Music Tech Fest: The Community with a Festival

On September 14, 2014

Between 5-7 September, I bore witness to three days that changed how I see music technology at Music Tech Fest. With over 90 presenters, festival goers were able to gorge on a fascinating array of startups, hacks and musical performances. Each day consisted of 20 minute back-to-back presentations. It was an onslaught of amazing people who consistently made my brain spin, each one concluding something fascinating only to have another person take the stage again to blow my mind.

Music Tech Fest has a mission to converge a vast range of tech enthusiasts into one conference space to present their work and find potential collaborations for future innovations. But it is much more than just a conference – it is a FESTIVAL! It is a celebration! It is a community where wild ideas are embraced and encouraged, where risk is rewarded and friendships are forged over hacks and coffee/red bull/pizza.

Harkive On Stage at MTF

Blur the lines

Combining music and technology is hardly a new idea; it is the very relationship that pushed music into the forms it takes today. We see modern technology as something that enables us to do new things with music that would have been science fiction 20 years ago. Several presenters worked with EEG brain scanners to control music and create visuals. Similar projects used heart rate and brain scanning to look at stress to devise new ways to help people meditate and stay healthy.

Coming from a music business perspective, most of what I observed made think about how the music industries could utilise these ideas, both for audience engagement and monetisation. For some of the presentations and the ideas on show, this was certainly the aim. But something else was going on which didn’t click for me until day two.

Tech knows no rules

This event wasn’t about rehashing the current tech and music business ideology. This was about demanding something new and different. Some took to the stage with revolutionary ideas – making music with your brain, skeleton claws as MIDI controllers, letting fans control live sets with their phones, 3D print ALL THE THINGS!! The way techies and hackers push the extremities keeps us thinking about what is allowed and what is possible. The latter is always being pushed, but the former is sometimes a problem.

Should a computer be allowed to create music by itself? Should someone with now musical training be able to compose scores with their brain?

Many could argue there is a cultural stigma when it comes to how technology is used in the creation of art, but that should not be a shackle to innovation for either tech or art. We moved on from classical acoustic instruments to electric guitars, synthesisers, samplers and virtual instruments – all musical innovations. The manipulation of music went further once complex music sequencers and DAWs arrived. None of these things ‘ruined’ the cultural or creative aspects of music, although some would argue pop music is nothing but computer generated hogwash (which is simply not true). Musical tastes aside, the pop industry works to serve a mass market that thrives on generic, floor filling, bass pumping.

Kids on stage at MTF

Kids are the future

One particular event I thought was brilliant was the kids hackathon. Lead by Siobhan Ramsey of Sandbox Education, a group of kids with little or no experience were given access to laptops, Arduino boards and some excellent helpers who helped them create some simple projects over the course of the day. As an educator, I was fascinated to see how engaged these kids were and the excitement which exuded when their projects started working. Much of the technology children experience today is prebuilt with fluid GUIs and developed to be easy. So even though kids are interacting earlier with technology in this generation than any previous, they are rarely pushed to look under the hood or even create something themselves.

I also congratulate the parents in seeing this as an important opportunity and experience for their children. It is easy for parents who grew up in the electronic (rather than the digital) age to have concerns about how much their children are using tech. This week even saw an article go viral describing Steve Job’s approach to limiting his children’s tech access. I personally don’t believe limiting access to device time is the way to go; deciding how time is used on said device is better. It’s a rant for a different day, but my point is that when children begin to understand how these devices operate and begin feeding back into the technology, their approach to using them seems to be more rewarding.

On Stage at MTF

Community with a festival

What Michela Magas, Andrew Dubber and company made clear throughout the event was that it was not a festival with a community, but a community with a festival. This was a place for ideas to form from people coming from both tech and musical backgrounds and a place for all ages and levels of experience to give input and exchange ideas. It was an event where optimism is key in an industry which is often self deprecating and negative. And it was a place for stories; many who came onto the stage did not just have an idea, they had a story. Th presenters all demonstrated their passion and showed how it fuelled their work; a combination of time, place, circumstance and/or luck brought them to what they are doing. This is what a community is to me, and it is clear those at Music Tech fest felt the same way.

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