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Silicon Valley's tech bubble goes pop

The Richter Scales have an online hit with a musical video parody.

December 24, 2007|Jessica Guynn | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — An offbeat a cappella group composed mostly of computer geeks, the Richter Scales have performed original ditties and pop parodies in relative obscurity for seven years.

That is, until three weeks ago, when they released an online video that mocks the latest Internet frenzy sweeping Silicon Valley. "Here Comes Another Bubble," an original arrangement of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire," pokes fun at the "monster rally all around the valley." In staccato bursts of words and images, it lampoons the Web industry's silly buzzwords and business names, pizza-and-beer-fueled engineers, male-dominated launch parties, billion-dollar valuations and mass-scale ego trips.

The musical romp opens with Facebook Inc. investor and board member Peter Thiel declaring, with a straight face, "There's absolutely no bubble in technology." Its final lines, "And when we are gone/This will still go on and on and on and on and on and on and on" are interrupted by a loud popping sound.

The clever commentary on the cult of the Silicon Valley start-up was an instant hit, passed along via e-mail and blogged by venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, coders and marketers. It climbed the charts to become YouTube's top-rated video in its first week with more than 1 million views.

"It's about the gold-rush spirit of thousands of entrepreneurs who want to try their hand at being the next Larry Page or Sergey Brin," said Matt Hempey, the 33-year-old PayPal Inc. product manager who wrote the lyrics and arranged the song.

Even those lampooned got a kick out of it. Technology blogger Robert Scoble said he laughed so hard that he sprayed Diet Coke out of his nose. TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington called it an honor to have his cigar-puffing mug gracing the video's display image.

Not everyone was amused. The video was yanked from the Web after Bay Area photographer Lane Hartwell complained that one of her images was used without credit, sparking a spirited online debate about fair use of copyrighted material. The Richter Scales last week cut a version without her image and listed credits for images they used.

That didn't appease Hartwell, nor some of the other photographers whose images briefly appear in the video. But so far the new version remains on YouTube and www.richterscales.com.

Hempey, who solos on "Here Comes Another Bubble," said the half-baked business plans, copycat companies and flowing venture capital dollars inspired him to set music to the debate that has flared in the industry: Are we in another high-tech bubble?

He says he sees so many people trying to spin fortunes on broadband and a prayer that it's deja vu for Silicon Valley.

The 15 members of the Richter Scales belong to a generation shaped by the Internet bust. Seven work for start-ups, four more are at technology companies such as Apple Inc. and Google Inc.

Curtis Chen, a 34-year-old bass singer and Web applications engineer at Google, said it didn't take long for his co-workers to become fans of the video.

"They really identified with it," he said. "There are a fair number of people here who worked at start-ups that failed, myself included. They are familiar with what happened the last time around and they can see it happening again, as the video says."

It was in 2000, during the Internet crash, that the Richter Scales banded together, a group of guys looking to stretch their vocal chords and rekindle the camaraderie of collegiate a cappella. They practiced Thursday nights in the empty offices of one member's start-up, located in a seedy San Francisco neighborhood next door to a strip club whose motto was "Feel the beauty, touch the magic."

The group's experimental, self-directed vibe appealed to its members' entrepreneurial natures.

A cappella means "in the style of the church" in Italian and is sung without the accompaniment of instruments. But nothing is sacred where the Richter Scales are concerned. They send up Christmas music and Gregorian chants alike with satire and slapstick, performing every six weeks, with two main shows a year. Ranging in age from 25 to 40, the guys bond at weekend retreats, spending as much time talking about their lives as they do writing songs.

They first put their voices to video this summer with a spoof of the sub-prime lending collapse, "Fine Line: Sub-Prime Decline," which was viewed more than 39,000 times and was mentioned on a handful of blogs. But the viral success of "Here Comes Another Bubble" surprised them.

Heretofore their highlights were singing the national anthem at a San Francisco Giants game, serenading guests at mayoral fundraisers and their own weddings and belting out a few tunes on street corners or in restaurants. (Their second gig was a lively rendition of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" in the back of a Japanese tourist bus.)

"We perform at all sorts of kooky things where people are not listening to us," said James Currier, a 40-year-old San Francisco entrepreneur who co-founded the Richter Scales.

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