Book Review of “How Music Got Free”

"CD", Image by Dean Hochman

“CD”, Image by Dean Hochman

It is nearly impossible to compete in a consumer market when a previously lucrative product is suddenly available for free. This phenomenon adds a whole new meaning to the notion of “priced to sell”.

No industry illustrates this tectonic disruption brought about by the Net more than the music business during the last 20 years. While there has been an ocean of ink and a quantum of bits expended telling this story, I have come across none more compelling, thorough and entertaining than How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy by Stephen Witt (Viking, 2015). This is a great story well told with clarity, precision, style and humor.

While the tales of Napster and the other peer-to-peer sharing networks, the lawsuit by Metallica and other litigation by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to stop them, and precipitous drop in CD sales since then have all been previously told at length elsewhere, the author takes us down some new and alternative narrative paths. Witt has accomplished this skillfully weaving together the stories of the German engineers who created the MP3 format, a prolific music pirate, and a music industry mogul. The intersection of their activities in the music downloading revolution makes for hours of absorbing and instructive reading.

The book succeeds simultaneously as a business case study and a human interest story. It deftly leverages all three main plot threads in a narrative that heightens the reader’s interest as the events steadily crisscross the real world from rural Kentucky to Germany to New York City, and then likewise online across the web. Any one of these stories would have made for engaging reading on their own. Yet they are carefully fitted together by the author in a manner that relentlessly propels the all of them forward.

He also wisely wastes none of his text on superfluous side trips. Rather, he maintains a consistent focus throughout on how the music biz got turned upside down and inside out by a series of fast-breaking developments it neither fully understood nor had any viable alternatives ready to counter it.

A roster of A-List Hollywood writers and talent agents could not have possibly done better in creating the members of the real life cast. There are many useful lessons to be learned from them about business strategy, marketing, competition, and the strength of the human character in the face of the unprecedented and massive disruption* of what had been such a highly leveraged and lucrative market.

First and foremost among them was Benny “Dell” Glover. The details of his online and offline exploits read as though they were extracted from deep inside the You Can’t Make This Stuff Up file. He worked in a rural CD manufacturing plant and that afforded him access to the latest releases by music industry’s top acts. Often a month in advance of their commercial debut, Glover would smuggle them out of the plant, encode them using the MP3 format, and upload them for free distribution online through Napster and a host of other peer-to-peer networks. He was also part of a larger band of well-organized, tech savvy and daring digital music pirates who referred to their collective activities as the “Scene”.  Glover was likely responsible for the largest volume of free music that ever got digitally disbursed.

Second was Karlheinz Brandenburg, the lead engineer and inventor of the MP3 technology. He ran the group that devised MP3 technology without any intent whatsoever of how it eventually ended up being used. It was a technological accomplishment that at first drew little attention in the audio industry. There were other competing compression formats that were gaining more traction in the marketplace. Nonetheless, through perseverance, superior technical skills and a bit of favorable circumstances, MP3 began to find success. This was first in the broadcast marketplace and later on as the tech of choice among the music pirates and their audience. Brandenburg’s transformation over time from a humble audio engineer to an experienced business executive is deftly told and threaded throughout the book.

Third was Doug Morris who, during the events portrayed in the book, was the CEO of Universal Music Group (UMG). While Glover’s and Brandenburg’s parts in this narrative make for some engrossing reading, it is Morris’s meteoric rise and determination in the music industry that pulls the entire story together so very well. Not only does he reach the pinnacle of his field as a top executive in the largest music companies, he does everything in power to try to keep UMG economically competitive while under siege from freely downloadable MP3s recorded by his deep and wide talent bench.

While he did not have a hacker’s understanding of MP3’s technical ministrations, he fully understood, reacted and resisted its profound impacts. His initial line of attack was litigation but this proved to be ineffective and produced much negative publicity. Later he successfully monetized UMG’s vast trove of music video by forming the hosting and syndication service on Vevo. He is the most resourceful and resilient player in this story.

These three protagonists are vividly brought to center stage and fully engaged in Witt’s portrayal of their roles and fates in this Digital Age drama.  Just as the superior acoustics in a musical venue can enhance the performances of musicians and actors,  analogously so too does the author’s reporting and expository skills animate and enliven the entirety of events across his every page of his book. Indeed, “How Music Got Free” completely fulfills its title’s promise and, clearly, hits all the right notes.


At the time of the events portrayed in How Music Got Free, there was widespread fear that it would become increasingly difficult for artists and entertainment companies to ever profit again as they had done in the past. As a timely follow-up exploration and analysis how this never quite came to pass, I very highly recommend reading The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t by Steven Johnson, which was published in the August 23, 2015 edition of The New York Times Magazine.  (Johnson’s most recent book as also reviewed in the January 2, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Book Review of “How We Got to Now”.)


*  The classic text on the causes and effect of market disruptions, disruptors and those left behind, read The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen (HarperBusiness, 2011). The first edition of the book was published in 1992.

Data Analysis and Visualizations of All U.S. Presidential State of the Union Addresses

"President Obama's State of the Union Address 2013", Word cloud image by Kurtis Garbutt

“President Obama’s State of the Union Address 2013”, Word cloud image by Kurtis Garbutt

While data analytics and visualization tools have accumulated a significant historical record of accomplishments, now, in turn, this technology is being applied to actual significant historical accomplishments. Let’s have a look.

Every year in January, the President of the United States gives the State of the Union speech before both houses of the U.S. Congress. This is to address the condition of the nation, his legislative agenda and other national priorities. The requirement for this presentation appears in Article II of the U.S. Constitution.

This talk with the nation has been given every year (with only one exception), since 1790. The resulting total of 224 speeches presents a remarkable and dynamic historical record of U.S. history and policy. Researchers at Columbia University and the University of Paris have recently applied sophisticated data analytics and visualization tools to this trove of presidential addresses. Their findings were published in the August 10, 2015 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in a truly fascinating paper entitled Lexical Shifts, Substantive Changes, and Continuity in State of the Union Discourse, 1790–2014, by Alix Rule, Jean-Philippe Cointet, and Peter S. Bearman.

A very informative and concise summary of this paper was also posted in an article on Phys.org, also on August 10, 2015, entitled in a post entitled Big Data Analysis of State of the Union Remarks Changes View of American History, (no author is listed). I will summarize, annotate and post a few questions of my own. I highly recommend clicking through and reading the full report and the summary article together for a fuller perspective on this achievement. (Similar types of textual and graphical analyses of US law were covered in the May 15, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Recent Visualization Projects Involving US Law and The Supreme Court.)

The researchers developed custom algorithms for their research. They were applied to the total number of words used in all of the addresses, from 1790 to 2014, of 1.8 million.  By identifying the frequencies of “how often words appear jointly” and “mapping their relation to other clusters of words”, the team was able to highlight “dominant social and political” issues and their relative historical time frames. (See Figure 1 at the bottom of Page 2 of the full report for this lexigraphical mapping.)

One of the researchers’ key findings was that although the topics of “industry, finance, and foreign policy” were predominant and persist throughout all of the addresses, following World War II the recurring keywords focus further upon “nation building, the regulation of business and the financing of public infrastructure”. While it is well know that these emergent terms were all about modern topics, the researchers were thus able to pinpoint the exact time frames when they first appeared. (See Page 5 of the full report for the graphic charting these data trends.)

Foreign Policy Patters

The year 1917 struck the researchers as a critical turning point because it represented a dramatic shift in the data containing words indicative of more modern times. This was the year that the US sent its troops into battle in Europe in WWI. It was then that new keywords in the State of the Union including “democracy,” “unity,” “peace” and “terror” started to appear and recur. Later, by the 1940’s, word clusters concerning the Navy appeared, possibly indicating emerging U.S. isolationism. However, they suddenly disappeared again as the U.S. became far more involved in world events.

Domestic Policy Patterns

Over time, the researchers identified changes in the terminology used when addressing domestic matters. These concerned the government’s size, economic regulation, and equal opportunity. Although the focus of the State of the Union speeches remained constant, new keywords appeared whereby “tax relief,” “incentives” and “welfare” have replaced “Treasury,” “amount” and “expenditures”.

An important issue facing this project was that during the more than two centuries being studied, keywords could substantially change in meaning over time. To address this, the researchers applied new network analysis methods developed by Jean-Philippe Cointet, a team member, co-author and physicist at the University of Paris. They were intended to identify changes whereby “some political topics morph into similar topics with common threads” as others fade away. (See Figure 3 at the bottom of Page 4 of the full paper for this enlightening graphic.*)

As a result, they were able to parse the relative meanings of words as they appear with each other and, on a more macro level, in the “context of evolving topics”. For example, it was discovered that the word “Constitution” was:

  • closely associated with the word “people” in early U.S. history
  • linked to “state” following the Civil War
  • linked to “law” during WWI and WWII, and
  • returned to “people” during the 1970’s

Thus, the meaning of “Constitution” must be assessed in its historical context.

My own questions are as follows:

  • Would this analytical approach yield new and original insights if other long-running historical records such as the Congressional Record were like subject to the research team’s algorithms and analytics?
  • Could companies and other commercial businesses derive any benefits from having their historical records similarly analyzed? For example, might it yield new insights and recommendations for corporate governance and information governance policies and procedures?
  • Could this methodology be used as an electronic discovery tool for litigators as they parse corporate documents produced during a case?

 


*  This is also resembles the methodology and appearance to the graphic on Page 29 of the law review article entitled A Quantitative Analysis of the Writing Style of the U.S. Supreme Court, by Keith Carlson, Michael A. Livermore, and Daniel Rockmore, Dated March 11, 2015, linked to and discussed with the May 15, 2015 Subway Fold post cited above.

Two Startups’ Note-Worthy Efforts to Adapt Blockchain Technology for the Music Industry

"Coachella Day 1 [2nd week] - Sahara Tent", Image by The Bull Pen, This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

“Coachella Day 1 [2nd week] – Sahara Tent”, Image by The Bull Pen

With the advent and then propulsive web-wide spread of MP3 file technology during the last twenty years*,  all of the music industry’s consumers, artists, recording companies, talent agents, business models,  distribution channels and intellectual property rights have been radically transformed. Today, the big money in the industry today is most often made by artists with established names who are able to draw audiences during their tours, sell merchandise, and continue to sell and stream music from their catalogs.

Of course, nowadays every well-known, moderately known and unknown act has an online presence to engage and inform their fan bases through an array of social media platforms and dedicated websites. Still, the music biz today is an even tougher business to earn a dollar than it ever was before. (See also the December 10, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Is Big Data Calling and Calculating the Tune in Today’s Global Music Market?.)

In an effort to adapt dramatically new technology to energize, innovate and democratize the music industry, two recent startups, both still in their development stages, are using blockchain technology in previously unseen and imaginative ways. The blockchain is, in its simplest terms, a distributed, decentralized, transparent and encrypted database that acts as an online ledger to record transactions, documents and other information. It is most often used to memorialize transactions involving bitcoin. (See the May 8, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Book Review of “The Age of Cryptocurrency” concerning a comprehensive new book on this subject.)

These early stage startups were the subject of a truly fascinating article posted on Billboard.com on August 5, 2015 entitled How ‘the Blockchain’ Could Actually Change the Music Industry by Gideon Gottfried. I will summarize, annotate and ask some unencrypted questions of my own.

I.  PeerTracks

The first startup is called PeerTracks. Their plan is to establish a music streaming and retail platform that includes “fan engagement and peer-to-peer talent discovery”, according to its president, Cedric Cobban.  They will use the blockchain for its transactions and paying artists directly for any revenue generated when their music is streamed “on a per-user-share basis”. Their launch is currently planned in about two months.

The core of their approach is to generate marketing revenue through the use of “artist tokens”. This is a system whereby each musical artist can create their own tokens with their name and image, and then set the permanently fixed amount of them to be made available. These tokens are intended to take on the characteristics of a “sub-cryptocurrency” (similar to some of Bitcoin’s characteristics), whereby the value that emerges for them is a direct indicator, based upon supply and demand, of the artist’s appeal. Site users can also speculate on the future value of the music and merchandise of currently unknown musicians.

The artists on PeerTracks will have the capabilities to affect the relative value of their own tokens. They will be enabled to buy back their tokens with any income they generate from “streams, sales, merch, tickets”. They can also permanently eliminate some tokens to decrease their supply and, in turn, increase their value.

Conversely, artists can affect demand by the types of items they offer to their token holders. Among other things, they can offer “discounts, free tickets, giveaways”. By providing incentives for fans to acquire their token, artists can raise the tokens’ relative values. As well, there are potential benefits to advertisers on PeerTracks interested in implementing paid sponsorships for more recognized music acts with product giveaways.

All songs uploaded on the site will be accompanied by a “smart contract“. According to the immediately preceding link to Wikipedia, smart contracts are “computer protocols that facilitate, verify, or enforce the negotiation or performance of a contract, or that obviate the need for a contractual clause”.  The smart contracts on PeerTracks divide up the funds generated accordingly among the parties involved in the song’s composition and performance. This is considered to be an important advance in using the blockchain and, it is hoped by developers currently working on this, will become a platform upon which new business models will emerge.

II.  Ujo

The second startup in this space is called Ujo. Their plan to use the blockchain to improve both the distribution of royalties to artists and music licensing. They intend to accomplish this by establishing a “rights and payment infrastructure”. It will be free to use and open for third parties to create their own apps for new services including, among others, curation, streaming and negotiation.  Similar to PeerTracks, they are working on an alternative means to distributing revenues to “artists and rights holders”. Furthermore, they are trying to build a blockchain-based means to determine ownership of creative works.

The prospective adoption of this by the music industry of this entirely new system is expected to take time because of its tendencies to keep data private as well its outdated and often incompatible systems. Phil Barry, who is involved Ujo along with about 20 other developers, hopes their new system will unify and replace the legacy systems. He believes the platform will provide economic advantages to artists and recording companies receiving their royalties through it. As well, this will provide “new revenue and business models”, new ways for consumers to enjoy music, and simplification to the manner in which “music is managed and licensed”.

When an artist creates a new song in the future, using Ujo it will be permanently stored on the blockchain and assigned a unique ID. If another artists or performers changes anything about the song, their subsequent versions will receive a new ID and be “instantly recognizable”. Any resulting revenue from the song will then be distributed immediately and “proportionately to each rights holder”.

My own questions are as follows:

  • What other marketplaces, technologies and professions would benefit from using comparable types of blockchain adaptations?
  • Could traditional legal documents such as contracts, leases and wills, among many others, be written to the blockchain to make certain that all parties to them met their obligations?
  • Could artists’ tokens likewise be created for actors, writers, painters, graphics artists and other creative types?
  • What would be the results of a book or any other publication being written to the blockchain in terms of royalties, rights, subscriptions and recognition?

March 4. 2016 Update: For a related follow-up on this post please see the new Subway Fold post entitled The Mediachain Project: Developing a Global Creative Rights Database Using Blockchain Technology


*  For an outstandingly written and highly engaging account of the total transformation of the music industry, I very highly recommend a recently published book entitled How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy, by Stephen Witt (Viking, 2015). I just finished reading this and to say the least, it rocked.

New Startup’s Legal Research App is Driven by Watson’s AI Technology

"Supreme Court, 60 Centre Street, Lower Manhattan", Image by Jeffrey Zeldman

[New York] “Supreme Court, 60 Centre Street, Lower Manhattan”, Image by Jeffrey Zeldman

May 9, 2016: An update on this post appears below.


Casey Stengel had a very long, productive and colorful career in professional baseball as a player for five teams and later as a manager for four teams. He was also consistently quotable (although not to the extraordinary extent of his Yankee teammate Yogi Berra). Among the many things Casey said was his frequent use of the imperative “You could look it up”¹.

Transposing this gem of wisdom from baseball to law practice², looking something up has recently taken on an entirely new meaning. According to a fascinating article posted on Wired.com on August 8, 2015 entitled Your Lawyer May Soon Ask for This AI-Powered App for Legal Help by Davey Alba, a startup called ROSS Intelligence has created a unique new system for legal research. I will summarize, annotate and pose a few questions of my own.

One of the founders of ROSS, Jimoh Ovbiagele (@findingjimoh), was influenced by his childhood and adolescent experiences to pursue studying either law or computer science. He chose the latter and eventually ended up working on an artificial intelligence (AI) project at the University of Toronto. It occurred to him then that machine learning (a branch of AI), would be a helpful means to assist lawyers with their daily research requirements.

Mr. Ovbiagele joined with a group of co-founders from diverse fields including “law to computers to neuroscience” in order to launch ROSS Intelligence. The legal research app they have created is built upon the AI capabilities of IBM’s Watson as well as voice recognition. Since June, it has been tested in “small-scale pilot programs inside law firms”.

AI, machine learning, and IBM’s Watson technology have been variously taken up in these nine Subway Fold posts. Among them, the September 1, 2014 post entitled Possible Futures for Artificial Intelligence in Law Practice covered the possible legal applications of IBM’s Watson (prior to the advent of ROSS), and the technology of a startup called Viv Labs.

Essentially, the new ROSS app enables users to ask legal research questions in natural language. (See also the July 31, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Watson, is That You? Yes, and I’ve Just Demo-ed My Analytics Skills at IBM’s New York Office.) Similar in operation to Apple’s Siri, when a question is verbally posed to ROSS, it searches through its data base of legal documents to provide an answer along with the source documents used to derive it. The reply is also assessed and assigned a “confidence rating”. The app further prompts the user to evaluate the response’s accuracy with an onscreen “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”. The latter will prompt ROSS to produce another result.

Andrew Arruda (@AndrewArruda), another co-founder of ROSS, described the development process as beginning with a “blank slate” version of Watson into which they uploaded “thousands of pages of legal documents”, and trained their system to make use of Watson’s “question-and-answer APIs³. Next, they added machine learning capabilities they called “LegalRank” (a reference to Google’s PageRank algorithm), which, among others things, designates preferential results depending upon the supporting documents’ numbers of citations and the deciding courts’ jurisdiction.

ROSS is currently concentrating on bankruptcy and insolvency issues. Mr. Ovbiagele and Mr. Arruda are sanguine about the possibilities of adding other practice areas to its capabilities. Furthermore, they believe that this would meaningfully reduce the $9.6 billion annually spent on legal research, some of which is presently being outsourced to other countries.

In another recent and unprecedented development, the global law firm Dentons has formed its own incubator for legal technology startups called NextLaw Labs. According to this August 7, 2015 news release on Denton’s website, the first company they have signed up for their portfolio is ROSS Intelligence.

Although it might be too early to exclaim “You could look it up” at this point, my own questions are as follows:

  • What pricing model(s) will ROSS use to determine the cost structure of their service?
  • Will ROSS consider making its app available to public interest attorneys and public defenders who might otherwise not have the resources to pay for access fees?
  • Will ROSS consider making their service available to the local, state and federal courts?
  • Should ROSS make their service available to law schools or might this somehow impair their traditional teaching of the fundamentals of legal research?
  • Will ROSS consider making their service available to non-lawyers in order to assist them in represent themselves on a pro se basis?
  • In addition to ROSS, what other entrepreneurial opportunities exist for other legal startups to deploy Watson technology?

Finally, for an excellent roundup of five recent articles and blog posts about the prospects of Watson for law practice, I highly recommend a click-through to read Five Solid Links to Get Smart on What Watson Means for Legal, by Frank Strong, posted on The Business of Law Blog on August 11, 2015.


May 9, 2016 Update:  The global law firm of Baker & Hostetler, headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio, has become the first US AmLaw 100 firm to announce that it has licensed the ROSS Intelligence’s AI product for its bankruptcy practice. The full details on this were covered in an article posted on May 6, 2016 entitled AI Pioneer ROSS Intelligence Lands Its First Big Law Clients by Susan Beck, on Law.com.

Some follow up questions:

  • Will other large law firms, as well as medium and smaller firms, and in-house corporate departments soon be following this lead?
  • Will they instead wait and see whether this produces tangible results for attorneys and their clients?
  • If so, what would these results look like in terms of the quality of legal services rendered, legal business development, client satisfaction, and/or the incentives for other legal startups to move into the legal AI space?

1.  This was also the title of one of his many biographies,  written by Maury Allen, published Times Books in 1979.

2.  For the best of both worlds, see the legendary law review article entitled The Common Law Origins of the Infield Fly Rule, by William S. Stevens, 123 U. Penn. L. Rev. 1474 (1975).

3For more details about APIs see the July 2, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled The Need for Specialized Application Programming Interfaces for Human Genomics R&D Initiatives

New Report Finds Ad Blockers are Quickly Spreading and Costing $Billions in Lost Revenue

"Stop Sign", Image by Kt Ann

“Stop Sign”, Image by Kt Ann

The global usage of ad blocking software is rapidly rising and the cost in 2015 so far has been $21.8 billion in lost revenue. This amount is projected to nearly double in 2016. These are the key conclusions of a new 17-page report entitled The Cost of Ad Blocking, co-authored by Adobe and PageFirst (a startup working to analyze and counter ad blocking technology). The report assesses the technological, economic and geographic impacts of this phenomenon.

A concise summary and analysis of this was posted on BusinessInsider.com on August 10, 2015 entitled Ad Blocking Has Grown 41% in the Past Year and It’s Costing Publishers Tens of Billions of Dollars by Lara O’Reilly. I will sum up, annotate, and add a few unblocked questions of my own.

I highly recommend clicking through reading both the actual report and Ms. O’Reilly’s article together for a fuller perspective on this subject.

Other leading data points among the report’s findings include:

  • Ad blocking software usage has increased 41% in the last year, now totaling 198 million active users each month.
  • While this represents only 6% of web-wide activity, it is the dollar equivalent of 14% of the “global ad spend”.
  • In 2016, the revenue lost to ad blocking is expected to reach $41.4 billion.
  • The usage of ad blockers began to rise significantly in 2013 (as shown in the chart on Page 4 of the report).
  • Ad blocker users tend to be “young, technically savvy, and more likely to be male”.
  • The rates of ad blocking varies widely within specific countries (as shown in the graphic on Page 5 of the report), and likewise from country to country (as shown on Page 6 displaying the countries in Europe).

Dr. Johnny Ryan, an executive at PageFirst, views the growth of ad blocking as being “viral” in its characteristics and anticipated continuance. As stated in the 2014 report on ad blocking, this software spreads both by word of mouth and users’ online research.

Currently, most ad blocking activity is on desktops. Despite the 38% of total web browsing occurring on mobile devices, ad blocking is now only present in 1.6% of this traffic. (See Page 10 of the report for the indicators of potential increases turning it into a “mainstream phenomenon”.)

As well, Apple’s pending release of its IOS9 mobile operating system will permit developers to create ad blocking apps. Both Apple and PageFirst stated this could be a “game changer” insofar as Apple’s deep and wide global reach of its mobile products. (See the bottom of Page 11 of the report.)

Regarding users’ motivations for using ad blockers, a survey of 400 US users, displayed on Page 12, found the leading reason was their concern over the handling of their personal data.

In another survey of UK users by the Internet Advertising Bureau, a majority found that ad blockers increased the speed and performance of their browsers (although this was not listed as one of the reasons in the Adobe and PageFirst report). Nonetheless, Mr. Ryan does not consider this to be an important factor is motivating the use of ad blockers.

My own questions are as follows:

  • Are the people motivated enough to install an ad blocker more than likely to not be uninterested in the ads and thus not potential consumers to the degree that the claims of huge lost revenues are not really all that lost?
  • The report’s underlying assumption is that if these blocked ads were otherwise viewed more sales would have been generated. Where’s the actual harm and where’s the real foul if these “lost” users are more unlikely to become paying consumers in the first place?
  • If ad blocking is so pervasive and growing at such a steep rate, are online advertisers now seeing this phenomenon as a just a cost of doing business to be factored into their accounting and reporting systems?
  • How can truly savvy and inventive e-commerce marketers and content strategists possibly use ad blocking their advantage? That is, can they somehow recast their web advertising content and formats to be less intrusive, more informative, and better protective of personal data to incentivize users enough to not use ad blockers?

For additional informative coverage of Adobe’s and PageFirst’s report with further links to useful references, I also suggest clicking through to read a report posted on the Wall Street Journal’s Digits blog  on August 10. 2015 entitled Ad-Blocking Software Will Cost the Ad Industry $22 Billion This Year by Elizabeth Dwoskin.

Rock It Science: New Study Equates Musical Tastes to Personality Traits

"wbeem", Image by Scott Diussa

“wbeem”, Image by Scott Diussa

Many people have had the experience of hearing a new song for the first time and instantly being thunderstruck by it. They ask out loud or else think to themselves “Who and what was that I just heard?!” Next, they quickly race off to start Googling away in an attempt to identify the tune that just so totally captured their senses.

But what was it about the listeners’ musical tastes that led to this? Moreover, are their affinities for certain musical styles and artists a reliable indicator of their personalities – – and vice versa?

Researchers at University of Cambridge in the UK and Stanford University in the US have recently devised a new method for predicting musical tastes. Their study was published on PLOS One in a fascinating paper entitled Musical Preferences Are Linked to Cognitive Styles, by David M. Greenberg, Simon Baron-Cohen, David J. Stillwell, Michal Kosinski and Peter J. Rentfrow.

These findings were written up in an interesting article in the August 8, 2015 edition of The Wall Street Journal entitled If You’re Empathetic, You Probably Aren’t Into AC/DC by Daniel Akst. I will sum up, annotate and, well, orchestrate a few questions of my own.

Until the introduction of this new method, researchers traditionally pursued correlating musical tastes with the big five personality traits. These include:

  • Extroversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Neuroticism
  • Openness to new experiences

For instance, extroverts tend to prefer pop and funk. However, test subjects were asked to rate their preferences according to genre which, in turn, can have many gradations and variances. The article mentioned that rock music can include everyone from Elton John to AC/DC, the latter of whom appear in an accompanying photo to the story. (For that matter, who would have ever expected Springsteen to cover “Highway to Hell” during his tour of Australia in 2014?)

The five traits were also previously covered in a different context in the March 20, 2015 Subway Fold Post entitled Studies Link Social Media Data with Personality and Health Indicators.

Using this new methodology, the researchers turned to whether a person is an empathizer “who detects and responds to other people’s mental states” or a systemizer “who detects and responds to systems by analyzing their rules”. The article includes a link for readers to test themselves to assess their own musically influenced leanings towards one personality type or the other.

Leading the research was David M. Greenberg, himself a sax player, who is currently pursuing a doctorate in psychology at the University of Cambridge. The combination of his academic and musical interests is what led him to this line of research. He and his team were seeking a more precise and measurable “sonic and psychological” factors in their efforts to develop a system to predict musical tastes.

The data was gathered from 4,000 volunteers who were tested for empathy and then were asked to rate 50 songs. The findings showed that:

  • Empathizers preferred R&B and soft rock (“mellow” music), folk and country (“unpretentious” music), Euro pop (“contemporary” music), but not heavy metal. Within genres, they preferred “gentler jazz”, as well as “sadder, low energy music”.
  • Systemizers preferred “more intense music” including “punk and heavy metal”.

In the future, this research might be helpful to music streaming services like Spotify to further improve their song recommendation engine. (See also the August 14, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Spotify Enhances Playlist Recommendations Processing with “Deep Learning” Technology.)

Mr. Greenberg is also interested in researching the reciprocal of his research findings in regards to whether particular types of music can raise empathy or systemizing levels.

My questions are as follows:

  • Might this research also be helpful to a startup like Reify which is developing augmented reality apps for music as covered in the July 21, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Prints Charming: A New App Combines Music With 3D Printing?
  • Is this research applicable to the composition of music scores for movies, plays and TV shows as storytellers and producers seek to heighten the emotional impacts of certain scenes? (The December 19, 2014 update Subway Fold post entitled Applying MRI Technology to Determine the Effects of Movies and Music on Our Brains discussed Flicker: Your Brain on Movies, a book by Dr. Jeffrey Zacks that, among many other things, covered this type of effect.)
  • Is this research applicable to marketers in developing their ad campaigns aimed at specific demographic groups?

Latest Census on Virtual Senses: A Seminar on Augmented Reality in New York

"3D Augmented Reality Sculpture 3", Image by Travis Morgan

“3D Augmented Reality Sculpture 3”, Image by Travis Morgan

I stepped out of the 90-degree heat and through the front door of Adorama, a camera, electronics and computer store on West 18th Street in Manhattan just before 6:00 pm on July 28, 2015. I quickly felt like I had entered another world¹ as I took my seat for a seminar entitled the Future of Augmented Reality Panel with Erek Tinker. It was the perfect venue, literally and figuratively to, well, focus on this very exciting emerging technology. (Recent trends and developments in this field have been covered in these six Subway Fold posts.)

An expert panel of four speakers involved in developing augmented reality (AR) discussed the latest trends and demo-ed an array of way cool products and services that wowed the audience.  The moderator, Erek Tinker ( the Director of Business Development at an NYC software development firm The Spry Group), did an outstanding job of presenting the speakers and keeping the audience involved with opportunities for their own insightful questions.

This just-over-the-horizon exploration and displays of AR-enhanced experiences very effectively drew everyone into the current capabilities and future potential of this hybridization of the real and the virtual.

So, is AR really the next big thing or a just another passing fad? All of the panel members made their captivating and compelling cases in this order:

  • Dusty Wright is a writer, musician, and has recently joined FuelFX as the Director of Business Development in AR and VR. The company has recently worked on entertainment apps including, among others, their recent collaboration on a presentation of AR-enhanced images by the artist Ron English at the 2015 SXSW festival.²
  • Brian Hamilton, the head Business Development for the eastern US for a company DAQRI, spoke about and presented a video on the company’s recently rolled out “Smart Helmet“. This is a hardhat with a clear visor that displays, using proprietary software and hardware,  AR imagery and data to the worker wearing it. He described this as “industrial  POV augmented reality” and believes that AR will be a part of the “next industrial revolution” enabling workers to move through their work with the data they need.
  • Miguel Sanchez is the Founder and Creative Director of Mass Ideation, a digital creative agency working with AR, among its other strategic and design projects. He sees a bright future in the continuing commercialization and application of AR, but also believes that the public needs to be better educated on the nature and capabilities of it. He described a project for a restaurant chain that wanted to shorten the time their customers waited for food by providing AR-enabled games and videos. He thinks that in the right environments, users can hold up their smartphones to objects and soon sees all manner of enhanced visual features onscreen.
  • Anthony Mattana is the founder of Hooke Audio which has developed an app and wireless headphones for recording and playing “immersive 3D audio”. The technology is build upon the concept of binaural audio which captures sound identically as it is heard. He showed this video of a band’s live performance contrasting the smartphone’s standard recording capabilities with the company’s technology. The difference in sound quality and depth was quite dramatic. This video and five others appear on Hooke’s home page. He said their first products will be shipped within a few months.

Mr. Tinker then turned to all of the panelists for their perspectives on the following:

  • Adoption Forecasts: When shown a slide of AR’s projected market growth of companies producing this hardware, everyone concurred on this predicted 10-year upward inclination. Mr. Sanchez expects the biggest breakthroughs for AR to be in gaming systems.
  • Apple’s Potential Involvement: Mr. Wright noted that Apple has just recently acquired an AR and computer vision company called Metaio. He thus expects that Apple may create a version of AR similar to their highly popular Garage Band music recording system. Mr. Sanchez added that he expects Apple to connect AR to their Siri and Maps technologies. He further suggested that AR developers should look for apps that solve problems and that in the future users may not even recognize AR technology in operation.
  • AR versus VR: Mr. Mattana said that he finds “AR to be more compelling than VR” and that it is better because you can understand it, educate users about it, and it is “tethered to powerful computing” systems. He thinks the main challenge for AR is to make it “socially acceptable”, noting the much publicized awkwardness perceived awkwardness of Google Glass.

Turning to the audience for Q&A, the following topics were addressed:

  • Privacy: How could workers’ privacy be balanced and protected when an AR system like the Smart Helmet can monitor a worker’s entire shift? Mr. Hamilton replied that he has spoken with union representatives about this. He sees this as a “solvable concern”. Furthermore, workplace privacy with respect to AR must include considerations of corporate policy, supporting data security, training and worker protection.
  • Advertising:  All of the panel members agree that AR content must be somehow monetized. (This topic was covered in detail in the May 25, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Advertisers Looking for New Opportunities in Virtual and Augmented Spaces.)
  • Education Apps: Mr. Wright believes that AR will be “a great leveler” in education in many school settings and for students with a wide range of instructional requirements, including those with special needs. Further, he anticipates that this technology will be applied to gamify education. Mr. Mattana mentioned that blind people have shown great interest in binaural audio.
  • New Sources and Online Resources: The panelists recommended the following
  • Medical Application: Mr. Wright demo-ed with the use of a tablet held up to a diagram, an application called “Sim Man 3D” created for Methodist Hospital in Houston. This displayed simulated anatomical functioning and sounds.
  • Neural Connections: Will AR one day directly interface with the human brain? While not likely anytime soon, the panel predicted possible integration with electroencephalograms (EEG) and neural interfaces within 10 years or so.
  • Media Integration: The panel speculated about how the media, particularly in news coverage, might add AR to virtually place readers more within the news being reported.

Throughout the seminar, all of the speakers emphasized that AR is still at its earliest stages and that many opportunities await in a diversity of marketplaces. Judging from their knowledge, enthusiasm, imaginations and commitments to this nascent technology, I left thinking they are quite likely to be right.

 


1.  Not so ironically, when someone from the audience was asking a question, he invoked an episode of from the classic sci-fi TV series The Outer Limits. Does anyone remember the truly extraordinary episode entitled Demon with a Glass Hand?

2.  See the March 26, 2015 Subway Fold Thread entitled Virtual Reality Movies Wow Audiences at 2015’s Sundance and SXSW Festivals for extensive coverage on VR at both of these festivals.