Universal Music Group sprang a surprise this year when it recruited veteran digital media innovator and Gracenote co-founder Ty Roberts as its new SVP and chief technology officer in April.
After eight months soaking up lessons from the many arms of UMG’s global empire and working on some new product ideas, Roberts, whose past includes producing some of the first interactive music products with artists including David Bowie and Brian Eno, has plenty to say about music/tech trends in 2016, and how things have changed since the heyday of CDs.
“The big difference today is that the products are a combination of music, but also information and real-time information like social commentary. The products themselves are dynamic now,” he says.
“A product today is more like an API. As a fan, you should be able to talk to the computer server at Universal which serves you back the latest thing: a package of music, information, ‘here are some people talking about it’, the lyrics and more.”
Roberts also notes the ability for an artist or label to continue developing a music product after its ‘release’. Kanye West tinkering with ‘The Life of Pablo’ may be the obvious example in 2016.
However, UMG has also experimented with adding post-release bonus tracks to albums on Spotify: something that used to involve a label shipping (and fans buying) a brand new CD.
“The products in the past were static, non-dynamic and fixed. In this world we can continue to evolve these things. That’s a really big deal,” says Roberts.
“And if we’re going to do that, we should be starting to think about pulling together a better definition of a product: it’s not just the components. How do we want it to be presented?”
One example of that from 2016 is VRTGO, the virtual-reality app that Universal released in October with a selection of made-for-VR music videos.
“There’s a great opportunity in VR because there’s no established VR platform. There are 50 different companies making different things to show off with VR, and we can be one of those. The format isn’t fixed yet, which is our opportunity to experiment,” says Roberts.
“You see VRTGO as an application now, but really it’s an API. You could take that and put it inside another application, and these things will play back in a unique way, and provide more of a complete experience for which our artists have delivered the components.”
Roberts thinks that VR may be one of the first formats where musical products are truly dynamic, but which also allow “multi-person interactivity” where fans experience music together within a virtual world created for (or even by) the artist responsible for the work.
It’s the kind of experience that’s familiar for gamers, but much less so for music fans.
“Games tend to be more competitive. I want something more social, emotional and collaborative. It’s going to transform it from a passive experience to an active experience,” says Roberts.
“As an example: do you want to go on a virtual date with someone you’ve met across the internet inside a Peter Gabriel album, and walk around Peter Gabriel’s world together? That kind of experience is going to be possible.”
In a speech at Midem in June, Roberts talked about the need for the music industry to adapt to a “world of systems” despite historically not having been very good at building databases and computer systems itself.
He’s optimistic that the industry is adapting to the challenge, partly through more tech-savvy staff in senior positions, and partly through more collaboration both within the industry and with external tech firms.
“We’re working with the other companies and third parties better, which is great. A lot of the innovative ideas in the space are coming from third parties. There’s nothing like five budding entrepreneurs in a room with an idea!” he says.
The Open Music Initiative, which UMG is part of, is one example of the industry pulling together with third parties to work on common goals, and particularly to create new standards for music data.
“I’m super excited about it, we’re all putting our best ideas in there,” he says. “And you see from things like Wikipedia that fans are happy to help us. Even if you have all the experts in the world, if you want to cover everything, you need help.”
That’s just one way that fans have been seen as co-creators in 2016. Others include social platforms like Musical.ly and Flipagram, which have seen fans creating their own video content around and with music.
While there are copyright questions to debate and licensing negotiations to hammer out around these companies, Roberts sees the user-generated content trend as exciting
“This generation of fans, the generation today, is very creative. They are used to being part of the creative process on their mobile phones. Their world is not just ‘look what I’m listening to’, it’s ‘look at what I did with it, here’s how I interpreted it’,” says Roberts.
“If they can’t imprint themselves on the media or around the media in some way, it feels a bit static and suffocating to them. And they don’t necessarily want to create something that lasts for hours: it’s something that’s very snackable and short, that their friends look at and laugh and cry. We have to embrace that.”
Roberts also talks about entering an era where a musical artwork is not just a reflection of the artist that created it, but also the fans that are reinterpreting it.
“Even with music videos, the artist can release their version or multiple versions, but then release the raw components for fans to make something else,” he says. “That idea of a co-creative experience with the fans? The artists who will embrace that will really connect deeply with those fans.”
As 2016 comes to an end, Roberts has been preparing for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) which takes place in Las Vegas in early January. Universal will be among other music companies backing the Hi-Res Audio pavilion at the show.
“For CES, we have brought the equipment and services together, along with the other music companies and independents and created a mini version of Capitol Studios on the show floor,” says Roberts.
“We’ll be showing people a lot better product offering than we’ve had in the past, but it’s the beginning of the journey. We’re at CES showing the visions of the future. We’ve got a couple of major streaming services talking about what this means for them.
“It could take a year to get this into the marketplace, but we really think we can make this a mainstream product.”
Roberts adds that he thinks the music industry has a chance to “take back the living room” as an entertainment medium, capitalising on the fact that a growing number of people not only have an HD television, but also a decent sound system attached to it.
“Part of the message is take off the earphones, play some music and look at some information and visuals while you listen,” he says.
“The music industry can take advantage of these products to deliver high-quality sound. But also the opportunity to create a lot of new experiences around the music. It’s not just delivering the sound: it’s the credits, the visuals, the other assets. it’s hi-res both auditorially and visually.”
However, Roberts also sees plenty of potential in new audio devices without a screen, such as Amazon’s Echo and the emerging world of voice-activated assistants on smart speakers.
“Today it’s a command-and-fetch robot: ‘Tell me what the number one song was in 1989’ or ‘Play me Lady Gaga’s last album’. But it has the opportunity to evolve into a conversation,” says Roberts.
As an example, he suggests Alexa might ask if you want to learn about some music you don’t know already, but which it thinks you’ll love – “Would you like to learn about early jazz, the founders of hip-hop or explore music from Chicago?” – before taking you on a journey into whichever one you choose.
“It’s an opportunity to get into a dialogue, to be a discovery experience driven by dialogue. I don’t want it to be a school: it should be like when you talk to that great friend you have who knows about music. Conversation! But it will probably take a few years,” he says.
Overall, Roberts is optimistic about the music industry’s ability to forge positive relationships with the developers of all this technology, particularly when it’s smaller startups.
“When those entrepreneurs come to our company, we embrace them: we try to understand what they’re doing and figure out how to work with them. There always were technologists in the music companies. The difference now is they are at the top of their food chain,” he says.
“This is really what’s changed it. This is how the world works now: there’s always something new, and you have to embrace it. We have to figure out how to empower all these people.”