In the old days it was DJs, A&R folks, labels and record store owners that were the gatekeepers to music. They decided what music got played, where it was discovered and how we consumed it. But today we’re seeing a new, important and potentially disruptive gatekeeper emerge… the developer. These developers are using new technology, data and open APIs to quickly create new apps that are changing how people explore, discover, create and interact with music. And they’re doing it in ways that they want to, not how they’ve been told to by others. They’re re-imagining the future of music.
Instead of resisting these new visions of the future, the traditional music industry should be embracing them. After all, it was young developers, like Napster’s Shawn Fanning that completely disrupted the industry 10 years ago. Since that time the music industry has been torn down and reshaped by something with just three letters, MP3. But there are another three letters in town that could prove just as important… API.
Like MP3, API is just another technical acronym, a shortened way to say Application Programming Interface. But it shouldn’t be ignored. On its own it doesn’t mean so much, just a way to read or write data from a piece of software or web service. But when put into context you start to see the significance.
It’s these APIs that are largely underpinning the work of these new gatekeepers. They provide access to the building blocks and foundations being laid down by a new generation of music companies, platforms and web services such as Last.fm, SoundCloud, Songkick, MusicBrainz and The Echo Nest. With them they bring vast amounts of structured data, music, streaming, recommendation, audio analysis, lyrics, chart data, gig listings, ticket purchase and so on. These companies are actively engaging with the developer community and making all their data and services available via (mostly) open API’s. Digital stores like 7digital, Juno and Beatport are taking steps as well to provide third-party developers access to their resources and track purchase too. Even some traditional media companies like BBC Radio One are starting to look at what information, such as playlist data, they could make available and how this could potentially be used.
A new thriving developer ecosystem is emerging around music. With these APIs and tools at their disposal, coupled with cheap and easy access to cloud storage, bandwidth and processing, a developer can build all manner of different applications for music consumption and discovery. Often the only limit is their own imaginations. New possibilities and ideas can be explored quickly and affordably. Huge infrastructure and setup costs are no longer a consideration, with little upfront investment or capital outlays required. The possibilities are endlessly exciting and it’s not just about music discovery and consumption. This new music ecosystem is increasingly about new forms and tools to advance music creation as well.
Music Hack Day
Just over a year ago Music Hack Day was setup to celebrate, encourage and accelerate this new developer ecosystem. It pushes the envelope forward by bringing new digital music companies together with hackers, designers and developers from a number of different disciplines, creating a playground for collaboration and experimentation. The format is simple – 24 hours to build the next generation of music apps. Web, mobile, software, hardware, instruments, art – anything goes as long as it’s music related. Whilst everyone else is busy talking about the future of music, at Music Hack Day we’re having a lot of fun actually making it.
Thanks to this simple format and straight forward focus Music Hack Day has spread quickly. In just over one year the event has traveled from London to Barcelona, whilst taking in Berlin, Amsterdam, Boston, Stockholm and San Francisco along the way. It’s quite incredible to think how many people have joined us at all these events, united by a love of music, hacking and making good things happen. And largely, these participants come to Music Hack Day with no pre-conceptions or hidden agendas. They’re not doing what they do for the money, profit isn’t central to their creative endeavors.
Yet the results have been quite staggering, with over 200 different apps built at 8 separate events. Of course the 24-hour time limit requires the developers to strip everything down to the bare minimum in order to show off their new hack to their peers and assembled press at the end of the weekend. But these limitations also lie at the heart of the events success. Whether it’s location-based music streaming services, robotic xylophones or t-shirts with song lyrics on them, Music Hack Day has seen an amazing selection of projects built – the useful to the useless, the serious to the hilarious, commercially viable projects to those that are instantly forgotten.
Underlying all this has been a wonderful spirit of collaboration and creativity which has grown between both the developers and the participating companies. It’s not surprising that labels such as Universal Music, Domino and PIAS are starting to recognize the importance of engaging with this community. In fact after the most recent event, held at the offices of The Guardian in London, several emails hit my desktop the following week asking how to get in touch with the creators of several different hacks that were presented.
Embracing The Chaos
It’s promising to see the music industry start to take baby steps towards embracing events like these. And I applaud conferences such as Midem for setting up initiatives like MidemNet Lab that highlights the best Start-ups & App Developers in the digital music space (SoundCloud itself took part in this process two years ago, thankfully coming out top!). But all too often the industry has been on the wrong side of innovation. Following rather than leading, reacting rather than creating.
There’s still a long way to go. Innovation often rubs up against the establishment and their current way of doing things. Barriers are put up and experimental services face rules and regulations that mostly apply to an older order of doing things. Those that try to explore the legal route are plundered for expensive advances, falter in finding new viable markets or are confounded with bureaucracy.
But the industry is currently faced with a huge opportunity that it should not miss again. What if the establishment embraced this chaos? What if it not only allowed the innovation to flourish, but also supported and encouraged it. There is so much potential waiting to burst out of this new developer ecosystem. To hinder its growth would be repeating the mistakes of our past. And it’s not like it was 10 years ago, when new technology was built outside of the industry, and completely took the establishment by surprise. The companies building out these new platforms, tools and services want to work with the industry, not against it. We should all be doing whatever we can to reduce the friction.
Even labels themselves could start looking at how they could provide resources, data and audio to developers. Whether it was done in-house or via third party companies acting on their behalf, it would certainly allow them to play, develop and experiment. Hopefully building (legitimate) new services along the way. Sure, maybe 8 out of 10 of these new services might fail. But this is nothing new to labels, they’ve faced exactly the same risk/reward ratio when it comes to investing in and signing new artists!
Love, Music & APIs
However it happens, the writing is on the wall. Technology is once again driving deep change within the music industry. Old gatekeepers are being replaced by developers and hackers who have all the tools at their disposal to build services which allow them to consume and interact with music exactly how they wish to. A new developer ecosystem is currently being built around music and there’s a huge opportunity for the industry to nurture and become part of it.
Music Hack Day offers just a glimpse of what can happen when developers are given the creative freedom to play, experiment and continue building the next generation of music apps. The industry must learn how to embrace the chaos not reject it. They must learn to love music and APIs.