The Future of Algorithm and Blues

The music industry has been the canary in the coal mine of digital disruption over the last 25 years. From the launch of the compact disc in 1982 through the emergence of Napster in 1999, to the iPod and iTunes explosion of the early 2000’s, and then the rise of streaming services from Spotify and Pandora, music has been at the forefront of wrenching change caused by the force of zeroes and ones that has upended once seemingly impregnable empires and created new powerhouses that play by very different rules from their predecessors.

Just how much music has changed has been brought home to me whilst watching the new HBO series, Vinyl http://itsh.bo/1Ril52K the last few weeks. I was just getting into music at the time the show is set (1973) and all the artists - The New York Dolls, Slade, ABBA, Donny Osmond(!) - and the references - Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, CBGBs, Polygram etc. - are very evocative of an impressionable time in my life.

Seen in retrospect, the 15 years from the early 1970’s through the mid 1980’s was probably the high water mark of the modern music “industry”. Though Elvis and the Beatles had been huge and had made good money along the way by then, the monetization of music was taken to another level by the next generation of acts and their management. It was the Peter Grants (shown in full flight in Vinyl) and Prince Rupert Loewenstein’s and Ed Bicknell’s and Miles Copeland’s that really figured out how to make serious money for Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Dire Straits, and the Police. And for the record companies that put their LPs out. (Hey kids! Know what an LP is?!). In comparison to these guys, Colonel Tom Parker and Brian Epstein were lucky rubes!

Fast forward to today and music is continuing to go through incredible change. The advent of the Cloud and a generation of new consumers reared with a mindset that the supply of music is essentially limitless and essentially free, means that although music is ubiquitous in our society it’s seemingly harder and harder to make a living as a musician. Spotify is now facing a series of class action lawsuits from musicians frustrated by the minuscule pay-outs they receive even after their songs are played millions of times. Marc Ribot - ace axe man for Tom Waits and Elvis Costello, amongst others - said recently, “if Spotify represents the future of music, then my own future is looking grim”. (Hey kids! Know what an axe is?!)

In some ways, music is simply a victim of its own success. In its heyday the balance between the supply of music and the demand for it, created huge wealth for the acts and their ecosystems that could get past the gatekeepers of the “machine” i.e. the labels, the radio stations, the venues etc. The gatekeepers had a clear vested interest in limiting the supply side whilst pumping up the demand side. Result? Bucket’s d ’Argent (wasn’t that a Police LP?) for those manning the barricades.

But because so many people loved music and wanted to be in the “biz” (guilty your honor!) the supply side got flooded by more and more singers and bands, enabled by the lowering cost of the “means of production”. I remember spending small fortunes on studio time in the 1980’s on demos. Now, my 14 old year can make higher quality recordings on GarageBand for (basically) free. My nephew in the UK, currently lurking in a pre-viral/pre-revenue stage of his music career (!), makes incredible music http://bit.ly/1KE0HK8 on his iPhone sitting on the bus on the way home from college.

Because music is so easy to make and so easy to distribute there is more music than ever, which has in essence undermined the bargaining power of any individual musician/band/manager/label. Richie Finestra (the “hero” of Vinyl) would have a hard time funding his “sugar” habit (!) from his label’s profits nowadays in a world of $0.0005 cent payouts for each “spin” of a “track”. (Hey Kids! Know what a “spin” or a “track” is?!)

Whilst these battles continue to play out, a new wave of digitization - currently less visible and less well understood, but arguably set to be even more disruptive than what’s gone before - is beginning to crash on the shores of what remains of the music business. Now what’s being impacted by code is not just the distribution of music but its very production. And not just the use of digital equipment in a still largely analog process but the creation of an entirely new type of digital production line. And what’s at the heart of this new chapter in the digital story? You guessed it; algorithms and AI!

Unless you’ve been really paying attention the names Martin Sandberg, Lukasz Gottwald, and Henry Walter probably don’t mean very much to you. If you’ve got teenage kids, you may vaguely have heard of Max Martin, Dr Luke, and Cirkut, but exactly who they are and what they’re famous for will still be pretty opaque. Only if your inner 16 year old is alive and well will you know that Sandberg, Gottwald, and Walter - under their pseudonyms Martin, Luke, and Cirkut are responsible for a lot - and I mean a lot - of the music that has been pumping through your house and your car over the last few years; music that has probably been like white noise to you but has, in fact, been the harbinger of the Fourth Industrial Revolution that you’re now living in. I won’t bore you with the full gory list here, but suffice to say, it’s a long one and contains names like “Taylor” and “Pink” and “Lorde” and “Pitbull” and “Katy” and “Rihanna”. If you’re still not quite convinced about what a big deal this all is, Google “net worth + insert name of your favorite artist” and then Google “net worth + Max Martin”. You might be quite surprised by the results and the comparison.

Some of you - familiar with the murky world of pop music - may be at this point be thinking “What’s the big deal? There have always been Svengalis in music, lurking in the shadows, puppet masters controlling the latest disposal face … move along here, nothing to see”. Larry Parnes, Don Arden, Simon Cowell; legends (in their own lunchtime) one and all, who have revelled in their knowledge of the truth that there are no new songs, just new faces.

What however is so different about what has been going on in recent years, and what makes this so important to us “digital whisperers”, is that Martin et al have completely reengineered how music is made. For (MC) Hammer and Champy in big business read Martin and Luke in big music. They have used new technology to not just automate how music was made pre-automation, but have used new technology to obliterate the entire incumbent process of music production and replace it with a new 100% digital production line.

Once upon a time a songwriter or a melodist and lyricist sat at a piano or a guitar and wrote songs to be played on pianos or guitars. In the 1980 MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) equipment began opening up a new palate of sound and opportunity - I recall the excitement of buying my first DX7 and suddenly being able to be as loud as the guitars in the band! But though MIDI brought an explosion of “electronic” music http://bit.ly/WIcvTM, the “songwriter” and the “song” retained primacy and the process by which the “songwriter” brought forth the “song” remained largely unchanged. He/she/they would sit at their keyboard (ivory and steel or plastic and code) or guitar (wood and strings or plastic and steel) and write the song from beginning to end, just as Schubert did it, as the Gershwins did it, as John and Paul did it, as Declan McManus did it.

Even with the advent of electronic recording equipment and the infusion of software which allowed music to be manipulated so much that the right face with the wrong voice was no longer a problem (“put the Auto-Tune on 11 please”) the actual process of writing and making songs was still recognizably similar to when you and I were in the best unsigned garage bands of all time!

Fast forward to today though and the process is entirely different; entirely unrecognizable. Now the process isn’t akin to la boheme in his garret laboring for inspiration but more like the BMW plant at Spartanburg South Carolina http://bit.ly/219I3AY; the tortured artist who’ll sing for his supper has been replaced by the multi-national that knows precisely where the lowest common denominator is; and the Berry Gordy Machine has been superseded by a song machine so Taylorized (of the Frederick Winslow variety) that even the mighty Apple (of not the Beatles variety) have to bow down before Ms Taylor (of the Swift variety) by naming their new operating system in her honor, having tried to give her music away for free, and having incurred the wrath of the Taylor army (currently billions strong).

Now, this is how it works; a person or a team write the “beats”, another person or team write the “colors” (the sound palate), another person or team write multiple five second bursts of “tune”, another person or team improvises high pitch “warbling” (this is not a technical term, but there is no other term for it), and another person or team writes words (again not an end to end song-lyric but snatches of words and phrases). Often times these different people are spread all around the world sending files back and forward online; sometimes they are co-located in a hotel for a week-end amidst 20 or 30 other writers all doing the same thing. Producers, like Max Martin, then take these jig-saw puzzle pieces - which have been created with no box cover to indicate what the picture should like look - and pull them apart and stretch them and eventually weave them together into a song. Sometimes the “artist” whose name eventually appears on Shazam or Spotify or YouTube or Billboard or at the Grammy’s attached to the song has some input into this process; typically though the singer’s input comes last, and is by all means least important.

If you want the real 411 on how this process works check out The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook http://amzn.to/1JiBWv8; it’s an eye opening report from a front-line you probably didn’t even realize existed but which is a lead indicator of the unevenly distributed future ahead.

This process is a completely digital one; everything happens using digital/MIDI/electronic/software gear (guitars do appear on occasion, but are regarded more as cool “retro” signifiers). The sounds and rhythms are entirely shaped by the new technology; listen to the difference between a Depeche Mode song from the 1980's and Rihannon’s We Found Love from 2011 http://bit.ly/1d0PfXN or Future’s Where Ya At from 2015 http://bit.ly/1hurMCf. A Depeche Mode song is still recognizable as a “song”; a “four on the floor” drum pattern, a beginning, a chorus, a middle eight - you could even play “Just Can’t Get Enough” http://bit.ly/1j3pyso on an acoustic guitar. With Drake or Rihannon, the drums are hardly “drums” anymore; they’re not playing any known pattern or time; it’s hard to tell what key the song is in, where a chorus starts or ends. There’s absolutely no way that you could sit in your parlor with your friends and family and have a jolly good sing-along round the Old Joanna to “Hotline Bling” http://bit.ly/1QVtvKF.

The music that Martin et al have created is truly modern music; in Cognizant’s vernacular it is music that comes from a place of “being digital” rather than “doing digital”. It has been entirely re-imagined; re-engineered to be something quite different, quite new, and quite separate from what came before it. It has taken advantage of the new software based tools - powered largely by algorithms- and broken free of the limitations of the tools that for centuries have been to create music. Music production is more like an object orientated software development process now than the process which reigned until recently and which the Sumerians would still have recognized http://bit.ly/1SNlRbg.

Now the process has become so software infused and so subject to Code Rules http://cogniz.at/1rqn8Vv that new horizons are being breached; now services like Music X-ray https://www.musicxray.com/ and Polyphonic HMI http://bit.ly/1Qx9DmI are analyzing and reverse engineering secret sauce, akin to the way that Epagogix http://www.epagogix.com/ has been influencing movie production for some time. Now musicals are being entirely written by software http://dailym.ai/1OqdMl0; as an aside, I for one won’t weep when Andrew is replaced by Android Lloyd Weber.

Now the music business is a fully digital business, in a way that so many businesses aren’t yet. And because of this, now, I would hazard a guess, the trajectory of the music business is one that many other businesses will go through over the next few years. New technologies will be used to ape and replicate ways of doing things that are “just the way we do it around here”. Technology will be used to cut costs and improve efficiencies; technology will continue to be a support function. Until … a Max Martin in YOUR market, in YOUR business, in YOUR department figures out how to do entirely different things with the new tools; entirely different, new things, that are modern, and fresh, and creative, and exciting, and capture the ears, hearts and wallets of your customers. At that moment you’ll be like the kid trying to find a new chord on a guitar (THERE AREN’T ANY) while the new Max Martin next door is figuring how to make better “crispsy drums” (Google it!) which will drive the latest viral bomb. Of course, there’s honor and fun in being a new (Joe) strummer but the music the boomers love is going the way of the Blues, and of Jazz; becoming “heritage” or “classic” rock, fit for a 2,000 seat theatre or a small club but not the locomotive for an industry looking to suction up a 16 year old’s pocket money (more like Daddy’s credit card nowadays …) to create new levels of growth, opportunity, and wealth.

Cheap music is strangely still - 86 years after Noel Coward said it - pretty potent stuff. In fact, in its new digital form it’s probably set to become even more potent. Martin - and his attractive representatives on earth - have used code and algorithms - and now increasingly machine intelligence - to make music more of a science than an art, and have begun the climb towards a new high water mark.

Martin, and others like him, have shown what “being digital” is really like. They’ve built a new machine untethered from the past; untethered from the limitations of the old tools and ways of doing things, untethered from traditions handed down from generation to generation; untethered from how things just “are”.

Pulling off the same trick will be the soundtrack in your business – in every business - in the next five years. You had better start paying attention. You had better start warbling. You had better figure how to get some hits out of your new song machine. Otherwise, the bargain bin http://bit.ly/1Oqn2FC awaits.