Ian Burrell: How London turned into the global centre of music technology

Media Studies
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The Independent Online

It was a packed nightclub in London's King's Cross, and eight internet companies faced each other off in a competition that embodied the new confidence in Britain's digital sector. The geeks were behind their laptops, as you'd expect, but they were playing music – and seeking a tumultuous reaction from the crowd.

Together in the Big Chill House nine days ago were Mixcloud, Songkick, 7 Digital, Bleep, Spotify, Who Sampled, 22 Tracks and Deezer. Four of these companies are British start-ups and the others have offices in London, mostly around the so-called "Tech City" Shoreditch district on the east side of the capital. Together they are establishing London as the global centre of music technology.

It's a process that began a decade ago with the online music service Last.fm. "This is the music cultural capital of the world," says Matthew Hawn, Last.fm's vice-president (product), who is from San Francisco and has spent much of his career in music technology. "There are more live bands here and there's something about a place where the cab driver knows who's in the top 10."

Hawn concedes that Last.fm is a "greybeard in the crowd" among a raft of emerging online music companies but says his service occupies a strong position at the "centre of the music ecosystem".

Leading these start-ups is the concert-based site Songkick. "London has more concerts per year than anywhere in the world," says Ian Hogarth, who co-founded the company in Shoreditch in 2007. "It's also a place where there's a density of people with a passion for technology – so it's natural and organic that so many music technology companies have been founded in London."

Mixcloud, host of the Digital Soundclash event, is an extraordinary online catalogue of around one million international music radio shows and digital mixtapes made by DJs, from teenagers in their bedrooms to professional stars such as Carl Cox and Mary Anne Hobbs. Moby is using Mixcloud on moby.com. "He's probably our biggest American advocate," says Mixcloud co-founder Nikhil Shah.

Having started life in a London warehouse, Mixcloud opened to the public in 2009 and now uploads 5,000 track-listed mixtapes every day. The beauty of the site and its app is that users ensure the best material is the most visible. The service was chosen by Facebook as one of three European music partners at the social media giant's influential F8 conference last September, and American users have recently outnumbered British ones.

This has been achieved without private funding. "America is our objective for this year and we're looking to start a US office." says Shah.

Mixcloud shares its Shoreditch building with Who Sampled, another British music technology start-up (and the winners of the Soundclash). Nadav Poraz set up the wonderfully user-friendly site to show how genres of music are interlinked by common samples and cover versions. "We have the world's largest database of sample- based music, covers and remixed music," he says.

He came to London from Israel as a software specialist 10 years ago with dreams of being a DJ and music producer and ran a record label before starting Who Sampled, which is to release an app next month.

Kam Star, of games company PlayGen, founded the Digital Shoreditch festival to encourage an even greater influx of talent into Tech City. "There's exponential growth, with people moving into the area from the talent side, entrepreneurs and investors," he says.

Star has forged links between Shoreditch and the South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival in Texas. "At SXSW this year, in the closing keynote speech, the biggest reference was to Tech City," he says. "They said it was the next hot area to watch."

Leading the way on defamation – but will the world follow?

Our libel laws are a disgrace – as even Barack Obama has acknowledged by telling the American justice system to ignore the judgments of our courts.

London has become known as the "libel tourism capital" of the world.

But all the signs suggest we will at last get a Defamation Bill in this week's Queen's Speech, to the relief of the veteran human rights campaigner Anthony Lester who set the reform process in motion more than three years ago when he began working on a Private Member's Bill.

Lord Lester – who as a young lawyer in the Sixties investigated human rights abuses in the American Deep South – has been assisting the Ministry of Justice on the detail and is "very pleased" with the results.

"If the Bill is as I hope and expect it will be, I believe it would be a model for reform across the common-law world. That's not too ambitious an aim," he says from his London home. "It's extremely exciting."

Not just tasteless, but car park space-less too

The problems at The Sun are not confined to allegations of bribing police officers. Last week the paper's "Bwing on the Euwos" ridiculing of England manager Roy Hodgson's speech impediment was branded "in poor taste and disrespectful" by the Football Association, which told the editor, Dominic Mohan, that the coverage was "unacceptable".

Despite everything, Sun journalists seem more concerned at the prospect that they might have to come to work on the Tube. The closure of the paper's old car park last week (ahead of a planned sell-off of that site) has caused deep resentment and a scramble for the 130 precious spaces The Sun must share with The Times , The Sunday Times and News International management. Some distressed reporters were last week told to write their stories from home.