The Music of the Algorithms: Tune-ing Up Creativity with Artificial Intelligence

Image from Pexels.com

No, “The Algorithms” was not a stylishly alternative spelling for a rock and roll band once led by the former 45th Vice President of the United States that was originally called The Al Gore Rhythms.

That said, could anything possibly be more quintessentially human than all of the world’s many arts during the past several millennia? From the drawings done by Og the Caveman¹ on the walls of prehistoric caves right up through whatever musician’s album has dropped online today, the unique sparks of creative minds that are transformed into enduring works of music, literature, film and many other media are paramount among the diversity of things that truly set us apart from the rest of life on Earth.

Originality would seem to completely defy being reduced and formatted into an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm that can produce new artistic works on its own. Surely something as compelling, imaginative and evocative as Springsteen’s [someone who really does have a rock and roll band with his name in it] epic Thunder Road could never have been generated by an app.

Well, “sit tight, take hold”, because the dawn of new music produced by AI might really be upon us. Whether you’ve got a “guitar and learned how to make it talk” or not, something new is emerging out there. Should all artists now take notice of this? Moreover, is this a threat to their livelihood or a new tool to be embraced by both musicians and their audiences alike? Will the traditional battle of the bands be transformed into the battle of AI’s? Before you “hide ‘neath the covers and study your pain” over this development, let’s have a look at what’s going on.

A fascinating and intriguing new report about this entitled A.I. Songwriting Has Arrived. Don’t Panic, by Dan Reilly, was posted on Fortune.com on October 25, 2018. I highly recommend clicking through and reading it if you have an opportunity. I will summarize and annotate it here, and then pose several of my own instrument-al questions.

Treble Clef

Image from Pexels.com

Previously, “music purists” disagreed about whether music tech innovations such as sampling and synthesizers were a form of cheating among recording artists. After all, these have been used in numerous hit tunes during the past several decades.

Now comes a new controversy over whether using artificial intelligence in songwriting will become a form of challenge to genuine creativity. Some current estimates indicate that during the next ten years somewhere between 20 to 30 percent of the Top 40 chart will be in part or in full composed by machine learning systems. The current types of AI-based musical applications include:

  • Cueing “an array of instrumentation” ranging from orchestral to hip-hop compositions, and
  • Systems managing alterations of “mood, tempo and genre”

Leonard Brody, who is the co-founder of Creative Labs, in a joint venture with the leading industry talent representatives Creative Artists Agency, analogizes the current state of AI in music to that of self-driving cars wherein:

  • “Level 1” artists use machines for assistance
  • “Level 2” music is “crafted by a machine” but still performed by real musicians
  • “Level 3” music is both crafted and performed by machines

Drew Silverstein, the CEO of Amper Music, a software company in New York, has developed “AI-based music composition software”. This product enables musicians “to create and download ‘stems'”, the company’s terminology for “unique portions of a track” on a particular instrument and then to and modify them. Silverstein believes that such “predictive tools” are part of an evolving process in original music.²

Other participants in this nascent space of applying algorithms in a variety of new ways to help songwriters and musicians include:

Image from Pexels.com

Bass Clef

The applications of AI in music are not as entirely new as they might seem. For example, David Bowie helped in creating a program called Verbasizer for the Apple Mac. It was used on his 1995 album entitled Outside to create “randomized portions of his inputted text” to generate original lyrics “with new meanings and moods”. Bowie discussed his usage of the Verbasizer in a 1997 documentary about his own creative processes entitled Inspirations.

Other musicians, including Taryn Southern, who was previously a contestant on American Idol, used software from Amper Music, Watson Beat and other vendors for the eight songs on her debut album, the palindrome-entitled I Am AI, released in 2017. (Here is the YouTube video of the first track entitled Break Free.) She believes that using these tools for songwriting is not depriving anyone of work, but rather, just “making them work differently”.

Taking a different perspective about this is Will.i.am, the music producer, songwriter and member of the Black Eyed Peas. He is skeptical of using AI in music because of his concerns over how this technological assistance “is helping creative songwriters” He also expressed doubts concerning the following issues:

  • What is AI’s efficacy in the composition process?
  • How will the resulting music be distributed?
  • Who is the audience?
  • How profitable will it be?

He also believes that AI cannot reproduce the natural talents of some of the legendary songwriters and performers he cites, in addition to the complexities of the “recording processes” they applied to achieve their most famous recordings.

For musical talent and their representatives, the critical issue is money including, among other things, “production costs to copyright and royalties”. For instance, Taryn Southern credits herself and Amper with the songwriting for I Am AI. However, using this software enabled her to spend her funding for other costs besides the traditional costs including “human songwriters”, studio musicians, and the use of a recording studio”.

To sum up, at this point in time in the development of music AIs, it is not anticipated that any truly iconic songs or albums will emerge from them. Rather, it is more likely that a musician “with the right chops and ingenuity” might still achieve something meaningful and in less time with the use of AI.

Indeed, depending on the individual circumstances of their usage, these emerging AI and machine learning music systems may well approach industry recognition of being, speaking of iconic albums – – forgive me, Bruce – – born to run.

Image from Pixabay.com

My Questions

  • Should musicians be ethically and/or legally obligated to notify purchasers of their recordings and concert tickets that an AI has been used to create their music?
  • Who owns the intellectual property rights of AI-assisted or wholly derived music? Is it the songwriter, music publisher, software vendor, the AI developers, or some other combination therein? Do new forms of contracts or revisions to existing forms of entertainment contracts need to be created to meets such needs? Would the Creative Commons licenses be usable here? How, and to whom, would royalties be paid and at what percentage rates?
  • Can AI-derived music be freely sampled for incorporation into new musical creations by other artists? What about the rights and limitations of sampling multiple tracks of AI-derived music itself?
  • How would musicians, IP owners, music publishers and other parties be affected, and what are the implications for the music industry, if developers of a musical AIs make their algorithms available on an open source basis?
  • What new entrepreneurial and artistic opportunities might arise for developing customized add-ons, plug-ins and extensions to music AIs? How might these impact IP and music industry employment issues?

1.  Og was one of the many fictional and metaphorical characters created by the New York City radio and Public Broadcasting TV legend Jean Shepherd. If he was still alive today, his work would have been perfect for podcasting. He is probably best known for the use of several of his short stories becoming the basis for the holiday movie classic A Christmas Story. A review of a biography about him appears in the second half of the November 4, 2014 Subway Fold Post entitled Say, Did You Hear the Story About the Science and Benefits of Being an Effective Storyteller?

2.  I attended a very interesting presentation by Drew Silverstein, the CEO and founder of Amper Music, of his system on November 6, 2017, at a monthly MeetUp.com meeting of the NYC Bots and Artificial Intelligence group. The program included two speakers from other startups in this sector in an evening entitled Creating, Discovering, and Listening to Audio with Artificial Intelligence. For me, the high point of these demos was watching and listening as Silverstein deployed his system to create some original music live based upon suggestions from the audience.

Book Review of “Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else)”

“Advertising in Times Square”, image by Dirk Knight

Every so often, an ad campaign comes along that is strikingly brilliant for its originality, execution, persuasiveness, longevity, humor and pathos. During the mid-1980’s, one of these bright shining examples was the television ads for Bartles & Jaymes Wine Coolers. They consisted of two fictional characters: Frank Bartles, who owned a winery and did all of the talking, and Ed Jaymes, a farmer who never spoke a word but whose deadpan looks were priceless. They traveled across the US to different locations in pursuit of sales, trying to somehow adapt their approaches to reflect the local surroundings. Bartles was very sincere but often a bit naive in his pitches along the way, best exemplified in this ad and another one when they visited New York.

These commercials succeeded beyond all expectations in simultaneously establishing brand awareness, boosting sales and being laugh-out-loud hilarious because Bartles’s and Jaymes’s were such charming, aw-shucks amateurs. In actuality, these ads were deftly conceived and staged by some smart and savvy creatives from the Hal Riney & Partners agency. For further lasting effect, they always had Bartles express his appreciation to the viewers at the end of each spot with his memorable trademark tagline of “Thanks for your support”. These 30-second video gems are as entertaining today as they were thirty years ago.

But those halcyon days of advertising are long gone. The industry’s primary media back then was limited to print, television and radio. Creativity was its  cornerstone and the words “data analytics” must have sounded like something actuaries did in a darkened room while contemplating the infinite. (Who knows, maybe it still does to some degree.)

Fast forwarding to 2018, advertising is an utterly different and hyper-competitive sector whose work product is largely splayed across countless mobile and stationary screens on Planet Earth. Expertly chronicling and precisely assaying the transformative changes happening to this sector is an informative and engaging new book entitled Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else) [Penguin Press, 2018], by the renowned business author Ken Auletta. Just as a leading ad agency in its day cleverly and convincingly took TV viewers on an endearing cultural tour of the US as we followed the many ad-ventures of Bartles & Jaymes, so too, this book takes its readers on a far-ranging and immersive tour of the current participants, trends, challenges and technologies affecting the ad industry.

A Frenemy of My Frenemy is My Frenemy

Image from Pixabay

This highly specialized world is under assault from a confluence of competitive, online, economic, social and mathematical forces. Many people who work in it are deeply and rightfully concerned about its future and the tenure of their places in it. Auletta comprehensively reports on and assesses these profound changes from deep within the operations of several key constituencies (the “frenemies”, conflating “friend” and “enemy”). At first this might seem a bit too much of “inside baseball” (although the ad pitch remains alive and well), but he quickly and efficiently establishes who’s who and what’s what in today’s morphing ad markets, making this book valuable and accessible to readers both within and outside of this field.  It can also be viewed as a multi-dimensional case study of an industry right now being, in the truest sense of the word, disrupted.¹ There is likewise much to learned and considered here by other businesses being buffeted by similar winds.

Frenemies, as thoroughly explored throughout this book, are both  business competitors and partners at the same time. They are former and current allies in commerce who concurrently cooperate and compete. Today they are actively infiltrating each other’s markets. The full matrix of frenemies and their threats and relationships to each other includes the interests and perspectives of ad agencies and their clients, social media networks, fierce competition from streamers and original content producers like Netflix², traditional media in transition to digital platforms, consulting companies and, yes, consumers.

Auletta travels several parallel tracks in his reporting. First, he examines the past, present on onrushing future with respect to revenue streams, profits, client bases served, artificial intelligence (AI) driven automation, and the frenemies’ very fluid alliances. Second, he skillfully deploys the investigative journalistic strategy of “following the money” as it ebbs and flows in many directions among the key players. Third, he illuminates the industry’s evolution from Don Draper’s traditional “Mad Men” to 2018’s “math men” who are the data wranglers, analysts and strategists driven by ever more thin-sliced troves of consumer data the agencies and their corporate clients are using to achieve greater accuracy and efficiency in selling their goods and services.

A deep and wide roster of C-level executives from these various groups were interviewed for the book. Chief among them are two ad industry legends who serve as the x and y axes upon which Auletta has plotted a portion of his reporting. One is Martin Sorrell, who was the founder and CEO of WPP, the world’s largest advertising holding company.³ The other is Michael Kassan, the founder and CEO of MediaLink, a multifaceted firm that connects, negotiates and advises on behalf of a multitude of various parties, often competitors in critical matters affecting the ad business. Both of these individuals have significantly shaped modern advertising over many decades and are currently propagating some of the changes spotlighted in the book in trying to keep it vital, relevant and profitable.

Online Privacy v. Online Primacy

“Tug of War”, image by Pixabay

The established tradition of creativity being the primary driver of advertising creation and campaigns has given way to algorithm-driven data analytics. All of the frenemies and a myriad of other sites in many other parsecs of the websphere vacuum up vast amounts of data on users, their online usage patterns, and even go so far as to try to infer their behavioral attributes. This is often combined with additional personal information from third-party sources and data brokers. Armed with all of this data and ever more sophisticated means for sifting and intuiting it, including AI4, the frenemies are devising their campaigns to far more precisely target potential consumers and their cohorts with finely grained customized ads.

The high point of this book is Auletta’s nuanced coverage of the ongoing controversy involving the tension between frenemies using data analytics to increase click-through rates and, hopefully, sales versus respecting the data privacy of people as they traverse the Web. In response to this voracious data collection, millions of users have resisted this intrusiveness by adding free browser extensions such as AdBlock Plus to circumvent online tracking and ad distribution.5 This struggle has produced a slippery slope between the commercial interests of the frenemies and consumers’ natural distaste for advertising, as well as their resentment at having their data co-opted, appropriated and misused without their knowledge or consent. Recently, public and governmental concerns were dramatically displayed in the harsh light of the scandals involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

Furthermore, Google and Facebook dominate the vast majority of online advertising traffic, revenues and, most importantly, the vast quantum of user information which ad agencies believe would be particularly helpful to them in profiling and reaching consumers. Nonetheless, they maintain it is highly proprietary to them alone and much of it has not been shared. Frenemies much?

Additional troubling trends for the ad industry are likewise given a thorough 3-D treatment. Auletta returns to the axiom several times that audiences do not want to be interrupted with ads (particularly on their mobile devices). Look no further than the likes of premium and the major streaming services who offer all of their content uninterrupted in its entirety. The growing ranks of content creators they engage know this and prefer it because they can concentrate on their presentations without commercial breaks slicing and dicing their narrative continuity. The still profitable revenue streams flowing from this are based upon the strengths of the subscription model.

Indeed, in certain cases advertising is being simultaneously disrupted and innovated. Some of the main pillars of the media like The New York Times are now expanding their in-house advertising staff and service offerings. They can offer a diversified array of ads and analyses directly to their advertisers. Likewise, engineering-driven operations like Google and Facebook can deploy their talent benches to better target consumers for their advertisers by extracting and applying insights from their massive databases. Why should their clients continue go to the agencies when their ads can be composed and tracked for them directly?

Adapt or Go Home

“Out with the Old, In with the New”, image by Mark

The author presents a balanced although not entirely sanguine view of the ad industry’s changes to maintain its composure and clients in the midst of this storm. The frenemy camps must be willing to make needed and often difficult adjustments to accommodate emerging technological and strategic survival methods. He examines the results of two contemporary approaches to avoiding adblocking apps and more fully engaging very specific audiences. One is called “native advertising“, which involves advertisers producing commercial content and paying for its placement online or in print to promote their own products. Generally, these are formatted and integrated to appear as though they are integrated with a site’s or publication’s regular editorial content but contain a notice that it is, in fact “Advertising”.

However, Auletta believes that the second adaptive mechanism, the online subscription model, will not be much more sustainable beyond its current successes. Consumers are already spending money on their favorite paywalled sites.  But it would seem logical that users might not be thus willing to pay for Facebook and others that have always been free. As well, cable’s cord-cutters are continuing to exhibit steady growing in their numbers and their migrations towards streaming services such as Amazon Prime.6

Among the media giants, CBS seems to be getting their adaptive strategies right from continuing to grow multiple revenue streams. They now have the legal rights and financial resources to produce and sell original programming. They have also recently launched original web programming such as Star Trek: Discovery on a commercial-free subscription basis on CBS All Access. This can readily be seen as a challenge to Netflix despite the fact that CBS also providing content to Netflix. Will other networks emulate this lucrative and eyeball attracting model?

As Auletta also concludes, for now at least, consumers as frenemies, appear to be the beneficiaries of all this tumult. They have many device agnostic platforms, pricing options and a surfeit of content from which to choose. They can also meaningfully reduce, although not entirely eliminate, ads following them all over the web and those pesky stealth tracking systems. Whether they collectively can maintain their advantage is subject to sudden change in this environment.

Because of the timing of the book’s completion and publication, the author and publisher should consider including in any subsequent edition the follow-up impacts of Sorrell’s departure from WPP and his new venture (S4 Capital), the effects of the May 2018 implementation of EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and the progress of any industry or government regulation following the raft of recent massive data breaches and misuses.

Notwithstanding that, however, “Frenemies” fully delivers on all of its book jacket’s promises and premises. It is a clear and convincing case of truth in, well, advertising.

So, how would Frank Bartles and Ed Jaymes 2.0 perceive their promotional travels throughout today’s world? Would their folksy personas play well enough on YouTube to support a dedicated channel for them? Would their stops along the way be Instagram-able events? What would be their reactions when asked to Google something or download a podcast?

Alternatively, could they possibly have been proto-social media influencers who just showed up decades too soon? Nah, not really. Even in today’s digital everything world, Frank and Ed 1.0 still abide. Frank may have also unknowingly planted a potential meme among today’s frenemies with his persistent proclamations of “Thanks for your support”: The 2018 upgrade might well be “Thanks for your support and all of your data”.

 


For a very enlightening interview with Ken Auletta, check out the June 26, 2018 podcast entitled Game Change: How the Ad Business Got Disrupted, from The Midday Show on WNYC (the local NPR affiliate in New York).


September 4, 2018 Update: Today’s edition of The New York Times contains an highly enlightening article directly on point with many of the key themes of Frenemies entitled Amazon Sets Its Sights on the $88 Billion Online Ad Market, by Julie Creswell. The report details Amazon’s significant move into online advertising supported by its massive economic, data analytics, scaling and strategic resources. It comprehensively analyzes the current status and future prospects of the company’s move into direct competition with Google and Facebook in this immense parsec of e-commerce. I highly recommend a click-through and full read of this if you have an opportunity.


July 7, 2019 Update:  In another in-depth feature about Martin Sorrell and the impressive and rapid success of his new advertising firm, S4 Capital, see an article in today’s edition of The New York Times entitled The Ad Titan’s Revenge, by David Segal (subscription required). The article was first posted on NYTimes.com on July 1, 2019, under the title “Martin Sorrell Wants to Build a New Ad Empire. Please Don’t Call It Revenge.”


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

2.    Netflix Topples HBO in Emmy Nominations, but ‘Game of Thrones’ Still Rules, July 13, 2018, New York Times, by The Associated Press. However, see also Netflix Drops Dud on Wall St. As Subscriber Growth Flops, July 16, 2018, New York Times, by Reuters.

3.   Sorrell is reported in the book as saying he would not leave anytime soon from running WPP. However, following the book’s publication, he was asked to step down in April 2018 following allegations of inappropriate conduct. See Martin Sorrell Resigns as Chief of WPP Advertising Agency, New York Times, by Matt Stevens and Liz Alderman, April 14, 2018. Nonetheless, Sorrell has quickly returned to the industry as reported in Martin Sorrell Beats WPP in Bidding War for Dutch Marketing Firm, New York Times, by Sapna Maheshwari, July 10, 2018.

4.  For a very timely example, see The Ad Agency Giant Omnicom Has Created a New AI Tool That is Poised to Completely Change How Ads Get Made, BusinessInsider.com, by Lauren Johnson,  July 12, 2018.

5.   Two other similar anti-tracking browser extensions in wide usage include, among others Ghostery and Privacy Badger.

6.   See also  Cord-Cutting Keeps Churning: U.S. Pay-TV Cancelers to Hit 33 Million in 2018 (Study), Variety.com, by Todd Spangler, July 24, 2018.

Book Review of “Built: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures”

“Brooklyn Bridge”, Image by Antti-Jussi Kovalainen

During the summer of 2010, I worked in an office directly across the street from the World Trade Center reconstruction site. For several months while my floor was being renovated, my temporary office windows faced west looking out onto the early construction of One World Trade Center. The daily swirl of highly coordinated planning and building was one of the most remarkable things I have ever seen. Hundreds of specialized craftsmen, managers, engineers, materials suppliers and numerous more worked in complete sync with each other to precisely anchor and assemble the tremendous base of the structure. Then they began steadily assembling the 104 stories of steel, concrete and glass above it climbing inexorably towards the sky.

Each day I looked out the windows and marveled at this modern miracle as it continually coalesced into one of the tallest buildings in the world.It was as exciting and entertaining to watch in person as any concert, movie or ballgame.

So, how did this magnificent monolith go from blueprints and computer visualizations to a finely tapered tower expressly intended to endure over time, meet all the modern business and technological needs of its occupants, embed environmental comfort, ensure local building code compliance, and remain state-of-the-art safe? Quite simply, who makes sure that buildings like this and many other structures such as bridges and stadiums actually stand up straight and stay that way?

Measure Twice

“The Shard”, Image by Mike Dixson

Among the many key participants in these processes are the structural engineers. They play an integral part in making certain that everything built is comprehensively planned and assembled strictly in accordance with all relevant design specifications. Yet might this sound a bit too math-geeky to want to learn anything more about them? Well, not anymore.

First-time author and accomplished structural engineer Roma Agrawal ( @RomaTheEngineer ), has recently written a fully engaging, highly informative and deeply inspiring 360-degree look at the work of these professionals entitled Built: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures, (Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2018). She has admirably transposed the same high standards of skill and precision required to be a structural engineer into also being a writer.

In equal parts personal story, travel log, history lesson and Intro to Structural Engineering 101, Ms. Agrawal quickly captures the reader’s attention and deftly manages to maintain it throughout all 271 pages. From mud huts to coliseums to bridge to skyscrapers (among other projects, she worked on The Shard in London), we learn about who was responsible and how these creations were conceived and realized. For instance, when we admire the artistry of an archway in a building, we usually never consider all of the math, physics and fabrication2 that go into creating it. Built will give you an entirely new point of view on this and a multitude of other fundamentals of structural engineering. The text also contains a wealth of historical perspectives on how bridges, tunnels, buildings and even sewers helped civilizations to expand their populations, civil services and commerce.

The author also believes that structural engineers do not get the credit they really deserve. Nonetheless, her book is a persuasive brief for their successes in making all structures remain standing (including London Bridge and why it is not falling down), function properly, and endure extreme weather conditions and changing geological factors.  In effect, it expertly explains how they carefully process and manage a myriad of concerns about their buildings’ operations, longevity and safety.

By virtue of its own structure, the book’s 14 chapters covering building materials, design and safety principles, construction methods, noteworthy construction projects, and famous structural engineers span widely across the globe and many centuries. The lively prose is involving and evocative, so much so that these chapters could even stand on their own as individual essays. But read sequentially the mesh together to deliver a very rewarding reading experience.

Generously appointing the text are many accompanying hand-annotated photos and hand-drawn simple sketches delineating the critical principles and features being described. These simple graphics significantly support in the reader’s comprehension of some of the more sophisticated concepts as they are introduced.

Cut Once

The Colosseum, Rome, Image by Christopher Chan

There are three important themes skillfully threaded throughout the book. First, in support of the popular current movement to encourage more young women to pursue studies and employment in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (“STEM“), Ms. Agrawal’s success in structural engineering is intended to serve as a persuasive example for others. She writes that structural engineering is still a profession mostly practiced by men and believes that more women should consider becoming a part of it. Her advancement in this field should provide a high degree of inspiration for this intended audience as well as many other readers.

Of a truly great event very well told here, Ms. Agrawal recounts the remarkable story of her personal hero, Emily Warren Roebling. When the Brooklyn Bridge was being built (1869-1883), her husband, Washington Roebling, was the chief engineer on this project. When he became ill, his wife took over and become the de facto chief engineer. She delivered critical information from her husband to his assistants on site. Moreover, she mastered all aspects of the design, physics, materials and management of the bridge and is credited with having become the essential individual in getting this supremely complicated undertaking completed. Her devotion to this endeavor was simply extraordinary. Ms. Agrawal eloquently expresses her great admiration for Emily Roebling and why she was an inspiration for her own career path.

Second, she emphasizes the importance of being well prepared for all possible contingencies in her work. There are a multitude of variables to all be taken into account when building anything and it is imperative that structural engineers be able to anticipate, assess, test and decide how to definitively deal with all of them. Such unwavering diligence and exactitude is clearly applicable to many other jobs and professions. Ms. Agrawal effectively makes her case for comprehensive planning and precision at several key junctures in her writing.

Third and equally impressive is Ms. Agrawal’s boundless enthusiasm for her work. She so enjoys and believes in what she is doing that any reader in any field can benefit from from her example.  Granted that everyone’s work situation is different and often changeable can present a range of challenges. However, when someone like the author can sustain such genuine passion for the work she is doing, reading Built may well have the added benefit of providing you with a more positive perspective on your own employment as well that of others.

As proof, a new condominium was recently being built along one of my daily walking routes. I happened to be reading Built towards the end of its construction. After finishing the book, whenever I passed this site again, I saw all of the workers and their completed building with a newly enhanced understanding and admiration of it all.  I would never have previously had this appreciation without first relying upon this book’s, well, very solid foundation.

 


In a very different and more virtual context, a method for “building” a structure in one’s own mind as form of memory enhancement device whereby someone can then fill the “rooms” with many items that can later be retrieved and thus recalled at will was first devised in the 16th century.  This story was among the many subjects of a fascinating historical account entitled The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, by Jonathan D. Spence (Penguin Books, 1985).


1.   See the September 1, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled A Thrilling Visit to the New One World Observatory at the Top of the World Trade Center for photos and descriptions of the amazing views from the One World Observatory very top of 1WTC.

2.  See these 10 Subway Fold posts on other recent developments in material science including, among others, such way cool stuff as Q-Carbon, self-healing concrete (also mentioned in Built at pages 106 -107), and metamaterials.

Taking Note of Music Tech’s VC and Accelerator Market Trends in 2017

As a part of today’s modern music industry there exists a complementary and thriving support system of venture capital firms and music tech startup accelerators who are providing a multitude of innovative services.  A fascinating examination of the current state of this ecosystem appeared in an article entitled Music Pushes to Innovate Beyond Streaming, But Investors Play It Safe: Analysis, by Cherie Hu, posted on Billboard.com on 7/24/17. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety for its insights, assessments and accompanying graphics.

I will summarize this feature here, add some links and annotations and, well, venture a few of my own questions. Also, I believe this is a logical follow to three previous Subway Fold posts about the music biz including:

Tempo

In mid-2017, the music tech market is generating signals as to its direction and viability. For example, Jawbone, the once thriving manufacturer of wearable audio devices is currently being liquidated; Soundcloud  the audio distribution platform let go of 40 percent of its staff recently only days before the firm’s tenth anniversary; and Pandora has experienced high turnover among its executives while seeking a sale.

Nonetheless, the leaders in music streaming are maintaining “the music industry’s growth”. Music tech showcases and music accelerators including SXSW Music Startup Spotlight, the Midemlab Accelerator, and Techstars Music are likewise driving market transformation.   During 2017 thus far, 54 music startups from more than 25 cities across the globe have taken part in these three entities. They have presented a range of submissions including “live music activations and automated messaging to analytics tools for labels and artists”.

While companies such as Live Nation, Balderton Capital and Evolution Media have previously invested in music startups, most investors at this mid-year point have never previously funded a company in this space. This is despite the fact that investments in this market sector have rarely returned the 30% that VCs generally seek. As well, a number of established music industry stars are participating as first-time or veteran investors this year.

Of the almost $900 million funding in music tech for the first half of this year, 75% was allocated for streaming services – – 82% of which went only to the leading four companies. However, there remains a “stark disconnect” involving the types of situations where music accelerators principally “lend their mentorship” in “hardware, virtual reality1, chatbots, label tools”, and the issues that VC concentrate the funding such as “streaming, social media, brands”.  Moreover, this situation has the potential of “stifling innovation” across the industry.

To date, music accelerators have “successfully given a platform and resources” to some sectors of the industry that VCs don’t often consider. For example, automated messaging and AI-generated music2 are both categories that music accelerators avoided until recently, now equal 15% of membership. This expansion into new categories reflects a much deeper “tech investment and hiring trends”. Leading music companies are now optimistic about virtual digital assistants (VDA) including chatbots and voice-activated systems such as Amazon Alexa3. As well, Spotify recently hired away a leading AI expert from Sony.

Rhythm

However, this “egalitarian focus” on significant problems has failed to “translate into the wider investing landscape” insofar as the streaming services have attracted 75% of music tech funding. The data further shows that licensing/rights/catalog management, social music media, and music, brands and advertising finished, in that order, in second at 11.1%, third at 7.1% and fourth at 3.9%.

These percentages closely match those for 2016. Currently, many VCs in this sector view streaming “as the safest model available”. It is also one upon which today’s music industry depends for its survival.

Turning to the number of rounds of music tech funding rather than the dollar amounts raised, by segments within the industry, a “slightly more egalitarian landscape” emerges:

  • Music hardware, AI-generated music, and VR and Immersive media each at 5.0%
  • Live music; music brands and advertising; streaming; and social music media each at 15.0%
  • Licensing, rights, and catalog management at 25% (for such companies as Kobalt Music, Stem and Dubset)

Categories that did relatively well in both their number of rounds of funding and accelerator membership were “catalog management, social music platforms, and live music”.

Those music tech startups that are more “futuristic” like hardware and VR are seen favorably by “accelerators and conference audiences”, but less so among VCs.  Likewise, while corporate giants including Live Nation, Universal Music Group, Citi and Microsoft have announced movement into music VR in the past six months, VC funding for this tech remained “relatively soft”.

Even more pronounced is the situation where musical artists and label services such as Instrumental (a influencer discovery platform) and chart monitors like Soundcharts have not raised any rounds of funding. This is so “despite unmatched attention from accelerators. This might be due to these services not being large enough to draw too “many traditional investors”.

An even more persistent problem here is that not many VCs “are run by people with experience in the music industry” and are familiar with its particular concerns. Once exception is Plus Eight Equity Partners, who are trying to address “this ideological and motivational gap”.

Then there are startups such as 8tracks and Chew who are “experimenting with crowdfunding” in this arena but who were not figured into this analysis.

In conclusion, the tension between a “gap in industry knowledge” and the VCs’ preference for “safety and convenience”, is blurring the line leading from accelerator to investment for many of these imaginative startups.

My Questions

  • Of those music startups who have successfully raised funding, what factors distinguished their winning pitches and presentations that others can learn from and apply?
  • Do VCs and accelerators really need the insights and advice of music industry professionals or are the numbers, projects and ROIs only what really matters in deciding whether or not to provide support?
  • Would the application of Moneyball principles be useful to VCs and accelerators in their decision-making processes?

 


1.  See the category Virtual and Augmented Reality for other Subway Fold posts on a range of applications of these technologies.

2.  For a report on a recent developments, see A New AI Can Write Music as Well as a Human Composer, by Bartu Kaleagasi, posted on Futurism.com on 3/9/17.

3.  Other examples of VDAs include Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant and Microsoft’s Cortana.

Book Review of “Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World”

"Toolbox_LRG", Image by Limor

“Toolbox_LRG”, Image by Limor.

My father loved to tell this story: One of his classmates while he attended the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine was named Robert Schattner. Several years after they graduated, he went on to invent the over-the-counter sore throat lozenge and spray called Chloraseptic. This remedy has been on the market for decades ever since then.

Schattner first devised this product entirely on his own after someone who had just had some teeth pulled asked him for an antiseptic to relieve the pain. He later sold the formula and the rights to a pharmaceutical company for $4M. (Given the rate of inflation since then, this sum today would have been magnitudes more and certainly nothing to sneeze or cough at.)

Thereafter he left the practice of dentistry and went on became a successful businessman and philanthropist. He also contributed for the construction of a new building for the U Penn dental school named the Robert Schattner Center. A brief summary of his invention and contributions can be found in an article entitled Capital Buzz: Chloraseptic Inventor Offers Remedy for School, by Thomas Heath, which appeared in The Washington Post on October 23, 2011.

Mapping the Inventive Process

This is a classic example of how inventors find their ideas and inspiration. There are many other circumstances, methodologies, environments, personality traits, events, technologies and chances occurrences that can also precipitate new inventions. All of them are expertly explained and explored in Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), by Pagan Kennedy.

The book’s five sections distinctly map out the steps in the inception and realization of things so entirely new. In doing so, the author transports the reader to center of this creative process. She deftly uses highly engaging stories, exposition and analyses to illuminate the resourcefulness and persistence of inventors leading to their breakthroughs.

Some of these tales may be familiar but they are skillfully recounted and placed into new contexts. For example, in 1968, an engineer and inventor named Douglas Englebart demonstrated a working computer for the first time with a heretofore unseen “mouse” and “graphical user interface”. (This story has gone on to become a tech legend known as The Mother of All Demos.) Others are presented who are less well-known but brought to life in highly compelling narratives. Together they provide valuable new lessons on the incubation of inventions along a wide spectrum ranging from sippy cups and water toys to mobile phones and medical devices.

The author has seemingly devised a meta-invention of her own: A refreshingly new perspective on reporting the who, what, where and why of inventors, their creations and their wills to succeed. It is a richly detailed schematic of how a creative mind can conceive and execute an original idea for a new widget and, moreover, articulate the need for it and the problem it solves.

Among other methods, Ms. Pagan covers the practice of conducting thought experiments on new concepts that may or may not lend themselves to actual experimentation in the real world. This process was made well-known by Einstein’s efforts to visualize certain problems in physics that led him to his monumental achievements. I suggest trying a thought experiment here to imagine the range of the potential areas of applications for Inventology to evaluate, in an age of countless startups and rapid scientific and technological advancements, all of the populations, challenges and companies it might benefit. Indeed, this book could readily inspire nearly anyone so inclined to pick up a pencil or soldering iron in order to launch the realization of their own proverbial better mousetrap.

Resources for Inventors

Within all of the lively content packed into this book, the struggles and legacy of a previously little known and tragically persecuted figure who learned to harness and teach the inventive process, springs right off the pages. He was a fascinating figure named  Genrich Altshuller who worked as an engineer, writer and inventor in Russia. His most important contribution to the science of invention was the development of the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (better known by its Russian acronym of “TRIZ”). This is a comprehensive system for analyzing and implementing inventive solutions to problems of nearly every imaginable type and scale. Altschuller was willing to share this and instruct anyone who was willing to participate in studying TRIZ. It is still widely used across the modern world. The author masterfully breaks down and clearly explains its essential components.

The true gem in the entire book is how Altshuller, while imprisoned in a brutal jail in Stalinist Russia, used only his mind to devise an ingenious solution to outwit his relentless interrogators. No spoilers here, but it is an emotional triumph that captures the heart and spirit of this remarkable man. Altshuller’s life and influence in generating thousands of inventions reads as though it might make for a dramatic biopic.

Also threaded and detailed throughout the book are the current bounty of easily accessible technological tools available to inventors. First, the web holds a virtual quantum of nearly limitless data that can be researched, processed, shared, crowdsourced (on sites such as InnoCentive) and crowdfunded (on sites such as Kickstarter and Indigogo), in search of medical advances, among many other fields.¹ Second, 3D printing² can be used to quickly and inexpensively fabricate and work on enhancing prototypes of inventions. As a result of this surfeit of resources, the lengthy timelines and prohibitive cost curves that previously discouraged and delayed inventors have now been significantly reduced.

Impossibility is Only Temporary

I live in a neighborhood where it is nearly impossible to park a car. An open parking space has a half-life on the street of about .000001 nano-seconds before it is taken. This situation often reminds me of a suggestion my father also made to me when I was very young. He told me that if I really wanted to solve an important problem when I grew up, I should try to invent a car that, at the press of a button, would fold up into the size and shape of a briefcase that could be easily carried away. At the time, I thought it was impossible and immediately put the, well, brakes on this idea.

Nonetheless, as Inventology expressly and persuasively makes its own brief case, true inventors see impossibility as merely a temporary condition that, with enough imagination and determination, can be overcome. For budding Edisons and creative problem solvers everywhere, this book adds a whole new meaning to the imperative that nothing is truly impossible if you try hard enough and long enough to solve it. This indefatigable spirit permeates all 223 pages of this wonderfully enjoyable, inspirational and informative book.

Inventing your own reason to read it should be easy.


For a dozen very timely examples of inventors and their inventions further typifying much of the content and spirit of Inventology, I highly recommend reading a new feature and viewing its accompanying video posted on Quartz.com on April 26, 2016, entitled These Top Twelve Inventions Could One Day Change the World, by Mike Murphy. It covers the finalists in the 2016 European Inventors Award competition currently being run by the European Patent Office.


1.  For example, last week’s Only Human podcast on NPR included a report on how a woman with Type 1 (T1) diabetes, along with the assistance of her husband, had hacked together an artificial pancreas (called a “closed loop” system), and then shared the technical specs online with other T1s in the Seattle area. I highly recommend listening to this podcast entitled The Robot Vacuum Ate My Pancreas in its entirety.

2.  See also these six Subway Fold posts for a sampling of other trends and developments in 3D printing.

Book Review of “The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory”

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

It is my completely unscientific theory that the music which often matters most to people is the music they listened to when they were young. From Stravinsky to Springsteen to Taylor Swift, the tunes of your youth will likely stay with you for life. These recordings will always get your attention whenever you hear them and perpetually occupy a special place in your heart from their opening bars to their final fades.

Is there really anyone of any age having any music preference who doesn’t get the chills or at very least tap a toe every time they hear the majesty of the Rite of Spring, the propulsive launch of Born to Run, or the megawatt energy of Shake It Off?

Today’s Music Biz and How It Got That Way

The music, artists, producers and companies who are the subjects in The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory (W.W. Norton & Company, 2015), by John Seabrook, are not those that I happened to grow up with. Nonetheless, for interested readers who either did or did not come of age at some point during the past two decades, this highly engaging account of the extraordinary changes throughout the music industry will provide readers with a compelling narrative, cultural history, and business case study. This book further excels as an insightful guide through the music industry’s production processes of writing, recording, marketing, distributing and performing today’s chart-topping tunes.

Like a well-arranged progression of chords, each successive chapter skillfully takes you deeper into the operations of the leaders and innovators of the music industry. It is not so much about the music celebrities’ personal lives as it is about the trajectories of their careers, particularly importance of steadily creating viable hits. Moreover, it carefully examines how smash recordings are well-crafted by everyone involved in their creation to make certain they succeed with global music audiences.

Seabrook illuminates exactly how many of today’s hits, as well as misses, have enough deliberate calculation in the assembly of their beats, lyrics and evocative musical “hooks” to send a rocket to, well, Nep-tune and back. His exposition of the evolution of the “hit factory” takes place beginning early Euro-Pop then on to the Backstreet Boys (and their competitors), and next to the emergence of today’s worldwide stars. He devotes quite a bit of his reporting to how this is done for today’s A-listers such as Rihanna, Katy Perry and Kesha by a small and closely knit group of writers and producers. How and why the leading creatives achieved their prominence in today’s music scene is also finely threaded throughout the book.

Going to a Global Go-Go

As colorfully detailed, the US is often the center of the music industry, with many of its leading participants gravitating towards New York and Los Angeles. There are other key international personalities from Europe and Asia. Sweden in particular had first given a start several of the most influential producers with long histories of innovation in Europe. Later on, they brought their work to the US and achieved even greater commercial success.

Another tectonic disruption, online file-sharing, is explained but not pursued in great depth. Rather, and rightfully so, the author chose to examine how purchasing and downloaded MP3s is now giving way to rising volumes of streaming. He reports on the webwide phenomenon of Spotify’s business model, including its disparate economic impacts upon consumers and musicians. (These seven Subway Fold posts also cover a range of developments involving Spotify.)

Clearly and by definition, factories are places where products are fabricated and shipped.  Their operations must be periodically modernized in order to remain competitive. So too, it has become imperative for today’s music industry to adapt or face decline. The Hit Factory takes readers deep and wide into this unique and worldwide production system where hits by many of the mega-stars’ hits are indeed manufactured. Seabrook’s expert prose conveys the incredible effort, business sense and precision this enterprise requires.

Two Part Harmony

If you have the opportunity to do so, I highly recommend reading both The Song Factory and How Music Got Free (previously reviewed in this August 31, 2015 Subway Fold post), together for a comprehensive understanding of how the multi-billion dollar music industry had fallen and then reinvented itself to rise again. Each book individually, and even more so together, deftly captures this unique world’s intersections of art, science and commerce.

For yet another engrossing historical perspective on the state of the music business set a few decades earlier during the 70’s and 80’s rock era, I further suggest reading a highly entertaining account entitled Hit Men (Crown, 1990), by Frederick Dannen.

Finally, all of the foregoing aside for a moment, have things really changed that much in the pursuit of musical success? Once you have finished The Hit Factory, I urge you to also listen to The Byrds’ 2-minute classic hit single So You Want to Be a Rock ‘N Roll Star and then to reconsider your answer. This song’s sentiment rings as true today as it did way back then.

That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.

Virtual Reality Universe-ity: The Immersive “Augmentarium” Lab at the U. of Maryland

"A Touch of Science", Image by Mars P.

“A Touch of Science”, Image by Mars P.

Got to classes. Sit through a series of 50 minute lectures. Drink coffee. Pay attention and take notes. Drink more coffee. Go to the library to study, do research and complete assignments. Rinse and repeat for the rest of the semester. Then take your final exams and hope that you passed everything. More or less, things have traditionally been this way in college since Hector was a pup.

Might students instead be interested in participating at the new and experimental learning laboratory called the Augmentarium at the University of Maryland where immersing themselves in their studies takes on an entirely new meaning? This is a place where virtual reality (VR)  is being tested and integrated into the learning process. (There 14 Subway Fold posts cover a range of VR and augmented reality [AR] developments and applications.)

Where do I sign up for this?¹

The story was covered in a fascinating report that appeared on December 8, 2015 on the website of the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled Virtual-Reality Lab Explores New Kinds of Immersive Learning, by Ellen Wexler. I highly recommend reading this in its entirety as well as clicking on the Augmentarium link to learn about some these remarkable projects. I also suggest checking out the hashtag #Augmentarium on Twitter the very latest news and developments. I will summarize and annotate this story, and pose some of my own questions right after I take off my own imaginary VR headset.

Developing VR Apps in the Augmentarium

In 2014, Brendan Iribe, the co-founder of the VR headset company Oculus², as well as a University of Maryland alumni, donated $31 million to the University for its development of VR technology³. During the same year, with addition funding obtained from the National Science Foundation, the Augmentarium was built. Currently, researchers at the facility are working on applications of VR to “health care, public safety, and education”.

Professor Ramani Duraiswami, a PhD and co-founder of a startup called VisiSonics (developers of 3D audio and VR gaming systems), is involved with the Augmentarium. His work is in the area of audio, which he believes has a great effect upon how people perceive the world around them. He further thinks that an audio or video lecture presented via distance learning can be greatly enhanced by using VR to, in his words make “the experience feel more immersive”. He feels this would make you feel as though you are in the very presence of the instructor4.

During a recent showcase there, Professor Duraiswami demo-ed 3D sound5 and a short VR science fiction production called Fixing Incus. (This link is meant to be played on a smartphone that is then embedded within a VR viewer/headset.) This implementation showed the audience what it was like to be immersed into a virtual environment where, when they moved their heads and line of sight, what they were viewing corresponding and seamlessly changed.

Enhancing Virtual Immersions for Medicine and Education

Amitabh Varshney, the Director of the University’s Institute for Advanced Computer Studies, is now researching “how the brain processes information in immersive environments” and how is differs from how this is done on a computer screen.6 He believes that VR applications in the classroom will enable students to immerse themselves in their subjects, such as being able to “walk through buildings they design” and “explore” them beyond “just the equations” involved in creating these structures.

At the lab’s recent showcase, he provided the visitors with (non-VR) 3D glasses and presented “an immersive video of a surgical procedure”. He drew the audience’s attention to the doctors at the operating table who were “crowing around” it. He believes that the use of 3D headsets would provide medical students a better means to “move around” and get an improved sense of what this experience is actually like in the operating room. (The September 22, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled VR in the OR: New Virtual Reality System for Planning, Practicing and Assisting in Surgery is also on point and provides extended coverage on this topic.)

While today’s early iterations of VR headsets (either available now or early in 2016), are “cumbersome”, researchers hope that they will evolve (in a manner similar to mobile phones which, in turn and as mentioned above, are presently a key element in VR viewers), and be applied in “hospitals, grocery stores and classrooms”.  Director Varshney can see them possibly developing along an even faster timeline.

My Questions

  • Is the establishment and operation of the Augmentarium a model that other universities should consider as a means to train students in this field, attract donations, and incubate potential VR and AR startups?
  • What entrepreneurial opportunities might exist for consulting, engineering and tech firms to set up comparable development labs at other schools and in private industry?
  • What other types of academic courses would benefit from VR and AR support? Could students now use these technologies to create or support their academic projects? What sort of grading standards might be applied to them?
  • Do the rapidly expanding markets for VR and AR require that some group in academia and/or the government establish technical and perhaps even ethical standards for such labs and their projects?
  • How are relevant potential intellectual property and technology transfer issues going to be negotiated, arbitrated and litigated if needed?

 


1.  Btw, has anyone ever figured out how the very elusive and mysterious “To Be Announced (TBA)”, the professor who appears in nearly all course catalogs, ends up teaching so many subjects at so many schools at the same time? He or she must have an incredibly busy schedule.

2.  These nine Subway Fold posts cover, among other VR and AR related stories, the technology of Oculus.

3.  This donation was reported in an article on September 11, 2014 in The Washington Post in an article entitled Brendan Iribe, Co-founder of Oculus VR, Makes Record $31 Million Donation to U-Md by Nick Anderson.

4.  See also the February 18, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled A Real Class Act: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are Changing the Learning Process.

5.  See also Designing Sound for Virtual Reality by Todd Baker posted on Medium.com on December 21, 2015, for a thorough overview of this aspect of VR, and the August 5, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled  Latest Census on Virtual Senses: A Seminar on Augmented Reality in New York covering, among other AR technologies, the development work and 3D sound wireless headphones of Hooke Audio.

6.  On a somewhat related topic, see the December 18, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Mind Over Subject Matter: Researchers Develop A Better Understanding of How Human Brains Manage So Much Information.