Phil Wiser was a senior at Eastern Vo-Tech and something of a science geek in 1984. But Wiser wasn’t your typical nerd, with his long hair and confident swagger. In fact, he was class president and bassist in Child’s Play, a popular metal band that played local clubs. It’s a rare trait, being the nerd and the cool kid, but it’s a combination that’s served Wiser well and distinguished him from his peers.
98 Rock’s Bob Lopez picked up on that one night at the Seagull Inn in Essex. Lopez came out to a Child’s Play show to promote the station and got into a lengthy conversation with Wiser. Unlike some of his peers, the budding metal god didn’t focus exclusively on his favorite Zeppelin songs or the merits of Bud vs. Michelob. “Actually, we spent quite a bit of time discussing technology,” recalls Wiser. “We talked a lot about this crazy thing called the personal computer that Apple was putting out.”
The next morning, Lopez raved to his listeners about the band and its whipsmart bass player. “It was great walking into school after he had talked about me and Child’s Play on the radio,” says Wiser. “Everyone heard it as they were driving to school, so I was king of the hill that day.”
It turns out that Lopez, who passed away in 2005, was somewhat prescient with regards to Wiser. The head-banging, spandex-wearing, sweat-soaked rocker traded hard rock rhythms for algorithms and ascended to far greater heights as a techie than as a musician. Instead of eking out a living in the hardscrabble record biz, he revolutionized the entire music business.
Wiser created what his website calls “the core technologies that now form the basis for all online music” and worked as Chief Technology Officer at Sony, where he brokered landmark deals with the likes of Apple. Now, Wiser—the suit wearing, plane flying, Silicon Valley entrepreneur—has set his sights on the television industry.
And to think it all started with AC/DC.
Wiser grew up in Essex, loving music and honing a serious work ethic. He picked up the trumpet at the age of 9 and enjoyed performing in various school bands and projects. He once played his horn in the pit band for a production of The Wizard of Oz and starred as The Scarecrow. “I guess I’ve always been a multitasker,” he quips.
After school, Wiser delivered newspapers, repaired TVs, and made crab pots out of chicken wire—which he sold to watermen around Middle River. He even worked on a boat, tonging crabs and throwing back the small ones, one summer.
As a teen, he started listening to hard rock on FM radio, and he and his friends traded their horns and saxophones for electric guitars and basses. “Basically, we listened to a lot of AC/DC, which was pervasive at the time,” says Wiser. “It was the staple of the music we listened to, and it was just the sort of hard-driving rock we ended up playing in Child’s Play.”
Formed by friends who grew up in Essex, the group’s first gig was playing Eastern’s Sadie Hawkins dance. “As class president, I was looking for a budget band,” says Wiser, “and I knew of one I could definitely afford—Child’s Play.”
The band played a heavy rotation of Judas Priest, Motley Crue, and, of course, AC/DC, eventually became fixtures at clubs like Network, Hammerjacks, and the Seagull, and started writing its own tunes.
“At that point, I was fully committed to being a rock star,” says Wiser. “I didn’t think about academics beyond getting out of high school. My thought was that I’d put all my energy into the band, and I could circle back to other options if I needed to later. Being a systematic planner, I gave myself one year to see where things went.”
Mostly, Child’s Play went up and down the east coast in an old Dodge van, playing cities and college towns from upstate New York to South Carolina. It was a wild ride—a blur of teased hair, smoky clubs, and band-of-brothers camaraderie, as the band cultivated a loyal fan base. “We were very successful marketing the band,” says Larry Hinshaw, the group’s singer at the time. “At one point, we were playing five nights a week.”
Wiser, with his budding interest in electronics and technology, helped keep the band’s equipment functioning. “Anytime something broke, Phil knew how to fix it,” says Mitch Allan, the band’s former guitar tech, who went on to form the band SR-71. “With some duct tape, chewing gum, and toothpicks, he could fix his bass, or even the PA, and it would sound incredible. His brain was always working, and he was thinking about big picture stuff.”
“It was my first entrepreneurial venture,” notes Wiser. “We had to work effectively as a partnership, set goals, come up with strategies, work on branding, do a lot of promotion, and build a fan base. That’s basically what you do when you create a company.”
When his year was up, Wiser didn’t abruptly quit the band, because “it wouldn’t have been fair to the other guys,” he says, but he did enroll in Essex Community College part time. Allan recalls seeing him surrounded by books, studying, backstage at Child’s Play shows. “Through all that chaos, Phil studied,” says Allan. “It was nothing but distractions, and he still managed to study eight hours a day.”
Science increasingly fascinated Wiser, and he decided to pursue electrical engineering, “although at the time, I didn’t really know what that meant,” he says. But he knew enough to major in it at the University of Maryland College Park, which meant finally quitting the band. “To this day, it was the most painful decision I ever had to make,” he says.
Wiser worked the nightshift loading trucks at UPS and cobbled together a bunch of scholarships to cover tuition—“I got really proficient at begging for money,” he says—and roomed in a basement apartment with Allan, who also enrolled at College Park. “It was a culture shock going to college,” says Wiser, “but having Mitch around gave me some continuity to my past life.”
As Wiser got deeper into science and using math to manipulate audio signals, Allan watched his friend become “a total nerd, and I mean that in a good way,” he says. “I remember introducing Phil to this guy with a bulging ponytail, and he immediately said, ‘Your hair looks just like an sp3 hybridized orbital,’” a reference to molecular theory, “which is what he saw. It was the ultimate über-geek joke.”
The über-geek graduated summa cum laude in 1990 with a 4.0 GPA and earned himself a free ride to grad school at Stanford.
There, he got his first taste of Silicon Valley. A fellow grad student and his brother had a start-up company and asked Wiser to design a digital mixing console, which they, in turn, produced. “I saw my product at a trade show,” recalls Wiser, “and I’ll never forget when a customer came in and bought it, because it was just what he needed for a recording studio. That changed my life—I thought, ‘Wow, I can build something that people will buy, and it can have a positive impact on them. I can create products and solutions.’
“At that point, it was clear I needed to be in the Silicon Valley startup culture, where people are creating amazing things on a regular basis.”
Wiser bounced around various start-ups after getting his master’s degree and, after seeing what those companies did right and what they did wrong, co-founded Liquid Audio in 1995. He and his partners had an idea, which seemed crazy at the time, to distribute and sell music via the Internet. “The first time we pitched the idea we got thrown out of the room,” he says, chuckling. “A venture capitalist told us, ‘Who would ever listen to music on their personal computer? That makes no sense at all.’”
The company eventually secured funding and, in the dot-com frenzy, exploded. After three years, Liquid went public and was, at one point, valued at a billion dollars and later sold to a division of Wal-Mart for an undisclosed sum.
“That’s around the time Sony Music asked me to come in and help them transform the record business into a new digital music business,” says Wiser.
Intrigued by such a massive challenge, he signed on as Chief Technology Officer (CTO), relocated to Manhattan in 2001, and went to work at 550 Madison Avenue. “It was like living in a marble castle,” he says. “Our offices were on the top three floors, which are completely lined with Italian marble. There’s a private sushi bar only for the executives and two private dining rooms. My office was next to the CEO’s.”
At the time, Napster and other file-sharing sites were cutting into record company profits, CD sales were plummeting, and the major labels were looking to stop the hemorrhaging. “What I proposed was a very simple strategy,” says Wiser. “Stop playing defense and play offense. Get in the game and get aggressive about making your music available to the public.”
He negotiated deals with Apple’s Steve Jobs, who previewed iTunes for a group of Sony execs in 2003, and helped developed ringtones into a billion dollar business. Wiser’s old bandmates would be proud to know he was fond of using AC/DC tunes to demo ringtones in the early days.
Though he scored a promotion to CTO of Sony Corporation, the broader company that owns the music, film, and electronics divisions, Wiser ultimately found that “its corporate culture was way too far-flung and complicated for it to change quickly.”
So he left Sony, returned to Silicon Valley in the summer of 2006, and partnered with an old College Park buddy in a TV venture. It wasn’t just any college buddy—Buno Pati revolutionized how computer chips were made, and the technology he developed is now used in computers and phones around the world. Together, they brainstormed a broadcast/broadband hybrid, called Sezmi, which combines broadcast TV with Internet content and cable channels—all for 20 bucks a month. It also comes with a hard-drive that records shows and makes suggestions for related material to customize and personalize the overall viewing experience.
Sezmi, which debuted earlier this year and is available through Amazon and Best Buy, is currently in 36 markets across the U.S. and seems poised for major success in developing countries that can convert old broadcast towers to transmit digital signals. In countries that can’t afford to launch satellites, or run cable to each household, the Sezmi model is intriguing. “The level of interest, internationally, has gone through the roof in the past few months,” says Pati.
Wiser and Pati recently returned from Malaysia, where they met with the Prime Minister and partnered in a deal for Sezmi to be the premium TV service for the entire country. With Sezmi also expanding in South America and Europe, Wiser spends a great deal of time traveling these days, but relishes spending time with his wife, Amy, and his three boys—ages 3, 4, and 7—at their home in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, near Nevada City.
When in the States, he usually commutes from Nevada City to Silicon Valley in a plane—a Piper Arrow turbo charged four-seater—that he flies himself. It helps shave a couple hours off the trip, each way. It’s quite a change from his Child’s Play days, when he went to work in a graffiti-covered van.
Reflecting back over his recent years rubbing elbows with billionaires and meeting with pop icons such as Prince, Wiser says there’s only one time he’s been truly star struck, and it happened during his time at Sony. “Meeting Judas Priest was huge,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘I’m actually talking to Rob Halford of Judas Priest. This is crazy.’”
You can take the man out of Essex . . .