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Making Music on a Virtual Stage

Online service lets players come together on the Web from wherever they happen to beTINTON FALLS – Hot licks from a player’s electric guitar and thunderous beats from another’s drum machine are coming together over the Internet to create new songs that the musicians or fans can download for a fee. That’s the plan behind an online portal called JamNow.com produced by one-year-old Lightspeed Audio Labs in Tinton Falls. JamNow connects musicians and singers over the Internet to play together in real-time regardless of where the individuals happen to be.

The JamNow service began limited beta testing this month with plans to roll out a revision to the software before July 1. With about 100 users already playing and commenting on the music through the new system, Lightspeed co-founder Mark Malek says the strumming and chatter is music to his ears and a sign that his company offers a sound business proposition.

“Music is the only thing that’s really growing by double digits on the Internet,” he says.

JamNow works with Windows, and a Macintosh version is in development. Users download the company’s software to their computers then can transmit their contributions via their broadband Internet connections. Players’ music setup can be as simple as a microphone plugged into a PC’s audio input, or as complex as multiple instruments run through an audio mixer that is patched into a computer’s sound card.

Performances can be recorded in a variety of sound-file types including the ubiquitous MP3 format for downloading. The online service includes mixer and sound-processing functions that allow the creation of finished works from the various contributed parts.

While a group of musicians are streaming a real-time jam, others can listen in to the live show or playback the recorded collaborations later. The service is designed to allow both casual players and more-serious artists to connect with peers and fans.

“You can store that song online without getting charged,” Malek says. “You can jam for free; you broadcast for free, but we start charging people when they want to download sessions of themselves.” Pricing for downloads is still in flux, Malek says, but may start around $5.99 per jam session.

Malek says the full version of JamNow will grant access to musicians nationwide, but the current beta test is restricted to a limited group. This version will run through the summer, first targeting musicians within what he calls the “Rock Triangle” of Boston; Charlotte, N.C.; and Milwaukee. The beta test will be opened up to musicians in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas later this summer, he says.

SAS Investors, a New York City firm, in May 2006 invested $1.25 million in Lightspeed, giving the young company seed capital to move JamNow closer to completion. Ramana Jampala, a partner with SAS Investors, joined the Lightspeed board of directors in accordance with the investment.

“This is a Web 2.0 kind of company with a solid business model,” he says. “It can generate revenue by being a service provider to record labels, promoting events at venues and with Internet service providers who want to differentiate their service.”

Jampala says his firm was impressed with the depth of technical knowledge within Lightspeed. “There are five Ph.D.s in the company; all of them are advanced-degree holders,” he says.

Lightspeed’s other co-founders include Schuyler Quackenbush, founder of media-technology consulting firm Audio Research Labs in Scotch Plains; Thomas Darcie, the research chair in optical systems for communications, imaging, and sensing at the University of Victoria, British Columbia; and Peter Driessen, a professor in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Victoria. The company has a staff of six and outsources some of its software development work to India.

“Schuyler was one of the principle inventors of [the] MP3 [file format],” Malek points out, referring to the breakthrough standard for compressing digital music so it could be transmitted efficiently over the Internet.

Before forming Lightspeed Audio Labs, Malek served as president of Sales Aware, a provider of supply-chain management software in New York City. Before that, he worked as an executive at AT&T, where he was responsible for developing spinout and startup ventures based on the telecom giant’s intellectual property.

While online music collaboration first hit the music scene around the turn of the century, Lightspeed aims to make it truly user-friendly. “The concept of jamming online is not a new one, but doing it for the masses is,” says Malek.

Rocket Network Inc. in San Francisco developed a program called RocketPower that lets musicians record and mix audio files online. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen bought a 40 percent stake in Rocket Network in 1998 through his firm Vulcan Ventures. Avid Technology Inc. in Tewksbury, Mass., a developer of software and hardware for digital-media management, bought Rocket in 2003. Another company, New York City’s mH2O.com offers its own Web-based music-collaboration software.

As with most startups, Lightspeed has yet to generate revenue, but Malek sees a variety of ways to satisfy his backers. “We have a lot of opportunities to present advertising to people,” he says.

The company is counting on performers to draw their existing fans to the JamNow service in addition to finding new ones, pumping up the hits on the Web site. “We are aggregating massive amounts of live audio streams,” says Malek. “If you are out there trying to make music, you should be able to garner say about 10 [listeners]. If you pull together an artist community, you are talking about a pretty large user base.”

Lightspeed’s vice president of business development, Jim McDermott, sees additional services for JamNow to offer. For example, he says music reviewers could conduct live interviews with artists while fans listen and ask questions. “We’ve got a very rich opportunity for agreements with a large variety of media partners,” McDermott says.

Malek foresees the beta test growing to 1,000 users after Lightspeed broadens access to JamNow. He is shooting for nationwide use by end of the year.

“Assuming I have the next round of funding raised before the end of the year, I can say by Jan. 1 we’re going to have significant coverage,” Malek says. With additional funding, he plans to add video streams and grow the staff to more than 20 in the next year, bringing more development work in-house and adding marketing personnel.

“We’re just now starting to embark on raising the B round,” Malek says, “and we’re probably going to raise something in the neighborhood of $10 million.”

E-mail to jpruth@njbiz.com

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