Why We Do What We Do: The Open Music Summer Lab

As the Open Music Initiative (OMI) continues to “Open Music,” it begs the question: for and by whom? For the last year, OMI focused on the “HOW.” This summer’s Open Music Summer Lab included 19 students from across the US and the world; experimenting with new methods of digital rights identification and tracking using technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and Blockchain.

Students compete in the Summer Lab Makeathon. (Tiffany Knight, IDEO)

Technologies like Blockchain have been described as key to disintermediating systems and institutions in which power and privilege, middlemen and fees are pervasive; such as, financial management, health care records, and, of course, the music industry. But, these technologies are created and designed by people, and if we are truly going to design systems that increase access, and streamline creative rights management, we also believe that it matters who the people are who design and implement the technology. This is, one of the main reasons why Berklee — an institution committed to Diversity — is well suited to launch OMI in the first place.

Berklee’s history is one of reimagining the music industry, and that has included responding to the adage that “you can’t be what you can’t see”. First, Berklee professionalized jazz, and eventually added rock & roll, soul, funk, hip hop, pop, and now even EDM to its roster of genres; elevating discourse around these topics to a level previously reserved for classical music in academia. Since inception, Berklee’s hiring and admissions have pushed boundaries of race, gender, and nationality. Berklee has become a leader in designing solutions to teach music and adapt music software to serve its population of visually impaired students. Berklee’s 70+ years have consistently been devoted to making sure that future musicians see a music industry that represents them, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because better music and creations come from it.

Summer Lab fellows meet with execs from Alibaba Entertainment. (Tiffany Knight, IDEO)

This summer’s Open Music Lab was exemplary of Berklee’s commitment to changing the face of the future creative industry. The 19 Summer Lab Fellows were selected from an applicant pool of 90. Over the course of eight weeks, these 19 Fellows embraced the challenges of tracking digital rights in sample-laden songs, using technology to expose unexpected and delightful connections related to songs and artists, and even using VR to provide entirely new musical experiences. These projects attracted the interest of TiVo and Alibaba among others, and showed what will be possible when data managements systems seamlessly communicate to share rightsholder and payment information.

But, also notable, this group of 19 Fellows was not demographically representative of the typical white-male majority music tech startup, incubator or hackathon.
Fellows from Team LÜM interview users.

Opening up opportunities for diverse teams of innovators makes sense. In the same way that Apple’s accessibility features are handy for the fully-abled (like that time I dropped my phone in a lake, and discovered new ways to access information even with a water-logged screen), designing with, and for, all people opens up opportunities to design for experiences that a single “typical user” — read: “millennial fully-abled cisgender white guy” — wouldn’t have considered.

The Fellows were trained in and used IDEO’s design thinking process of empathizing with the customer, and using experiential methods to collect data on a user’s experience. Crucial to successfully executing design thinking, however, is to remember that not all users will look, act or think like you. Thanks to the diverse teams of students, this was baked right into the recipe. This is why Berklee does what we do.

It matters to us that as we graduate 1000+ creators every year, we’re also working to create an industry that works for each of them. And it matters to us, as we create opportunities and pathways for young creatives of all walks of life to dream of going to Berklee and following their passion, that the infrastructure that supports the industry they hope to join supports people like them.

Lest we fall into simply tokenizing the teams, and minimizing their work, it should be said that, demographics aside, these ventures rocked. As a member of the generation that pored over cassette, and eventually CD, liner notes, hoping to glean one more crucial detail about Tori Amos, REM, the Indigo Girls, and Nirvana, and their intriguing and oh-so-important artistic relationships and overlaps, I was especially taken with Team Blue’s DeepDive. Team Blue designed a community-focused platform where fans can view the entire identity of an artist, follow the story of a musician’s artistic influence, and share the meaning behind the music, while capturing this information digitally and making it queryable via OMI’s API in order to track attribution.

The joy of discovering that your favorite artist is cameo-ing on another band’s song, and confirming it in the liner notes; or of discovering new-to-you artists thanks to the album crediting the original songwriters — these both now seem out of touch in our new age of searching for song credits on Wikipedia while asking Alexa to “Play lazy weekend music in the kitchen.” I eagerly await DeepDive unlocking some of this musical discovery joy for a new generation, and unlocking new opportunities for creators to be appropriately credited and recognized.

Time will tell if Blockchain technology is the great equalizer it’s been promised to be — one that disintermediates power-holders, and provides information and access directly to the creators and users — but we believe that if technologies such as Blockchain or AI are to do that, they must be designed by people that look, think and act like all of us, not just a privileged few.