Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Classical music's big challenge is bridging the technology gap

Using 3D Visualizations to Explore and Discover Music, Predicting genre labels for artists using FreeDB, Optimizing raw audio with convolutional networks, Building Musically-relevant Audio Features through Multiple Timescale Representations, The Need for Music Information Retrieval with User-Centered and Multimodal Strategies, and Geometry in Sound: A Speech/Music Audio Classifier Inspired by an Image Classifier. Those are just a few of the papers cited on one page of the Research at Google online resource. Some of these papers were presented at the annual conference of the International Society of Music Information Retrieval, a non-profit organization seeking to advance the access, organization, and understanding of music information, and the graphics for this post are sampled from some of these papers.

Amazon, Pandora, Spotify, Google and Shazam are among the partners supporting the International Society of Music Information Retrieval and its current president is Fabien Gouyon, the principal scientist at web radio pioneer Pandora. Not one record company and no classical institutions are partners of the International Society of Music Information Retrieval. And I am certain there are very few people - if any - in classical music who will understand what those papers are about. Which very neatly summarises the technology gap facing classical music.

Digital technologies such as streaming have changed the face of classical music forever. The record industry has been humiliated and usurped by digital gatekeepers such as Spotify and Apple Music, and this has had a profound knock-on effect into live classical music. Yet despite this the classical industry's understanding of new technologies and their business models is risible. New technology means just two things to almost everyone in the industry - streaming and social media. Look at the agenda of classical conferences, look at the output of classical journalists. Both are stuck in a technology time warp which simply positions digital solutions as extensions of the decades old analogue infrastructure. Streaming is seen as replacing recorded media, and social media as replacing traditional PR and advertising. This prevailing myopia was succinctly summed up in a recent article by Costa Pilavachi. He is one of the most recent executives to pass through the ever-revolving doors of Universal Classic's boardroom. In a recent article he lectured his classical colleagues on how "Whatever the changes in technology, the fundamentals of supplying that need have remained constant" and went on to predict that "the classical industry is on the verge of another period of growth as we enter the ‘Age of Streaming’".

There is no understanding that smart companies are using digital technologies to reinvent music - their starting point is not analogue models but blank sheets of paper. And there is no understanding that unless the classical industry wises up to new technologies it is sleepwalking towards oblivion. Yes, Google, Amazon and their peers are predatory and disruptive. But they will not go away. They are a whole lot bigger and smarter than the classical rearguard, and they will eat the classical industry alive unless it changes. Classical music needs a whole new breed of smart young and not so young people in the record companies, in the orchestras and in the music media who can read technology as well as they can read music. We already have too much classical music, and some of it is not played enough. So we don't need more composers in residence. Instead we need technologists in residence. And there could be a win/win if these technologists are funded by Google and other cash rich new technology corporations; note that Google currently has an $86.3 billion cash pile.

These technologists will not be curating trendy trifles such as Internet symphonies and YouTube orchestras. They will be working to keep and enhance all that is good in classical music while at the same time bringing it into the digital age. Just to give a few brainstorming examples. They could build models for concert planning. At present this is the fiefdom of shamans in orchestra back offices who supposedly have magical powers to predict what audiences want. Which is a nonsense. Concert planning has become an exercise ground for the prejudices of the shamans and this results in programmes of mind-numbing banality. Predictive models using audience data could produce originative programmes which mix established repertoire with less familiar repertoire selected by identifying unfamiliar works that exhibit similar musical 'fingerprints' to popular works. Another area needing urgent attention where the resident technologists could be agents of change is classical metadata. It is the lamentable quality of the metadata that makes managing classical music on platforms such as iTunes so difficult. With digital media libraries replacing CD collections, inadequate metadata is a barrier to the growth of classical music. Yet how many people in the classical industry know anything about metadata? Has the Association of British orchestras ever discussed the problem of metadata quality at its annual conferences?

In a discussion on a previous post about revitalising classical music Google research scientist Douglas Eck suggested that we need to understand the impact of music recommendation system, and that is another area that could be explored. (Anectdotal evidence from a music teacher in the same discussion suggests that recommendation systems are beneficial for exploring a genre like classical, but not so effective for introducing people to the genre. That's another topic well worth researching.) Resident technologists could give pre-concert talks on how classical fans can get the most out of digital media libraries and recommendation systems, an idea that may appeal to younger technically savvy audiences. They could also give masterclasses to musicians, executives and journalists on how new technologies are changing music. It is important to understand that having resident technologists does not mean replacing musicians with computers. But these technologists could experiment with digital sound shaping, both to find out if a different and more immersive sound would attract a younger audience and to help orchestras' outreach activities by enhancing acoustically compromised venues.

Senior industry executives are very good at telling classical music it must change or die. Which is absolutely true. But those executives are too self-absorbed to understand that it is the senior executives and all the other industry personnel that must change first. Hopefully then the prevailing suicidal attitude that the free streaming of concerts live on YouTube ticks all necessary technology boxes will change. We live in a digital age, and in the digital age only the smart survive. Sorry folks, but in 2017 the classical music industry is nowhere near smart enough.

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