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A digital disruption in the music industry

Innovation in music is about more than just new instruments and tools to produce music; it’s about new channels of distribution, new ways of experiencing (live) music, dealing with the digital revolution and how that threatens intellectual property rights and putting human creativity up for discussion.

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Innovation in music production

Okay, the first thing you think of when talking about musical innovation, is probably new instruments and ways of making music. Well, at least that’s where our minds wandered. Following great musical innovations such as the electric Stratocaster guitar and the Moog synthesizer, right to modern versions of instruments, such as the Freedrum virtual drumset that lets you practice everywhere and the Sensus smart guitar. Or why not 3D print your own Fender guitar in this world of personalization? Musician Imogen Heaps takes it one step further and wants people to start making music by only using natural movements, with these Mi.Mu gloves.

The more digital-oriented musicians might want to take a look at the entry-level Dato Duo synthesizer for two, Mc Donalds’s brilliant marketing campaign resulting in the music production station placemat McTrax and Tuna Knobs which give back a physical sensation to touchscreen DJ software.

To produce new music you need to trust your own creativity and musical ear, but with Chordify you can also practice music made others. Just put in a song from YouTube and the music service will provide you with the chords.


Innovation in music distribution

To get an idea of how the music industry has been disrupted by the digital revolution and how record labels are adapting to this new reality, watch this video by The Economist.

One of the first parties to monetize on this digital movement, is Spotify. Here Pär Jörgen Pärson explains during the Slush Music event how the company battled the music distribution hype that was piracy:

“The product had to be so much better than piracy. Piracy was actually the superior product at that time, because it offered completeness in terms of library and also a relatively seamless user experience.”

Additionally – in case you’re curious, here’s a quick 2-minute video telling about the founding of Spotify: How Spotify Started. And with the development of streaming services, there’s also a new trend called playlist promotion. More about the importance of playlist for music discovery in this interview with Robby Towns (NestaMusic).


Innovation in experiencing music

When the way music is made and distributed changes, it’s no wonder that the manner in which we experience music has also changed. Music has become more immersive and omnipresent, you can listen on the go and whenever you want. It can even be added as a soundtrack to books (Novel Effect and Booktrack Studio) to give the reader an extra layer.

There’s also some pretty awesome updates to enjoy music in your living room, how about a turntable that looks like the real thing, but is actually a large, round, USB stick? Or the magnetic turntable that levitates the record? Are you on the go? Why don’t you amplify your music with the wearable Basslet, part bracelet, part subwoofer?

And talking about experiencing music, what about this cool interactive installation by the PZU Strefa Ciszy Royal Lazienki Music Festival in which you conduct a virtual orchestra? They used Kinect to track your hand movements which in turn influenced the tempo and volume of the music.


Blockchain & intellectual property rights

Blockchain is a buzzword in many industries, including in the smaller ones such as the music industry. Two major areas in which Blockchain technology is being fitted, the first being illegal copies of music files and tickets and the second is protecting the intellectual property rights of artists. But first start off with this panel at Midem which discusses how Blockchain can change the music industry in terms of copyright, transparency and royalties.

Now, take a look at different Blockchain applications specifically for the music industry:

  • Benji Rogers works on creating media files that can never be separated from its original metadata with the dotBlockchain Music Project;
  • Imogen Heaps hopes to create a Spotify-like library for music provenance in which you can not only find the artist and song, but also retrace which specific instruments are used and whether samples or remixes are used to create other songs;
  • Jesse Grushak from Ujo Music proposes an open-source rights database and payment infrastructure to help the fair distribution of music royalties;
  • Oliver Oram wants to prevent ticket fraud with Chainvine, which provides secure digital management of assets and identity. Fun fact: they started out working on the provenance of wines, hence the name Chainvine.
  • The Decentralized Library of Alexandria hopes to be a YouTube or Spotify service without servers, ads and censorship that protects its content from alterations.


Creativity a human characteristic?

Do you regard creativity as something unique, something only humans can produce? Well, think again…artificial intelligence systems have been able to compute new music after being fed a few notes, or previous songs. Take for example this 90-second piano melody made by Google’s AI Project Magenta, which it based on ‘hearing’ only four notes or this deep learning tool from SONY called DeepBach which made a harmonization in the style of Bach. The same FlowMachines also made new songs based on the style the Beatles used, by merging music styles.

There are at least two challenges with these artificial intelligence systems: one is that they need to be fed other music or tones to base the new work on, as it’s not yet able to create something out of thin air. But then again, as filmmaker Kirby Ferguson said: “Creation requires influence. Everything we make is a remix of existing creations, our lives and the lives of others.”

The other challenge lies in the fact that music has several constraints, one of which is harmony. Does a song sound right? Is it well-balanced? For a machine, that’s an impossible task to do well. Of which this not so successful musical, Beyond the Fence, generated by artificial intelligence, apparently is a perfect example. So, we guess musicians won’t be replaced by machines any time soon.

Must watch

If you really can’t have enough of music videos, we recommend you to continue watching these clips:


  • The story of Shazam as told by co-founder Chris Barton and why it wasn’t an immediate hit in the early 2000’s;
  • Here musician David Byrne debates the impact of context – in this case venues and architecture – on musical innovation;
  • This last clip tells the story of rights and samples, creating new music based on existing music. A story worth your time: Kirby Ferguson’s Everything is a remix.

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