I Was A “Start up” Before “Start ups” Were Cool.
(cont’d from Part I)
I took my sweet time driving across the southern states (it was winter, after all, a concept largely foreign to my experience over the previous 20 years…). I did spend two nights in Dallas, where I made a pilgrimage to Dealey Plaza and visited the recently opened “6th Floor Museum” in the old Texas School Book Depository building where Lee Harvey Oswald supposedly lay in wait for the Kennedy motorcade. After that there wasn’t a whole lot I wanted to do in Dallas* so I headed east, and, finally, north.
Speaking of winter: I arrived in Tennessee just as the state was recovering from a devastating ice storm. I spent a night with my new step-family in Memphis; they had been without power for two days, but conveniently their electricity came back on while I was there.
The next morning I made a pilgrimage to Graceland, where I discovered that there isn’t any amount of money that can buy good taste.
Then I headed up I-40 from Memphis to Nashville, making note along the way of all the trees that were bent over the edge of the roadway under the weight of the ice that had frozen onto their limbs and branches just a couple of days earlier.
Jerome – my friend from GIT in LA – had offered me a place to stay when I arrived. I found his apartment complex off Edmondson Pike, south of the center of the city, and took up residence there for about a week, living literally out of a closet where Jerome had stored a roll-out bed. A week later (or was it two?) Jerome and the woman he’d been dating (and eventually married, last I heard…) helped me find a room in a lovely house in Brentwood with a kindly lady whose husband had recently pass away. For a very nominal rent, she gave me the master bedroom, and the use of another room at the end of the hall where I could finally set up my computer.
* * * *
My computer at the time was a “state of the art” PC (manufacturer’s name long since forgotten) with an “80386” processor – one of the first machines that was capable of any kind of multi-tasking – running the revolutionary-at-the-time Windows 3.1.
By the time I got to Nashville, I’d been using computers and for 15 years; I’d started using a a computer for word processing way back in 1979, and while I had the boat business in Hawaii I’d used it for accounting and payroll. When things started getting all “graphical” in the mid-80s, I did a little bit of design with one of the first desktop publishing programs, something called Aldus Pagemaker.
And I’d been online almost as long as I’d had a computer, starting at 300 baud with an online service called The Source, which was later acquired by a service called Compuserve, which I used mostly for e-mail and computer-related support. Back in LA I had spent a fair amount of time on something called a “BBS” (Bulletin Board Service) that got me into all kinds of trouble (see Part I: Marriage: Destruction Of…).
Conveniently, my arrival in Nashville also coincided with the time when the Internet as we now know it was just bubbling into public consciousness. It had been around for at least a decade before that, but until then had been the exclusive province of the military and educational institutions. I had first discovered this “network of networks” late in 1993, about the time I started thinking about the move to Nashville. At the time, the Internet was mostly text-based listerves and user groups. With the advent of Mosaic – the first web browser – in 1993, the Internet began its metamorphosis into the hyper-linked, graphical universe we are now immersed in.
So I got my computer set up in Nashville and started “surfing” the Internet – which put in place the first of two elements that would converge a year later into what would turn out to be the reason I’d come to Nashville.
* * * *
The second element evolved over the course of my first year in The Music City, in the form of a growing awareness of the vast pool of unrecognized talent that subsists just beneath the thin crust of the mainstream commercial music industry.
I started spending a fair amount of time at clubs like The Bluebird, the Commodore Lounge, and a place on Nolensville Road I can’t remember the name of that is now a Mexican restaurant. In Nashville, it seemed, every coffee house, restaurant and Mapco Express store hosted a “writer’s night.”
At the same time I had started subscribing to a listserve called simply “Folk Music” – hosted by a New Yorker named Alan Rowoth – that exchanged dozens of messages every day from all over the world about otherwise largely undiscovered talents.
In these small venues, and through the Folk Music list, I started to discover brilliant, entertaining, heart-touching performing singer/songwriters like Tom Kimmel (Angels), Michael Lille (Life On the Run), Jana Stanfield (I’m Not Lost, I’m Exploring), Buddy Mondlock (The Kid) and countless others who lived not only in Nashville, but all over the country… and the world. I discovered people like Don Conoscenti, Pierce Pettis and Tom Prasada-Rao, Barbara Kessler and Cheryl Wheeler – all of whom worked a nationwide circuit of small clubs and coffee houses.
“This life as a modern folk musician…” I remember Barbara Kessler saying in the midst of a round at The Bluebird, “…it’s mostly driving…”
But I truly hit the motherlode when I learned about a weekly event called “The 6 Chair Pickin’ Party.” Almost every Wednesday night, a fuzzy bear of a man named Mike Williams and his wife Kathy would welcome five songwriters to sit in a circle in their living room. Atop a hill in West Meade Mike with his baritone 12-string guitar and these unheralded talents would swap songs and tall tales for several hours. It was truly “the church of the Holy Song Circle” – where some of the finest songwriters on the planet would “gather and pray… for cuts” (as I described it myself in one of the few songs I’ve ever written myself…)
In these intimate confines I began to make the acquaintance of some of these people.
This was a community of touring modern day troubadours whose lives were empowered in no small part by the relative affordability of CD manufacturing and the wide availability of home recording. By the mid 1990s, the music business was undergoing an epochal transformation – and didn’t even know it yet.
By the winter of 1995, I had these two things bubbling around in my brain: The first was the advent of the World Wide Web; the second was this seething cauldron of under-discovered talent that I was listening to in quiet venues all over Nashville.
On some gut level, I began to suspect that there was a business opportunity in there somewhere.
* * * *
Those nights I wast not hanging out at the clubs, I was up until the wee hours “surfing” around on this new world wide web thing.
One night – probably in February of 1995 – I stumbled across a website for a company called “Rainy Day Records.” The site described itself as the online home of a mom & pop record store based in Atlanta, adding “we use our record store and this website to help promote independent recording artists from the Atlanta area….”
That’s when the light went on: If it made any sense to operate a website like that out of Atlanta, then it made a world of sense to start one in Nashville.
A few nights later, I’d written a one-page prospectus describing the ‘National Online Music Alliance” and took it with me to my regular Wednesday night songwriter circle. During the break, I asked a few of the acquaintances I’d made, “What would you think if I tried to sell some of your CDs on the Internet?
Several of the people I asked replied blankly, “What’s ‘the Internet’?”
But Tom Kimmel knew what the Internet was. I’d met Tom at the Bluebird several months earlier. After hearing him play a song about being lifted up by “Angels,” I introduced myself and asked how I could get a recording of that particular song. It was not available yet on CD, but Tom offered to send me a cassette of the demo, from which I taught myself to play the song. Tom also turned out to be computer savvy enough that we struck up a correspondence via Compuserve.
Tom knew what the Internet was in part because he’d just come of a circuit on the east coast called “Internet Quartets” – in-the-round presentations that were organized by Alan Rowoth, the host of the aforementioned Folk Music listserv.
So when I asked Tom, “what would you think if I tried to sell some of your CDs on the Internet,” Tom’s reply wasn’t “What’s the Internet?” Tom’s reply was “I’ve been thinking I need a Home Page…” and in that moment a partnership was born.
A week later Tom was telling me about another fellow he wanted me to meet. Michael Camp knew his way around computers, too, Tom told me, and was also a songwriter and performer, and was perhaps interested in joining forces in whatever it was we were starting to do. So we arranged a three-way conference call – still an exotic thing to do in the mid 1990s – and I remember Michael introducing himself…. and suddenly it dawned on me I’d heard him play a song as a “pilgrim” at one of Mike William’s pickin’ parties.
“I know you!” I said over the phone. “You’re the clown In the middle!” – a reference to Michael’s song Brothers – about being a middle child, an accident of birth that we have in common. He laughed, and just like that the third leg of the stool was in place.
Later that week, Tom and Michael each wrote me a check for $250 so that we could open a bank account. And I remember thinking, “wow, these guys really believe in this idea…” Nobody had ever offered me real money for an idea before…
* * * *
It’s interesting to look back on all this from the perspective of almost 20 years later. We didn’t think of it in such terms at the time, but it’s arguable now that Tom, Michael and I were digging one of the first plowshares into a fertile new field.
In the decades since, the Internet has become a fundamental pillar of the global economy, and Nashville in particular has done an exemplary job of fostering an “entrepreneurial ecosystem” that has drawn an exciting array of talent to Middle Tennessee.
But there was no support system in Nashville – or anywhere, really – for a “music-tech start up” in 1995. There was no pool of ‘mentors’ offering sage advice and counsel like there are today. We didn’t put together a Powerpoint ‘deck’ outlining a set of prescribed highlights to pitch investors. There was no “investable story.” The only thing we pitched in was a few hundred of our own dollars and an intriguing idea. We rolled up our sleeves and went to work. We didn’t go looking for investors. We started right out selling our service to vendors and customers.
At the time this is beginning to unfold, I had a temp job running computer charts for HCA, the big hospital chain based in Nashville. And I remember thinking to myself, “I don’t have time for a job now… I have work to do…”
The first order of business was figuring out how to create a website. Michael and I found a book called Teach Yourself Web Publishing In A Week with HTML (Amazon) and started teaching ourselves how to cobble web pages together. It’s almost laughable now to look back on what was “state of the art” in 1995. Blinking graphics that seem hideous now were still cool…
We were all comfortable with the name “National Online Music Alliance” for the business. Being left-leaning, quasi-socialist types we were probably drawn toward the idea of an “alliance” – a notion that was probably planted in my head by (stolen from?) the organization called “Folk Alliance” which convenes an annual gathering of the community we were drawing on and hoping to contribute to.
As we learned how the web works, we knew that we would need a domain – a “dot-com” – on which to build the website.
One night in May of 1995, I visited the website for Network Solutions, which at the time was the primary source for securing domain names. I did a search for the acronym based on the name – “NOMA-dot-com” – and waited for the search results.
You can perhaps imagine my dismay when the search results returned with the news that the domain “NOMA-dot-com” was already registered. It belonged to an ornamental lighting company in Canada that made mostly Christmas tree lights – most notably the “bubble lights” that I remember so well from the Christmas trees of my childhood in the 1950s and 60s (yes, we were Jewish, it’s a long story, don’t ask…I”m trying to stay focused here!).
“Oh jeez,” I thought, “what on earth will we do since that domain is taken?”
And then, I swear, the heavens opened and a chorus of angels sang, “try ‘SONGS-dot-com.”
Ooh. I really liked that idea. Fingers shaking, I typed that domain into a search field, and then waited nervously as the result trickled back at the blisteringly slow pace of 2400-baud.
The name was available. What would eventually become one of the most enviable five-letter domains on the whole Internet was available – in the spring of 1995 – for a whole $35.
I grabbed it.
Shortly therafter Michael and I started building web pages. But neither of us had enough computer skills to create a secure shopping cart, so we had to hire a programmer from Vanderbilt to create a script so that we actually could sell CDs from the website. I don’t remember his name now but I do remember that that’s where most of our $750 seed money went.
In June of 1995, The National Online Music Alliance went online with four independent recording artists: Tanya Savory (the very first to say “yes”), Joni Bishop, Jana Stanfield, and Buddy Mondlock – all singer/songwriters I’d met at Mike Williams’ house.
We’d no sooner launched the site than we had our first sale for one of Buddy’s CDs.
And until somebody tells me otherwise, I’m pretty sure that was the first time music from Nashville was sold directly over the Internet.
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Coming next: Part 3: (Update March 28 2016: Part 3? Hasn’t been posted yet. Maybe one of these days…)
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*Ironically, a few years later I met and married a woman whose family lived in Dallas, so I wound up returning there countless times. I never did find anything to do in Dallas. One time I complained, “there’s nothing to do in Dallas!” to which my new wife replied, “sure there is.” “Like what?” I asked. “Well… you can go to Fort Worth….”