Yesterday, Japantown's Hotel Kabuki filled up with hundreds of pale-faced tech nerds wearing blazers-and-jeans combos. These inventors and couriers of music technology spent the day arguing about the perks and pitfalls of various technologies at the 10th SF MusicTech Summit. Two highlights from the day approached the idea of music from opposing ends of the tech spectrum.
The Future of Music: Digital Sales or the Broadway Pit?
Kristin Thomson, education director at the national nonprofit Future of Music Coalition, gave a presentation called "Are Musicians Benefitting from MusicTech?" It was a first look into the findings of FMC's Artist Revenue Streams research project, which examines technology's effect on musicians' incomes. While top employees of game-changing streaming services, promotion platforms, and distributors like Spotify, RootMusic, and Tunecore, gave their own talks elsewhere, Thomson explored how these inventions have changed the game for musicians' bank accounts.
The short answer: They have, sort of. The 5,000 musicians surveyed agreed that emerging technologies made a significant impact on their careers. This means technologies like home recording and selling music on Bandcamp, as well as keeping in touch with fans on Twitter and Facebook. "Musicians' access to the marketplace has greatly improved over the last 10 years," Thomson said. "But how has it impacted their ability to earn money based on their creative output?"
The effect was interesting: A majority saw some revenue increase, but many saw a decrease. "This is the negative consequence of leveling the playing field," Thomson said. "It's easy for musicians to participate in the digital marketplace, but now it's flooded with content, and naturally this means there's more competition for consumers' dollars and attention."
At the end of the day, the study found that "tech-savvy" musicians are making less money than the "non-tech-savvy" musicians, meaning those who aren't trying to go direct to fans by selling their recordings, e.g. section players in orchestras and pit musicians at Broadway. So perhaps, if you want to make a decent living as a musician, consider shelving your Bob Dylan vinyl and resuming your Chopin studies.
Jaron Lanier, bridging the gap between the high-tech and the archaic
A few hours later, tech guru Jaron Lanier reminded us why we like music in the first place: it's interesting, entertaining, educational, and primal. Lanier, the virtual reality pioneer, the Silicon Valley bigwig, the Atari/Microsoft/Xbox consultant, was listed as one of Time's 100 Most Influential People in 2010. Aside from taking graduate-level math courses at age 13 and criticizing in his 2010 book You Are Not a Gadget what the "hive mind" of Web 2.0 has done to society and the individual, it turns out Lanier is also a musical genius.
An avid collector of rare instruments and a composer, his presentation at MusicTech was simply entitled: "Jaron Lanier Plays His Musical Instruments." It was one of the most riveting performance-talks I've ever seen. Why he doesn't have his own television show is beyond me. Many musicians have difficulty mastering just one instrument, let alone hundreds. "They're the only good user interfaces so far," the tech expert said.
While demonstrating how to play an assortment of esoteric instruments like the khene, an ancient mouth organ from Laos, Lanier gave off-the-cuff histories of each, making tech jokes wherever possible: "I believe it's the first expression of digital information by the human species. It's got 16 pipes. 16 similar objects that are either on or off in a combination next to each other. It dates back at least 13,000 years, and it's the first 16-bit number right here."
"It did directly evolve into the computer, according to one version of history that's at least as plausible as a number of any other ones," Lanier continued, speaking extemporaneously about the series of musical inventions the khene inspired. He went on to play, amongst others, a Turkish clarinet, an electric oud, a Hungarian flute, and a rare 1960s claviola made by Hohner (which he called "the Apple of the harmonica world").
"I spend my days in the digital realm, and yet I adore weird acoustic instruments. I have a house in Berkeley that is filled with them. In fact a friend just said, 'If there's ever an earthquake, you'll die in an avalanche of instruments.' And I recognize it's probably true."
When asked how many hundreds of instruments he owns, the mathematician-computer-scientist-programmer responded: "I've never counted. I have no idea. If you really study it, the underlying logic of the counting numbers is suspect and I've never really trusted them. I'm kind of a symmetries and geometry guy, so I don't really believe in the integers." Priceless.