The Inventor, The Mogul and The Thief

The three sides to Stephen Witt’s ‘How Music Got Free’

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Last month the MP3 was officially pronounced dead by its creator, the Fraunhofer Institute. It said in a statement:

“On April 23, 2017, Technicolor’s mp3 licensing program for certain mp3 related patents and software of Technicolor and Fraunhofer IIS has been terminated. We thank all of our licensees for their great support in making mp3 the defacto audio codec in the world, during the past two decades.”

For today’s generations it’s hard to conceive that a simple digital music format caused so much uproar in the music industry and almost brought the establishment down. But for us who lived through the mp3 heydays, it serves as a memory of a DIY piracy age that everyone seemed to be in at a certain point - I still have an external hard drive with my ‘entire music collection’ somewhere, just waiting to be formatted one day. That’s why I found Stephen Witt’s book — “How Music Got Free: The Inventor, The Mogul and the Thief” — one of the most interesting reads ever.

I first heard about this book last year, because a friend of mine had just read it. It caught my eye. Aside from the overtly 2000’s cover, it had a super catchy title. He assured me that, despite reading like a thriller, it was definitely non-fiction. A historical account of how these three characters, from worlds apart, had such a big impact in one of the most important periods for the music industry: the mid 1990s to mid 2000s.

The book is the result of extensive research by Stephen Witt — NYT journalist but also a self-proclaimed pirate during the Napster years. What he goes on to talk about though is not only about Napster, but rather about the underground mp3 piracy scene that was bustling behind it and that fuelled the craze of p2p file-sharing networks like Kazaa, Soulseek, Limewire, but also torrent tracking sites like PirateBay, KickAssTorrents, Oink, etc. In fact, for anyone who was online during that period and who performed that, now almost unthinkable, act of downloading an album, this book is a trip down memory lane. Torrent file names with ripping crew acronyms on them, waiting weeks for the last 3% of that rare album with only one seeder, finding you had just downloaded a fake version of Limp Bizkit’s — Rollin’. All fond memories, for sure. 

But rather than simply rehashing nostalgic references as I just did, the book gives us an often unheard of account of what happened behind the scenes. Especially, three scenes, embodied fully by these three characters (who are very much real). The most interesting thing I found out about the book was getting to know these three people. Their motivations, frustrations and ambitions. These are what really changed music industry. So I decided to take an educated guess at what these were, based on the book, and reflect on what they meant:


The Inventor

Image by: Burkhard Peter photography.

Image by: Burkhard Peter photography.

The book starts with the the ominous figure of one Karlheinz Brandenburg. A not-quite reclusive but certainly awkward engineer of brilliant talent that is described as “always having data to back up his arguments”. Brandenburg was a researcher in sound at the Fraunhofer Institute, which still up until today proudly claim to be the inventors of the mp3. All because of this man. Well, him and his team of engineers — including one brilliant engineer who got too tired of listening to Suzanne Vega - Tom’s Diner over and over in the process of creating the first mp3 encoder. But his technical feats were achieved rather easily when you compare to the objections he faced at a political level from the MPEG committee. In the end, he reigned supreme with his format, over all the others (yes, I remember having an mp2 in my computer, it was a thing), but not without some scars. For me he is the single most important character out of the three, as his work paved the way for what was to come and his attitude steamrolled through corporate intrigue and political lobbying like no other. In the end, if Brandenburg were to have been replaced by another audio engineer, the world would have been very different than it is today. So let’s break it down:


As an engineer at a research institute, leading the research on audio coding, I believe his ambitions to be obvious. Brandenburg worked on the theoretical codec concepts from his mentor, Dieter Seitzer, who thought it was possible to reduce the size of audio encoded files to 12 times less than the standard. So not only were his ambitions to prove his mentor was right, but also to succeed in practice, where his mentor had just theorized. Now here’s the glaringly obvious point: just like any leader of a research department he wanted to make sure that his R&D had positive industry applications and impacts. He wanted it to be huge. In fact, Brandenburg saw the mp3 as the natural technological evolution of audio encoding. He devised it and designed it so it would be technically superior to previous formats with a mixture between convenience and quality. Yes, Brandenburg envisioned the mp3 becoming ubiquitous, just not in the way that it ended up becoming. In fact there’s a scene in the book where Brandenburg is recounted as contemplating the mp3-player-packed shop window of an electronics store in a city he was in for a conference and realising that his creation was everywhere as he thought it would, just without the legal frameworks he thought it would have.


The book briefly touches upon two results of the mp3’s success. Brandenburg did become rich. And Brandenburg did get a big promotion to lead his own institute. That coupled with the now incredible claim to being the father of the mp3 and the fame and reputation that comes with it, are very important for a researcher. So it’s impossible for us to not mention those as big motivations behind Brandenburg’s actions. As a leader of a research department, part of his initial gambit was to convince Fraunhofer to give him the resources he needed to bring back the much needed application standards. All applications tend to rule on certain tech standards for the way they work, so all manufacturers know with which requirements to build their solutions on. You can call them the battles on which the format wars are waged, if you’d like. If a certain codec were to, for example, be ruled as the best way to encode audio for all National Baseball League audio transmissions then license fees would have to be paid out to its license owners. So the mp3 project was nothing but a buccaneers dream to bring back some royalty bounty and spread it around the crewmates. Brandenburg needed to win some application standard rulings — yet that was his biggest frustration.


For all accounts and purposes the mp3 was indeed a technically superior product to all other format alternatives out there. But the book sheds some light at the often unimagined corporate politics in the world of engineering. As consumers we tend to assume that the best product will always win and get the needed backing to succeed in the marketplace. But that’s exactly what didn’t happen to the mp3. In fact, as consumers, we barely know about the shady standards committees world, where large corporations lobby supposed impartial engineers for their formats to win certain application standard rulings. The book does a great job at covering this web-of-influence-meets-development-hell and you should buy the book to sink your teeth in what is one of the most revealing parts as to why, really, music got free. But to cut it short: the two competing formats had different corporate backers and Phillips, the company, successfully exerted enough influence for their format to be chosen as the basis for what the The Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) decided was the defacto way to digitally encode audio. Brandenburg and his Fraunhofer team were consistently defeated in ruling after ruling despite having the better solution because of the MPEG’s consistent refusal to back away from corporate lobbying, having even to accept to the inclusion of inefficient technologies in its mp3 algorithm due to MPEG’s ruling. This frustration led to that Tom’s Dinner encoder that I mentioned earlier to be released online for anyone to create their own mp3s. Thus came about the release of a little tool called l3enc. It’s source code was soon after being used by thousands of people. And thousands of leakers.


The Thief

Image by: The New Yorker

Image by: The New Yorker

Bennie Lydell Glover is by far the most central character of the book. He is at the core of everything that happened during those early days of CD-ripping and his actions can be traced back to millions of lost dollars by labels, artists and songwriters. As an employer and then manager of a Universal Music controlled CD-packing plant, he was the secretive main source to what was arguably the ‘best’ mp3 warez music crew out there— Rabid Neurosis, or RNS for short. With Glover, RNS and its ultra-paranoid leader Kali were able to beat some of the most iconic releases of the decade by weeks. But for all of his wrongdoing, my view is that Glover is probably the most replaceable character of this saga. Sure, his leaks were unparalleled in time and quality. But demand from consumers was so high and the bar so low back then, that his work could have been replaced by another ripper at a lower bitrate and at a shorter window before the release. And while our other two character’s ambitions, motivations and frustrations are public and extensively recorded, only Stephen Witt has really been able to get to know Bennie Glover like that. Here’s what I got from the book:


If perhaps Glover’s motivations and frustrations are a bit more clean, one is left to wonder what did he hope to achieve with it all. Where did he see himself after his fast and dangerous adventure in the underbelly of the mp3 scene? The book tells us of how starting as just a packaging plant employee, he rose to middle management at the Kings Mountain plant. Perhaps he saw himself as a potential senior management figure. We also know of how he quickly became ‘computer-savvy’ on account of his technical curiosity, a skill which was rare to come by in Shelby, North Carolina in the late 1990s. Maybe he saw himself as a future tech entrepreneur? And finally, the book mentions how he used the privileges he gained from Kali, his crew’s leader, for personal gain. This is the key element of his story. The warez scene relied on a reputation-based access system: this means that if you input enough pirated material onto private servers, you’d get access to other private servers with other pirated material on them. This could be anything from movies, to computer games, to software, etc. And if the rules were explicit about how to use this material—not to be used for profit — Glover at a certain point ran a medium-sized piracy business network in his hometown. He became known as the movie man: you just told him a name and he’d get that movie for you. He even started using barbershops as his local DVD dealers, allowing them to take orders of what their customers wanted and retain a small commission. Perhaps he saw himself as a first-generation cybercriminal kingpin. . 


Ultimately money could have been his biggest motivation. I mean, he was making a lot of it from that piracy racket. There’s a reason why investors love digital businesses and that’s because the margins are exponentially high once you scale up. Glover was selling movies like crazy, through his underlings and though he never dealt with music, I wonder how he was able to keep his reputation at his workplace intact until the last moment — he was suspended after the FBI raided his place, not surprisingly. The book takes us through different periods of his life where he had different motivations, from the early days of conspicuous consumption — spending money on dogs for breeding, a flashy car and racing bikes — to the later days as a family man — concerned to provide something for them. It also tells us that the more he provided for the family, the more he provided for RNS, without any apparent financial gain. As time passed, the more entrenched he got in the warez scene. But that didn’t mean knowing more of the scene. No, that rather meant being more in this sick dependency relationship with Kali. Glover was Kali’s magical secret weapon, the reason why RNS was the most reputed mp3 warez crew out there. The reason for all the press. The reason why they were able to beat releases with such big leak windows. Glover knew that and he took pride in that.


But Kali also knew he was dependant on Glover. And he often let that show. Kali would often burst into fits of rage when Glover didn’t get a release he wanted. Kali knew there was no one in the entire scene who had the same level of access to such early leaks as Glover. You had radio DJs leaking promotional copies. At most you had distribution companies letting something slide from time to time. But never had Kali seen albums being leaked with so much time in advance before their release. Glover was so up the supply chain that if he chose to leak an album to a rival crew, there was no way Kali would beat it. And this parasitic relationship only became more traumatic as time passed. If before, Glover didn’t really have contact with anyone in the crew but with Kali’s lieutenant and a factory co-worker who had started out with him leaking CDs from the plant, the situation became worst after MTV mentioned RNS by name in one of its pieces. The extremely paranoid Kali further drove Glover underground while continuously demanding more from him. Glover grew tired of this and at times would go radio-silence on Kali. Even holding out on a album he had stolen from the plant just to piss Kali off. Ultimately, Glover was frustrated that he was the one and only source of all of Kali’s and RNS’s reputation in the scene yet getting zero recognition for it. In fact, he was getting the opposite: just slack. When he walked out of the house, no one knew he was the reason for countless grey hairs on the heads of music execs around the world.


The Mogul

Image by: Sony Music Entertainment

Image by: Sony Music Entertainment

And speaking about music execs, who else could our Mogul be but none other than current Sony Music chairman Doug Morris. Morris is a career record man, having started a label that got acquired by Atlantic Records and rising to become the protegé of its legendary president Ahmet Ertegun. He’s been credited with creating Vevo and being a kingmaker, befriending many of the stars you still know and love today. The book focuses on his time as CEO of Universal Music Group. During the turn of the century UMG was home to some of the most sought-out releases in the market, especially those from the burgeoning hip hop scene with Interscope’s Dr. Dre and Eminem leading the charge. Unlike other music execs, he had always supported the genre through thick-and-thin, in part, due to his friendship with Jimmy Iovine. So, Morris was the head of the largest and coolest major label during the music industry demise and he was at the centre, not to say THE driving force, behind some of the most controversial decisions that the labels and the RIAA took. History paints Morris as an out-of-touch record man who was just looking for his own profitable gain, yet his story is that of a man with a keen eye for predicting the future and made business decisions with that in mind.


We’re talking about a guy here who started out in the old music industry. And by old music industry we’re not talking about the 70’s industry of excesses, but rather in the 60’s era of pop and chart hits. He began his career as a songwriter at Laurie Records before founding his own label, Big Tree Records. The key to his success was the rather mathematical ability to spot local or regional hits. He used to be the first to take a look at last week’s order sheets, looking for records which had unusual high levels of orders in just one location, say for example a college town. His theory, many times proven right, was that if a record was a local hit then it was probably good enough to become a regional hit. And then a national hit. So he’d push them until they did. His success at this was such that he caught the eye of Ahmet Ertegun, the cofounder and president of Atlantic records who mentored him to the top, eventually even up to the point of replacing at Atlantic, which was owned by Warner Music. A company which then saw fitting to make him his chairman, given that he had completely rebuilt Atlantic from dormancy. So all in all we’re talking about someone whose main ambition is to be at the top. Wherever he his, he want’s to be the boss. And if you think that now that he was at the top at Warner that it was smooth sailing from now on to retirement, then you can think again.


You can say that Morris’ ambition was highly tied to his main motivation — the higher the rank, the higher the pay. But the episode which found him let go from Warner is one of disregard for self-enrichment. Morris had been a supporter of hip hop and particularly gangsta rap. Unsurprisingly he saw it as a market not yet covered enough by the major labels, given the unparalleled demand for it. So he often pushed the case for acts such as Tupac, Snoop Dogg, etc. But as Warner was attacked by the US Senate about the lyrical content of some of these rap songs, execs cowered. Morris was adamant in defending their acts, because he sensed they were at the cusp of a music revolution. But this was an internal battle he couldn’t win, so eventually, he was fired and escorted out of the Warner building by two security guards. This was 1995. If it looked like Morris’ life in the industry was over then here’s where his second life started. The day he got fired he got a call from Edgar Bronfman Jr. — a third generation alcohol distributor and heir to the Seagram empire. He told him to watch a movie called The Shawshank Redemption. Morris puzzled as to why he should watch a movie about a prisoner that flees to a beach town, then awaits the arrival of his co-conspirer still inside. Edgar replied: ‘Well, Doug, because I want you to know that I’m that guy waiting at the beach for you.’ The deal was simple: Morris was to come in and create his own label under Seagram’s recently acquired music division, that they had no idea how to run. And so he did. MCA Records, which had been acquired by Seagram became Morris’ new playground. He quickly renamed it Universal Records and bought the ‘toxic’ Interscope from Warner. And by 1998, one day after purchasing Polygram for $10.4bn, Seagram was again promoting Morris to lead all of their music initiatives. Just 3 years after getting fired, he was once again at the top. And this time, with a much bigger financial package.


So this is where things get fun. A mere two years after that, another deal was closed. Vivendi, the french media empire successfully negotiated a merger with Seagram for its coveted subsidiary, Universal Music. At the time, Vivendi dismissed any fears that ‘the internet’ would hurt any future revenues! The book takes a decidedly partial turn here, where it introduces what will be known as ‘the contract’. To successfully secure Doug Morris’ stay ahead of Universal, his already big financial package at Seagram became inflated with egos, mixed with ambitions and thrown an unhealthy dose of greed at. This is the moment where Morris is able to renegotiate his compensation to be the third highest in the entire Vivendi, trailing behind only that of Vivendi’s Chairman and CEO Jean-Marie Messier and Edgar Bronfman Jr. himself — now vice-chairman of the merged company. If before, Morris was already ahead of any of his peers in the industry, this is where he takes a giant leap ahead of his competition. ‘The contract’ is a beast with a large enough fixed base salary and with a very attractive variable compensation. The book tells us that this variable isn’t just a clear-cut sales performance metric, but rather more related to return on investment. So, if the total capital investment in Universal Music by Vivendi in a given year (A) is lower than the total capital return for Vivendi coming from Universal Music (B), then Doug Morris would get a chunky bonus. So enter the early 2000’s mp3 ubiquity and the Glover/Kali RNS well-oiled leaking machine targeting Morris’ heartland of hip hop and we have a problem. Morris saw his bonus threatened by the damaging leaks. Say what you will about how these affected the artists, but in the end, fewer records were being sold. So Morris alongside the other majors pushed the RIAA’s infamous lawsuits to consumers found pirating. But those as history recounts, were more counterproductive than anything. So Morris did the only thing he could: he fidgeted the only part of his bonus formula that he could control. He couldn’t stop revenue from declining (B) but he could control the incoming capital (A). So in the following years Morris tried to always make sure to ask Vivendi less and less capital. And Vivendi wasn’t going to say no. Facing what was going to be a decade of operational descaling, Vivendi was able to nevertheless post profits for Universal Music, which is really what any company wants to show their shareholders. And Morris? He was able to keep his fat cheques coming in, even in the middle of the worst recession ever in the history of the music industry.


Morris went on to then create Vevo because of a conversation with his grandson. Glover and Kali ended up hunted by the FBI in an infamous legal showdown (PDF). And Brandenburg? He’s still at Fraunhofer. Still heading up it’s Institute for Digital Media Technology.

There’s so much more to the book than what I just mentioned here so I again encourage everyone to go read it. 

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And the Oscar goes to… the Tech Industry!

How awards season comedy reflects the entertainment landscape

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Jeff Bezos and Reed Hastings; Image Credit: Gregg Kilday — The Hollywood Report

Jeff Bezos and Reed Hastings; Image Credit: Gregg Kilday — The Hollywood Report

This year’s Academy Awards were truly unique. For once, I’m not talking about that tiny incident in the last 5 minutes of a 5 hour-long show that made history (Oh PwC… you were 17 years away from a perfect 100-year streak at the Oscars: it’s going to take more than R/GA to save you).

No. I’m actually talking about how this was the first year that a tech juggernaut won an Oscar. In fact not just one, but two of them won Oscars. Wow! The media world has really changed, uh?

It seemed like just a few years ago that Jimmy Kimmel was cracking jokes in his Primetime Emmys monologue about how none of the major TV networks had been nominated for the Drama category. Those were simpler times. That was in 2012. 5 years ago. Back then, for awards purposes, ‘old media’ were broadcast networks and pay-TV cable was where interesting and high quality content had its home, with its knight in shiny armour HBO leading the charge.

“It was a big year for cable. For the first time ever, none of the four major networks were nominated in the drama category. And you can’t ignore that. The academy is sending a pretty clear message. And that message is ‘Show us your boobs.’” — Jimmy Kimmel at the 64th Primetime Emmy Awards

It seemed like there was no stopping HBO back then. That year they had been nominated for an impressive 81 Emmys and had won 23 of them, the most of any network that year for the 11th consecutive year — as their press-releases like to read.

But fast forward… just one year… to 2013 and the press outlets were splattering a different kind of news after that year’s Primetime Emmys: David Fincher had just won the Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series for House of Cards, making Netflix the first online video provider to ever win an Emmy. And this was just the first year that they’d been nominated! Television was under transformation and Neil Patrick Harris’ opened his monologue accordingly.

“Welcome to the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards. Tonight we celebrate the best of television. For our younger audiences that’s the thing you watch on your phones.” — Neil Patrick Harris at the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards

The winds were changing. By next year’s Emmys with Seth Meyers, the butt of the host’s jokes was still network television. But the punchline wasn’t just cable TV anymore: it was Netflix.

“That’s right, MTV still has an award show for music videos, even though they no longer show music videos. That’s like network TV holding an awards show and giving all the trophies to cable and Netflix.” — Seth Meyers at the 66th Primetime Emmy Awards

Netflix (and Amazon) would go on to become major players in the television awards game, with shows like Transparent, House of Cards, etc. In 2015 they made the press go wild by being nominated in the best series categories. And despite not exactly cleaning up, they tallied up a joint total of 46 Emmy nominations. The next year that number had rose up to 70, definitely planting the streaming flag on TV land.

The scene was a dark one at a site that was once called the Nokia Theatre L.A. Live, only to be ironically rebranded as the Microsoft Theatre. But a few blocks away from Downtown, at the iconic Kodak Theatre in Hollywood where the Academy Awards are hosted, things were very different.

For years, light celebrity roasts and larger-than-life political statements reigned supreme at the Oscars, peppered with a few brilliant industry in-jokes. Who can forget those two amazing consecutive jabs that Billy Crystal delivered at Orion films in 1991 and 1992?

“‘Awakenings’ is a film about people coming out of coma; ‘Reversal of Fortune’ is about someone going into a coma, and ‘Dances With Wolves’ was made by a studio in a coma.” — Billy Crystal at the 63rd Academy Awards

“Take a great studio like Orion: a few years ago Orion released Platoon, it wins Best Picture. Amadeus, Best Picture. Last year, they released Dances with Wolves wins Best Picture. This year The Silence of the Lambs is nominated for Best Picture. And they can’t afford to have another hit!” — Billy Crystal at the 64th Academy Awards

Despite some hilarious M&A jokes here and there, the movie business didn’t have an equivalent hotshot contender like the cable industry to worry about. In fact, since 1990 the large majority of Best Picture Oscars had indeed gone to major film studios, with Miramax, Universal and Warner Bros. ranking up 4 wins each. Sure, there were up and coming production companies and studios to worry about. But an industry has to have an appropriate level of competition for it to produce quality products. And above all else, pretty much all of these companies had been founded by old studio execs with very good relationships in Hollywood who just wanted to do movies on their own terms. A good example of this is Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment which produced Schindler’s List, winner of the 1993 Oscar for Best Picture. It’s hard to think of Amblin Entertainment and other well-connected new companies as the young turks of Hollywood, much less the proverbial industry outsiders.

It would take until 2006 for the Academy to openly joke about what was to come, when Jon Stewart made the controversial joke about piracy in the movie business, a first since the late 1980s VCR jokes.

“Let’s face it hasn’t been the best year for Hollywood. The box office was a little bit down. And piracy continues to be a problem. So let me just say if there’s anyone out there involved in illegal movie piracy, don’t do it. Take a good look at these people. These are the people you’re stealing from. Look at them! Face what you’ve done! There are women here who could barely afford enough gown to cover their breasts.” — Jon Stewart at the 78th Academy Awards

Back then the movie business was waging a struggling war with online piracy. LEK had done an analysis for the Motion Picture Association of America where it had laid down the impressive stat: The major U.S motion picture studios had lost $6.1 billion in 2005 to piracy worldwide. This was the same year that TorrentFreak launched, the same year Grokster loss their landmark case against MGM, and the same year that BitTorrent was forced by the MPAA to remove links to illegal content on their website. Consumers’ habits were irreversibly changing and the industry was irresponsibly lagging.

Then along came 2017.

The Golden Globes have the particularity of celebrating the best of what both television and cinema have to offer. Yet there’s a common saying that the Golden Globes serve as good prelude for the Oscars. So after Amazon received 11 nominations, Jimmy Fallon’s joke at the Golden Globes’ opening monologue shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

“Jeff Bezos is here tonight— he actually arrived yesterday, but no one was around to sign for him” — Jimmy Fallon at the 74th Golden Globe Awards

Not only did it not come as a surprise, but it also served as an appetiser for what was to follow. That night Amazon went on to make history: Casey Affleck’s win for Manchester by the Sea was the first time Amazon won a Golden Globe for a feature film. In fact, this was the first time any online service had achieved that accolade. Golden Globes had been awarded to Netflix and Amazon before, but they had been only awarded for the television categories. The way was paved for the rest of the awards season.

A lot of people tend to think that, just like the Golden Globes, the entire awards season is just a big ratings-bait operation before the Oscars. So after Amazon placing second in the the number of film nominations at the SAG Awards in January and then scoring, alongside Netflix, their first BAFTA Film awards in February, things were getting hot for the Academy Awards.

5 years after his Emmy cable joke, Jimmy Kimmel was closing the loop: he was joking on how the movie business had changed forever, giving Jeff Bezos a free cameo and catapulting Amazon, the outsider, onto the movie-business pantheon.

“The movie business is changing, for the first time ever Amazon is represented at the Academy Awards. Amazon is the first streaming service nominated for Best Picture. “Jeff Bezos is the founder and CEO, and I want to say, congratulations to Jeff. And I also want you to know Jeff, if you win tonight, you can expect your Oscar to arrive in 2 to 5 business days, possibly stolen by a GrubHub delivery man.”— Jimmy Kimmel at the 74th Golden Globe Awards

That night made 2017 the most important year ever for online streaming, video platforms and this new age of tech-meets-media companies. Amazon won three Oscars, with Manchester by the Sea taking home best original screenplay and best picture, and The Salesman winning best foreign-language film. Interestingly enough, both of these wins were earned not for production, but rather for distribution. Netflix on the other hand effectively took home the Oscar for best documentary short, putting its original content budget to good use by producing and distributing The White Helmets. But if everyone was talking about both Amazon’s and Netflix’s wins that year, the trinity could have been complete with Google. Personally, I was sad for Google’s incredibly touching VR/360 short movie called Pearl not having won the Oscar for best animated short. If anything, because it actually represented one of the most interesting uses of technology at this year’s Oscars. I wonder how long will we have to wait for the first VR Oscar win? Or Google’s first?

360 Google Spotlight Story: Pearl
Set inside their home, a beloved hatchback, Pearl follows a girl and her dad as they crisscross the country chasing their dreams. It's a story about the gifts we hand down and their power to carry love. And finding grace in the unlikeliest of places.

There’s no other way that anyone can take these Academy Awards but as the sign of times. The film industry has officially been invaded by the tech industry. And especially now that they’ve tasted blood, we might as well get used to the sight of Silicon Valley executives parading around on the red carpet with their favourite movie stars.


DISCLAIMER: PwC, Amazon and TimeWarner, HBO’s owner, have all been my employers in the past, so judge my comments with the appropriate pinch of salt.

Interactive vs. Reactive vs. Generative content-making

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A few weeks back I went to the London Interactive Music Summit. It was the first time I attended any of the meetup’s gatherings, let alone their summit. But it was a small affair, that brought together friends, professionals and curious cats to know more about the world of interactive music over free pizzas and beers.

We heard from the guys at VRSUS, who do 360 experiences for live entertainment, from concerts to fashion shows, including even cooking shows and live feeds of artists creating their pieces. We heard from Panos Kudumakis, from Queen Mary University, evangelising the three MPEG proposed standards for interactive music. And we even had time to fit in a bit of blockchain, with a brief introduction to Mycelia and Imogen’s dream.

But the one presentation that caught my eye was from Reactify, who build mobile apps, interactive music installations, custom musical instruments and so much more, for labels, artists, festivals, events, etc. Sure, their work is incredible. But what I was more interested in was their very simple way of breaking down the variation-based music they do. Yes, I’m a sucker for the rule of three, but this three-pronged classification has something about it: variation-based music can be InteractiveReactive or Generative.

Interactive music, what I’d consider the closer of the three types to what we’d think of when we think variation-based music, is music where the individual has the driver’s seat. It needs a human input for it to exist and the listener actively chooses which path to go through in the music creation process. It tends to be based on a finite variation of loops or samples that can be mixed and/or effected to create seemingly infinite combinations.

Well-known examples of Interactive music include Ninja Tune’s remix app called Ninja Jamm, which allows you to create music based on the label’s samples, from Amon Tobin to Bonobo. Or more visually as well, what Massive Music did with mmorph — a webapp that you can intuitively control to explore a selection of loops, samples and base instruments on which to create great sounding electronic music that prompts you different aerial views of beautiful locations around the world.

Reactive music, sits right between Interactive and Generative music in the scale of human input and on-the-spot creation. Reactive music also needs the listener to take an active role, albeit not necessarily a fully central one. It takes information from the listener as well as the environment around him to create music. Key here is the word create, as most probably reactive music will not be based on existing loops and samples but rather as an instrument would, with data inputs.

So what would be an example of reactive music? Well, Reactify’s own Play The Road, a collaboration between Underworld and VW, turned campaign by Tribal Worldwide London is a sonically beautiful project which is also astounding from a data point of view. A total of 5data inputs were being constantly collected — RPM, speed, acceleration, steering and GPS position — in order to turn the car into an instrument and the driver into a musician. I highly recommend you check out the full test track video of the music being made in action, here and here — Underworld really know how to create great music.

Finally Generative music sits on the other end of the scale, the most far out from interactive music. It doesn’t critically need human input, despite being able to be influenced by it. This means that generative music is the philosophical equivalent to the tree that falls in the woods: in this case it will make a sound, whether there are people there to listen to it or not. Similarly, it will most probably be creating new sound outputs rather than just spitting previously recorded ones.

Now, this might be the trickiest type to demonstrate, but ranked high up there is the 1975 revolutionary album Music for Airports from Brian Eno, only limited by the distribution formats of the time—cough, vinyl (in fact, pretty much a lot of Brian Eno’s work is the best example ever of generative music). But one of my favourite examples, came this year with the release of critically hyped (and then critically bashed) Playstation game No Man’s Sky. If you haven’t heard, the game is a sci-fi explorative adventure that has a procedurally generated universe, with an infinite number of planets. Creating music for the game was either going to result in very boring loops of the same songs… or on a masterpiece idea of generative music by post-rock band 65daysofstatic that takes information of each planet’s characteristics or a player’s actions and surroundings as a blend of inputs to create a specific soundtrack, on the spot. Obviously, it takes a good band and a smart algorithm to bring it all seamlessly together. You can listen to a static release of the soundtrack here, but I highly encourage you to listen to the producers and the band talking about how they went about the idea and execution below.

So there you have it. Just in the same way that the London Interactive Music Summit ended I’m going to close also with the remark from Bo, the organiser, in saying that interactive music makes us really think too much about the 90s-era CD-ROMs and that maybe a new nomenclature should be found to encompass all these glorious examples (current suggestion: reciprocal).

What happens when you combine the Shoreditch House with YouTube and call that a creative tech summit?

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Well free food is one thing. Free end-of-friday cocktails is another. But then there was this overarching feeling of clubism from the audience. It was like your college entrepreneurship club alumni had thrown an event as an excuse to mingle with some high-flying speakers and decided to open that up to another member’s club because, you know, they were hosting it. Oh and they invited a few Google people to come along. Because, you know, they were paying for the whole thing.

It’s not the first time Intersection — the self-proclaimed creative tech summit — happens at the Shoreditch House. In fact, last year’s edition was sponsored by Yahoo (I wonder if they even tried that sponsorship again). And from the post-event video, it seems like the level of speakers was similar to this year’s: superb. And that’s what I thought was the best thing out of the whole event (free food and drinks aside). If you manage to bring together the founders of KanoThe Smalls and Jukedeck alongside poets, lifestyle bloggers and YouTube stars, then I’d say you’re doing something interesting, to say the least. Forget the fact that they were all just mixed in this hotchpotch of vague themes that led to them speaking more about what they wanted to rather than what they had to. On the official theme of “examining the relationship between creativity and technology” there was as much as there was on “the transformations and trends in how we work and play, travel and trade, share and socialise, create and connect”, which is to say, 7 random things that speakers think are important.

But in the midst of workshops on how to build your audience with YouTube or panels on how the sextech industry is still majorly untapped, there were a few pearls. Some of my favourites included:

  • Director Phil Griffin sharing with the audience how her teenage daughter had seen of two of his recent short films, one with Rhianna and one with Prince Charles. After 15 seconds of the Rhianna film she immediately proceeded to say “she doesn’t mean it” yet she stuck with 15m of the Prince Charles film. He believes the newer generation are so desensitised from all of the constant faking that they only respond to genuine honesty.
  • The functional history of music videos being decoded, from the times when Queen and Bowie changed them from promotional tool to a art pieces with Bohemian Rhapsody and Ashes to Ashes. And how recently YouTube and video monetisation had changed them back into promotional tools, in the perpetual search of the highest metrics.
  • Or how Kate Bush’s album The Red Shoes released alongside short-film The Line, the Cross & the Curvefrom which 5 of her music videos were taken from, was heralded as a visual concept album. But that now, that so many albums feature intrinsically essential visual elements, no one calls them that any more because they are seen on different platforms and not on MTV anymore.
  • How fake news begged the question of echo chambers and how social media doesn’t just perpetuate information but also culture in social waves of influence. When was the last time anyone discovered any music on Facebook that was decidedly different to what they usually listen to8? Is this because you tend to be friends with those that like the same music as you? Or is this because Facebook’s algorithms are programmed to push you music from friends it knows share the same interests? Wasn’t record store browsing the way to solve genre-holes in the past?
  • Phil Hutcheon, CEO of DICE, stating that their data game is so on-point that they can now run an artist through their system and understand what is the likelihood of a show being successful at a specific price-point, thus making it possible to identify what the perfect ticket price would be. Is this only London or can we proxy to other capitals, given certain data points? Doesn’t this sound like any promoter’s dream? And in this case, wouldn’t this in turn change the legacy schedules of how album tours are programmed?
  • Roland Lamb, CEO of ROLI, mentioned that it’s impossible for us to even begin to imagine the sound of Rock’n’Roll without an electric guitar. The fact that we hear a famous rock song being done by a another instrument, takes something away from it being rock (just like HBO’s Westworld fantastic Rube Goldberg saloon piano versions of rock classics, like Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun, arranged by Ramin Djawadi and custom-built as piano rolls by QRS Music Technologies who are doing amazing things). But how are genres going to look when they are no longer defined by a particular instrument, as instruments themselves are able to create new and unheard of sounds, as these won’t be limited by a particular sound themselves?
  • And the question of whether acts are really taking more time to break nowadays? Or whether growth these days now should be assessed with short-termish metrics that still cater to big-budget marketing campaigns that drop at the same time? Rather than the more longer-term sustained growth metrics that streaming are more prone to. This should be rhetorical by the way, but it seems like it isn’t yet, as evidenced by one of the questions for a panel that was supposed to be about the industry’s new wave of music makers still being: “Ownership or Access. What do you think is more important?”

This all ended in the most classically clubist way possible: with an official closing party with hot-music-ticket-for-the-agent-world Jessica Reyes, an unofficial after-party and even a definitely not-official house-party after that. Disclaimer: I didn’t go to any of these.

A final note in case you haven’t had the chance to see Ed Cooke, from Memrise, live: just do it, you’ll be blown away by how easy it is to remember long numbers!

The tech amidst all the noise of the London Drum Show

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I mean this both in a literal as well as in a figurative way. Why? Because despite having been to hundreds of concerts and sets and having a not-very-healthy inclination for staying as close to the speakers as possible, I don’t think I’ve ever been in any place as loud as the London Drum Show. But also because I went there not really knowing what to expect but a sea of cymbals, drum sticks and maybe some electric drum kits.

Over the two floors of the show, things were pretty much well divided. Conferences, autograph signings and educational workshops were upstairs. The ‘pit’ was downstairs. This was where I stayed most of my time and where exhibiting companies were showcasing their products. As soon as the elevator doors opened, I was awashed by a giant wave of sound from countless drums being methodically hit in what sounded to be like 500 war movies being played at the same time. Fortunately, that’s only allowed to happen during the first 15 minutes of each hour, so shortly after, I was off to explore some booths.

I had come at the invite of my friends at ATV Europe, a hardware manufacturer that markets and sells electronic musical instruments and video equipment. I had met them a week before at my Web Summit event, music tech drinks, and they were keen to demo their new prototype of the aFrame. I arrived just in time to find the stall packed with people awaiting for the demo. They were not disappointed.

The basic concept of the aFrame is not that ground-breaking. In essence, it’s not that different from that of an electric drum-kit where you can program several different sounds to be played upon hitting the same area of the kit. But the fact that it is the electronic version of a hand-drum makes the whole experience very organic and much more intuitive. You can pick the aFrame up and hold it in any way you like — on the floor like a cajon, between the legs like djambé, play it like a conga or like a pandeiro — and the sound will come out as if you were playing any real version of those instruments. Or something totally different, yet meticulously programmed to do so through a set of variable interfaces that you access through your computer. A small music bank sits behind the acrylic panel that gives it its sound and allows you to easily switch between anything from what sounds like a double bass to a church bell. I was impressed.

But that was just the beginning. Right around the corner I was also attracted by a booth who was using sound in a different way to all the other booths — they were completely silent. That was Aerodrums and all they had was a bench with someone having fun air drumming, a sensor, a television screen showing a crash test dummy drumming and three headphones jacked to it. It took me a split second to realise that the dummy drummer on screen was mimicking the exact same moves of the air drummer on the bench. Now I had heard of these guys earlier this year when I organised an investor networking event called #MTFAmplifier at Music Tech Fest as part of the EU MusicBricks project, but the interface was much more rudimentary. Here they were presenting a well-built product, with zero lag, that had a simple augmented reality interface and allowed you to customise your drum kit to play whatever you wanted. Needless to say that this product banks on the convenience in location, because anyone can now play drums anywhere without having to carry a whole kit around. Oh yeah and without annoying neighbours while practicing, that’s also important. Oh and at a much more accessible price than a normal drum kit which, you know, sort of pulls drumming out of its expensive olympus and democratizes it for the masses.

Technology was actually more present than what I had expected. From Promark’s heat-activated ActiveGrip drumsticks which are designed to get tackier as players hands sweat and their body temperature rises — a nice analog invention that applies a layer of coating to the sticks, reminding me a lot of thermodynamic clothing. To the much needed Tune-Bot, which brings the electronic tuner that people are used to in other instruments to the drums. I wanted to have seen my friends at Polyend, who make the fantastic Perc robot drummer, but no surprise there as I think it would cause a bit of an uproar in the place with the highest concentration of human drummers in the world. But it’s good to see technology evolve a class of instruments that hasn’t really gotten much of a shake-up since electronic drum kits. Alas, really the only thing that was missing from the London Drum Show was an on-the-spot 3D-printed ear-plug service — the lowest lead time I saw advertised amongst the lot of custom ear-plug providers was 48 hours— I would have bought a pair then and there to save my ears from such massacre.