Music Hack Day is the hardest topic that I've ever had to write on. I think my editor and I covered the conference somewhat competently last year, when we noted that none of the five major labels came to Microsoft N.E.R.D. in Cambridge for the first stateside meeting of the greatest minds in music technology. But even though our feature Boston Phoenix summary, “Hacking Pact”, won a second place Association of Alternative Newsweeklies prize, it's no secret that the judges for that competition, who work for print newspapers, were hardly qualified to evaluate futurist aptitude.
Nevertheless; as one of the few (if not the only) pedestrians in attendance, I enjoy the challenge of explaining to the public how this cadre of programmers is increasing our listening pleasure in unfathomable ways. If, like me, you're a music enthusiast with no clue about how nifty services like Last.fm manifest their magic, you shouldn't be denied an opportunity to learn about sweet new developments like ExtensionFM (a/k/a exfm). (With a quick installation on your Google Chrome browser, it finds all the MP3s on any Web page and stacks them in a playlist.) There's also an iPhone app coming that allows everybody in a room to sync their common songs into a crowd-friendly medley.
Similar to last year, Somerville-based prize-of-the-nu-music-community Echo Nest took a leading role, with developer Paul Lamere playing host to the more than 50 hackers who came from as far away as Europe and as nearby as the MIT Media Lab. Echo Nest executes far too many functions to list here, but one miracle the company performs essentially involves combing the entire Web for every bit of info on an act or artist. If five high schoolers in Wichita share a blog post about the Dresden Dolls on Twitter, the Nest knows. And if thousands of Kansans for some reason start streaming and downloading Amanda Palmer songs, then Boston's dankest duo can know enough to head there on their next tour – as well as how big of a venue they can fill.
While Echo Nest unveiled several new wonders – including a feature that allows users to clock a song's energy and danceability, and a new blog by now-former Wired writer Eliot Van Buskirk (which I recommend reading if my coverage is too simple for you) – they were not alone in wowing onlookers. Once again, the folks from SoundCloud represented hard, securing its position as the site to be reckoned with when it comes to sharing sound in the cloud, as it were. At its most basic, this “content platform” gives artists a polished, spam-free destination for heads, bloggers, and critics to stream and download new cuts. On the ambitious side, oftentimes networking shared resources from other Hack Day participants, SoundCloud can provide artists with fan feedback on specific parts of tracks, or slow down the Justin Bieber song “U Smile” by 800 percent for maximum hysterics.
J. BIEBZ - U SMILE 800% SLOWER by Shamantis
Impressive technologies were in large supply; titanic shout-outs to San Francisco MusicTech Summit honcho Brian Zisk and his Collecta crew, tour-assistants like Ticketfly and Songkick (on which you can check your favorite band's set lists and perhaps predict what they'll play next time you see them), and to deep lyrics portals like musiXmatch and LyricsFind. By tapping these hubs and hyper-dynamic facilities like Echo Nest, one could, for example, identify just how many rhymes Jay-Z has jacked from Big L and other lesser-known rappers. Better yet; instead of bitching that consumers don't buy music anymore, artists can calculate ways to bank in this economy. No shit CDs are the new frisbees, but it's never been so easy to bundle t-shirts, MP3s, and concert tickets into packages that real fans can't resist.
As much as I detest the expression, it goes without saying that music lives at Hack Day and dies in the sinking coffin that is every major label (including those that are finally, reluctantly employing these technologies). But if you need further evidence, consider that SoundCloud and Echo Nest are hiring like mad, while the last three A&Rs who tried to sign your band are squeegeeing soiled stalls at Peep World. Meanwhile, the geniuses they once called thieves spent Saturday night at Echo Nest's Davis Square offices partying with Javelin and toasting the wacky notion that sharing is a more effective strategy than suing.