On an unheralded fall weekend right before Thanksgiving, a roomful of amateur hackers and Web rock stars gathered in East Cambridge for a historic convention that could dramatically reshape the way we get our music. At stake in this laptop orgy on the quiet end of Memorial Drive, appropriately held at Microsoft's New England Research & Development (NERD) Center: how you and everyone you know will discover your next favorite band, and how artists will reach audiences in an age when the media and music industries are in steep decline.
The collaborative powwow, dubbed Music Hack Day, was the first-ever such event held in the US (earlier iterations took place this year in Berlin, Amsterdam, and London). But while such recognized brands as NPR, Apple, and Yahoo! were astute enough to show up, the confab was more populated by non-household-name Web sites, from Boston's own tourfilter.com to CBS-owned last.fm, which, generally speaking, share an aesthetic that is anathema to the record industry: they want to make music — and virtually everything related to music — available to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Most radically, they want to do that all for free, and claim that such a model could benefit consumers and performers.
The complimentary public conference was as notable for those who were not in attendance as it was for those who represented. Most glaringly absent were the Big Four — Sony, Warner, EMI, and Universal — and their major-label peers. Considering how mega-imprint executives continue to defend dated hard-distribution models as their businesses implode, it's hardly a surprise to watch them miss the train. After all, tech mavens have long alleged that industry fat cats would rather toast past successes than discover how invention propels multimedia.
Long before consumers, artists, or reporters noticed that established entertainment systems were growing increasingly irrelevant, developers were synthesizing music and applied science. And though many pioneer programmers are now being applauded, in the past such trailblazers were marginalized as everything from geeks to criminals. David Kusek, a vice-president of media at Berklee who was hacking complex circuit boards when his legionnaires were tweaking Speak & Spells, remembers the reaction when he used to tell people that he worked in music software: "They would say, 'What the fuck is that?' " Commencing Hack Day festivities, Kusek preached his gospel to approximately 300 attendees: "Things have changed a lot . . . it's such an open world today, and I think that's wonderful. But don't just share the code — share the money."
Leveling the playing field
The history of hostility between major labels and technology could fill hard drives. Since 2003, the recording industry has motioned lawsuits against more than 35,000 individuals — most egregiously against children and dead people — effectively cementing the image that establishment companies resist change. Efforts to address digital demands were superseded by crusades to crush such peer-to-peer services as Lime Wire and Napster. Following seven years of landmark litigation, in 2007 the latter's former parent company, Bertelsmann AG, settled with major labels and the National Music Publisher's Association for more than $300 million. (In 2008, Napster was reincarnated by Best Buy as a paid subscription service, and was a part-sponsor of Music Hack Day.)