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Net music's future mulled in L.A.'s Chinatown

Although many high-profile deals in the music business get done over power lunches at upscale restaurants like the Palm, a lot of the forward-looking ideas about the industry and technology are being generated at a tiny Vietnamese dive in Chinatown.

LOS ANGELES--Although many high-profile deals in the music business get done over power lunches at upscale restaurants like the Palm, a lot of the forward-looking ideas about the industry and technology are being generated, argued, and developed at a tiny Vietnamese dive in Chinatown.

The restaurant is Pho 87 (pronounced "Fuh"), and ideas crowd the table along with steaming bowls of the eponymous dish, which is a beef noodle soup. Every Sunday at 1 p.m., a table in the back is full of artists, technologists, CEOs, professors--anyone with an interest in the future of music.

Pho's pied piper is Jim Griffin, who has been at the intersection of music and technology for several years. He is credited with creating the technology department at Geffen Records in 1993, and ran it until 1998. Griffin founded and serves as chief executive of Cherry Lane Digital-OneHouse, which consults firms on how to create, manage, and implement entertainment technology projects.

"I said, 'Every Sunday I'm just going to show up at the same restaurant, and anyone who wants to come can,'" Griffin said in an interview. "We'd show up every Sunday and have a great conversation, and it just grew.

"I hadn't thought, 'Oh, let's build up this community of people,' but that's what happened," he added. "It's one of the joys of my life. It's one of the things I'm most proud of."

The gatherings have been taking place since May 1998, and have grown from 4 or 5 attendees up to about 40, according to John Parres of the Artists Management Group, one of the group's founders. Pho is starting to spread as well, with regular meetings beginning to take place in Seattle. New York is promising to be next; a group of Pho attendees who went to the recent Jupiter Plug.In conference there set up an "off-site" meeting.

Although there are a number of regulars, about one-third of the group is new each week, Parres said. He described attendance as "a wide and diverse list" that has included representatives from MP3.com and the music industry trade group the Recording Industry Association of America, Harvard Business School professors, a marketing executive from a local radio station, television executives, and a principle at a wireless technology company, to name a few.

Pho is a forum "to share ideas and disseminate them as freely as possible," said attendee Liz Brooks, a marketing consultant with a background in the music business that includes working in the artist and repertoire department of Sony Music.

And apparently Sundays weren't enough: Regular attendees and other interested parties gather on an email list housed at OneHouse. The invitation-only membership has swelled to 160, but it manages to stay pretty well on subject, Parres said.

At the center of Pho is discussion about technology and how it is changing entertainment.

With the advent of the Internet, "entertainment is ceasing to be a product and is becoming a service," Griffin said. "And it's far more lucrative for the artist as a service than as a product. Artists are learning new ways to monetize their relationship with their audience.

"No one thinks music should be free," he added. "The challenge is to make it feel free."

He is referring to the sweeping changes in the entertainment business that are coming about as a result of the potential for online delivery of content such as music and video. The MP3 format has been making headlines for months as it caught on among early adopters as a means of gathering and sharing music files on the Web. But often the files being shared are illegal copies of copyrighted material, causing a furor in the record business.

Griffin's view is that rather than trying to stop what is becoming a popular way to obtain music--and what is likely to catch on for film and television--entertainment firms should embrace and capitalize on users' interest in digital delivery, which gives companies more creative ways to reach consumers.

"The actual value of intellectual property cannot be measured by putting it into a plastic box and selling it over a counter," Griffin said. "The actual value of intellectual property is its ability to gather a crowd. In this new world we have the ability to form these relationships with the audience. You can get to know your audience, let them know when you're coming to town, when a new record is coming out."

Those ideas and others form the basis for discussions at Pho. "Usually Jim and John sit across from each other and start the conversation," said "Phoster" Paul Dale, a consultant for Warner Bros. Online.

"Usually Jim will say something and I'll challenge it, and that'll get it going," Parres added.

And on occasion, someone will look to get the group's view on a new product. At last week's Pho, two people arrived mid-brunch and set up a desktop computer on a spare table. They gave a demonstration of a product that allows users to remix authorized music tracks. It keeps the tracks synchronized, so the user only has to concentrate on mixing. The user can create an MP3 file of a remixed song to post online or email to friends. The group discussed the potential for the product and debated business models for it.

OneHouse picks up the tab for Pho, with some participation from Artists Management Group.

"We try to eliminate every obstacle between us and the people we want to talk to," Griffin said. "You don't even have to worry about paying--you just show up and eat and talk, and then leave."

He noted that Pho was chosen by design. The Vietnamese "have a tradition of not bringing the check. They let you sit and talk--and that's part of the reason it's Pho and not hamburgers," he said. "They encourage community, and that's part of why we're there.

"I like the soup, too," he added. "I need at least a bowl every week."