Report from Music Hack Day: Boston

From the phenomenon of BarCamp culture and Yahoo's own Open Hack Days, hack events have spread through the worldwide tech community at fantastic pace, bringing together people with passion for building new toys, experiments and enhancements, embracing the data open on the web. Working alone or forming teams, people find software bugbears to fix or look for something altogether new and inspiring. One of the more recent and strongest developments in hack culture is the emergence of industry-specific events, such as last weekend's Boston Music Hack Day, the fourth Music Hack Day (and first in the U.S.).

Given its specific subject matter, Music Hack had focus, expertise, and passion at an intensity you would not find otherwise. Organizers struck a good balance between hacking time and presentations. We ran workshops early, giving crash courses in the APIs and technologies of the event supporters, and the three panels brought together an awe-inspiring array of developers and entrepreneurs--veterans and innovators of music on the web. All attendees shared a love and passion for music, so the quality and intensity of their followups and questions were high.

The panels were outstanding. Music Discovery, Starting a Music Business and The Future of Music, brought together together established social-web successes Last.FM and The Hype Machine; long time music outlets like NPR Music, music education via Berklee College of Music; newer startups like machine-listening outfit The Echo Nest and live music obsessives Songkick; music retailers Amie Street, CDBaby, and Limewire; and music in gaming from Harmonix (of Rock Band and early-Guitar Hero credit) and Conduit Labs (music games for the web.)

Being in the concentrated presence of expertise and experience like this was inspirational. There was no filler and because the audience had music smarts already, nothing was dumbed down.

Anthony of Hype Machine has written a follow-up on the event and his panel over at The Hype Machine Blog, as did Echo Nest's Brian Whitman.

One aside from panels was: As the current generation of music discovery service grows in popularity, the music world is being changed on a more fundamental level beyond retail methods and the internet/radio balance. In a world where music is discovered through quality, style and any number of user-configured variables, the idea of megastars and glitzy fame taking all the attention of the audience is going to change. Music on the internet, and the ability to build exciting applications using it is going to allow more artists to establish sustainable fan-bases.

The flipside—also highlighted in panels—is that the open nature of the web: the culture of sharing both data and media is in direct conflict with existing industry norms around licensing. How can you hack music if you can't legally get access to it?

At this Music Hack Day, two new technologies emerged that help with this and are well worth highlighting for everyone who wants to build hacks with music:

Playdar is the new project of Last.FM co-founder and former CTO Richard Jones. The man who invented ‘scrobbling’ is leading development on a project to let applications access and play the music you already have already licensed on your personal machines. A service running on your computer handles resolution of artist and track names into playable URLs. Whether the file is on your laptop or on your media center back at home, Playdar can make it available. Playdar runs a local webservice for applications to authenticate with, and then play back music that you already legally possess. With Playdar, you can build applications that play music, without worrying about licensing files on your own server.

Where Playdar enables access to actual music, The Echo Nest is a service dedicated to providing detailed metadata about all music. Incredibly detailed analysis of the music waveforms allows you to programmatically draw out files based on rhythm, pitch and timbre. Again, it opens up music hacking to many more developers without confronting the murky world of licensing the music itself.

For our part, Yahoo took the opportunity to show off YQL, seamlessly connecting together APIs from Last.FM and Yahoo! Music for music recommendations. You can already pull that in from our Community Open Tables site.

The 12 winning hacks are listed on the event wiki, including my personal favorites: the HTML5-demoing HTML5 Audio Annotating, where lyrics are sync'd to playing audio using JQuery and the Bowie S-S-S-Similarities hack, showing how Musically Intelligent Machines computational analysis of David Bowie's back-catalogue allows you to find the ‘most Bowie moment’ of his entire career (and also the least). Finally, the overall winner Outlier FM pushes one's understanding of how the waveforms of music can be broken down by computers, sorted, rearranged and played back live in crazy, sometimes listenable mixes.

With past events in Amsterdam, Berlin, London, and Boston, Music Hack Day 5 is already in the works. It will take place in Stockholm, Sweden, on January 30-31, 2010. Congratulations to organizers Jon Pierce, Paul Lamere, Elissa Barret and Dave Haynes, as well as everyone who attended and made the event so welcoming, positive, and fun.

You can read back over people's comments from during the event by searching Twitter for #musichackdaybos.

—Ben Ward