The people that are dominating the culture are from outside the system
ANOUK DYUSSEMBAYEVA | AUGUST, 27 / 2020
In his Twitter, Bob Moczydlowsky, being one of the most respected people in the music startup industry, describes himself very simply: "Happy. Tired. Managing Director, Techstars Music."

To note, Techstars Music, a global startup accelerator run by Techstars, invests $1.2M into 10 of the best music-related software startups from around the world. Having graduated from The University of Kansas and Carnegie Mellon University, Bob worked at Yahoo! Music, founded the media agency Closed System, and created one of the web's first licensed streaming music sites (1996). Bob is also the past Head of Music at Twitter and SVP Product & Marketing at Topspin Media. Wanting to help musicians, filmmakers, and educators, he mogul has collaborated with the Sundance Institute and the NEA. On top of that, Moczydlowsky teaches at Carnegie Mellon's Heinz College Master of Entertainment Industry Management program.

Here is the first part of our interview.
Techstars Music is looking for startups that have the potential to change and disrupt the music industry. I wanted to ask a little bit more about your vision and how do you understand that this is the startup that will change the music world?
I would change that statement a bit. The one liner for our thesis is companies solving problems for music — we don't necessarily invest in music companies.

For example, one of our most interesting portfolio companies is Blink Identity, a company from Austin, Texas, [that] makes high throughput iris and facial scanning for private identity brokerage.When you think about how ticketing works, lots of information is shared back and forth. Once you're in[side], there is no real knowledge of who is in, who has left, or where in the building people are. If you think about the back of the house, there is a bunch of access control that gets handled with stickers or badges — there's tens of millions of dollars worth of liability risk around who has access to what rooms and when.

We've seen terrorist attacks in concert venues, we've seen barrier fire and pyrotechnic failures that caused stampedes of people. Understanding who is in a venue and how they got there and who has access to what door is really important.

Is [Blink Identity] a music company? No, it's a door company (laughs). It's an identity and motion, physical and biometric scanning company, but it was a perfect fit for our program because the members of our fund and the investors who come after that are interested in the category. That company has a billion dollar ceiling and could grow up to be a company that has a hundred million dollars a year in revenue, but it's solving a problem where their customers are the music business. The company itself is not a music company.

Our investments range wildly all over the place, and the only unifying thread to them is solving problems in music. We're not out there trying to tear the music business apart, what we're interested in is all the things that are changing about the way we [consume, make, learn about, purchase, and market music]. Every day, the world gets smaller, more connected, and the financial opportunities around things that really move people get bigger.
Techstars Music has existed for several years. What problems do you currently see that you wish there were more startups addressing them?
There's a thing that we would love to invest in that we have not seen yet: a game that you play casually on a mobile phone. The output of the game is real music made by real artists that become real planetary hits.

What we want to stop seeing, which we see from people all over the planet, is a way to help kids learn sheet music — learn how to read and play traditional instruments.

Kids don't want to do that (laughs). They don't want to play the violin, piano, or flute. Kids want to make music that moves their peers and communicates. That music is made on a computer now — it's not made with instruments or theory.

There's a whole separate academic stack of music making, where people [introduce] the process, how you do it, and [say that] you need to learn this so that you can move people. Technology has opened up [the idea] that [people] actually don't care how much you practiced or how good you are with your instrument. The only thing that matters is can you move me? Can you share an idea with me that I connect to?

You know what it's like when you listen to a piece of music … it's a magical feeling. You can get that feeling from a song made on a computer, from Beethoven, from Mozart, from a kid in a park with an acoustic guitar. The amount of practice, training, or craft that goes into it is irrelevant.

It is true that the more craft you have the more chances you have of communicating effectively, but craftwork moves me in an amazing way and I don't need complicated stuff. Because of the internet and technology, software is taking all of the tasks like tuning and pitch: if you're composing with sample sets, you'd never worry about tuning your sample sets.

There's a bunch of things in music that have been revealed to be below-the-line — what instruments you're using, how you composed, and how much you practiced your craft. All of the economic value is in the above-the-line. As investors, things that solve the below-the-line problems we don't invest in.
Photo of Bob Moczydlowsky, taken by Kiana Nicio
Music schools would be shocked :)
(laughs) In a totally non-offensive way, I think teaching how to play music in a conservatory sense is super valuable for talented kids as long as they know what they're learning is 400 years old skills.

To use the sports analogy, I don't want you to learn 10 years ago offense, I want you to go out on the pitch and play modern soccer. I want you to play football correctly, the modern way, with your talent, because that is how everything moves forward.

The academic model holds itself back in a lot of ways.
I feel like institutions sometimes have trouble adapting and really understanding what is going on. What problems do you see currently in the education system that institutions can work on and change to better prepare students?
I was a lousy student. I left for college in 1993. The mid-90s was the last era of if you were decent in high school and got relatively good test scores, you could go to a good college, it would be relatively affordable and you could come out of college without mountains of debt. This is particularly true in the US. This is sort of a very US-centric opinion here for a second.

I could go to college and not worry about my grades. I wasn't hyper competitive, I [didn't have] tons of extracurricular activities where I was elite, and I didn't go to schools that were hard to get into. My experience is limited to using education to figure out who I was and what I cared about through failure. The problem I have with the current state of higher education, [and] this is not just related to music, but it is particularly acute in music, is that there's a lot of demand to be in a music school and to work in the music business.

There are tons of smart people all over the world who want to do it because of that feeling we talked about — when you hear something and connect to it. It's a feeling that you're not going to get anywhere else: you're not going to get it being an accountant, selling cars, or designing living rooms. Because of that, there's a lot of competition, and the process becomes very competitive, achievement-driven, very adverse to failure and not very experimental.

All the people that are dominating the culture are from totally outside the system. Four kids in Atlanta with a shitty laptop [who] are telling stories about what it's like in their neighborhood dominate the charts; Metro Boomin and Migos for three years [were] the sound of hip hop anywhere on the planet.

What has happened is, and this is particularly true for music education, it has basically seeded all of popular culture to outsiders — the only academic part of music is relevant for is deep craft, non-profit funded stuff, and cultural institutions.

Because of the ease of making music with software, the schools have looked down on it the same way film schools looked down on YouTube and the internet. [They thought] that it is all trash, no one cares, and [they're] making cinema, making art. The way the internet works is whatever gets the most attention wins. You can make art music that's really beautiful and high-value, but if you want to move people, you have to make music the modern way.

I was in Greece last summer, and I was alone by myself in Athens for a night. Yoyo Ma was playing cello at the Acropolis, so I bought a ticket on the street [which] cost me two hundred euros. The world's greatest cello player, the base of the Acropolis, it was a beautiful summer night, this is going to be awesome. And it was awesome… for about ten minutes, and then it was the most boring thing I ever attended in my life, because there was just one dude playing cello on stage, just playing and playing by himself. There was no communication! I was empty: it wasn't resonating with me, there was nobody else on stage that he was connecting to. He was in his own head, and it didn't matter if the audience was there. That was such a bummer, because I was sure that what I was witnessing was high art, but there was no connection whatsoever.

I feel like music education in general needs to embrace the above-the-line and the only way to teach people to get into the above-the-line stuff is to let them fail many, many times. They're going to have to get rid of that culture of achievement in order for that to be true.
With the pandemic, the concerts were cancelled, and all orchestras basically can't meet. It is forcing musicians to use livestreams and do livestream concerts…
They're five years behind! The gamers have been doing it for five years, the makeup influencers have been doing it for five years. Musicians lost revenue and are trying to go to the internet and play shows online to preserve revenue. Their motivation is: "We perform and that's our main source of income; now we can't do that, so now we have to take that to the livestream."

That's not how it works. That's an interactive environment, it's a long drawn-out process [where] the person doing the streaming is going on a journey, and everybody is coming with them. They're having a discovery and they sure as hell aren't doing the same thing over and over again, more than one time. (I laugh)

The quality of this experience is very low because they're five years behind and haven't been engaged in that setup.

Right now is the short-term thing when something big happens and everybody is like: "oh shit, we have to do something different." They are trying to do the thing they normally do somewhere else, and that's a failure. When that fails, they'll realize [that they] have to do something totally different, and then it'll start to go back up again, but it's going to get way worse before it gets better.

I don't see concerts happening in the US until 2022 — we're going to lose two years worth of live concerts — it's going to be devastating for many musicians and we're going to lose tons of venues, theatres, [and] a bunch of businesses that revolve around entertainment.

On the flip side, my job is to go invest in the thing that comes next. It's a moment in time where I look at that pain, suffering, and destruction of what's happening, and have to figure out what is the little tiny flower that is going to grow out of it. But the livestream, the ticketed livestream, or musicians playing concerts online — that's not the thing.
What other opportunities do you think has the pandemic opened up for musicians?
It's a good time for them to truly practice what I think everybody's been preaching for the last couple of years: if you're not directly connected to your audience, if you cannot communicate with people who care about your artwork, it's very hard to make a living.

The ability to make music has never been easier and the doors have never been open wider for anybody anywhere in the world to participate. Actually it's never been easier and it's never been more lucrative if you create music that people love or that they care about at any time. If you made an amazing piece of music, recorded it yourself, wrote the master recording and the publishing, distribute it worldwide to every single pair of ears on the planet who's connected to the internet, and if people love and care about that, you will have ad revenue, audience connected to you, and so many other business options of ways to create a larger business around that.

It has also never been harder to get people's attention, and this is the part where I feel like training kids in a conservatory model is not helping. You could go to Berklee for four years, study until your fingers bleed, become technically and from a craft's perspective very skilled, and not learn anything about how to capture people's attention or communicate with them through the internet. Those two skills are the rarest, most valuable skills. The economic value for musicians comes from their ability to connect with their audience and hold people's attention.
When I talk to people that have recently graduated from university, they talk about how they know how to play this, what crescendo is, and make a counterpoint, but they don't know how to make a website, advertise themselves, and that is definitely a problem, because this is such a huge part of being a musician.
Totally. There was a movie that came out that had a bunch of Rachmaninov and a bunch of people thought that that was awesome. You are a badass piano player if you can play these Rachmaninov pieces, and guess what? No one gives a shit (laughs). The way the planet works now is not: "Oh, there's 4,000 people who can play this piece." Cool, but I want to listen to the best one. There's room for only one person to play those things.

In the meantime, we have unlimited attention for people who make new stuff that moves us about where we are and what our life is like right now. We will take them all because they're all great and they're giving us new things that give us awesome experiences.

Lizzo's moment in the US was so perfect because … she had an immediately new perspective that just has existed forever, but someone finally packaged it up correctly and it was a bunch of people who were like: "Yes, I agree with you! That's how I feel about it." Is that complicated amazing music positionally? It's okay. Is she the best singer in the world? Her voice is okay — she is not like the greatest singer in the world, but when you listen to it, it feels great because you can hear the humanity in the person on the other side...

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