Monday, November 11, 2013

Music Hack Day 2013 Boston: Revenge of the NERD (New England Research & Development Center)

This weekend I attended the demo session of Music Hack Day. Hack Day is an annual event in which groups of coders voluntary fill themselves with pizza and energy drinks, pull an all-nighter and create the best 'music hacks', or apps, they can in the limited amount of time allotted, which in this case is 24 hours. It's kind of like a reality show for people with brains, but not televised.

The event took place at Microsoft's NERD (New England Research & Development Center), which is on the campus of MIT in Cambridge, MA. Which makes sense. A few things struck me while I watched the parade of ideas before me (there were 60 projects, and presenters had 2 minutes each to show their wares). Firstly, the speed with which people can go from idea to execution. Granted, it's not necessarily a ready-for-prime-time kind of execution but it certainly is a proof of concept. One that didn't exist on Saturday November 9th, but did exist on Sunday November 10th. 

The second thing that struck me is that the next big thing truly can come from anywhere. Sure there were some music hacks presented that were just for the heck of it art and science projects, such as an HTML 5 music visualizer and Spotify plug-in or one that turns an MP3 file into a video game. But there were also ones that could easily be the next Twitter. And let's face it, when 99.9% of us first encountered Twitter we thought to ourselves why would anyone bother, not this is going to become an all-access live in real time media platform that alters the landscape of news, marketing, and the way as many as a few hundred million people function, moment to moment. 

And as I looked around the room I thought to myself "this is what the new music industry might look like". With music available in digital, streaming form its value shifts from exclusively being with the object (LP, CD, etc) to the context in which it is placed. This is why services like Spotify, Pandora, and iTunes radio have caught on the way they have. And even YouTube offers a playlist and recommendation listening option. We can have a lean-back listening experience, or we can provide additional inputs. We move from music as something complete that exists within a closed system to music as something that can be experienced via a database, appended, remixed, and reshaped at will.

A few of my favorite hacks of the day:

PAPPA aka Paul's Awesome Party Playlisting app which you can see in action here.

The 'non-contiguous cartogram' that used streaming data to illustrate the most popular songs in each state. You can play with this one here, and note that the map rendered is clickable and listenable.

The Secret History of Music, which not only mashes sounds but also stories. Go ahead, play with it here. Faves include the behind the music stories that never were of Avril Perry and Biggie West aka Smalls Kanye.

And this all happened with just some facilities thrown in by Microsoft, some sponsorship from companies such as EchoNest and Rdio ...and substantial amounts of simple carbohydrates and beverages containing high fructose corn syrup. I'm happy to say the whole thing looked nothing like the music industry I remember from, gasp, the 80s and the 90s, where the system was based around, because at the time it largely needed to be based around, big budgets and tightly controlled formats, because the goal was to serve a mass market, and that's what mass markets were made of. Now, music is there to be streamed, to be downloaded, to be mashed, to be aggregated, and to be hacked. Coders are abundant and one or two people can bang out an app that plugs into Spotify and the next thing you know the experience of millions of tracks of music has been altered. It may turn into nothing, but it could turn into something. And the cost of trying can be as low as the willingness to stay up all night.

Blog Bonus! From San Francisco Music Hack Day 2013, held earlier this year: The Bonhamizer. This hack adds the tank force drumming of Led Zeppelin's John Bonham to your favourite songs. Try it out here (you can even link to the code).

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