That festival thing I keep mentioning…


In May last year, I went to an event called Music Tech Fest to talk about the work that I do as ‘Professor of Music Industry Innovation’ at Birmingham City University… and I pretty much never went home.

Today, I’m the festival director, and we’re taking it around the world.

Music Tech Fest is not a conference. It’s worth pointing that out up front. It’s a festival of music ideas. People come and demonstrate or perform with their new musical inventions, their new research, their new startup company or their new way of creating music – and those ideas are shared, celebrated, discussed and so on.

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While that’s going on, we run an overnight hack camp at which music technologists, DIY electronics enthusiasts, software programmers and makers respond to challenges – to create new types of musical instruments, invent new ways of engaging with music, producing sounds, sharing music or interacting with it. There are prizes.

What’s really exciting is the diversity of music and technology on show. The London festival in September is at the home of the London Symphony Orchestra – and will include everything from Geek Punk (“gunk”) to dance music to pop to contemporary classical composition. We’re going to have live music, the whole thing will be streamed online, and it’ll be both fascinating and a whole lot of fun.


We’ve already been to Wellington and Boston so far this year and are also going to host Music Tech Fest in Berlin in October, Paris in November and New York in December. Next year is even busier. It’s simultaneously immensely exciting and entirely terrifying.

To be clear – I’m still Professor of Music Industry Innovation. Festival Director is my other full time job. And of course it’s full-on. But I very rarely do things that are not related to that intersection of music and technology these days.

Every piece of leisure time I have is more or less connected to that theme of music and technology. Of course, there is so much overlap between my two roles, it’s sometimes difficult to tell where one stops and the other starts. Which is probably just as well.

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For instance, the festival has an academic symposium component to it – what we call the ‘afterparty’ – a one day seminar that brings together the best academic brains on music tech to discuss and plan research projects. When we did the festival in Boston, Nancy Baym and Jonathan Sterne led a mission to create a Manifesto for the Future of Music Technology Research.

And one of the great things about that was the fact that the academics in the room had just spent the weekend at the festival being inspired by a non-stop showcase of new ideas, inventions and performances. The London ‘after party’ will be a symposium at Queen Mary University London at which we will discuss possible interdisciplinary and collaborative research projects (and potential sources of funds to run those projects) that might arise out of that manifesto.

The festival itself is hands-on, performance-based, experimental, improvisational and kind of messy – but never dull. It’s a lot of work pulling all of the threads together that make it all happen. I do everything from securing sponsorship to booking acts, negotiating with venues to arranging food for the hackers.


But the thing that makes it all work is the fact that I am part of an incredible team of people. Don’t for a moment assume that I’m doing all the work here. Far from it. I get to do the fun and interesting stuff: meeting with incredible people, finding out what they do and inviting them to be part of the excitement. I do some of the logistics, of course – and I don’t want to downplay how utterly involving the whole thing is – but I am far from alone in this.

And the interesting thing about this is that the entire team is made up of people who, like me, went to the festival and pretty much never went home.

The reason I bring this up is the fact that I’m going to be talking a lot more about Music Tech Fest in blog posts to come. It’s a strange beast, and it takes a while to get your head around it – unless you come to one. Then it immediately makes sense in all its crazy, creative and surprising aspects.

But if you haven’t really encountered it before – consider this a brief introduction. There’s a lot more to it – and I’ll be talking about that here – as well as on the Music Tech Fest site itself.

Morning in Málaga


I deliberately woke up early to catch the sunrise in Málaga today. I’m not here for long, and I want to see a little bit of it, so I think a walk before breakfast might be in order. That view above is from my hotel room. You can smell the sea from here. It’s already warm and I can hear music, motor scooters and seagulls, despite being right in the city centre.

I’m here to do a presentation at a one-day symposium about computers in music. I’m not entirely sure how that happened, but I’m glad that it did.

My host is Francisco Vico, who for the last four years has been running a research project in which he has developed an artificial intelligence system that can compose music with no human intervention. That music has been performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, and has been recorded and professionally released.

This article explains the project well.

As you might expect – a computer composer can be prolific. Iamus, the non-human intelligence behind the works, is about to release its second album. The first, which contains the contemporary classical work ‘Hello World!‘, was the first record solely composed by a computer programme and recorded by human musicians.

I’m here with UK science writer Philip Ball, whose book The Music Instinct is one of my favourite works on the subject – up there with Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia.

There are just five speakers today, but they are from very different fields – ranging from respected composer Gustavo Díaz-Jerez to a media and cultural studies academic (that would be me). Our role here is to reflect on different aspects of what it means that computers can compose music. None of us, as far as I can tell, seem particularly averse to the idea.

Not that all music should be composed by artificial intelligence, of course – but that it can, and is being composed. I think that’s interesting, and I think it’s important that it’s happening – because that potentially changes our relationship with music yet again – in much the same way that the industrialisation of music production changes our relationship with it.

Our audience, however, might differ. For the most part, we’ll be talking today to a group of musicians from the Málaga Conservatory, and our brief is to be provocative. Not argumentative, necessarily – but provocative in the sense of challenging people to think in ways they ordinarily might not. I think I can manage that.

My presentation is about how music has fundamentally changed in terms of how we compose, produce, distribute and consume it with each major shift in the dominant media environment – from an oral society, to a print society to an age of digital media – and beyond. I started writing about that here on this blog a little while back, but I’ve since refined the idea somewhat – and this one-hour presentation today is my first chance to try the now slightly more elegant theory out in public.

Of course, it’ll have to be clear – and, since the presentation will be in English in a Spanish-speaking country, I’ll need to keep the pace significantly below my usual rapid-fire delivery – but I’m looking forward to presenting and defending my work, because this is what a lot of my research over the last decade has led up to – and there have been a number of recent ‘Eureka!’ moments that tie all the pieces together. And this reflection on the Melomics AI research project is the perfect opportunity to try these ideas out.

But first, I’m going to have a proper look at Málaga – as much as you can before breakfast, at any rate. And later today, I’m told there’s a very good second hand record store where I can pick up some flamenco music on vinyl. Because really – that’s the important bit.

The line between the digital world and the physical one is imaginary

There have been some really interesting projects spring up recently that make use of physical objects in three-dimensional space to negotiate or interact with digital media. This seems important.

It’s something I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to recently – and I’ve been paying close attention to this development, especially with respect to music making and music consumption – but it applies right across the realm of things we like to think of as ‘creative’ or ‘playful’.

To show you what I mean about the erasure of the line between digital and physical, take a look at Osmo – an iPad toy that uses wooden puzzle pieces to engage children in creative play and group activities.

As you see from the video, users arrange the wooden shapes on a table in front of the iPad and get instruction and feedback to let them know when they have it right. It puts the play in physical space rather than simply on the screen, but also uses the intelligence of the iPad to make the experience entirely interactive.


Hacking music radio

Logo orangeI decided to stay on at Music Tech Fest after my presentation yesterday, and ended up joining in with the hack challenges. There were plenty that I had nothing to contribute to, as I can’t write code or programme in any way – but one of the hack challenges caught my attention: “reinvent music radio”.

In fact, the brief was actually posed as follows:

Radio is crucial to the music industry. It promotes music to the masses and largely determines the taste of the public. The problem is that the channel to make and promote music is controlled by a few large stations. Can you develop an alternative to radio that allows independent labels to promote their music to the public?

I asked if anyone in the room was keen to work on this, and had no response. Most people wanted to invent new musical instruments, design a “3D playlist”, create a software oscillator, build a hardware drum trigger, hack the robot bartender – that sort of thing. Sexier projects where you get to make things, in other words.

However, once I finally decided to tackle the radio problem myself, I was quickly joined by a designer by the name of Jedediah.

Between us, by about 2am, we had come up with the core concepts for RADIATR: a mobile platform that aims to solve some of the problems discussed in the hack challenge above. Here’s the document I wrote, with some of Jed’s mockups in the mix.

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Later today, I’m giving a presentation that outlines some of the key ideas. It’s not perfect, of course – it was created in less than 12 hours in an all-night brainstorming and development session fuelled by junk food and Red Bull (perfect hacker sustenance, apparently…), but I think there are some interesting concepts in here.

Here are the slides from this evening’s presentation. There are prizes at stake.

Interested to hear your thoughts. Whether we end up doing something with this remains to be seen – but I think we could stand to kick it around a bit more before we abandon it. I may be utterly sleep deprived, but I feel like there’s potentially something worthwhile in here somewhere…

All this and a robot that makes cocktails

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I’m in London for Music Tech Fest this weekend. It’s exactly what it sounds like – a bunch of people coming together to talk about (and mess around with) music and technology. The talks are all being streamed live online (and most likely archived) at that link, if you’re interested.

I’m here with Jake, and it’s the first time we’ve done the father and son music industry conference attendance thing. It’s kind of fun – especially since he’s way more involved than I am.

Screen Shot 2013 05 18 at 16 32 14For his part, he’s engaged in the music hack event, in which there are a number of different challenges by different companies and interesting individuals to invent new things or solve certain sorts of problems.

It’s very coder-heavy (unsurprisingly for a hack event) – but there are also projects that are about inventing new sounds or simply reworking and remixing existing tracks. Jake’s currently working on a remix of a band called Everything Everything – and it’s sounding really great.

I gave a talk about my work – particularly with respect to the Brazilian independent music industry and the ‘music as a tool for social change’ projects I get involved with and study. That seemed to go well.

It’s an interesting and diverse crowd – everything from tech startups to musicians, entrepreneurs to social activists.

I always get a good response when I talk about the Fora do Eixo stuff – which bodes well, because I think that’s going to be a central strand of my work for the next few years.

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I’ve become interested in one of the hack projects – which is to completely reinvent radio. That’s the challenge. I’m hoping that one table of developers will want to get to work on that idea, because I have some thoughts about how that might work. I have just spent the last decade thinking about that problem, so it would be nice to have a play alongside somebody who knows how to build things out of internet.

But apart from the formal discussions and active projects, it is just a really lovely and creative space to be hanging out. I’ve had some great meetings with some brilliant and interesting people – and I think I may have a new funded research project in the pipeline as a result of one of those meetings.

There are some people here who are looking at the intersection between music publishing, sync licensing and digital technologies, and they’re going to be developing some really interesting software in that space, and they’ve asked me to come on board as an academic partner.

That sounds to me like a very good thing to be involved in – if for no other reason than it raises some fascinating problems which will dovetail very nicely with some of my other work.

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The festival is on all weekend, and I’m staying on through. It’s a great place to be.

I’m particularly looking forward to 6pm tonight, when Robert from Music Brainz is firing up the Bartendro 7 (pictured above). I’ve never had drinks poured for me by a cocktail-making robot before.

Budapest for work

Sunrise from the hotel

Sometimes the cool and interesting things that my colleagues do at work spill over and I get some of the benefits. As a result, I was in Budapest last week for the European project that Paul Long & Jez Collins run out of our research office.

It’s about innovation in popular music heritage and its impact on vocational training – which basically means a bunch of stuff about celebrating the musical history of a place (as Liverpool does with the Beatles, Chicago does with Blues music, etc.), and then understanding how people do that in really interesting and surprising ways, figuring out how they get (or make) jobs in that, and then translating that into what we teach people who want to do those sorts of jobs.

The project connects with different types of educators, music industry people and students in a number of different countries – from Bulgaria to Ireland, Finland to the Germany, UK to the Netherlands. All of them interested, for one reason or another, in: 1) popular music heritage; 2) innovation; 3) vocational training for the media and music industries.