Kiwi music tech giant Serato hope to inspire and attract New Zealand's most creative and technical minds to work at their Auckland CBD HQ, writes David Skipwith.
Kanye West, Eminem, and A$AP Rocky are among those who have rapped about Serato, but many Kiwis are unaware of the New Zealand music tech giant's global success story.
The world-leading software company has led the digital DJing revolution that has transformed the music industry and inspired an Auckland tech hub just off Karangahape Rd.
Two self-confessed "super nerds" – student co-founders Steve West and AJ Bertenshaw - have built Serato into a multimillion-dollar business that employs scores of staff and serves DJs, producers, engineers and musicians across 190 countries.
Marking its 20th anniversary this month, Serato wants to be recognised beyond the music and tech spheres and celebrated as a Kiwi household brand that attracts and inspires our best creative and technical minds.
"I'm not really cool enough to be super knowledgeable about the whole DJ scene," Bertenshaw tells TimeOut.
"My favourite part of having started Serato is that we've given jobs to 150 people who are really passionate about making cool shit and working in an awesome environment.
"I wouldn't call it a household name unless you're a DJ, but it would be nice if people knew that companies like ours really care about having a great place to work."
Serato's story began in 1997 at the University of Auckland, where West, an aspiring bass player, wrote an algorithm to slow down songs so he could learn the notes.
His computer science classmate Bertenshaw recognised its potential and the pair developed it into Pitch 'n Time, a studio app for changing the length and pitch of audio. It's now industry standard in Hollywood and championed by David Lynch and Fatboy Slim alike.
"At the very beginning it wasn't even a plan to have a software company," explains Bertenshaw.
"We thought we were just going to take this bit of tech that my business partner had come up with and sell it to a hardware company and move on to something else.
"So, no, we didn't think we'd be around for this long at all because it just wasn't the plan to do this. It just happened."
With Pitch 'n Time under their belt, West and Bertenshaw realised their product could have an alternate application and forged into the DJ industry.
The early contribution of former Serato office manager-turned-chief executive Sam Gribben, another Kiwi passionate about the concept of digital DJing, helped the company through a key period of growth during the development of what would become known as Scratch Live.
Gribben brought a mix of business acumen, technical knowledge, and personal skills that allowed him to develop relationships with influential DJs here and abroad.
"Very early on I went around to Sam's house and the set-up was huge - you needed an actual stand-alone computer," explains Phil Bell, aka hip-hop DJ Sir-Vere.
"It had these foot pedals, which I thought were hilarious, and it was so huge and really cumbersome and I said to him 'This ain't going to work until its portable.'
"But everyone was on board with the fact that Sam wanted to do something special and you wanted to be involved in it.
"They've had a knack of hiring key people that make people like me, to the biggest DJs in the world, actually care because they are just good people.
"If Serato was a faceless machine and a piece of software I think you'd get a little bit of buy-in but not really. It's about the people."
By 2004 Scratch Live had evolved into a more convenient set-up that removed the need for DJs to travel with crates of records, and enabled them to mix and scratch digital music files stored on a computer.
"It just blew my mind," says Kiwi hip-hop DJ and producer P-Money.
"Just using a computer to play music was a new phenomenon. I was a vinyl guy going straight into this digital world.
"It opened up the possibilities of what I could play and what I could do in a set. It was a whole new way of looking at DJing, because the music choices are unlimited.
"And switching songs, I could mix a lot quicker and turn corners at the drop of a hat. It was pretty amazing.
"It was transformational and it revolutionised the whole industry and the whole creative aspect of DJing."
Not everyone was convinced, however. Laptops weren't as common or reliable as they are today and technophobes and vinyl purists weren't keen on exploring the new frontier.
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"I had a hand-me-down laptop and if I didn't carry my Windows XP disc with me I'd get the blue screen of death and be recovering my stuff at the gig, scrambling, hoping that I could get it to work so I could get that pay cheque," says Texas-based DJ Buck Rodgers.
"But there was definitely a lot of resistance especially from all of the OGs that were the purists."
Bertenshaw believes an element of cultural cringe also played into some sections of the local DJing community being reluctant to buy Kiwi-made.
"New Zealand has got a funny thing towards local stuff sometimes," he says. "And some of the big DJs back then just weren't interested.
"I notice it with artists - until something makes it big overseas Kiwis can tend to look with a critical eye at anything that sort of comes out of here.
"It's almost like we need permission or see someone else approve of it before we do."
The stand-off didn't last long and within a year of launching Scratch Live, sales increased ten-fold to see Serato cement their positions as industry leaders.
"Once Serato got established, you just had to get on board," says P-Money. "Like, are you driving a horse and buggy or are you driving a car? At one point you've just got to go with the car."
Serato's progression and innovation has continued with DJ Pro and DJ Lite launched last year to replace Scratch Live. Their latest innovation, Serato Studio, an intuitive beat-making software that simplifies music production, racked up 35,000 downloads in the first three months since hitting the market in June.
They now boast two million social followers and have 500,000 monthly active users while raking in $20-30 million in annual revenue.
"We are the most used DJ software in the world," explains current CEO Young Ly.
"But the other thing I often feel quite proud about is we have people analytics in Serato DJ and we're really active.
"We are used in every single country in the world – apart from countries that don't have internet basically. So we have hits in Scott Base and Western Sahara."