd of hooded kids packs in tightly from the stage to the doors of the outside patio at the club known as Mohawk in chilly downtown Austin. Hundreds more music fans are braving freezing gales upstairs on Mohawk's mezzanine. Not many of the kids beneath these hoodies know the name or business model of the young Berkeley tech company Mog, which is responsible for throwing this free, killer party. But everyone here knows the Black Keys, and that's the point.
"Have love/will travel!" howls lead singer Dan Auerbach, picking his guitar in front of a Mog banner. Scorched overdriven blues roar from the stage. Behind him, drummer Patrick Carney bashes his tiny kit like some primitive savant: simply, yet deadly accurate. Even with the teeth-chattering storm clouds overhead, the outside event is proving a huge success. Lines stretch down the street and around the block — and that's a crucial thing for Mog.
The four-year-old Berkeley tech company is gambling $12.5 million of venture capital in an effort to gain millions of subscribers for its new web music service. Mog has come to the number one music conference of the year and spent $75,000 on promotions alone this week, including booking the Black Keys atop an A-list lineup that also includes Danger Mouse and the Shins' James Mercer and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. Mog is putting up its staff in a rented home twenty minutes from downtown, and they've turned a boring utility van into the furry, blue Mog Mobile — which they drove out from Berkeley to act as a mobile mascot during the week-long promotional blitz.
Ten years to the month after the dot-com bubble's rise and fall, amid the most sobering economic climate in generations, this hip Berkeley company is throwing huge parties and betting big on an elusive, yet irresistible idea: music in the clouds. The company's success would redefine the consumption and distribution of music as we know it, and possibly even its creation.
Cloud music is a deceptively simple idea: all the world's music, any time you want it, anywhere you want it, as much as you want, streaming with one-touch from the Internet (dubbed "the cloud" because it's essentially everywhere). But the Internet is littered with the carcasses of companies that have attempted to bring this idea to life in one form or another, including the first iteration of Napster and San Francisco's promising iMeem. Meanwhile, Rhapsody and eMusic limp along. Yet Mog thinks it can succeed, and this year is in many ways its moment to break out or bust. And that depends, in many ways, on its founder, David Hyman.
Hyman is a veteran dot-commer who looks like he doesn't get much sleep. He's been flying back and forth from Austin to Berkeley all week running press conferences and gladhanding — his natural milieu. Tall and thin, with expressive eyes and a gravelly voice, the 42-year-old entrepreneur helped start Gracenote in Berkeley in 1998. The company went on to dominate the music recognition software business, and Sony purchased it in 2008 for $260 million. Anytime you put a CD into a device and the name of the artist, album, and song automatically appear, it's probably Gracenote. Its music fingerprinting technology is everywhere.
Hyman has these naturally occurring larynx nodules, like the kind found on hardcore punk vocalists who scream too much, and they give his voice the impression that he's been up all night talking up his latest company. He loses his voice easily, and this week is going to be a challenge. Mog is his new baby, founded four years ago as a music technology company with no music.
"I like to say we went backward," Hyman mused. "We built an entire music technology company from the ground up with millions of users — but had no music."
Indeed, Mog started in 2006 as just an idea. Hyman wanted to start a company that made cool tools for music bloggers and aggregated their content, so he printed up flyers and handed them out on the corners of Austin at South by Southwest that year.
"It was like my manifesto, and I sat on the corner and I gave it to everyone. 'Mog is coming!' all handdrawn and cut out myself. I felt like I had to do it."
"Mog" is an amalgam of the terms "music" and "blog." (It's also the species of Man-dog played by John Candy in Spaceballs, but that association does not appear to be intentional.) It went on to power thousands of music blogs over the next four years, becoming the de facto hub for these influential sites. Mog also created an ad network to sell and serve ads on the music blogs, and today, the company touches 16 million unique users every month. Still, Hyman recalled, without legal music, the company sort of hit a wall. He and his colleagues went back to the white board and decided to shoot for the cloud.
Hyman said there are three main components to Mog's new business plan. The first is to make the Internet's best web site for easy, quick listening to all the world's music. Second was to fill that site legally with said music through licensing deals inked with all the major and minor music labels. Third was to get the whole thing running on the iPhone and other smartphones, the new holy grail of technology companies. Such phones have supercharged the growth of Oakland music company Pandora, and today everyone has to be on the platform.
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