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How Music Hack Day Evolved – And Why the Music Industry Must Embrace the Chaos [INTERVIEW]

This post is by Alison McCarthy (@aliiimac). She's an intern at Hypebot.

image from farm5.static.flickr.com Fueled by caffeine and pizza, developers, designers, hackers and music geeks gathered together this past weekend at Manhattan's General Assembly for New York City's first Music Hack Day. Designed to bring New York's tech cognoscenti together to build the next generation of music applications, by the end of the weekend, 175 hackers built 72 hacks in just 24 hours. The rules were pretty simple: "Web apps, mobile, software, hardware, art… anything goes as long as its music related." NYC 2011 hacks included iPhone, Kinect and Midi instruments, a personalized music mashup generator, crowdsourced party playlists, and SMS song dedicators.

See the complete list here.

I spoke with Dave Haynes, founder of Music Hack Day and VP of Business Development for SoundCloud about the history of the event, how the current changes that are taking place in developer culture can influence music consumption habits, and how the music industry is slowly opening up to these new innovations.

Where did the idea of Music Hack Day originate?

I had the idea back in 2008 just before I started working at SoundCloud. The idea wasn't necessarily anything new at the time. Yahoo! had been doing Hack Days since 2006, Last.fm had a Hack Day sometime around 2008, and Songkick had been doing Hacker Meetups around that time too. But I was noticing that there was a bunch of smart new music technology companies, including SoundCloud, that I really respected and admired, and they were all starting to launch APIs. So why not put them all together, put on a Music Hack Day, and see whether it would work?

Not being an actual developer myself, I wasn't exactly sure what would be involved. But I had a friend, James Darling, who had run a hack day event called Rewired State, which based on opening up and hacking with government data. He offered to help me make Music Hack Day a reality and with we just got on with it.

Was it difficult putting the first event together?

I was working for SoundCloud three days a week, while the company was still in bootstrap/startup mode, so I had a bit of time each week to get on with organizing the event, and getting companies interested in taking part of sponsoring and putting together a small team of volunteers.

It was actually a lot of hard work – perhaps more than I imagined. I had to spend one of my summer holidays focused entirely on last minute organizations for the event. My wife would go down to the beach with my son while I would go to the local internet café firing out emails and trying to get the sponsorship together.

But it somehow worked. The first event in London was a huge success. Others had been following on Twitter and wanted to see how they could do similar events in their own cities. Within literally just a few months, we did events in Amsterdam, Berlin and Boston. Things somehow snowballed. And I guess the rest is history!

After 12 events, how do you think the integration of music and tech has changed since the first Music Hack Day event in London in 2009?

It's changed a lot actually. Back in 2009, most people in the industry would probably have never even heard the word API before, let alone understand what hacking meant. I'd like to think that we've played a big role in changing that. It feels like the industry is really starting to recognize the important of tech and seeing the benefits of embracing it.

Generally speaking, there's also a lot more companies in the 'music tech' space now and a continuous stream of new digital music startups. Companies like Last.fm, Songkick, SoundCloud and The Echo Nest (and several others I should probably mention) are establishing themselves as important platforms within the new developer ecosystem that is being built up around music.

Obviously, the way we consume music is very different from even a decade ago, and these new innovations in discovering and interacting with music change us as consumers. How do you think this will specifically affect music consumption and listening habits?

Well first of all I think we're seeing a reduction (although not a complete erosion) of the importance of the old gatekeepers. There used to be just a few companies and individuals who got to say what we listened to and when we listened to it. From a Music Hack Day standpoint, what I find exciting is the possibility of developers/hackers becoming the new gatekeepers. They're building the apps, sites, and tools that can recommend us music, share it within our own groups, interact with it in new ways etc. They're re-imagining how we discover, consume, and listen to music. Take The Hype Machine as an example. Its founder Anthony Volodkin put together the website originally in his bedroom whilst still at university. Now it's changed the way thousands of people discover new music.

But I think we're also seeing a lot of innovation of the creation side of things too. Creation is the new consumption. Kids don't see music (or any other media for that fact) as a one-way street anymore. They want to create, remix, or participate. Nowadays you just need an iPad, the latest music apps and some time and you can be creating and sharing music in a meaningful way.

There seems to be a definite collaborative spirit within this community. Can you explain why this is, and how it strengthens the community?

Yes, that's one of the things that people always remark about when coming to a Music Hack Day for the first time. I think it's partly because we've kept Music Hack Day as non-profit and as agenda free as possible. The hackers come, and are happy to spend a whole weekend building new projects, because they're music fans themselves and they just love what they do. For the companies they benefit too but there's still a sense that everyone is working together for the purpose of pushing things forward and making exciting new things possible.

As this new ecosystem develops and grows, everyone benefits. I hope we can keep this collaborative spirit going even as Music Hack Day grows.

How has the music industry rejected/embraced this community and these new apps so far?

I think the music industry has really started to take notice of what we're doing and is now starting to embrace it. Despite what some people say there are some pockets of very smart people in the music industry and within the labels. At most Music Hack Days, we've had both major and independent labels in attendance.

After the last Music Hack Day in London, I got into the office on Monday with an inbox full of emails from digital marketing guys at the labels asking for more information about certain projects. And the recent Music Hack Day at Midem was a really great way to showcase what we do, to an industry audience.

Why do you think they've been hesitant to adapt in the past?

I think the music industry is starting to adapt but there are still a lot of bigger structural issues to be dealt with. Digital music startups are having to deal with an industry with a business model that is still stuck in the economics and technology of a bygone era. The pace of change needs to increase in order to catch up with the pace of change of the technology. Otherwise, the industry is going to miss out on some huge opportunities.

I genuinely believe that for creators there has never been a better time than now. And there's no reason why there shouldn't still be a healthy business around that too.

It's interesting how the stigma of the term 'hacking' has changed over the last 15 years or so. How and why do you think our association with what a 'hacker' is has changed?

When I give talks about Music Hack Day I often get someone come up to me at the end who still doesn't quite get what a hacker is. They somehow have visions of someone who's breaking into a bank's security system or posting state secrets on to the Internet. Hacking and hacking culture is something that is totally different. Really, it just means someone who is using the tools at their disposal to solve a problem or building something new.

I think we're seeing a lot more of this nowadays as the tools get better and as people build more and more meaningful hacks that can solve a lot of real world problems.

Have there been any projects developed out of Music Hack Day that have gone on to reach the mainstream, or have influenced technology that has gone mainstream?

One of the special things about Music Hack Day is that there actually isn't a specific commercial agenda to the event. In NYC, we had 72 hacks built. One or two will probably launch on the App Store or go on to become commercial projects. Others might get picked up and used by thousands of people. A few might inspire others to go on and build something entirely new. Most of them will inevitably not be used or seen again.

But that's okay. To allow true innovation to happen you have to remove as many barriers as possible and see what sticks. You have to leave your prejudices and the agenda of the status quo behind and embrace the chaos.

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Image Credit: Thomas Bonte 

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