OpenMusicMedia is dead, long live OpenMusicMedia

Notes on six years of music and tech / OMM #13


Last Friday the final OpenMusicMedia took place in London.

Six years ago, Dave Haynes and Jonas Woost decided to get a bunch of folks together in a pub for regular discussions on the future of music, media, and technology — Anthony Volodkin of The Hype Machine was their first guest. The series was very active until late 2010, and this month Dave decided to resurrect the event one last time to mark another milestone: his departure from SoundCloud.

I was lucky enough to be asked (along with Nikhil Shah of Mixcloud and Andrew Dubber of Music Tech Fest) to share some reckons with the assembled group on what the last 5+ years have felt like.

The three of us responded with short personal takes on where we’ve been and what excites us today. (Nikhil’s stream-of-consciousness monologue — which began “So, garage is back…” — was a highlight.)

Based on my rough notes, here’s what my bit covered, inspired by my early adventures at Last.fm right through to This Is My Jam.


We Were Building Infrastructure

Back in 2008, it felt like our biggest problems in music tech were infrastructural; there was tons of opportunity in creating new plumbing, in connecting things together.

We busied ourselves making infrastructures for streaming, for sharing, for tracking, for discovery, we ran experiments in collecting and portability.

And unlike a lot of other tech innovation happening at the time, we were doing it mostly outside the Bay Area. We built these new infrastructures from London, from Stockholm, from Berlin, from the US east coast, from LA; places where music and technology culture intersected daily (or rather, nightly).

What felt inevitable was that our work would soon render physical record collections (and even mp3s on a hard drive) obsolete. We weren’t sure what would happen once that day arrived, but we knew it was coming soon.

Discoverymania

As we gained confidence in our new infrastructure, we had a new problem on our hands; the music equivalent of cable TV’s 57 channels and nothin’ on.

When you can summon tens of millions of songs in a matter of seconds, what do you put on? How do you find the good stuff?

“Discovery” became the catch-all name for this challenge. But it’s a slippery term, not least because the best discoveries happen when you’re doing something else; music fans rarely sit down with an app and say “okay, I’d like some discovery now please.”

At the time I was fully under the thrall of work we were doing at Last.fm within the burgeoning Big Data movement and the seriously amazing science starting to happen at other companies. Surrounded by our shiny new pipes, I believed a purely technical approach to discovery was imminent.

If we connected a few more data sources together, tuned our algorithms, and made sure you could scrobble everything, the thinking went, the discovery fairy would soon pay us all a visit.

Well, sort of. Which leads us to…

Things We Missed

Dave challenged us to mention things that we didn’t see coming over the last 5+ years, and I could think of three for myself:

  • Right after the Facebook Timeline / open graph launch, I expected Facebook would, within a year, own a good chunk of all music discovery online. All that data + their complete social graph = inevitable victory, right? (The answer was a very instructive no.)
  • I assumed streaming infrastructure had to be “great” rather than “good enough” to achieve widespread use. Turns out, YouTube.
  • As potential executioners of the “record collection”, many of us spent a lot of time and energy thinking about taste / collection portability, assuming people would demand virtual equivalents. So far they mostly haven’t.

Five More Years

So, where next? The final OpenMusicMedia ended with a lot of enthusiasm (and a fair helping of debate) on the future of music, media, and tech.

At This Is My Jam, we’re working hard to make sharing a song online as fun as swapping records in person with friends.

More broadly, two of the themes I’ve been thinking a lot about lately are:

  • Songs are the “atomic units” of music consumption and sharing today. The album won’t die, but it will likely never return to the prominence it once enjoyed. Most music products are still built around artists / albums / playlists as structuring principles — what would an ecosystem of more song-centric music services look like?
  • Now that our entire musical lives can take place in the cloud (or in our YouTube search histories), how can fans today express and share their music identities? (Or, as Paul Graham Raven provocatively argues, is music’s heyday as the primary transmission medium for youth culture over?)

OpenMusicMedia is dead, long live OpenMusicMedia. See you at the pub!

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