Music Pho the Masses

“This is my life‘s joy,” explained “Sunday Pho” pioneer Jim Griffin, “having all these people from various walks of life theorizing and hypothesizing about intellectual properties, with emphasis on the digital . . . what else is there?” Not much for the 70 or so musicians, managers, Web-site designers, radio personalities, federal lobbyists, cable-content deliverers, entrepreneurs and filmmakers who while away the greater part of lazy Sunday afternoons at Pho 87 in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, plotting the tear-down of the bricks-and-mortar music industry.

The location may seem a little strange: a homey little Vietnamese restaurant nestled between downtown Los Angeles and Dodger Stadium, and known for its tantalizing pho noodles and generous portions. But what started just one and a half years ago as an informal gathering of then--Geffen Records technology guru Griffin and a few friends has mushroomed into a multicity movement. Pho‘s cultlike following draws cognoscenti from both coasts in the fields of digital music, hacking, intellectual-property rights, copyrighting, cyberspace and everything else under the silicon sun. And the Phoster culture is still evolving.

“The first group was small in number but equally enthusiastic about the technologies of today. The word virally spread throughout L.A. And here we are,” laughed Griffin, who now works at Cherry Lane Digital.

The dominant theme of the Pho dialogue is how to midwife the music industry into the digital age. Griffin’s cyber rant is precise, lean and to the point. The bespectacled 41-year-old takes on all questions, offering resolutions and verbose analytical breakdowns. But within the Pho community, he is one among many equals. The voices of the Pho cadre are high-strung and impassioned, echoing from Pho 87‘s almost hidden curbside entrance to the packed tables within. The name of the game is scraping chairs, as participants jockey for entree to the most vibrant and radical discussions on the reconstruction of the recording-industry monolith.

The hot Pho topic last week was the announcement of the “” interface, a “beam-it” software innovation that will enable listeners to streamload music to wireless Internet connections. “There are over 45,000 musical selections (CDs) to choose from already -- some of them quite obscure -- and that number is rapidly growing,” explained John Parres of AMG, Artists Management Group. “There will be music streaming onto your cell phone, like your own celestial jukebox. The limitations to music listening are being lifted. It is about accessibility and affordability.”a

“If you win a million dollars in the lottery, you don’t whisper to select friends when the topic is brought up,” said Jorge Hinojosa, Ice-T‘s manager and tech enthusiast. “You shout it from the mountaintops! That is the same thing with MP3 technology. This announcement is revolutionary.” Hinojosa’s face was on the cover of The Wall Street Journal last year for his involvement in an Ice-T pornographic Web site. The site was generating $500 a day before contractual disputes with NBC, which was airing the Ice-T single-season television vehicle Players, shut it down.

Other conversations were more fluid. I wandered into one discussion between a financial analyst and a Web designer about the DVD (Digital Video Disc) encryption code‘s being cracked. “Less than a month ago it happened, but all encryption codes are eventually hacked into, nothing is secure,” one techie said to another, who sat shaking his head in sober agreement.

Some noodle slurpers squabbled over legal jargon, copyright violations and ethical breaches. There was a brief flurry of whispering about Universal’s Nigel Proj-ect, an ECAT (Electronic Commerce and Technology) initiative that has something to do with restructuring music‘s rapidly dissolving commercial-delivery system.

MP3 lobbyist Philip Corwin, out of Washington, D.C., bore down on the subject of PVRs (Personal Video Recorders), including TiVo and Replay TV, digital teleportals that allow you to pause and rewind television shows as they are being broadcast. He and AMG’s Parres batted around questions of the devices‘ legality and lack thereof. How simple it is to transmit and transfer digital entertainment outside legal strictures, they noted.

“TiVo has the capacity to avert commercials, and to change the demographics of the public when they view programming,” cautioned Jacob Marlen of Time-Warner, fresh from his company’s triumphal announcement of merger with AOL.

Angelo Sotira, 18-year-old Internet prodigy and founder of Dimension Music (, explained why he used to fly in from New York, before moving to California, to attend Pho 87 meetings. “There is such a wide range of people, such a broad spectrum in this enthusiastic digital community,” he said. “I have been coming here since it was a single table of individuals.”

What other kinds of national attention is this unusual Sunday congregation attracting? Harvard business students made the cross-country field trip last week to take part in the Pho dialogue. Fifty Ivy Leaguers traded views on e-commerce with riotous left-coast comrades over plates of noodles and chicken spring rolls.

The “Sunday Pho” concept has been exported to other cities, including Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, New York City and Minneapolis, where copycat Sunday brunches are under way. Like the original, all the spinoffs are held at Vietnamese Pho cafes. Weekly meetings in Beijing and Helsinki are in the planning stages.

Griffin, who has been picking up most of the $1,000 tab for the meals, would like to see the Pho circle get funding. On Sunday, he circulated government 501 (c)(3) papers, explaining his concept of a nonprofit “Phoundation” that would ensure no one would be turned away for lack of means. But in fact, no one is, although Phosters Sunday passed the hat when the tab arrived. Contributions were strictly voluntary.

The anti-materialist bent is fitting for a group whose recurring theme is the withering of the profit motive in the coming new music age. But the Pho 87 culture, born of chance, continues to eschew any ideology. There is no right or wrong, only further inquiry, one question opening the door to the next. What unites Phosters is a passion to take music to the edge of the envelope as the digital revolution continues to unfold.

“The idea is to open up the world‘s entertainment catalog online,” explained AMG’s Parres.

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