Shut in

iSong.com breaks down the last barrier to being a musician -- leaving the house

Stephen Kennedy, president and founder of iSong.com, is a little sheepish when discussing his company's origins. Nervous laughs replace the periods at the end of his sentences. At first, it's difficult to discern what he's so skittish about. Maybe he's embarrassed by the fact that iSong.com, a Dallas-based Web site, is built on an idea he came up with when he was in high school and that he's still working on it as his 40th birthday approaches. More likely, it's because iSong.com designs and sells software intended to make it easier for people to learn how to play a musical instrument, something he never quite figured out. Maybe he's afraid someone's going to realize just how absurd the idea is after all, basically taking music lessons from someone who is just as clueless about it all as most of his clients.

Twenty years ago, the Midland native would have been one of them. Like many high school kids, he grew up with dreams of being a musician. Of course, that's all they were, because as Kennedy soon realized, he had absolutely no talent. Even though he was determined to teach himself how to play guitar, spending his free time in his bedroom murdering Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, his skills didn't improve much -- or at all, really. But that didn't stop him from becoming a "fat gym coach," as Kennedy says today, coming up with opinions and theories about how to play guitar, none of which he could actually apply himself.

Kennedy would continue to explore his theories at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, before later graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in history. By the time he graduated from UT, he had abandoned his dreams of becoming a musician, and most of his theories as well. He moved to Dallas and on to new schemes, everything from real estate to computer games. Still, the thoughts about music instruction remained in the back of his mind, and almost two decades later, he finally put one of them to use, designing the software iSong.com is based around.

"It's just one of those incubator ideas that you go to work every day and think about, keep your productivity down while you're daydreaming," Kennedy says, laughing, as he prepares to leave for the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) Conference in Nashville, one of a series of showcases planned for the company's products over the next few months. "Eventually, I just decided that I was going to pursue it. And even after deciding to move forward, I didn't make much progress for a long time because I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I didn't know anything about software. I didn't have any resources to pull together. I certainly didn't know anything about the music business...Now, it's actually really starting to get some momentum and move forward."

The idea is simple: make playing music easier for people who don't know how to read music. Early on, Kennedy decided that the easiest way to learn a song would be to learn a simplified version of it, figuring out the patterns of the notes before tackling the real thing -- which is basically the same thing that music instructors have been teaching for years.

The difference is that the iSong.com software does more than just show the sheet music, and it uses transcriptions based on the artist's original recordings. The CD-ROMs that iSong.com sells from its Web site use animated guitar tabs and performance videos that demonstrate exact fingerings, as well as the original recordings. Passages can be speeded up or slowed down to suit a particular skill level, and looped over and over again until they are perfected. On September 13, the company will launch a new site that will also feature real instructors, allowing musicians to take virtual lessons.

"Here's the bottom line: Seventy percent of musicians can't read music," says Guy Hoffman, the company's CEO. "What ends up happening is that, unless you can learn by ear, there is no way for you to play the music that inspired you. You want to play Clapton, you want to play Hendrix, you want to play B.B. King. This did two things. One, by linking to the artist's original recordings, you get to learn to play the music that initially inspired you to go and buy that guitar. Second of all, it completely overcomes the biggest barrier to playing music, which is reading music. Even if you can read music, sheet music sounds nothing like the recording. It's a cover. The response that we're getting from our customers is totally awesome."

To make iSong.com move forward, Kennedy needed money, as well as someone who knew what to do with it. He'd had experience with financial dealings before, just not enough of it. He came to Dallas in 1984 at the height of the real estate boom, and, he says, "rode the crest of that wave all the way down." After two years in real estate, he began trading stocks and bonds, but he was never really happy in the financial world. He spent a few years as a trader, until he decided to give it up in 1993 to found Red Ant Inc., which eventually became iSong.com.

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