When I spoke to Jim Lewin, FreqSho’s founder, on the phone on last week he was gearing up for one of the nation’s biggest music festivals of the year: South by Southwest, in Austin, Texas. I spoke to him from Chicago, having made plans to be out of Austin, where I live, long before I realized it was SX. And after eight years of progressively more terrifying crowds, I’d started feeling pretty superior for my absence. Which is maybe not the right attitude to have when you’re interviewing someone who has developed what could very well be the single most helpful application for not just surviving SXSW but taking full advantage of it.
Our call was supposed to be brief—I was just checking in to see how things were going with the questions I’d emailed a few days before—but Jim is funny and personable and seems to love talking about FreqSho. Even after days of back-to-back meetings and planning events leading up to the festival, he is still excited about his work. Last year the FreqSho team saw 500 shows during SXSW. This year he’s proud that they have listened to literally every single band coming to Austin for the event. They have compiled a spreadsheet to end all spreadsheets. Incredulous, I can’t stop myself from asking: “Do you still enjoy South by?” to which he laughs and answers that people ask him that a lot but, yeah. He loves it. “I don’t know what this says about me as a business person,” he confesses, “but I try to stack my meetings so I can still go to all the shows I’m most excited about.” Besides, this is a big SX year for the company. As Jim puts it, “South by Southwest is a great test for FreqSho as a product. Everyone has an idea for a business, and years [after starting my own] I realize how difficult it is, but to have it get to this point when it’s not just a seed of an idea, it’s an actual tool anyone can use to enjoy more live music, that makes this year sort of a milestone for us.”
SXSW is all-consuming and nearly impossible to prepare for if you’ve never been. There’s sort of a high that comes with seeing so many bands you love in person in such a short span of time and almost nowhere else in life is the paradox of choice so palpable. That is, along with free drinks and endless live music, the uneasy feeling that you’re missing out on the thing across the street is a persistent hallmark of the festival.
I’d been living in Austin for one week of what was supposed to be a three-month stint—this is eight years ago—when my friends from Nebraska began asking if I was going to SXSW. I was renting an already-cluttered room from my mom’s boyfriend’s mom’s friend’s aunt at the time, so I was excited about any excuse to get out of the house. I’d been to Lollapalooza and figured it’d be like that. Afraid I’d get lost in a new city with unexpected and infuriating mandatory U-turns, I kept asking people “Where is South by Southwest?” And they would laugh and say, “downtown.” And I would say “Yeah, but where?” I soon figured out what they meant was it is downtown, all of it.
After seeing The Blow—a band I’d been listening to obsessively but had never really hoped to see live—at the old Emo’s on 6th St I ran into a couple of guys consulting extensive spreadsheets. We drank cheap beers and they showed me which free shows would be good, what to RSVP for when I got home that night (this is pre-smartphone SXSW, pre-RSVPs-are-full-two-months-in-advance SXSW). I had gotten to the show by dumb luck, but the amazing time I had for the rest of the festival was thanks to a lot of careful planning on the part of my new friends. Those spreadsheets had taken months to compile. You could do it as a full-time job. Which is exactly what Jim and his staff are doing eight years later.
Jim left an ad agency to work on his own. Since he was in transition and his wife worked remotely, they thought they’d try Austin out for a year on their way back East—this is six years ago.
“FreqSho was originally conceived as a tool to help my wife and me (along with our core group of music geek friends) cram for music festivals like South by Southwest. To make sense of all the bands in festival lineups and figure out which ones we most wanted to see, we began populating a shared spreadsheet where we would list all the artists everyone in the group wanted to check out, along with all kinds of notes on each artist so that everyone else could learn about the acts they weren’t yet familiar with. Then everyone would go into the document and rate the bands so that others could get a sense of the line-up and find like-minded music buddies to pal around with at the festival. Populating this spreadsheet with bio information, photos, sample tracks, links to videos, photos, and social media for each artist, while a noble labor of love, took forever. In the middle of the night one night I asked myself a very naive but earnest question: ‘Isn’t there some way I could just get robots to find all this information for us?’”
And thus FreqSho was born. Though the app is hardly limited to that original epic spreadsheet, or even to SXSW, both are still deeply ingrained in the team’s process.
“South by Southwest is part of FreqSho’s DNA and we’re psyched to be involved in several ways this year. The first is via our annual spreadsheet, a tradition which has become exponentially more nerdy and comprehensive since we developed the first FreqSho prototype. Before FreqSho, we’d include, review and rate about 100-150 bands, because that’s all anyone had time to do. This year, with the latest version of FreqSho firing on all cylinders, our 2017 spreadsheet will contain all 2,200 artists announced for the festival, organized by genre, city, country of origin, venue, and show times, each with a link to a music video in their corresponding FreqSho channel.”
Since moving to Austin I’ve seen variations on this—the spreadsheets, the lists, the email chains. Eventually, I started making arbitrary rules for myself. Plan to go to three shows a day, everything else is a bonus, or infuriating madness, or pretty good people watching. But as previously mentioned, this is not just a SXSW app. SXSW is simply the mayhem that brought Jim and me together for this interview. FreqSho offers unprecedented access to a wide range of music. As Jim describes it, “It provides access to a massive number of bands, from pop icons to obscure indie acts, and provides fans with enough relevant content to get a good sense of just about every artist.”
For the first 20 years of my life, my musical tastes were filtered through the cast-off mixed CDs my sister got from admiring boys and the DJs at 93.7 FM (who came to recognize me by voice because I called in so much). The closest thing to a record store was the cassette selection at Wal-Mart (CDs came later), a 10’ x 20’ cube of space where I often failed to find even the most ubiquitous radio hits. So when my sister went through her country phase, I too listened to Garth Brooks. And when she went through her alternative grunge phase, I too wore a chain on a wallet I had no reason to carry and listened to Green Day. Then she went off to boarding school and I kept listening to Green Day on repeat until I joined her and heard Weezer. Then I listened to that until she went to college and met new boys and got new mixes.
At this point, you may have intuited, the internet was just beginning to gain popularity as a resource for school reports and an exciting place to correspond instantly with strangers. It was no replacement for the radio, television, and books we’d learned to access individually as separate and distinct forms of media. This is the pre-Youtube, pre-BuzzFeed, pre-Myspace internet. You could wait two hours to download what invariably turned out to be some shitty cover of the song you were trying to download on Napster, but you could much more easily record mixed cassettes from the fetal position on your bedroom floor. Suffice to say, my access to music outside the best of the ‘80s, ‘90s, and today was limited. When my sister finally passed down her new College Music, The Matt Mix blew my mind. It included tracks from Sleater Kinney and Bright Eyes and Built to Spill. At that time we still needed boys from California to bring CDs to the Midwest to learn about new music, and that mix gained a legendary status for my sister and me. I still listen to it on long road trips and let the comforting blanket of teen angst wash over me.
But it’s been a solid decade since we’ve needed Matt Mixes to discover new bands. There’s a veritable deluge of ways to find new music, ranging from boutique record shops to Spotify. When I ask how FreqSho is different than say, Pandora, I’m admittedly overwhelmed by Jim’s response: “FreqSho is not a finite database; it’s a patented, dynamic system of algorithms that collect and curate the best available artist-related content at the moment you perform a search. This allows FreqSho to provide access to an infinite range of artists and a much more comprehensive array of relevant content for each artist. In addition to videos, this includes tour dates, music, photos, articles and social media from multiple sources, all integrated and cross-referenced for each artist, and delivered into one, simplified, dashboard-style interface.”
I suppose my own astonishment is an example of why FreqSho is different from the many music sources I kept trying to compare it to for reference—the whole idea behind the service is that I no longer have to toggle between YouTube and band websites and the unlimited sources the algorithm pulls from, because everything is just there. Rather than the familiar problem of having nowhere to find new music, there’s a crushing overabundance, an unsettling paradox of choice, and this shift is not lost on the team at FreqSho.
Jim’s experience finding music growing up was not vastly different from my own. He says, “When I was a kid, exposure to music was limited to (terrestrial) radio, the records you bought or borrowed or heard about from friends, the album art and liner notes you studied, and the occasional concert—if you were lucky enough to live close enough to where your favorite band had scheduled a tour date. Today, the scales have completely shifted, and people have an overwhelming number of ways to engage with a staggering number of artists all over the planet, anytime they want. The future of music sharing and discovery is about distilling this potentially paralyzing volume of information into useful, approachable , enjoyable bits that actually fuel people’s passion for the music they are searching for.”
Admittedly, I am unaccustomed to being anyone’s target market. I use a flip phone, I don’t have a TV, I read these paper things called books. I recently met up with one of those guys with the spreadsheet from my first SXSW in the city where he lives now (because he actually did leave Austin when he said he would). After about ten minutes he said, “Jesus Christ, Tatiana. You’re dying to get old.”
All this to say, “distilling the paralyzing volume of information into something approachable” is pretty appealing. It’s been a while since I’ve felt the allure of technology. In fact, the last time I remember being excited by the internet was when I realized Myspace had band profiles. I neglected history reports in hopes of discovering the next great band, and, I was listening to music I had not inherited from my sister. It was a pivotal moment of growth in my musical interests.
I’m remembering now that I enjoyed the solitary hunt for the next song that could break my heart, and it wasn’t age or time or lack of interest that turned me off the habit, but that paralyzing volume Jim referred to. Somehow over the last eight years of SX’s growth and technological advancement, I forgot that I actually really like music.
And it turns out I’m not the only one who feels that way.
“A lot of this is based on an interesting phenomenon we noticed among many of our Austin friends,” Jim notes, “who felt somewhat defeated by what they perceived to be their constant inability to take advantage of all the live music opportunities available to them here in ‘The Live Music Capital Of The World.’ In other words, they were feeling this constant pressure to see live music, but a lot of the time they weren’t going out to see shows simply because they did not have the time (or were not sure where to go) to quickly learn enough about the acts to pull the trigger on tickets. We noticed that sharing FreqSho links served a useful purpose for a lot of these friends, by relieving this pressure and giving them a very approachable way to instantly get to know artists and become more proactive about going out to see them live. This idea that the FreqSho experience can get more people to engage with more music more often is what drives us on a daily basis.”
Helping Luddites like me use the internet is only half of the purpose of FreqSho, though, because there are bands on the other end of my headphones. Very real people who work hard and are expected to give their music freely, and just hope against hope that people will listen and then actually buy a record or pay the cover to see their show. Finding an audience is a struggle familiar to artists of all disciplines, and in that kind of market increasing the chance that people can find you is a huge component to success.
“Being around so many musicians [in Austin] is a constant reminder of how tough it is to start a band, or a tech company, or any venture in a crowded marketplace, without determination, persistence, and help. We look at FreqSho as a useful tool for artists that can help promote them and their music and bring new fans into the fold, without requiring additional effort on their part. Our theory is that if we can make it exponentially easier for people to engage with artists and what they are offering, more people will become ‘fans’ of those artists, bringing all the (moral financial) support that fandom entails.”
I asked Jim another leading, Luddite question—did he think festivals are becoming so popular because people are lonely? Does finding music in the blue glow of our computers further remove us from the engaging, physical experience of music? To which he responded, in expert form, “I’m not sure if modern technology, and the isolation that can be associated with music discovery on personal computing devices, has influenced the proliferation of music festivals, but I’m fairly certain there is no substitute for the human energy of a live performance. It fills the room. It grabs you on a cellular level. It transcends the environment and the individual in a way you can’t reproduce on a mobile phone or a laptop by yourself.”
And as I digest his reply, I think back to my wait for the el train last night. A woman played guitar and sang on the train platform. In situations like this, my expectations are low, but her voice was visceral and intoxicating. I had found her by dumb luck. I was reminded that looking is a very important part of finding, and it’s hard not to imagine what I might be missing this week in Austin.— TATIANA RYCKMAN