Thirty-six hours, five hundred cans of Red Bull, 200 bags of pop chips and (maybe) the next great music app -- a New York Music Hack Day diary:
Saturday, Feb. 12, 10:30 a.m.: It's a cold, sunny day in New York. Hackers are sprawled across almost every inch of General Assembly (generalassemb.ly, @gnrlassembly) -- "an urban campus for entrepreneurs seeking to transform industry and culture through technology and design." Representatives from company after company take the mic to pitch tech and explain API (application programming interface) to a mostly male, mostly young, very eager audience. The space smells of coffee, but the energy in the air isn't driven by Stumptown alone‹there's a palpable energy in the airy, new-startup-centric office space; a desire to get cracking and get creating.
There's Italian lyric site MusiXmatch (@musixmatch). Berlin-based online audio distribution platform SoundCloud (@soundcloud). And Boston-area technology and research-focused music intelligence startup the Echo Nest (@echonest). Only one of the major labels is presenting‹Universal(universalmusic.com, @umg). The speaker talks about artist metadata API. And unfortunately, that metadata API doesn't turn out to be terribly in-demand;
only one person ends up using it in his hack. But Tony Huidor, VP of technical product development at Universal Music Group Distribution, says Universal will continue moving forward and working on its API.
"I want us to get smarter about tapping into the developer community, to expose the data, and move the business forward," he says. A few weeks later, Universal label Island Def Jam announced a partnership with the Echo Nest. IDJ's catalog will be made available to developers who employ the Echo Nest's API. The absence of many of the majors at New York Music Hack Day (nyc.musichackday.org) can be attributed in part to timing‹after all, it's Grammy weekend.
And in fairness, there weren't many independent labels at General Assembly. Michigan's Ghostly International (ghostly.com, @ghostly) took part, but few others were banging down the door. Many labels appear to have little idea what a Hack Day is, let alone how it could benefit them. At the very least, they could pick up some new ideas and maybe some new talent to grow their digital departments; but more importantly, they could gain a critical understanding of what makes this new and influential community tick.
After decades -- generations -- of operating on a closed system, being part of the hacking community would involve a massive rethinking for many labels. Hack Days are all about open sharing, swapping and building. And if, at the end of the day, someone makes something cool out of your code, well, more power to them. "This event," says Vickie Nauman, VP of North America for 7digital (@7digital), a U.K. digital media delivery company, "is every label's worst nightmare." But does it have to be that way?
The first public Hack Day (the name is something of a misnomer -- most Hack Days span the course of a weekend) was held in 2006 at Yahoo's headquarters, but kids have been getting together to write code and build new functions practically since the dawn of modern computing. SoundCloud VP of business development Dave Haynes (@haynes_dave) organized the first Music Hack Day in London in 2008.
"I'd started working at SoundCloud and was interested in other music startups like 7digital and Last.fm," he says. "I didn't know what I was in for when I started to organize the event, but . . . it was a success. Since then, there have been 12 Music Hack Days [around the world]."
Feb. 12, 3 p.m.: Before everyone splits into small working groups, hackers take the mic and talk about their dream projects: One guy mentions using genetics/DNA service 23andme (23andme.com, @23andme) to create personalized music recommendations, while another wants to make an Instagram (the photo-sharing program) for songs. Some of the presenting companies hold breakouts for those with additional questions. The representative from MusicXmatch talks more about the company's back story and its dealings with publishers.
"We went to them and asked to buy the rights, and they said sure. Then we asked for the lyrics . . . and we were told to go on the Internet," one of the founders says with a smile. "They own the rights to something they don't even have a copy of. We're at a point where in the future, we could be selling the music back to them."
In a small room at the back of the space, four young men slouch over laptops and toss around ideas. Bowdoin College student Hartley Brody, 20 (@hartleybrody) is down for the weekend -- he's a music blogger/Web developer. Next to him is Eric Vreeland (@vreeland), who lives in Boston and works for HubSpot, a marketing/Web analytics company. They're trying to figure out how to combine text messaging, song delivery and artist development. They slug Snapples, scribble on a whiteboard and every so often burst out with "Oh, yeah, we should offer analytics as well!"
John Britton (@johndbritton), who organized Music Hack Day in New York, looks a little like actor/blogger Wiley Wiggins and, should his job as an "evangelist" for Twilio (twilio.com), which "provides a Web-service API for businesses to build scalable, reliable communication apps," not work out, he could easily start his own cult. Britton's enthusiasm is infectious but not overbearing, and he makes writing code seem like the coolest thing since being a rock star.
"I originally wanted to do this for totally selfish reasons," he says, lounging on the sofa at General Assembly a week-and-a-half after the event. "My roommate is a great musician and a hacker, and I always wanted to jam with him and didn't know how. I did some research and found an open hardware device with a grid of buttons you can program. In the process of playing with it and learning about it I came across Music Hack Day. I e-mailed Dave and it all started there."
Britton says the February event surpassed his expectations. "The only thing I'd change is the capacity of the space," he says. "We had a huge demand and there was a waiting list to come to the demos." He also says he wishes more musicians who weren't so tech-savvy had come, and adds that he would've welcomed more labels, too. "We're not closed off to labels," he says. "This is something they really should be coming to."
Feb. 12, 9:30 p.m.: Brief dinner break. Several hundred cheese pizzas. Though, in the spirit of the event, there are a number of toppings so each can be customized. Brooklyn's DJ Rupture (@djrupture) sets up to spin at the party to celebrate the "end" of day one, even though many hackers will continue working through the night. Rupture (born Jace Clayton) grew up in Boston and says he has known Brian Whitman (@bwhitman), a co-founder of the Echo Nest, for a while. Clayton often writes about the intersections between music and technology and is currently raising funds on Kickstarter for a music and film project called "Beyond Digital Morocco." While Clayton himself isn't a programmer, he embodies the spirit and goals of Hack Day‹bringing together seemingly disparate elements to create something new.
The majors aren't totally mired in the dark ages. Many of them are actively engaged, at least in certain areas. "All four of the majors are our customers," Echo Nest director of developer platform Paul Lamere (@plamere) says. "They are very interested in data." The Echo Nest was a major presence throughout the event‹volunteers were clad in matching velour jumpsuits, ensuring the event ran smoothly, and some Echo Nest staff are already at work on a Music Hack Day to be held in the San Francisco Bay Area in the spring or summer.
Sunday, Feb. 13, 3:30 p.m.: Day two. There's still excitement in the air, although it's mixed with a slightly funkier aroma. The hacking has gone on all morning, and the wiki has filled up with demos -- 72 in all. The hackers have two minutes each to wow a jam-packed room with a new creation.
Hacks fly by, and even the slightly bungled presentations, or those handicapped by uncooperative technology, dazzle. There's "tweets on beats," which sets a tweet to a beat, and a call-in karaoke game. A few minutes later, an app that synchs a person's heartbeat with music -- and when the heartbeat gets too slow, the person is "Rickrolled" and leaves this life listening to Rick Astley.
One person presents a program that uses face recognition, connects to Facebook and decision-making website Hunch, then finds songs a user will probably like. Another showcases Beat Parade‹a computer program that does everything mash-up musician Girl Talk does except dance around wearing American Apparel. While these seem like larks, labels could possibly use and perhaps monetize them; publishers could possibly make a fortune from the karaoke game, and the facial recognition app might just be a social media marketer's dream come true.
"Music is something people are passionate about," Union Square Ventures principal Fred Wilson says. "The focus on music made the hacks easy to showcase. If people had been hacking on huge data sets, it would not have been as easy to do all this in a weekend."
But what if something that was done that weekend had caught Wilson's eye, so much so that he was ready to invest? He says that's not really the point. "A lot of these things don't turn into companies," he says. "They're more like senior thesis projects, a proof of concept. Recruiting is a big part of all these events."
Jim Lucchese, who was a music lawyer at Greenberg Traurig specializing in music and digital media deals before becoming CEO of the Echo Nest, says that most companies that provide APIs are happy to strike deals with developers, should their apps start to turn a profit.
"The terms of the API could state that it is free for noncommercial use and there is a cost for commercial use," he says. "If someone uses an API to create an app that then starts to turn a profit, they would do a licensing deal with the company. It could be a revenue-share deal or a licensing fee. And if the developer feels the terms of the deal are too greedy, they can find another source for the data."
This attitude stands in stark contrast to the traditional music industry, where using someone's copyrighted material, for free or not, will trigger a lawsuit faster then you can say "sampling." Nonetheless, collaborative, open-sourced, sharing‹these are ideologies embraced not only by the tech-savvy kids at Music Hack Day, but a whole generation for whom remixing, remaking and customizing is second nature. A report released last year by consulting firm Accenture found that globally, about one-half of millennials have accessed online collaborative tools, online applications and open-source technologies when they found their workplace technology lacking. One can only imagine that the percentage who do so for personal use is even greater.
It's too soon to say whether Hack Days have changed the music business on a grand scale. But just because a hacker has yet to invent an iTunes killer, or an app that tracks down illegal downloaders and makes their computers explode, doesn't mean hacking isn't influential, and a huge part of the future of the music business. If labels embrace the hacker community, they might be more privy to cutting-edge thinking and innovation. The first label that rolls out an artist app with Foursquare integration would surely be ahead of the game.
Feb. 13, 6 p.m.: All 72 hacks have been presented, and the prizes are being announced. Third place goes to Stringer, which allows users to play instruments through Xbox 360's Kinect. Second goes to DJtxt, which allows users to collaboratively build a playlist. First prize goes to an invisible violin.
As the gathering breaks up, hackers stream out from General Assembly, some toward bars on Union Square, others toward a hot shower and bed. But most are going to continue hacking, continue creating. They'll keep on trying to change the music industry -- one keystroke at a time.