All posts by Tim Herscovitch

With Open Source Music, Everything Old is New Again

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Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809)

IN 1779, composer Joseph Haydn felt in control of his musical and entrepreneurial destiny for perhaps the first time. The past 18 years had seen Haydn at the artistic mercy of the wealthy Esterházy family, who had taken to spending as many as 10 months out of the year at their palace in the remote Hungarian countryside.

Working at the Esterházy palace, while a fantastic opportunity for a composer, came with some serious frustrations for Haydn. Though he was given his own orchestra (and artistic license to compose and experiment as he pleased), the princes’ appetite for new music was insatiable. This meant that all the musicians — including Haydn — had to be available at a moment’s notice, living in what were essentially glorified servants’ apartments adjacent to the decadent palace that was the only structure for miles.

The ultimate humiliation for Haydn, though, was the fact that each of his laboriously crafted compositions became exclusive property of the Esterházy family the moment the ink was dry. This meant that Haydn was forbidden from attempting to publish or more widely circulate his music, denying him the exposure and recognition he (rightfully) felt he deserved.

Although Haydn’s contract had these draconian stipulations, a mere piece of paper was no match for the desires of the musically voracious. Between the comings and goings at the palace, and in large part due to turnover in the ranks of the court orchestra, manuscript copies of Haydn’s music did indeed find their way out from the isolated countryside. Likely copied by admiring musicians who respected Haydn but wished to seek easier employment, illicit copies of the composer’s music made it as far away as London, where his work was rapturously received in the “indie” music circles of the time. A London newspaper even published a short column bemoaning Haydn’s ‘golden cage’, as it were. It was a situation too good for Haydn to pass up, and too restrictive to be truly fulfilling.

Esterházy palace in Fertod, Hungary (photo by Tim Herscovitch)

While Haydn had to be frustrated at his inability to collect royalties on his music for 18 years, by the end of his time with the Esterházys, he must have at least been appreciative of just how widely his music had been disseminated. As a result of his music’s availability, he had a built-in audience and fan base ready for him the moment he finally left the Hungarian countryside after three decades. After being released from his position, Haydn immediately moved to London and made a small fortune composing and putting on concerts.

Can we draw parallels between Haydn’s story and the way modern composers and songwriters attract recognition in the year 2014? Possibly, if the open source movement has anything to say about it. Music that is available online, free of licensing or usage restrictions, has been given the label “open source” — a nod to a trend seen in software development circles, as well as online knowledge hubs like Wikipedia. Today, increasing numbers of composers are rethinking the way they grow their visibility, choosing to release their work instantly into the public domain on a site like Free Music Archive. Much like Haydn, the artist then loses the ability to collect royalties or control the way in which their music is used. This tradeoff theoretically pays dividends in the currency of public awareness and accessibility, rather than the currency of… well, currency.

“There ought to be but one large art warehouse in the world, to which the artist could carry his art-works, and from which he could carry away whatever he needed.” – Ludwig van Beethoven

The above Beethoven quote describing a utopian artists’ collective is about to take one step closer to reality. The Free Music Archive and Musopen, two notable bellwethers of this rising movement, seek to grant unfettered access to music for the masses to do with as they please. Listening, remixing, sampling, distributing — it’s all fair game when it comes to open source audio. While the Free Music Archive serves as a vault for every musical genre imaginable, Musopen focuses specifically on freeing classical music recordings, encouraging musicians to “donate” their performances of great works to its growing virtual warehouse of audio files.

Musopen addresses an issue that is unique to the genre it serves. In the United States and European Union, most compositions automatically enter the public domain 70 years after the death of the composer, meaning that most of the great works in the classical repertoire have already entered the public domain. Yet, this law has led to a particularly odd conundrum for classical music: while the majority of the compositions themselves are in the public domain, publishers’ copyrighted editions of sheet music are not. And while anyone can record a piece of classical music and release it for free if they so choose, most good-quality recordings out there are copyrighted property of the record label distributing them and the artist who performed them.

Because of this complicated legal tangle surrounding a body of music that most people assume to be simply a part of our shared collective cultural heritage, it’s not surprising that there’s now substantial traction behind an effort to assemble open source collections of classical music. In the last two years, fans of classical music have spoken with their wallets and seeded a number of successful crowdfunding campaigns to release high-quality recordings and digital sheet music — all open source and restriction-free. Remember: until now, although the written music of Bach and Chopin was technically in the public domain, most modern recordings of their music were not. This is a game changer with far-reaching implications.

The benefits of open sourcing wide swaths of the classical repertoire (with accompanying digital scores and even an iPad app!) are immediately obvious. This ensures new levels of accessibility, around the world, to some of humanity’s most remarkable art. And while many will focus solely on the recordings, the creation of modern digital score (sheet music) editions is equally exciting. Since classical music is so ripe with opportunities for analysis and useful self-study, its written music has always been particularly coveted by musicians eager to learn and perform great works. Now, musicians everywhere will be able to do just that, as long as they have access to the internet.

Fewer restrictions should theoretically mean wider dissemination, a larger potential listener base, and therefore more future opportunities. For classical music, it breaks down yet another barrier for a genre that is too often perceived to have a high barrier of entry for new listeners. For modern artists, it’s a model that suggests a musician can carefully grow their audience first, and harvest it later. While it would probably be more ideal for the artist to be collecting royalties all along, we’ve seen that such a scenario is not always possible. Whether due to file sharing and the societal devaluation of an individual song, or due to an 18th century musician scratching out an illegal score copy by candlelight, it seems to be a reliable maxim that music is a slippery thing to try and restrict.

A room in the Esterházy palace where Haydn’s chamber music was often performed (photo by Tim Herscovitch)

The effort to open source music is continuing to split into two main fronts: those that serve as a hub for modern artists to release their work without usage restrictions, and efforts such as Ba©h to Bach which seek to create a truly free repository of history’s most treasured and culturally significant music. This latter effort has leveraged the relatively new phenomenon of crowdfunding to achieve what is arguably a win-win scenario for everyone… except perhaps traditional classical music record labels.

Even then, these free Bach recordings aren’t meant to be everything to everyone, nor are they intended to be the definitive interpretations of these works (despite pianist Kimiko Ishizaka‘s brilliant artistry). Rather, they’re an attempt to make good on the true ideology that “public domain” should represent. These efforts are a step toward creating a repository of music that is old enough and culturally significant enough to now essentially belong to humanity as a whole. Think of it as a public library for great music, accessible from all over the world at any time; one that was paid for by the combined donations, big and small, of the global community.

T.S. Eliot once said “you are the music, while the music lasts.”

If open source music continues its current trajectory, we might just last forever.

Location Is Everything: The Connected Car

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In our rapidly-evolving technological world, major shifts occur year over year which can challenge and redefine our pre-conceived notions of an industry. When the KUSC Interactive team began exploring the potential future applications of Geotunes, we stumbled upon a profound shift occurring just below the surface of the automotive industry that seems certain to change our commutes forever. As car manufacturers shift from building technologically disconnected machines to impressively connected ones, the sky is the limit for apps which augment the driving experience. The most tantalizing experiences of all will rely on one crucial piece of information above all others — your car’s immediate location.

“The data produced by the connected car… will be a key enabler for a total connected lifestyle.” – Telematics Update

With Geotunes, the KUSCi team had built an app with a core focus on location-based information and experiences; yet, we realized that our users were ostensibly stuck in one spot when using the app, due to the limitations of existing within the Spotify desktop window. As we sifted through options to broaden the user experience and tap into the geolocation-based strengths of the app’s core content, the concept of a road trip playlist tool kept popping up.

What if there was a way to unchain Geotunes’ reliance on the Spotify client and tap into the physical experience of travel? What if, instead of a user actively searching for a song based on a city, that user could be automatically served up a playlist of songs about their current location? How many more ways could there be to leverage this substantial trove of location-based song data if we took the step into real-time geolocation, particularly while driving? As our research would later bear out, we were hardly the only ones thinking about the potential for experiences centered around location.

Two things would be necessary to make our vision of a geo-centric musical experience a reality: one, a robust and global dataset of songs about places (check!); and two, a deeper insight into the future of the connected car. The latter would be crucial in determining whether developing this idea would be a prudent use of effort and resources, or whether it would be a misguided foray into a short-lived tech trend. Ultimately, research into the modern state of consumer car evolution proved to be a fascinating glimpse at an industry in the midst of rapid and permanent change. As we would discover, nearly every major automaker in the world is incorporating connectivity into the cockpit with varying degrees of fervor. Some, like BMW, Audi, and Tesla, are at the absolute forefront of innovation and implementation. Other, more modest players such as Kia, Honda, and Ford, are still trying to find affordable ways of making drivers of their latest factory models feel one step closer to The Jetsons.

Automakers’ commitment to connectivity falls somewhere on a spectrum, with the most ambitious players all sharing a laser-like focus on one avenue of development in particular: location-based experiences. The broad term for the type of technology which facilitates those experiences is telematics, an industry that until recently was primarily the domain of shipping logistics companies and insurers. Lately, however, the Consumer Telematics Show – the largest convention pertaining to this technology in the world – has seen their panel of expert speakers be taken over by automakers already repurposing this tech into drive-time entertainment and car connectivity.

Each major automaker has their own vision of what their connected car’s feature set will encompass. Let’s take a look at what research suggests each of the main players is prioritizing in the next few years:

Tesla – Tesla’s centrally-mounted 17-inch touchscreen and robust internet browser are an unmistakable shot across the bow at other car companies. This bold commitment to connectivity in the driver’s seat puts Tesla near the top of the heap when it comes to innovation, and makes the Model S one of the most attractive platforms for software experimentation on the market.

Jaguar/Land Rover – Jaguar’s InControl connectivity suite has a distinct target audience: the businessperson on the go. Features like voice-activated conference calls and the ability to have the day’s news read aloud while keeping your hands (and eyes) free seem catered to drivers who want to maximize efficiency while on the road.

Porsche – For a luxury automaker, Porsche seems a bit indecisive about what to prioritize in their CarConnect feature set. On the one hand, forward-looking options like the ability to pre-cool or heat the cabin from your smartphone or establish your own wifi hotspot (on the Panamera model) feel useful. On the other hand, a head-scratchingly small and modest-looking screen interface looks downright embarrassing next to Tesla’s gorgeous display.

Mercedes-Benz – Along with Tesla, Mercedes-Benz is making a strong bet on connectivity’s place in their present and future car design. A host of native apps like Facebook, Yelp, and Google Maps provide an unparalleled driving experience that borders on augmented reality. Search for a restaurant near the car’s current location, and be presented not only with instant driving directions to each one, but integrated Yelp reviews to help you pick the best choice at a glance. Unlike some of the other major automakers, Mercedes is doubling down on this kind of location-based experience for their telematics strategy.

BMW – The strategy favored by the German automaker revolves around creating more of a closed ecosystem. BMW’s ConnectedDrive features native apps that run on their proprietary platform, and the ability to control superficial aspects of the car such as door locks, lights, and the horn. Finally, the ability to connect to a 3G network generated by the car itself marks BMW as one of the more ambitious players in the connectivity arena.

GM – General Motors brands such as Cadillac, Chevrolet, Buick, and GMC are rolling off of factory lines equipped with the auto giant’s proprietary MyLink technology. MyLink allows drivers to create a seamless transition between the dashboard’s touchscreen and their own smartphones. At least initially, GM appears to be waiting to see what the market bears out for rival companies investing in more ambitious technology.

Honda – The approach chosen by the Japanese company focuses on four apps available through Apple that facilitate control of the car’s basic entertainment options via the driver’s (or passenger’s) iPhone. Honda is one of the automakers who seems to be hedging slightly in terms of their commitment to a more fully fleshed out feature set – their current offering is fragmented and mainly consists of fairly standard options that have been available in other brands for a few years.

Ford – In stark contrast to Honda, Ford has actually partnered with Microsoft and committed to their Auto 4.0 software platform. By far, Ford’s connectivity strategy is more music-centric than any other automaker. HD Radio, internet radio apps, Gracenote CD integration, and Bluetooth media streaming are a few of the options available in Ford’s latest vehicle lines.

Kia – As expected, budget car maker Kia offers a simple but effective suite of connectivity features via their UVO (“your voice”) system that boasts a well-reviewed voice control interface. Originally, Kia teamed with Microsoft to develop the UVO platform, but that partnership has since been dissolved, and UVO now has integration with several Google properties such as Maps.

Nissan – The functionality offered by NissanConnect comes at a price – the Japanese automaker wants you to subscribe to the service, locking most of the desirable features behind a paywall. To be fair, that premium content does place Nissan in rarefied air in terms of the innovative third-party integration available, such as Facebook, TripAdvisor, Google Maps, and iHeartRadio.

Audi – Audi is investing heavily in their telematics/infotainment feature set, having been first to market with several features already. Audi Connect is an extremely robust platform that has integration in and out of the car, connecting you at all times to a “driver profile” that seamlessly customizes your Audi driving experience and already offers some initial location-based functionality. Audi is truly a market leader along with Tesla, BMW, and Mercedes.

According to this data, the three areas of technology that are still at the bleeding edge of adoption (besides location-specific entertainment) are wifi hotspots, an in-dash internet browser, and native apps that presumably reduce the number of clicks/taps necessary to access content. Nonetheless, it seems inevitable that these features, too, will eventually be adopted by most car makers in the near future. The upside of this steady march toward all-encompassing connectivity is too great for both consumers and businesses: consumers gain access to tailored, seamless entertainment options, while businesses gain tremendous insight into customers’ location tendencies and driving habits. Theoretically, this dynamic could sustain an ecosystem of (for example) radio apps which finance their development and operation based on targeted ads that tap into known purchasing habits and fine-grain location data about the driver. The marketplace for third party drive-time apps will likely sustain itself based on this relationship — as software development teams innovate and push the boundaries of location-based entertainment and functionality, advertisers, insurers, and automakers gain an unprecedented layer of valuable data about where we drive and how often.

We already live in a world where there are cars on the road with the ability to browse the internet from a large touchscreen. Radio apps, voice-controlled navigation, and real-time GPS are mainstream enough that those features hardly seem futuristic to consumers anymore. Just around the bend, however, is the uncanny valley of driving experiences — a world where your in-dash map pops up with suggestions of restaurants around you based on places you’ve been to before. A world where your location can be updated via social media to show your friends your road trip status, all without taking your hands off the wheel. And just maybe, a world where you can automatically be served playlists full of music about the very street, neighborhood, or city you’re driving through.

The industry’s investment in radically altering what we think of as a typical driving experience has already created unstoppable momentum in the direction of location-specific connectivity. The only question now is, what exciting and immersive experiences will development teams dream up for tomorrow’s drivers? Will a dominant platform emerge, such as Apple’s CarPlay, Microsoft’s Auto 4.0, or car makers’ proprietary solutions? That’s not yet clear, but what is clear is that the connected car has the potential to make mind-numbing, time-wasting commutes a thing of the past, as technology enables new horizons of both productivity and sheer enjoyment for the millions of people who get behind the wheel every day.

Shuffle, Repeat: Twitter’s Music Fixation

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Twitter has a strong hunch that its platform can be used to engage with music and musicians in new ways, but the newly-public company seems unsure about what form that engagement should take. On the heels of the now-defunct #Music service and a jettisoned bid to acquire Soundcloud, the question arises: why is Twitter so determined to expand its focus to include music?

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