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Corporate music disruption

Madison’s music scene continues to inspire digital music innovation — and vice versa.

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Jammin’ in the void

As its name suggests, the Madison-based Broadjam music community website was founded to help independent musicians and bands promote their music online and build a fan base, and it has evolved by enabling them with web-based promotional tools such as the ability to sell MP3 music downloads, buy music software, submit music for review by music industry professionals, and gain feedback by taking part in peer song reviews.

The Madison-based Broadjam music community website was founded to help independent musicians and bands such as Sunspot (above) and Wurk promote their music online and build a fan base.

While Broadjam has employed different technologies over time, all the while building a large online database library of searchable songs for fans and artists alike, its business focus is still the same. In maintaining that focus, co-founder and CEO Roy Elkins says the company has built the world’s largest social network focused on musicians and music lovers.

Broadjam also helps musicians get their music placed in film and television, advertisements, and corporate video. Yes, Hollywood occasionally comes calling, and its requests can be in the niche realm.

One time, Broadjam fielded a plea for a song with a flamenco guitar and a Portuguese singer, and an obscure musician from New Jersey ended up getting the gig. “That’s always a thrill for us because most of the people that deal through us have day jobs and they are raising a family, and in many cases, they are doing this [performing] on the weekend,” Elkins notes. “So we’re thrilled a lot of times when people like that make connections and we can help them out.”

In Elkin’s mind, Madison has potential as a hotspot for digital music innovation because it has a world-class university with an outstanding computer science program. He also mentions that his previous employer, Sonic Foundry, started here and set a number of standards for using music software on the internet. He notes that Madison-based Musicnotes is the largest digital distributor of sheet music and Full Compass Systems, the audio, video, A/V lighting, and musical instruments dealer, also is part of the local digital music “ecosystem.”

When Elkins started Broadjam 19 years ago, the term “disruptive business model” wasn’t yet a common part of the vernacular. He was simply trying to address a couple of deficiencies.

“One of the inspirations for the company was that there just wasn’t a place online for song writers and composers,” he recalled. “It was all about the artists and the albums and the promotion of the artists.”

Seeing a real hole on the publishing side, especially on the visual technology side of publishing because there wasn’t a lot of data around songs, Elkins sensed that at some point songs would be individually searched even though it was still mostly an album-based world. “We saw that eventually it will become a singles-based world, and we wanted to make sure we had a lot of data wrapped around those singles so people looking for music could search by deep levels of metadata,” he explained. “If you want to search by 120 beats per minute or by local or certain themes or certain subject matters, certain moods, you can do that on our site. We were one of the first ones to do that.

“I don’t think we consciously disrupted anything. We didn’t set out to disrupt things.”

While there always will be a market for albums, online search has given singles a leg up. “When searching online, the search is often for singles and individual songs,” Elkins notes. “Whether or not the album goes away, I don’t know. I think that’s here to stay, but it’s going to be a singles-dominant world when it comes to the internet.”

As a result, Broadjam has roughly 185,000 customers from 190 countries. About 60% to 70% of its customers are from the U.S. and 30% to 40% are overseas.

Regarding Madison’s music scene, he sees it as a burgeoning environment and as a secret that’s getting out as more people visit and enjoy what the community has to offer. Thanks to essential ingredients such as diverse musical talent, business acumen, the Mead Witter School of Music at UW–Madison, respected promoters such as Frank Productions, and legacy artists, the future looks bright, as well.

Elkins is the founder and lead organizer of the new Between the Waves Music Conference, an annual gathering that serves as a professional resource for songwriters, composers, and independent musicians. In addition, the city has what Elkins called an incredibly strong hip-hop scene, a solid folk music following, and a pretty good rock-metal scene.

Elkins says the community of Madison, as a whole, is very supportive of the arts. About the only chink in the armor is a lack of state government support of the arts, but Elkins believes that lawmakers can’t ignore the economic benefits of a vibrant arts economy for long. “Let’s just look at it from a real educational perspective,” Elkins suggests. “We know that kids that study the arts do better in school. They have better grades. They are involved in teams more. They know how to finish projects.

“When you try to learn a very complex song, it’s a challenge, and when you get it done, it’s very rewarding,” Elkins adds. “Those skills are general skills that are applied to life. We know they get along better. We know there are fewer problems in the future.

“There’s all kinds of research on kids who study arts and kids who don’t,” he adds. “That doesn’t mean the kids who don’t are bad kids, it’s just that the arts usually are the first programs cut and maybe it should be the first program that stays.”

Since there truly is an economic development angle to the arts, Elkins says it’s important to note that technical innovations in music are not going to come from New York, Nashville, or Los Angeles. “Those are pretty entrenched camps,” he states. “The technical innovations are going to come from places like Madison.”


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