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Sound Works? 

Tony Espinoza poured his dot-com millions into the fanciest music studio in town. With balls like that, who needs street cred?

Wednesday, Jun 9 2004
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As hard as it is to tell from his stylishly short black hair, designer slacks, and fitted black T-shirts -- not to mention his precise way of speaking, which resembles a Power Point presentation -- Tony Espinoza is a musician at heart. The 32-year-old's return to the recording fold is, in some ways, his means of picking up where he left off decades ago, back when he had a band and worked at a record store, back before the science expedition to the Mediterranean at age 17, before the scholarship from Stanford and the series of high-profile jobs led him away from his first love.

"It's hard to separate the detours from the road," he says. "They all kind of blend together, and get you someplace in the end."

Espinoza grew up in Dallas, in what he describes as a poor neighborhood. His father, John, is Mexican-Italian; his mother, Satoko, emigrated from Japan when she was 25. John was a clerk at the post office, while Satoko stayed at home to raise Tony and his younger brother. Espinoza's mother remembers that her older son excelled in music as early as elementary school, winning local competitions as a young trumpeter. "At the time I thought, 'Hmmm, he might be in an orchestra or symphony. He's gonna play around the world,'" she says, speaking from the home Espinoza purchased for her four years ago (many members of the Dallas Cowboys live in the neighborhood). "And then there was a math contest, and he was top, top all the time. ... When he came into fourth grade, his teacher asked me, 'Can I keep Tony after school? I'd like to teach him and see how far he can go.'"

He went pretty far, as it turned out, excelling in math, science, and computing. "To me," Espinoza explains, "[programming] was like a blank slate, complete blank. And what do you want it to do?"

In high school, Espinoza took a 45-minute bus ride to a special school for advanced students. He was captain of the computer team ("Which in the '80s was kind of a novelty") and developed an "obsession" with marine biology. Despite a heavy workload, he also found time to work at Bill's Records (the Amoeba Music of Dallas) and play bass in a band called the Search Party. "Our favorite songs to cover were, like, Dead Kennedys, Joy Division," he says. The group earned a decent following by gigging around town and caught the ear of A&R reps at Island Records, though the act never signed to a label.

In 1989, the budding marine biologist won second place in a county science fair, which was enough to grab the attention of a company called Electronic Data Systems (owned by Ross Perot). EDS was putting together the first installment of the Jason Project, an expedition led by marine biologist Robert Ballard (who discovered the Titanic).

"They wanted to put a kid in this expedition to be the link between the big scientists and the people watching," Espinoza explains. "In the course of two weeks, I go from getting a phone call to being in Italy, about to get on a ship that's going out to the middle of the Mediterranean to send robots and subs down to the ocean floor."

When he arrived back home after two weeks at sea, Espinoza found that the members of the Search Party had grown tired of their bassist's absence; shortly thereafter, the band dissolved. Fortunately, at the same time EDS had offered him a position in one of its advanced technology labs. "They had all these computers, all the new things coming out -- a new computer that Steve Jobs created called the NeXT Computer. They had this thing called HDTV. ... It was the lab of the future, basically." He took the job.

The next year, shortly after his parents divorced, Espinoza went off to Stanford, where he double-majored in music technology and computer engineering; in addition, he parlayed his experience and contacts at EDS into a 30-hour-a-week job at Apple. Once again, he found himself having to choose between music and computing.

"Computer science was a heavy load at Stanford," he says. "To do that and computer music was pretty much killing me. I was doing both, and working at Apple. It was not fun."

After less than two years at Stanford, Espinoza dropped out. From there, his résumé reads like a tech geek's dream: Apple begat Actionier.com, which begat Diamond Multimedia, which begat the company that Espinoza and two partners founded, When.com. In 1999, he sold the latter to AOL for a reported $200 million and went to work for Steve Case's empire. There he was a VP of music services and helped guide the company's acquisitions of WinAmp, Spinner.com, and, eventually, Time Warner. Still, he wasn't satisfied. In January 2000 he paid $1.5 million for the property at 544 Natoma -- then a small post-production facility used for sound design on such TV shows as Nash Bridges -- and left AOL.

"Music has always been his passion, perhaps the biggest passion he has," remembers Louis Lao, who, as VP of engineering at When.com, shared an office with Espinoza. That his former colleague might want to "focus" on music "is not surprising to me at all. ... Tony is the kind of person who would make such transitions to pursue his dreams."

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Garrett Kamps

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