A person who lacks an appreciation of the complexities of ordinary life might consider the task of reporting on parties a trivial one. Yet were that person to have party-hopped a single night of the WEBNOIZE conference at the Century Plaza Hotel this past week, she would have stood humbled. For among the crudites and carpaccio, the ginseng and ma huang elixirs, the hum of schmooze and the clink of martini glasses, there was a profound lesson to be learned about what makes a business work, what makes a conference worth attending. You can, in other words, judge an organization by its party.
Granted, social events are perhaps more important than usual here: Webnoize, a gathering of mostly music-industry professionals struggling to understand the ramifications of Internet technology on their business, attracts a fair percentage of people who promote, market or play in bands, the kind of people to whom nightlife isn‘t just recreation but religion. What’s more, because Webnoize competed with COMDEX in Las Vegas, it was noticeably short on gearheads — the timing had installed a geek filter. Men still outnumbered the women, as they do at all technology events. This time, however, they were better-looking.
Which doesn‘t mean they all made more scintillating conversation. At the private party thrown by ASCAP early in the evening, small knots of friends proved impenetrable to eavesdropping outsiders. Later, at the tony affair hosted by RECIPROCAL — a company whose slogan, ”Protect Your Gold and Platinum From Pirates,“ explains it as well as anything can — real-time, one-on-one conversations proceeded along one of two lines:
Q: So, what does your company do?
A: Well, you could say we serve the end-user with solutions to audio-retrieval problems in a single-platform environment.
Q: Uh-huh. You mean technical support?
A: Yeah. We’re taking the whole notion of people to a new level.
Q: Right. And how do you make money?
A: Oh. I can‘t tell you that!
Q: So, what does your company do?
A: Um, it’s hard to . . . we‘re a start-up, right? I could probably tell you more in a few months. Why don’t you call me in January?
Except for independent record producers, of which there now seem to be as many as there are records, everyone‘s job seemed sort of vague. Absolutely everyone’s income remained mysterious. Still, Reciprocal‘s party was, in so many ways, a fabulous affair. A palpable charge was in the air, inspired by an afternoon artists panel that featured ICE T. ”He came out very raw, he came out cussing,“ a self-producing musician named KAZ told me. ”He said, ’They‘re building a spaceship in the backroom, and I’m going to be on it!‘ He reminded us all not to forget that this isn’t just data — this is self-expression.“ A small soft-rock ensemble crooned standards just at conversation level. Sushi spilled over platters, a tray of delicate French desserts appeared self-replenishing, two chefs prepared custom pasta, and men with trays of crab cakes implored you to try a nibble. ”This is the party,“ one man informed me, complaining that he‘d failed to secure an invite to the evening’s exclusive MICROSOFT party. ”Fuck Microsoft.“
Uninvited myself, and facing a significant drive to Microsoft‘s party headquarters at the AMF BAY SHORE LANES in Santa Monica, I wanted to share in his sentiments. But I trudged on, hoping press credentials would secure me a seat on the sidelines, where I could sneer at corporate types imitating bowlers. But I was wrong. Oh, was I wrong.
I arrived a little after 9 p.m., got a name tag without incident, dumped my Webnoize badge. By 9:30 p.m., a music buyer from Best Buy, hanging with DEPECHE MODE manager JONATHAN KESSLER, was explaining how he’d channeled the bowling god; by 10, I was invoking his god and trying on bowling shoes. By 10:30, well into my third beer, I was taking lessons from Microsoft‘s director of business development, KURT BUECHELER. ”Pretend your arm’s a pendulum,“ he advised me. ”Follow through! Follow through!“ Cheered on by Santa Monica Homeless Commission volunteer DONNA GENTRY, who had helped get the event catered with stromboli and chicken wings by THE SHACK, I scored my first strike. Ever. Buecheler picked me up and tossed me over in a back flip. I reconsidered that message from the Windows 95 installation program I once scoffed at: ”Everything you do will be more fun.“
Say what you will about Microsoft; this is a company that knows how to unwind. At the end of a long conference day, there was no chatter here about security holes and acquisitions, no sketchy intimations of big ideas or self-promotion disguised as philosophy. The most daunting technical problem of the evening was picking out shoes and a ball, and conversations were about real things: life, love and how to make that spare. If networking happened, it was effortless — by chance, not by design. Bowling served as a framework for friendliness and, in a funny way, intimacy: When you throw four gutter balls in a row, you can no longer pretend to be all that cool.
The setting also served — just maybe — as an indicator of what makes a company work and employees happy. The bowling-alley party, several people told me, was the brainchild of one Los Angeles–based Microsoft business-development manager, CURTIS BECK, and according to MEGHAN RAFTERY, of Microsoft‘s public relations, that’s the Microsoft way. ”We‘re very decentralized in the way we do things,“ she says. ”Very grassroots.“ You are also, I wanted to add, very secure in your standing as an industry giant.
”All the food is going to the shelters later,“ Gentry told me as we waited patiently for slices of Baskin-Robbins ice cream cake, which had just been delivered for dessert, and I reflected for a moment on how that meant Microsoft was feeding SANTA MONICA’S STREET PEOPLE. For a moment, I felt awkward. ”What am I going to tell my friends?“ I said to Raftery. ”That I had fun at a Microsoft party?“ Much to her credit, she laughed.