Designing the Future of Music

Forty music, design and computer science students filled a glass-walled room on an early June morning at Berklee College of Music. This was a day-long audition, a chance to qualify for a three-week innovation sprint later in the summer. Each applicant had written a brief statement about why they wanted to participate. For some it was simply an opportunity to learn about new technologies, design-thinking, or entrepreneurial skills. For others it was an opportunity to continue down their own path, bridging music and technology to create new tools or businesses. However their underlying motivation was clearest: to have influence on the future of music.

This audition was a make-a-thon. Similar to a hack-a-thon, a make-a-thon extends beyond code skills to utilize additional expertise like business modeling, graphic design, or product design. It’s rooted in the idea that creating innovative experiences for the world must be cross-disciplinary.

After a crash-course in design-thinking the room was divided into seven pre-selected teams and the challenge for the day was shared: 

Design a new product or service that compensates rights-holders for the resale of pre-owned media

We knew this was a difficult brief, and depending on with whom you speak, a controversial one. One of the first questions from the room couldn’t have been more perfectly timed: “…and why do I want this?” “I don’t know,” I replied. “That is the fundamental question to answer for any innovation. Why do stakeholders want your idea? Why would artists want this, why would record stores want this, why would labels want this? Why do consumers want this? Can you create a solution that appeals to the entire ecosystem?” Empathy is the starting point for good design.

And with that the clock began counting down the next five hours. Teams were provided templates and guidance throughout the day to answer these questions about incentives, to brainstorm and to prototype their ideas. They walked Massachusetts Avenue and Newbury Street initially interviewing consumers, retailers and fellow musicians then returning later to share prototypes for feedback. After final builds it was demo time.

These coffee, sugar and adrenaline-fueled days are a first-hand Darwinian moment, the survival of the fittest. Not so much for the individuals involved (remember this is a collaborative sport), but more so for the ideas. Sticky notes that seemed promising at 11am are found crumpled on the floor two hours later. Ideas that seem perfect in the team bubble are burst immediately when shared with strangers. Even the ideas that do make it through the day are a shadow of where they began, like the evolutionary journey of a dinosaur to a bluebird.

When we introduced the brief earlier in the day we gave the teams a few constraints to make a solution achievable in five hours.

  • assume we know the rights holders
  • assume a distributed ledger is your underlying technology
  • define incentives for three stakeholders: consumers, creators and retailers

One team presented, “a service that allows independent artists to register their songs and specify royalty fees based on audio fingerprinting technology like Shazam.” When a user uploads a track to an online video service they are prompted to agree to the terms of the artist which may require a small donation that is distributed to the rights holders. Certainly technically feasible but the incentives were unclear. 

Two subsequent teams shared ideas that were more altruistic. One created a platform for artists to donate resale revenue to non-profits (sidestepping the rights issues) and another created a non-profit business to resale used media to cultural institutions in areas where the diversity of music may not have been available before. The intentions were good but the business models were not scalable.

Another two teams shared concepts that add digital content to vinyl records. One was a bit like the original Netflix model, a vinyl subscription service that “rented” records and provided exclusive digital content during the rental period. The other was a simple barcode scanning app that registered an album and gave perks to a purchaser then transferred the perks to a new individual when the record was resold and rescanned at a record store. The incentives in these models appealed to all three defined stakeholders.

While these ideas were not new-to-the-world (you can’t do that in five hours!) we did like the diversity we saw in their solutions. And more importantly we liked what we saw in many of the students: enthusiasm, collaboration, creativity, willingness to learn and a passion for the music profession. 

We have selected eighteen of these talented individuals to join us in July for a three week Summer Lab to more deeply explore the challenge of getting “minimal viable data” into a shared ledger so that products and services like these and many others are truly possible. This time they will have the additional guidance and expertise of the Open Music Initiative members,  Berklee staff and a full-time IDEO team. It is truly a cross-industry, cross-disciplinary, cross-generational effort to set the foundation for a 21st century music industry.

Michael Hendrix