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Death of a Multimedia Phenomenon 

How the boys at OSC -- the hippest high-tech start-up ever -- created the magical software that lets any garage band in America record studio-quality CDs. And then lost the magic almost overnight.

Wednesday, Dec 24 1997
In the cool dual worlds of movies and rock 'n' roll, the boys of OSC -- the so-coolly named Our Stinking Corporation -- were the hippest dudes of all.

When the founders of OSC strode through the halls of trade shows, session musicians and movie sound editors turned heads and murmured names. Flocks of garage-band punks repeated OSC's irreverent marketing slogans as mantras. Twentysomethings of every faith adorned their walls with OSC iconography. Indie filmmakers sang OSC's praises.

The boys -- Josh Rosen, John Dalton, Mats Myrberg, and a half-dozen Bay Area slackers they hired along the way -- were exquisitely revered because of the seemingly magical musical computer software they first threw together in Rosen's apartment and eventually fashioned into a white-hot Silicon Valley start-up corporation. By allowing any garage band with a Macintosh computer to produce a studio-quality CD or professional movie soundtrack, the OSC boys gained an international network of overwrought fans and were the subject of panting tributes in music and computer magazines. From brain to garage to corporation to cash, these modern-day planters farmed the rich economic humus of the Bay Area's high-tech economy and came away heroes.

But that was before the buyout.
After four years of struggling to make ends meet, the OSC boys sold out to the San Francisco software firm of Macromedia Inc. for what was to have been more than $2 million. But they agreed to be paid with Macromedia stock -- just before Macromedia shares took a precipitous plunge.

From a spring 1996 high of $46.50 per share, the stock's value plummeted to a low of $9.62 per share this May. While people who know them say the OSC owners sold some of their stock before the worst of the plunge, the founders each acknowledge they ended up with much less money than they had hoped for. The entire deal may have dwindled to less than $600,000.

The corporate fit between Rosen's crew of garage engineers and musicians and Macromedia's stuffed suits turned out to be horrendous. Within a year of the sellout, Macromedia had eliminated OSC as a division, and sent its founders packing.

When they sold their company, the OSC boys gave up all rights to use the Deck recording technology they had created -- including the right to improve it. The half-finished Deck III upgrade project that OSC engineers had been working on at Macromedia is condemned to rot on a shelf. Meanwhile, numerous competitors have entered the multitrack digital sound processing business, and these competitors' technology has reached the performance-price level that used to belong exclusively to OSC.

In short, OSC, formally Obscure Software, is dead.
The rebellious group of rock 'n' roll youngsters who turned their passions into a high-tech Cinderella story found the end of the tale to be a dark, Silicon Valley countermyth. The OSC boys sold what they loved for a song, and there is no way they will ever even work on it again, much less get it back.

The denizens of Silicon Valley and Multimedia Gulch indeed remember the OSC boys as the guys who got to have all the fun. The boys agree, almost arrogantly; every last one of the company's male employees (we'll talk about the females later) recalls OSC as the funnest place he's ever worked. "I'd go back in a second" is a refrain that comes up, at one point or another, in most conversations about the company.

These fond memories have something to do with the grown-up-boys-in-a-tree-fort atmosphere that Rosen and his cohorts fostered at their South of Market offices. Several of the employees stole away to the office's sound studio most afternoons at 4 p.m. to discuss work problems, and -- more important -- to smoke marijuana. The bosses made a special point of hiring only physically attractive female office assistants. Employees would knock off early during slow periods to compose music, drink -- whatever.

"If the karma got too heavy, you were certainly encouraged to take a shot of whiskey. If tech support's bringing you down, take a fucking bong hit. It didn't matter what steps you had to take to get to the goal. Just carry the ball across the goal line," recalls former OSC Marketing Director Todd Souvignier.

At trade shows, where other high-tech start-up owners would arrive in tie tacks and loafers and with felt-lined display boards, the OSC boys wore leather jackets and strung up chain-link fencing and black vinyl as a backdrop to their software displays: "Sort of a combination baseball backstop and S/M motif," one ex-employee recalls.

The look, the atmosphere, and the attitude came naturally to a group of post-college men, of course. But it was also part of a studied ideology/marketing approach rooted in the founders' past as Pacific Northwest musicians.

"Everyone who knew us knew what a bunch of dirtbags we were, so if we ever tried to act like corporate geeks, we'd be busted as posers for sure," says Souvignier, who, like Dalton and Rosen, was a musician hailing from Portland, Ore. "So we figured we might as well let it all hang out and express ourselves as clearly and plainly as we could. And it worked, man. It really worked."

Underlying OSC's rebellious ethic was the company's manifesto -- called the Audio Anarchist -- published in the form of OSC sales fliers. On one edition of the manifesto a torch-carrying rebel waves his hand to proletariat masses, who carry banners saying, "Tools Don't Equal Talent." Inside, the pamphlet rails against the very copyright laws that allow software companies to exist.

"We object to this legal fiction called intellectual property," the flier says, calling on customers to "put the 'play' back in plagiarism."

Another motto scorned the digital format that OSC's software revolutionized, contending that "analogue is best."

These OSC pamphlets boasted of a new, anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, anti-Silicon Valley ethos that was more evocative of Frederich Engels than Bill Gates.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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