Silicon Cities
These Music Tech Startups Have Struck an Innovative Chord in Nashville
Kim Lachance Shandrow | February 2, 2017

In Nashville, music permeates just about everything, including the local economy. Home to the Grand Ole Opry, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Johnny Cash Museum, this culturally rich southern city’s legendary music machine is a beloved American institution that doesn’t just crank out new tunes for country music fans; it also injects the area’s economy with an estimated $11 billion annually and supports more than 50,000 local jobs.

One more area where music is making its mark: Nashville’s red-hot technology startup scene. Take Chris McMurtry, for example.

McMurtry, a veteran classical composer and former Apple employee turned music tech company founder, two years ago started Dart Data. It’s an innovative, behind-the-scenes new venture that uses coding to help listeners find the artists, albums and songs they’re looking for on digital music platforms. Based in Music City, McMurtry oversees a core group of software engineers, several of whom originally came to Tennessee’s largest urban center to stake their claim as, you guessed it, musicians.

Sourcing employees that possess both tech skills and a deep understanding of music, McMurtry says, is relatively easy in a buzzing music mecca like Nashville.

“Most of these developers that come to Nashville, they come to write or play music, but how these creatives make money is through coding,” said McMurtry – who’s better known in the Nashville music scene as “cmac.” “They’re very passionate about both because they’re putting them together for the very reasons they came here, for the love of music.”

In Internet speak, McMurtry explains that he and his team of 8 employees help “create, clean and maintain” digital metadata. In other words, they essentially connect people to the music they want to hear – and, by extension, connect musicians to the people who want to hear them.

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“Sure, ‘metadata’ is not a very sexy word,” McMurtry admits when explaining (and patiently re-explaining) his business model. “But it’s critical data about data. It’s essential information like album, artist, song title and key bits of backend code like that. So, when you say, ‘Hey, Siri’ or ‘Hey, Alexa, find me this song,’ into your mobile device, the metadata we write drives that search.”

Launched in September 2015 as Dart Music, Dart Data currently provides metadata coding to several major music aggregators that then push that metadata to today’s top digital music providers, including Apple, Google and Spotify, to name a few. One of the startup’s main customers is Naxos Music Group, which claims to be the largest independent classical music distributor in the world. (Citing nondisclosure agreements, McMurtry declined to share the names of additional music label clients.)

As much as he enjoys connecting artists and listeners, McMurtry’s ultimate goal is actually to help songwriters, musicians and other rights holders get paid. This is something he says many struggle with in today’s increasingly complex and competitive digital music market.

Startup entrepreneurs gather at a Project Music workshop hosted by the Nashville Entrepreneur Center and the Country Music Association. Image Source: Nashville Entrepreneur Center

Startup entrepreneurs gather at a Project Music workshop hosted by the Nashville Entrepreneur Center and the Country Music Association. Image Source: Nashville Entrepreneur Center

“Without technology like ours, songwriters often don’t get paid efficiently, or at all in many cases,” he said. “That’s really the problem we solve.”

Dart Data is at the forefront of a new wave of Nashville startups that are striking an innovative chord at the crossroads of music and technology. These companies are part of Nashville’s broader (and growing) contingent of tech talent – a driving factor that contributed to the city’s recent rank of No. 15 in the Free Enterprise, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and 1776 joint ranking of the 25 American startup cities best positioned to capitalize on the digital economy.

To date, Dart Data has raised $1.5 million in equity funding. The firm’s seed money, which came from a single private Nashville investor, grew out of a wave of publicity his startup enjoyed while taking part in Project Music. The music-tech accelerator, sponsored by the Country Music Association (CMA) and the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, was formed to bring “music, tech and business leaders together to nurture startups desiring to grow music industry revenue.”

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Each of this year’s participating startups will receive $40,000 in seed funding, with contributions from RCA recording artist Chris Young, Galante Entertainment, Sony/ATV Music Publishing, Universal Music Group Nashville, Warner Music Group and others.

“We recognize the value of supporting entrepreneurs as they help to innovate to ensure the future of the ever-evolving music business,” CMA spokesperson Damon Whiteside told Free Enterprise.

Project Music’s 16-week entrepreneurship boot camp, now hosting its third accelerator cohort, brings together a diverse group of eight tech- and music-minded startup bootstrappers to rub elbows with — and glean expertise and contacts from — Nashville’s top music industry insiders.

The Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.

The Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.

Other notable Nashville Project Music-accelerated startups include: RecordGram, maker of an app that enables producers to upload “leftover beats” for people to share and license in their own musical creations; Snapwave, maker of an app that matches users’ Instagram images with music, for a more dynamic listening experience; and NiceChart, an online sheet music seller targeting cover bands.

Despite being a newcomer in an increasingly crowded niche market, McMurtry doesn’t necessarily view the dozens of music tech startup’s anchored out of the city as competition. Rather, he says he sees them as fellow supporters – perhaps even potential partners and collaborators.

“Even in competition it’s co-op-etition,” he said. “We really want each other, and the whole tech music community in Nashville as a whole, to succeed, and that often means working together, opening networks and sharing ideas. Together is always better.”

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McMurtry hopes that his, and fellow Project Music-accelerated startups’, ability to attract industry support, not to mention initial investment capital, from “right at home in Nashville,” where he was born and raised, will attract yet more music techpreneurs from across the country, Silicon Valley included.

Not unlike the boot-thumping jam sessions that go down in Nashville’s legendary recording studios — the more, the merrier.

“We’re on the crest of a wave of innovation in the music industry, and coming here gives you a chance to ride that wave,” McMurtry said. “You’ll be right in the middle of the intersection of music and tech, on the inside of a historic change of guard now that technology companies like Apple and Google are helping run the music industry.”

He continued: “Think of it, you get to be a part of shaping the future of music.”