Major Labels

Why The Music Industry Needs Computer Coders

1Here Samuel Potts unpacks how the music industry has expanded to include tech companies, meaning that it's now part of the tech sector, as well as why it needs to remain so and some the obstacles this newly enlarged industry will likely face down the road.


Guest post by Samuel Potts of Medium

You’ll read a lot in the news about YouTube, Spotify, Apple, Soundcloud, Microsoft, Google, Samsung, Nokia and other tech giants “negotiating with the music industry” over one thing or another. But that’s not actually what’s happening. Those guys ARE the music industry. They’re negotiating with record companies. Where “the music industry” is located has shifted again. ~Andrew Dubber, Professor of Music Industry Innovation, Birmingham City University / Director of Music Tech Fest

As Andrew Dubber’s quote emphasises, artists and record labels are the beating heart of an expanded music industry that includes tech companies — and we need to remain so. But there are challenges ahead.

There is no ‘scarcity’ of entertainment — to use a term from economics — no lack of access to content. This is a sector in which music’s reasonably small share of 36% is constantly under threat from likes of movies, immersive games, eSports, 10-hour TV series and social media — the list goes on.

As a result the recorded music industry is asking itself the question: ‘what can artists and labels do to create more value in a highly competitive entertainment sector?’.

In the era of the Commodore 64 computer in the 70s and 80s, users had to learn a computer language called Basic, typing in code to make the games work. They had to engage with the computer and the process of playing on a deeper level than your average ‘shoot em up’ games nowadays.

If you look at modern computing over the last 20 years, the adoption of Windows based operating systems has incrementally moved users further and further away from the mechanics of what they are actually using, or ‘what’s under the bonnet’’. The coding and innovation responsible for this revolution has created a frictionless user experience between us and how our computers actually operate — we just expect everything to work when we point, click and press play.

This is obviously great for the consumer, and has been highly profitable for tech companies, but in many ways this has actually moved artists and record labels further away from consumers on a technological competency level. Consider the shift away from physical manufacturing and distribution for record labels. The platforms and tools the industry now relies on such as Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, iTunes, Apple Music, Spotify and others have indeed enabled a closer relationship between artist and fan, but changes in their strategy, tweaks of algorithms, changes to a user agreements, and how much data they share, can wield huge influence on how we do business and even pose a threat to labels. Do we rely too heavily on our new technologically minded partners to keep the business running these days?

Generally, artists and record labels are still focussed on the creation of recorded music or the live performance of it. Outside of the live sector, howit’s experienced digitally is largely left to, or controlled by tech companies. For musicians now, whether independent, independently signed or a major label artist, the music they create is marketed and consumed using the skills of coders/developers/computer programmers in some way or another via intermediaries from direct-to-fan sites such as Pledge Music and CD Baby to platforms like YouTube, Spotify and Apple Music.

Of course many attempts have been made to bring technological innovation under the same roof as the artists and record labels but for the most part we’ve struggled. Perhaps we view the work of coders/developers in the new expanded music industry as something our tech partners should do, while we focus on the creative artistic side.

Our culture and education system may have traditionally considered computer coding and artistic creation as separate endeavors. But given the essential role of technology in the expanded music industry as it is now, it seems like the ability to code is a competency that music creators and sellers could certainly work harder at and understand more. Creating and developing the best music will always be the core of what artists and record labels do, but there is another resource we can draw upon to create value to ensure we remain the centre of the music universe.


“Over the next 30 years, with computing power as the new ‘technology breakthrough’ and data as the new ‘natural resource,’ the landscape of retail, financial services, manufacturing and entertainment will be transformed..” — Jack Ma (Founder and CEO of Alibaba, the world’s largest retailer and one of the planet’s biggest internet companies)

When you fuse the ‘natural resource’ we’ve always had i.e. MUSIC, with the digital world’s new ‘natural resource’ i.e. DATA, you can create value with code — a new ‘natural resource’ for the industry.

In established music streaming, we’ve already seen many examples of extracting value from the data it provides but we can go further to squeeze more value out of the artist/fan experience beyond just a ‘play’.

When it comes to ‘on platform’ experiences, while often restricted by the APIs, Kobalt’s recent creation of David Gray’s ‘Dynamic’ Best Of stream album and the Laura Marling streaming ‘Pre Save’ function (now adopted by many other labels) are creative examples of collaborations with coders that build a new ‘layer of value’ on top of the basic functionality Spotify offers, in this case to deliver deeper engagement and aid in distribution.

Both these examples gained a lot of media comment because they were examples of record labels adopting coding expertise on their own terms and applying it to music streaming; the format of future recorded music consumption and the reason we are now experiencing financial growth. They are also interesting because they are rare examples of customising the notion of music as a service that is experienced in exactly the same way regardless of the artist.

YouTube aside, consider the now declining ‘golden era’ of Soundcloud embeds, WordPress music blogs and Tumblr pages that previously accounted for a lot of consumption and discovery — all of which had customisation built-in. Even the pre-eminent former platform for music that was Myspace enabled you to add in design elements (a ‘skin’) and curate your friends. These functions seem primitive now. But as we have lapped up the connective prowess of social networks and the superior distribution ability of established streaming services (coupled with the decrease in the physical presence of recorded music) we have ceded control of much of the ‘look and feel’ of the digital experience to tech companies.

Metaphorically, the ubiquity of digital music has been compared to water. But even this commodity has recently seen a process of ‘premiumisation’ that is adding value and now bottled water consumption has overtaken sugary soft drinks in the US.

How do artists differentiate themselves; and for record labels how do we differentiate our repertoire, when distinguishing between a single, album track, album, EP, mixtape, playlist (all traditionally different value propositions offering varying profit margins) is very hard to do on established streaming services.

We could add value with more musical context, social features, customisable adverts and create new interactive calls to action that encourage collections — but crucially in the voice and tone of the artist. Building on top of an open API as standard on all music streaming services could unleash a wave of ‘premiumisation’ of the user experience. Furthermore, if it was restricted to paying subscribers, this would provide an additional incentive for users to pay.

We can view code and the resultant software as a means to add a new ‘layer or value’ that enhances and reimagines the standard offering of ‘all the world’s music, all the time, anywhere you want’ model. Recent launches in the startup space have hinted towards a trend in this kind of innovation.

Newly formed startup Vertigo Music connects premium users across both Spotify and Apple Music and gives them the ability to layer in video, audio, and chat on top of basic music streaming to create a shared immersive experience. Similarly new startup Anchor gives anyone the tools to make radio-like programming that sources the music from your streaming service. The Pacemaker app is essentially an extra layer of value and functionality on on top of the Spotify API that enhances the interactivity of the service by allowing you to blend tracks together like a DJ.

Outside of music streaming, other startups are adding value on top of dominant platforms: The Bot Platform has built a layer of value on top of Facebook’s Messenger that creates new opportunities to connect with fans and sell products with revenue flowing directly back to artists. Rapper Ryan Leslie has a startup called Superphone which adds a layer of value to an artist’s personal smartphone via an app, enabling them to directly monetise a closer relationship with their biggest fans.

The ‘tech vs music industry’ narrative dominated headlines in 2016 but despite recent high profile startup failures, there seems to be change in the air reflected by the formation of organisations like Ben Bowler’s Music Upwhich aims to create value for musicians and rights holders by supporting the music startup ecosystem.

Record labels have of course worked with coders in some way or another for years, however the relationship is usually limited to 1 or 2 in-house developers in a company of hundreds, or through agencies, consultants and music tech startups. The buzzwords of 2017: AI, AR, VR, Bots, Gamification have already established themselves and hint towards a closer relationship with coders in the future. With their help we can create digital products for active rather than passive engagement.


“These [streaming] services cannot be utilities, it’s not enough. They have to be — they almost have to make music a verb — it has to just move.” — Jimmy Iovine, Apple

If the whole recorded music business started from scratch in 2017 would our core product and means of monetising rights be a static 3 to 6 min long WAV file? Before the recording of sound was invented in 1878, for most people, music was something you DID, whether that was singing, playing the piano, or listening to a live performance with others. The situation has now reversed and in the current era of the music industry, our default perception of music is the recorded version rather than the live version. Generally, we see live performance as an interpretation of the recorded version. As David Byrne says in his excellent book ‘How Music Works’, “what was originally a simulation of a performance — the recording — has supplanted performances, and performances are now considered the simulation”.

So in a world where we are competing with a myriad of interactive digital content, and have almost limitless digital product possibilities, we should once again reverse our collective perception and refocus on music as something that is DONE; which can now be interpreted as a dynamic digitally-mediated experience rather than linear consumption. Music doesn’t have the monopoly on entertainment it had back in 1878, and while the monetary value of the industry is growing, its share of attention and engagement is still very low — we’ve got to work harder to cut through.

From an artist and record label perspective — we need to see code and the resultant software as not just a means to create ways to discover, distribute, and promote ‘traditional’ music content, but actually something that can be fused with it to create artistic meaning and give consumers more reasons to engage with it.

Glass Animals for their recent album ‘How To Be A Human Being’ created digital liners notes, games, blogs and other multimedia content to communicate what the songs were about, create meaning and drive engagement long after its initial ‘release’. Collaborating with Ashten ‘Whoopie’ Winger they created a video which depicted the song’s character in computer game and also an actual computer game that can be played for album track ‘Season 2 Episode 3’. The problem was how to extend the artistic narrative of the music off and then back on to streaming services to deepen engagement. The solution was creative coding.

Artist Childish Gambino aka Donald Glover, in his quest to create not a traditional concert but a “shared vibration” for his new album hired 22 year-old Miles Konstantin, the kid behind a really impressive unofficial fan website to build an app with his two roommates in their spare time. This became the start of Pharos, a 3 day trip / performance installation in the middle of the desert complete with a virtual reality experience. When the interactive zombie visuals on the screens didn’t move the correct way, Microsoft came up with a solution using an X Box Kinect sensor to capture the moves from Donald himself, then the software translated his physical movements to virtual movements on the screens. (Violet Skies used a similar method to capture movements and turn into sound at music/tech event Buzz Jam 2015.)

Joe Goddard and Domino Records collaborated with design studio People on the Electric Lines website, built on top of the Spotify API as an extension of Joe’s existing playlists. The result is a rich experience, using animation, voiceovers and loops, painting a picture of the influences behind the new album complete with options to save and listen to the tracks.

Coders in the 3 cases above collaborated with artists to help them interweave their creativity both online and offline, on digital platforms fans were already on and new ones that they created. They realised artistic meaning in another ‘space’ over and above live performance and stream of a linear audio track. The result is a suite of dynamic digital experiences that create value, attention and features that consumers were willing to pay more for and kept them engaged over a longer period of time.

Crucially, these two cases identified the problem first and built a solution that involved code after and not the other way around. Sometimes there is a tendency for the artistic and label community to ‘follow the tech’, in other words to “[fall] in love with the solution, and not the problem.”. A frequent complaint of ‘innovation’ departments at labels is that they are brought into the process too late, or when the campaign suddenly needs some ‘buzz’. The way of solving this is having the artist and coder work from the inception of the creative process

Seeing record labels as “agents for our artist’s creativity”, we can view code as the means to unshackle us from the idea that the primary way artists connect with fans is arguably the static, linear experience of listening to a recording. We could empower artists to create brand new art forms for each platform.

This could be a way we move to a more ‘experimental innovation’ approach to music creation, where we can constantly tinker, iterate and change as we go along (most recent example being Kanye West on his Life Of Pablo album). Mark Mulligan terms this ‘the death of the creative full stop’, Bas Grasmayer talks about the end of ‘Static music’, and Cherie Hu calls it ‘albums that grow and evolve’.


“Art challenges the technology, technology inspires the art”. — John Lassater,Co Founder of Pixar

Pixar, probably the most successful and consistent movie studios of all time, and a creative powerhouse, was founded by computer science graduates. Getting the right culture of openness, candour and collaboration was essential in bringing the two distinct cultures of art and technology together in such a profound way. The constant interplay between the art (in this case classic storytelling) and cutting edge technology (in this case computer animation) is why Toy Story, and countless others of their films were both groundbreaking and successful at the box office.

Shouldn’t artists challenge technology more in the music industry? What if, instead of artists being made to ‘fit’ their art into others’ technology, they collaborated with coders to create their own?

What if as an artist you expected a coder as part of your team in the same way as you expect an A&R, marketing manager or video commissioner?

Artists create art. Coders can realize that art in the digital space in ways that we never thought possible. To open up AI and VR opportunities we need creative coders on our team, and more importantly we need them as close to the artists as possible to ensure authentic experiences that fans will value — and pay more for.

What if in the future the coder was a member of your band? What if you made music directly from code? This is already happening with the burgeoning music subculture Algorave which is based around creating music from live coding. Music in the future may actually contained code: to quote another 2017 buzzword: ‘Blockchain”.

But how attainable is this to most artists? Not everyone has the resources of Kanye or Childish Gambino. Where are the coders?

As investment in tech has flourished, the demand for coding expertise has grown exponentially but so have the opportunities to learn. Coding is now part of the curriculum in the UK, with children as young as 11 being taught. In a few years, you’re probably just as likely to meet someone who can code as you are someone who can play drums or make beats for you.

In order to truly recognize how important coders are going to be for artists and record labels we need to see past the stereotypical Zuckerberg type character looking at a screen of 1s and 0s in his bedroom at Harvard University. As developed countries move towards service based economies rather than manufacturing, coding could become the new blue collar job. Coding is undoubtedly the future language of business and technology as well as a creative force in its own right — the expertise will become more prevalent in all sectors as time goes on.


“I think a lot of musicians don’t really see or understand, we just download the apps and use them, we don’t really see what goes on behind the scenes”.Tiggs Da Author, Buzz Jam 2016

Following in the footsteps of Music Hack Day and Music Tech Fest, YGN’s Buzz Jam concept (in partnership with Sony Music and hosted at Red Bull Studios) sought to connect emerging musicians and the coder community closer together when it launched in 2015. ‘Hack culture’ (computer coding with the spirit of playfulness and exploration) is growing and a new generation of tinkerers, hackers and makers are apply coding to music based problems — often with affordable hardware available on the high street.

A ‘hackathon’ is to a coder what a ‘jam session’ is to a musician — Buzz Jamis a mixture of the two. Phase 1 of the concept has for 2 years seen artists and coders connect directly to collaborate and create new musical instruments for one unique performance. In this way, music itself is the API on which bespoke software and hardware is built. Bringing the intangible to the tangible; the code that is used to power the instrument becomes part of the creative process in the same way the music and lyrics are. The performances are unique because artists challenge the coder and the coder challenges the artist.

At the 2016 event, in a world first, the band Nimmo along with Adam John Williams tackled the problem of condensing the band’s entire live show down so music could be played on a ‘digital tattoo’ that literally turned an arm into a musical instrument.

“Sarah had a tattoo that controlled the effects on her voice as she flexed muscles on her arm, which felt like a nice way of keeping the physicality of the performance.” — Nimmo in Music Week

In the 2015 event, My Panda Shall Fly and coders Yuli Levtov and Chris Waring created a generative looping app called the ‘The Loose Loop’ for his phone that meant when he performed a track you would literally not hear it the same way twice — a basic example of an ‘experimental innovation’ approach to live performance and the death of the ‘creative full stop’.

“The most interesting part was being paired with a coder/programmer who basically had all the knowledge to fill the gaps in your imagination and vice versa” — Good Love (Artist), Buzz Jam 2015

These examples aren’t a ‘service / client’ relationship, they are mutually reinforcing exchanges of creativity. The Buzz Jam concept recognises a new paradigm of code and music coming together as two complementary art forms.

The nexus of music and computer coding is where the truly groundbreaking music experience is going to come from in the future. Perhaps it’s not social/economic change that will inspire the next musical movement but a change in our perception and use of code? With the help of creative coding, artists and record labels can unlock new creative value that isn’t just related to the recording but how we create and experience music all together.

“The irony is that while creating music is a very creative process, so is generating software. A blank piece of music manuscript is the same as a blank screen with a blinking cursor. They’re both creative processes.” — Rob Wells (CEO, Music Media Inc)

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YGN/Buzz Jam wants to help you if you are a record label, manager or an artist and interested in connecting with a coder on a project, if this is you answer these questions.

Notes: These are my own personal views and not of Sony Music or Columbia Records

Disclosure: I founded Buzz Jam with Remi Harris MBE , it’s a partnership with Sony Music UKWe Make Awesome ShRed Bull StudiosYGN and WMA

Panel session: YGN/Buzz Jam Presents ‘Meet The New Member Of My Band, He/She’s A Coder’ featuring Syd Lawrence (The Bot Platform), David Emery(Kobalt), Andrea Cardenas (Artist, Live Coder) at IMS Conference, Ibiza, 25th May 2017. Video here soon.

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