Firepit Tech sounds like something you’d need to fend off monsters in a big-budget fantasy drama on Netflix. Thankfully, there are no dragons in Warner Music UK’s version.
There, Firepit Tech is the label group’s in-house ‘innovation lab’, supporting Warner labels by creating tools, exploring new technologies, and acting as one of the entry points for startups.
VP of digital Emmy Lovell tells Music Ally that the impetus behind Firepit Tech was Warner’s desire to put “both content and technology at the core of our business”, with the tech team firmly rooted in the label environment.
“The entire company can see that artists are breaking technology, and technology is breaking artists now,” she says. “Everyone who works in my tech lab has worked in frontline labels: they all understand what it’s like to work with an artist on a campaign, and how the demands of a release can change.”
“We’re massively passionate about the artists that they have previously worked on, so we have credibility. We come from that environment! We’ve worked on campaigns to tight deadlines with no budget, where your release is suddenly dropping next week, so what do you do?”
Lovell explains the three main activities of the Firepit Tech lab. First, it supports digital campaigns for selected Warner labels and artists using new technologies: recent examples being messaging bots for Total Ape, James Blunt and Dua Lipa.
Second, it looks for “non-traditional revenue streams through technology” on behalf of its parent group, whether built or developed in-house, or partnerships with external startups – particularly those who “aren’t traditionally a music startup” according to Lovell.
“We’re trying to have stimulus that leads to ideas that are creatively different. How original can you be if you’re all talking to the same technology companies?” she says.
“Talking to people not in music, and not even in the entertainment space, can throw up conversations that you come back to months later, and which change the way you think and work.”
Lovell is enthusiastic about the startup scenes across Europe, from London and Stockholm – “it feels like there’s an amazing buzz there at the moment” – to Berlin and Tel Aviv.
The third bucket of activity for Firepit Tech is creating tools to streamline internal processes, which she says is also geared towards inspiring more creativity within Warner.
“A lot of our marketing managers do the same things manually over and over again, for example. If we can automate part of the process through a tool, it frees up more of their time to be creative,” she says. “Or if it’s a cost saver, that helps them invest more of their marketing budgets into something slightly more risky.”
Lovell’s enthusiasm for exploring risky, interesting new technology is clear. So what is she most excited about in 2017? Artificial intelligence and machine-learning, and also messaging bots.
Lovell notes that they can be polarising as an industry topic, but thinks there is lots of potential, especially for bots that integrate more of the artist’s personality – without ever pretending to be them, of course.
“I think chatbots can be really fun if they’re applied in a really creative fashion,” she says. “They’re very much at the bottom end of the value-scale if you’re just delivering boring information.”
Firepit’s bot for Scandinavian dance duo Total Ape used video clips to answer fans’ prompts, like a hairier, more simian version of Burger King’s famous Subservient Chicken site. In this case, the ape played guitar, busted some karate moves and even dabbed for fans’ amusement.
“It was very simple: just cutting our teeth. But it went down very well with the fans,” says Lovell.
The James Blunt bot riffs off his new album’s TV commercials, which featured support groups of people confessing that they were secretly fans of the much-maligned artist’s music.
“We saw the TV creative, and said wouldn’t it be brilliant if we could bring that to life a bit more with some interaction,” says Lovell, of a bot that asked fans questions to gauge their ‘obsession’ with Blunt, then created a streaming playlist for them.
Finally, Dua Lipa’s bot is a lyrics-based guessing game, with fans tasked with guessing missing words from lines of her songs. It was an experiment to generate excitement among the artist’s core fanbase.
“We’ve been on a journey with bots, but we’re not at the end of that journey yet we want to do things and learn, and not just put the same thing out,” says Lovell.
“We have to make time in order to experiment with things, and get away from the day-to-day duties. We have to learn and move forward.”
Exploring voice-controlled devices like Amazon’s Echo is part of that: Firepit Tech has already held one brainstorming session on the potential, with another to follow in July.
“We’re really keen to get more involved in voice to understand it more. Obviously it’s in its infancy, but voice is truly exciting. It will probably change the way generations interact with music in the future,” she says.
The message coming out of all three major labels in 2017 – and plenty of independents – is a desire for much more collaboration with startups, especially when direct licensing is less of a barrier.
Lovell says Warner Music is keen for startup partnerships. “It’s not just them pitching us ideas. It’s them pitching the idea AND us having a collaboration conversation where they start to understand our business a lot more, and the kind of challenges we’re tackling,” she says.
“Lots of the companies we’re talking to are very small, and they’ve stumbled across something we think is brilliant. So how can a global business like us help a startup and technology that’s in its infancy grow, without growing so fast that it challenges their business entirely?”
Lovell cites British startup Jaak as one example that has impressed her recently, having met CEO Vaughn McKenzie.
“His understanding of the music industry was ridiculously cool. He could probably make a lot of money in financial services, but he’s so passionate about music, and that helps a company like us get passionate about blockchain,” she says.
For Firepit’s team and its compatriots within WMG, more experimentation lies ahead, even if the results aren’t always what the label group was hoping for.
“We’re learning on the fly. Technology is changing the way we behave on a daily basis. When things fail, as long as we learn something from that, we can move forward,” says Lovell.
“It’s about creating a community of people who are willing to take more risks. I see that rumbling through the entire industry: it’s a real cultural shift.”