Songkick, a site (and newly released app) that serves as an alert service for concerts you're interested in, launched at South by Southwest in 2008 to great fanfare. It's since become the second-most trafficked live event site after Ticketmaster. On Friday, we caught up with Ian Hogarth, Songkick's CEO, to participate in our latest session of Crystal Ballin', the interview series in which we get business innovators to put on their wizard's cap and spitball about the future.
FAST COMPANY: Crystal Ballin’ is all about peering into future. So I’m wondering if you can tell me: What are you doing tonight?
IAN HOGARTH: I'm going rock climbing with a friend.
I thought your whole pitch on Songkick was that it's all about finding something to do Friday night.
Not tonight. I'm taking off from my arduous labors of finding the next great concert to go to. My next concert I'm going to see is Odd Future in London. I saw them at South by Southwest, they're playing in about two weeks' time.
One element of Songkick is a custom-made recommendation engine. By making it easier to find obscure bands and their concerts, are you depriving hipsters of a future?
Good question. I think that hipsters are always gonna have a place. In my vision of the future, hipsters aren’t obsolete. I think that you're always gonna need human curation. Machines can only do so much.
I've never heard hipsters describe what they do as "human curation" before. But aren't you making it harder for them to say, ”you’ve never heard of them…”?
I think we’re doing something different, really. I think part of the way that people proclaim passion for bands is to go and see that band live. That’s always gonna have the same degree of difficulty involved—you have to spend money, plan an evening, figure out who to go with. There's still a commitment you have to make. I don't think we're making it that much easier to be a hipster.
Songkick does a bit of wizardry involving music blogs. Could you explain that for a second?
We made a partnership with the Hype Machine. Are you familiar with the Hype Machine?
[Briefly considers trying to appear hipper than actually is.] No.
They aggregate all the blogs in one place. You can be listening to music on the Hype Machine, and as you listen, it can tell you about bands playing near you. It uses our API to provide personalized listings in a sidebar on the page, based on your IP address.
Not to go too far off topic, here, but I read that you got a "master’s in machine learning at Cambridge and love dystopian robot takeover narratives." That’s cool, because we also really like dystopian robot takeover narratives in the Crystal Ballin' series. Why do you like them?
I think I’ve just always been fascinated by the question of how far you can push machine intelligence, how closely a computer can get to processing patterns as sophisticatedly as humans can. I spent a bunch of my time working on pattern detection algorithms on cancerous biopsy scans. In reality it was incredibly hard to get close to how well humans do even using the most sophisticated algorithms. My overriding view now is that we're a long, long way off from machine intelligence outstripping us.
So we don’t have to worry about Songkick's algorithms activating Skynet?
Oh, I think we should all worry about that.
The other thing it says in your bio was that you used to be choirboy, but, realizing that "came with no street cred," you switched over to "DJing hip-hop, funk, drum & bass, and grime.” First of all, what? You were a choirboy?
Yeah, I was a choirboy when I was 10 years old. I used to be head of little choir in south London, singing hymns every Sunday and often some Saturdays. I loved it.
That didn’t get you mad attention from the ladies [slang]?
It's kinda funny, although choirs are this extremely respectable thing, there's quite a lot of socializing that goes on outside the choir that is a little bit less than you would expect from typical choirboy.
Are you telling me backstage at a choir concert is like the locker room for the Dallas Cowboys?
No, I'd say it’s very similar to being part of theatrical production. There's a thrill of getting on stage. It's similar to being part of a big play—there's a big social component.
Well, I feel like this raises all sorts of questions about hipness over time. Surely at one point in history, choirboys were like the DJ’s of today. What do you think is the edgiest form of music that’s emerging, and could you forecast what you think the most street-cred-heavy type of live music might be in the future?
Well, I have a bunch of theories here, which are probably all wrong. The nature of the web right now is one where a new musical scene can emerge very suddenly, like the way Die Antwoord exploded into our awareness from South Africa. The web accelerates the forming of that niche. Die Antwoord went from putting out a couple songs on YouTube to being signed by Universal to playing capacity venues throughout the world to performing live on mainstream TV shows—all within six months. That’s an insane adoption curve of the hip new thing. I have a feeling where, in the future, a small scene will develop somewhere, and there will be this bizarre thing where that subculture deliberately keeps it off the Internet, because they don't want it to blow up. You know what it’s like when you see a band live for the the first time and you're seeing something different? And you just think, what the hell are you looking at now.... There's this complete transformation about what music you’re excited about. When I saw Odd Future at SXSW, I just had this thought that maybe five years from now, what we’re gonna see is some really organic, amazing local scene emerge, and its members will very specifically try to keep it off the Internet. I wonder whether you’ll get this reemergence of local music.
That's an amazing vision. I don't know if I could ever see that happening, though—musicians having the will to keep themselves obscure.
I’ve got a really uncomfortable relationship between technology and live music. Our company is all about using technology to get you in front of bands. But with the emergence of the mobile phone, people are standing at concerts and looking at their screens, not looking at the band. I read this quote on Twitter from Richard Russell, who I think is the most badass guy in the music industry. He was like, "Stop watching through your phone. The pictures you're taking are pointless. Relax, enjoy the show." He wasn't saying stop, this is copyrighted music. He was just saying, you're not enjoying the experience. I think that five years from now, live music will become even more necessary than it is right now. It's gonna be a release from our digital chains.
We recently wrote about an app that pushes local business promotions to concertgoers, and also, another app that adds augmented reality content to concerts. It sounds like you wouldn't approve of either.
My gut instinct is that we’re going to need these sort of unfiltered live experiences even more as we become more and more wired in our day-to-day lives. Part of me on a gut level just wants to be there in the music and just sort of tune out all the rest of the world. But on other side of it, I love technology, and I'm obsessed about what tech can do to improve things. I hope there will be technology that can enhance the experience of being at a show. I just haven’t seen many compelling examples yet.
The most compelling is amplification. We went from a world where we played acoustic to playing massive festivals. That to me is an improvement of the live experience.
What are other innovations we might see in live music or other live events in coming years?
I think we’re gonna see innovations in the way that touring happens. It's very expensive. There's a human emotional toll and also an impact on the environment—flights, trucks, travel.
So bands will start taking the slow boat instead of the jet?
Radiohead did a thing where, for a festival in Denmark, they created a way to get to festival that didn’t involve any air transportation, for fans and the band themselves. [Click here for a case study on Radiohead's 2008/09 tour, for which it commissioned a group to investigate their carbon footprint.]
In this series we talk a lot about technological innovation. Sometimes, though, I think the coolest innovations in concert going are very analog. I’m always charmed when a huge performer puts on a secret concert in a tiny, tiny venue. Do you think that as distribution technology creates larger and larger virtual audiences, there’s actually a greater chance for artists to subvert those by playing in some random piano bar?
I think we will see more of that. There was a band I saw last year at the End of the Road Festival in the English countryside, with a 4,000-person capacity. A band called Okkervil River played on the main stage, but then there was a little wooded area at the back of the campus, where someone set up an impromptu stage. I was milling around, having a few beers, when the band just appeared, around midnight, and played this acoustic set in this beautiful little woodland glade. It was unexpected, unannounced, unadorned. It was amazing to be there, to see this incredible band play this one-off woodland set.
OK, now it’s time to peer into the crystal ball again. How will the live music business be different one year from now?
I think that within a year, all concert data will be centralized in one place. And that’s hopefully gonna be Songkick.
Five years from now?
I think it’ll be significantly bigger than it is right now. When we survey users, we find out how much music people want to see versus how much they actually see. People want to see a lot more, and the only thing holding them back is not being aware. I believe that technology and efficient information flow will lead to a lot more music attendance. Currently the average American goes to one concert per year.
And how about in 25 years?
I think that whatever media you want will be freely available in some sort of access-based model. Like David Bowie has said, music will become like running water. We'll have video, audio, and books when we want them, they'll become completely available and flow like water. And with stuff where it's limited and there's a natural scarcity—unlike digital where there's infinite availability—you'll see demand rise even more. The demand to see The Strokes play a 1,000-capacity venue in London—well, not The Strokes, since they'll probably be retired by then—but whoever The Strokes are at that time, the appetite will be even greater, we'll be even hungrier for that experience. I think, basically, primal experiences will become even more important than they are right now. And I see live music as being pretty primal.