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Talking Digital Future: Music Industry

Where’s the border between art and technology in the music industry? My immediate feeling when I think about this question is that music is always created with — and by — interesting technologies. The world has some very extraordinary devices for making sounds that go back thousands of years. Music is as old as humanity itself, and it hasn’t stopped changing since then.

I think music is almost an expression of different types of technology because you’re playing around with different sorts of materials and we use technology to invent different sounds: wood, metal, leather, etc. Today, some of the most incredible sounds and music are created electronically. I see a relationship between technology and music throughout the age of humanity.

I have considered music to be technology-based since a certain point, since when I was a child and I started to compose my own things. I think that the turning point was when I reconnected with a friend in our teen years and we decided to play together, to jam together. We did it using synthesizers, the old electronic keyboards, and it was immediately clear to me when we started to experiment. It was almost chemistry. When you mix different sounds, you get different results: that sounds nice, or that sounds terrible. So, we were very experimental. We definitely got a lot of different combinations of keyboard sounds, even adding kind of weird percussion into it and some vocals, of course.

We recorded quite a lot as kids, but the big revelation to me was the technology of multitrack recording. When you play music, there are a finite number of sounds you can play if you’ve only got your two hands. That’s great if you play with somebody else and they play all the other lines. But if you record all that and then you play it back and record over that record, and then you play that back and record over it, now you can layer multitracks of sounds.

Now, it gets really cool. I think multitrack recording was probably the breakthrough technology that really changed how I thought about the possibilities in music.

I think my passion and my desire to experiment with this technology was just off track up to that point. I really, really enjoyed it and recorded a lot of different things, so I think the combination of electronic keyboards, an electronic drum machine, an electric guitar and the four-track was just liberating. I could create infinitely, and I got pretty ambitious. I think those were the breakthrough technologies for me and many others.

Music and creativity

There is a lot happening right now with music and artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence has been around music for some time. I remember having a keyboard when I was maybe 12 years old that when you played the lead sound, the lead voice on the keyboard, the background band would accompany you. It wasn’t terribly smart, but it seemed to be playing appropriately to the key that you were in.

If you were to list the top 20 most popular popular rock songs ever created, a lot of them revolve around three chords or at worst four chords: F, G, A and F. So, we do a lot of our own copying. As humans, we look for patterns that people like, and apparently we like these simple sequences — they’re memorable and they create hits. So, we’re making it very easy for AI to process all that and come up with new tunes. Today, there is a program that will write music, and if you give it a few notes, it’ll write music around those notes. There are programs where you give them themes. For example, you want to write a soundtrack for a scary movie, so you put in that you want scary music, the length of time, the type of sound, etc., and it actually composes it. It is very, very advanced today.

I don’t know the degree to which it’s used in commercials and movies. I would think that, for example, if you’re a composer today, your life is much easier. Years ago, you’d have to create the manuscripts by hand for each instrument — the piano, the violins, the trumpets, everything. My guess it’s very much all automated today.

It’s another threat area for musicians and workers in the music industry today. The reality is, if I played you a tune and asked if it was written by a computer or by a human, today you couldn’t tell. So, there’s risk there.

Postproduction

There are other parts of the music industry that have been automated. For example, postproduction work is beginning to be increasingly automated. This is relatively repeatable, and it can be described to a computer, in which case the computer can take over.

All these jobs that humans have typically had, they’ve been under threat for years because the entry barriers have dropped so much. Anyone can write an album today, anyone can produce a YouTube series, and the jobs and professions have become not so well compensated. Now, you throw into the mix increased automation across the ecosystem of people involved in producing musical works and it becomes more difficult.

There’ll always be room at the very top. The John Williams, the Boston Pops Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic and so on, they are all going to stay with us. But for the masses, I think unfortunately we’re going to see all the benefits of AI but with the bad sides too.

I just want to contrast the fact that even though we’ve seen everything going technology-centric over the last decades, and even though the sounds are changing, there’s still a very big space for success without electronics. I will say though, we have to recognize that technology has made the quality of recordings so much better now. If you listen to somebody recorded even in the 80s and then listen to something recorded today, two albums side-by-side, we are lucky today. The quality today is so good.

Technologies change the experience of life. We have such high expectations now. I went to concerts when I was a teenager and they were so basic, while today it’s a multimedia spectacle. There are huge screens, lighting, smoke, lasers, drones and cameras everywhere. These are million-dollar productions every night. Go and see any big band today, it’s just a spectacle.

Think about the degree to which we’re using technology today to appeal to every one of our senses — the temperature, the smell even. It’s a remarkable thing today. We’re very lucky for those things.

Decentralization and music

Regarding the application of blockchain in the music industry, in the early days of peer-to-peer sharing solutions, people were sharing all their music for free and it was against the law. The music industry was rightfully concerned. Then iTunes came out, and then Spotify, of course, changed the whole model from ownership to streaming. It cost the music industry billions of dollars every year.

Another issue that continues to be a big challenge is the ability for an unknown artist or a new artist to maintain the authenticity of their rights to their music. I think that blockchain could be the answer. Now, I don’t actually know if anyone’s pursuing this, but the idea is that once you create any type of art — whether it’s a drawing, a movie or in this case a song — when you establish your credentials on an intellectual property repository, that would be the way that you could maintain your ownership. So, for example, if you sold the song and didn’t have the rights, it would be recorded in a distributed ledger. This would be a good way to manage musical rights.

My guess is there’s probably more than one solution out there, but it does seem to me that blockchain has offered for the first time a way to better manage ownership of music, and it helps everybody. Blockchain becomes a fantastic platform for transactions.

Right now, I don’t really see any downside to blockchain in the music industry. I would add the fact that centralized platforms can apply regional laws to music, and some musicians that are banned in one country can’t be present on a particular platform, but decentralized services that are now being developed can avoid this. In terms of self expression, musicians, as with all kinds of artists, should possess the freedom that blockchain can offer them.

This is part five of a multipart series on digital future and technological innovations. Read part one about quantum computing here, part two about artificial intelligence here, part three about smart cities here and part four about blockchain technology here.

This article is from an interview held by Kristina Lucrezia Cornèr with Dr. Jonathan Reichental. It has been condensed and edited.

The views, thoughts and opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of Cointelegraph.

Dr. Jonathan Reichental is the CEO of Human Future, a global business and technology education, advisory and investment firm. He is the former chief information officer for the City of Palo Alto, and is a multiple-award-winning technology leader whose 30-year career has spanned both the public and private sectors.

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