Ever since co-founding distributor The Orchard in 1997, Scott Cohen has been known as one of the music-industry executives with an intense curiosity about new technologies and their potential applications for musicians and rightsholders – even when (or perhaps, especially when) they are disruptive to current business models and ways of thinking.
In February 2019, Cohen took up a new role as chief innovation officer, recorded music, at Warner Music Group. There, he’s continuing to explore technologies including artificial intelligence, virtual reality, blockchain and gaming; meeting with hundreds of startups to gauge their potential as partners.
“It’s about having a vision of where it [the technology] can be, and then working backwards and finding the steps to get there along the way,” he says. “What’s the first step it can make for the music industry? What’s the second step?”
That means taking a down-to-earth approach, not just to the hype around these new technologies, but also to any crash in confidence if they do not immediately live up to the initial grand promises. Cohen compares it to the late-1990s dotcom boom and bust.
“I saw this firsthand. Everyone thought the web was going to immediately change all the rules, and had this great vision for what it could be,” he says. “Alright, but we were on 56k modems and clamshell phones, so we couldn’t do it on what we had. The vision wasn’t wrong: it just took 20 years to get there. That’s where we are now with blockchain and VR.”
The startups that Cohen is gravitating towards are the ones with focus: they’re not trying to solve all the music industry’s problems at once, but rather tackling one issue at a time – a process he thinks major labels have a vital role to play in.
“The public narrative around major labels and the music industry being Luddites who don’t know what they’re doing doesn’t match the reality,” he says. “Who do you think these [startup] companies are doing pilots with?! None of these companies can succeed without the rights owners: they’re working with them. This is how it goes: it never works where some maverick’s going to go off on their own and do something.”
Cohen is enthusiastic about the potential of VR, having recently broken in his new Oculus Quest headset by playing a boxing game.
“I wasn’t ‘controlling’ boxing, I WAS boxing, ducking and diving around the room trying to punch the other guy while he was throwing punches at me. I was sweating, my heart-rate was up!” he says. This is the kind of experience Cohen thinks has legs for musical VR content: less about watching a band play from different parts of a venue, and more about being on stage playing music.
“When I was boxing, I was contributing to the experience. I wasn’t just watching. Fans are not satisfied with merely sitting back and consuming. They want to contribute!” he says, before riffing on the idea of what might make a satisfying music-VR experience.
“Let’s say I put on my VR goggles, pick up an AI-powered instrument like an Artiphon which is plugged in to the system, and whatever I strum on my guitar is magically in-key,” he says. “I look out in my goggles, and it’s a huge stadium of people. Robert Plant is on one side of me, Jimmy Page is on the other. Holy shit, I’m on stage with Led Zeppelin and I’m going to start jamming – and I can’t even play guitar!”
This is exactly Cohen’s role at WMG: to monitor new techs and digital trends, and dream up ways that they might be used by musicians and the music industry. “To look at the landscape to see what’s coming next, and what do we need to do?” as he puts it.
“And third, there’s this A&R for tech role, where I’m looking not just at which companies we can invest in, but which companies can deliver value today for recorded music. And that’s a long list,” he says. “Part of what I’m hoping to do is to drive an innovation process, which is something that has not always existed at major record companies in the past. To get everyone used to constantly experimenting: testing, learning and pushing the boundaries.”
Cohen’s mention of instrument-making startup Artiphon earlier was no coincidence: WMG led a $2m funding round for the company in March, a project initiated by WMG’s Jeff Bronikowski. It also figures in Cohen’s curiosity about another emerging technology: artificial intelligence (AI) being used for the creation of music.
“Can you put AI in the hands of music fans so that they can express themselves musically without having to learn to play an instrument, the same way that people express themselves through photographs on Instagram without having to know what an f-stop is, or how lenses work. Just take some photos, swipe a filter and go,” he says. “How can we do that with music? All the way down to hardware-AI companies like Artiphon. That’s going to be a thing.”
Cohen is also interested in what’s happening around AI-generated functional music, whether it’s made to help people relax, study or sleep, or for background use in online videos, games and advertisements. He also thinks that “AI-assisted music creation” will be an interesting area, and one that will survive any scepticism or defensiveness from professional musicians.
“If you’re writing something and you’re typing, and the spell-check comes up. It doesn’t make you any less of a writer because you have your assistant along for the ride. I think you’ll have the same with AI-assisted music tools,” he says, comparing some of the reactions to this idea with the famous protests when Bob Dylan went electric. “We’ll absolutely get past it. More and more young artists won’t feel under threat from this.”
Cohen is emphatic about WMG’s desire to work with startups in meaningful ways, saying that since his arrival, the label group is in “active conversations, under NDA or running pilots” with dozens of companies – the fruits of his meetings with “200 or 300” promising startups since February. “For some of those, we’ll have meaningful and ongoing relationships for years to come,” he says.
Scott Cohen is the keynote interviewee as part of the Technology, Innovation and Startups track at NY:LON Connect which takes place in New York on 16-17 January 2020. Find out more and get your tickets here.