Boston Music Hack Day was the coming out party for EMI and The Echo Nest’s new ‘sandboxes’ initiative which is making collections of songs from EMI artists available for developers to tinker with. This kind of partnership is what we were hoping for when we wrote our ‘Open Up’ lead feature in May this year, so is this the start of a brave new collaboration between developers, rightsholders and artists?

It’s worth remembering one of the key quotes from that feature – subtitled ‘How the music biz learned to love the API’ – from SoundCloud founder Eric Wahlforss. “Rightsholders have everything to win by embracing openness and being more liberal with their content,” he told us.

“In 2011, labels are a lot more receptive to the idea of APIs. They are starting to understand their value to them in being able to move forward: opening up their data and embracing the power of APIs for engagement, reach and differentiation in the marketplace.”

EMI’s partnership with The Echo Nest is basically that: making specific parts of its catalogue available for developers to create mobile and web apps. Some of the sandboxes are general: EMI Selection includes more than 1,500 tracks from EMI’s archives, while Blue Note has thousands of tracks from the 70-year history of the jazz label. EMI Classics, meanwhile, has a collection of classical music pieces.

Other sandboxes are artist-specific. Gorillaz have made available “a vast treasury of multimedia assets and the free rein to do as you will”, while the Pet Shop Boys want something that “reflects The Boys’ artistic sensibilities”. Tinie Tempah, Professor Green and Eliza Doolittle are making audio-visual material and promotional content available, while Chiddy Bang want a freestyle rapinspired app to accompany their debut album early in 2012.

This isn’t a free-for-all, though. Developers have to register for an API key through The Echo Nest, then can use the sandbox content to “shape and hone ideas, test concepts” before submitting a proposal for
an application. This is then reviewed by EMI, The Echo Nest and (when relevant) the artist.

If they approve the proposal, the developer builds a beta version, which has to be reviewed again to see if it “matches the agreed proposal”. If approved, the developer makes a production version, which EMI then publishes in the relevant app store. In its FAQ, The Echo Nest says the approvals process is necessary to ensure EMI can obtain the necessary licences (including publishing), while also ensuring the artist is happy with the project.

“In addition, EMI needs to control the flow of applications to avoid any issues with conflicting messaging or content with the other applications coming through – the review process helps with this and is aimed at preventing a situation where a developer spends a whole lot of time creating an application that doesn’t quite fit with other activity,” explains the FAQ. “This is particularly relevant to artist-specific applications.”

EMI’s role as the publisher for apps may bring questions from developers, although the label stresses that developers will retain ownership of the underlying intellectual property from the apps that they make, with EMI licensing this for the specific instance of the application.

EMI claims its responsibility for paying all parties means it needs to receive the revenues and reporting from the app stores, but is also highlighting its ability to promote artist-focused apps as ‘official’. There appears to be some flexibility, though. “We know there may be some exceptions, especially around service type applications that use a broad catalog. Let’s talk about it,” explains the FAQ.

Apps can be free or paid, with EMI taking a 60% share of net revenues to share with artists, publishers and other rightsholders. 40% will be left for developers, although The Echo Nest will take a cut of that. How much? That will depend on how much use the developer makes of The Echo Nest’s own tools and APIs. “Let’s be clear though – the Developer will be getting most of that 40%.”

In its broad strokes, EMI’s initiative is a welcome development, and one that goes beyond anything major labels have done before in terms of reaching out to developers, including The Echo Nest’s previous deal with UMG subsidiary Island Def Jam, which was announced in February
this year. The partners have identified the key pain points that developers experience when making music apps – licensing and marketing – and addressed them directly.

There will inevitably be some developer distrust, whether based on previous dealings with rightsholders, or the perception that any deal with a major record label must come with unpleasant (and possibly hidden) strings attached.

Several developers have told Music Ally that they are nervous of submitting concepts for approval, for example, because they are worried EMI may reject their proposals but use the ideas at a later date with a preferred developer.

Others have similar concerns about licensing their technology even if they retain ownership, while others have separate worries about whether EMI really has the clout to make apps cut through the ferociously competitive app store clutter – sometimes based on music label partners failing to deliver on marketing promises in the past.

The point here is that EMI’s launch of its Echo Nest sandboxes is just the first step. It’s jumped over the (considerable) hurdles of making the content available, but now the success or failure of the initiative will be as much about relationships: assuaging developers’ fears and convincing them that it can be a creative, flexible and lucrative partner.

Taking part in last weekend’s Boston Music Hack Day was a good start. Over the page, we’ve got a roundup of some of the innovation from that event: innovation that could soon be benefitting EMI and its artists.

Love hacks

Besides EMI’s sandbox, Boston Music Hack Day had plenty of other APIs for the attending developers to play with: Spotify, SoundCloud, Twilio, Rdio, LyricFind, AudioVroom, MTV and others. 56 hacks were finished by Sunday afternoon. Here’s our roundup, although you can check them
out in full here.

BlueVroom is a mod for the AudioVroom personal radio app, which detects users searching for artists on Blue Note, and creates a specialist jazz station for them using just music from that label.

Visualography mashes up the Pet Shop Boys’ music and artwork with information from the Discogs database, tapping The Echo Nest to let people explore songs based on ‘Energy’ and ‘Danceability’ attributes.

Free Music Archive used APIs from The Echo Nest and the Free Music Archive to put together a playlist of similar-sounding music available under Creative Commons. Potentially disruptive for collecting societies, with its pitch: “Need to play music in your store or restaurant without having to deal with blanket licenses?”

Alas, no Mad Stuntman in iPhone app Reel 2 Reel. Instead, it digs into people’s profiles to play YouTube music videos only from music artists that they like.

Spartify is all about house parties, enabling one computer to be set as the host, with guests contributing to a Spotify playlist from their mobile phones, promoting the songs that they like to get them played sooner.

Live application ConcertMatch could settle some arguments among friends, analysing their Facebook and Spotify profiles to recommend gigs based on artists that groups of people all like, pulling in the concert data from

Music Bloodlines treats artists like individuals in family trees, tracing their ancestors and descendants through history, showing (for example) that the Red Hot Chili Peppers are influenced by Bootsy Collins, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone and The Stooges, and have in turn influenced Korn, Limp Bizkit, Mr. Bungle and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. For their sins. is an Android app to scan QR codes on gig posters and play songs by those artists, armed with the slogan “make your posters sing”, while MuTxt lets people send text messages to find information about artists: who’s similar, when they started, and where they’re playing gigs soon for example.

Lively taps into people’s Songkick profiles to create a record of the gigs and festivals that they’ve attended, while also pulling in data from The Echo Nest and to analyse the genre mix.

ClipSwitch is a switch board with YouTube videos and sheet music, comparing different performances of the same score. It was shown off using works by Ravel and Debussy, and is aimed at music students and classical buffs.

Earz, on the other hand, is an iPhone app that identifies synthesized timbres, frequency bands and pitch classes, with the aim of teaching its user to do the same with their real ears. Neurofeedback is all about controlling strobing lights and sounds with the power of brainwaves alone, meanwhile. Mood Meter taps into a user’s profile to analyse how their friends are feeling, based on the mood data from the songs they’ve listened to most recently. Tracker connects vinyl turntables to the digital world, identifying songs, saving MP3 versions and scrobbling the tunes to

Poptoaster chops an MP3 file into small samples then challenges your Facebook friends to identify it, making longer samples available if they keep getting it wrong.

We like The Videolizer too: it promises to automatically make a music video for any song, grabbing YouTube clips of famous dance moves from the likes of John Travolta, Michael Jackson and Gene Kelly, then time-stretches and arranges them in time to a music track, based on The Echo Nest’s
acoustic analysis.

There was some fun stuff too. Bohemian Rhapsicord is a web app that turned Queen’s classic rock track into a playable instrument, breaking it up into “quasi-stable musical events” and turning them into coloured bars.

Mustachiness analyses songs and turns them into, er, moustaches. Just in time for Movember. Drinkify, on the other hand, promises to automatically generate a cocktail recipe to suit any music track.

Meanwhile, Kinect BeatWheel turns the Xbox 360’s motion controller to control which beat is playing in a looping sample, and Snuggle loops 30-second track previews from 7digital with animated GIFs.

How many of these hacks have a viable future as commercial apps and businesses? That’s not really the point of a Music Hack Day, although it’s sometimes a side-effect – AudioVroom is one example of a startup that began as a hack. Instead, this is a hint at what’s possible when developers and music firms get together and have some ideas.

This article was the lead story in the  Music Ally Report: Issue 281

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