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Brainstorming the business of music

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“We are determined to make change happen,” says Panos Panay, head of Berklee College of Music’s Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship.
“We are determined to make change happen,” says Panos Panay, head of Berklee College of Music’s Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship.Barry Chin

The campuses of Northeastern University and Berklee College of Music are jammed together in the Fenway like roomies sharing a too-small dorm room.

It was in a Northeastern dorm in 1999 that freshman Shawn Fanning launched a digital file-sharing service called Napster, which could make any piece of recorded music instantly accessible, for free. Seventeen years later, Berklee students who were babies when Napster was born are trying to grapple with its effect on the business of making music.

The invention of Napster was like a meteor strike that ended the era of recorded music on physical objects like compact discs and vinyl records; it had begun with Thomas Edison's phonograph in 1877. The dust from its impact is still settling, and at a late July "demo day," groups of students participating in this summer's Berklee's Open Music Initiative showed off some ideas for what might come next.

Depending on when you grew up during music's Edison era, you probably bought vinyl playing at 78, 45, or 33 revolutions per minute; reel-to-reel tapes; 8-track tapes; cassette tapes; or some combination of them all. If you grew up during the Napster era, music was delivered to an array of devices like a laptop, smartphone, or iPod. Sometimes it was free — either acquired illegally or interspersed with ads — and sometimes you paid for it. Emblematic of this new age is the latest release from hip-hop artist Kanye West, "The Life of Pablo," which doesn't exist at all on physical media. And West has made numerous tweaks to the album since its February debut.

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From 1877 to 1999, Russ Gershon says, "it's like there was a strange little moment where music was being encoded on pieces of plastic that people paid for. Now, it's like a utility, like running water. There's more music out there than you could listen to in a lifetime." But, says Gershon, founder of the jazz group Either/Orchestra and of Accurate Records, an independent label, "it's becoming even more difficult to get people to seek out your music and pay money for it." He says that when he receives financial statements from streaming music services like Spotify, the revenue for each "spin" of a digital tune is measured in thousandths of a cent.

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The bright side is that streaming music services have been growing rapidly and offering a legal alternative to unauthorized file-sharing and "torrent" sites. But according to the Recording Industry Association of America, the industry's overall take is now half of what it was in 1999, when revenues hit $14.6 billion.

Exploring how artists and composers will make a living in this new world was part of the goal of the Open Music Initiative's summer program, which brought 17 students together for three weeks to build rough prototypes of new tools, sites, and services.

"We are determined to make change happen, using the neutrality of academia as outsourced research and development for the industry," said Panos Panay, a former tech entrepreneur who heads Berklee's Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship, and who oversaw the summer program. Why the emphasis on working on neutral terrain? Panay noted that sometimes record labels, musicians, and the developers of new digital services don't exactly get along.

One group of students proposed a new recording system called Lucy (an homage to an old Beatles song about diamonds). Using a dome outfitted with high-definition cameras, it could capture audio and video as a band performed, and then allow the show to be played back on an "augmented reality" headset.

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You'd be able to don a special pair of glasses, like Microsoft's HoloLens (not yet on sale), and watch Beyoncé put on a show in your family room, in three dimensions. There'd be a fee for the experience — perhaps slightly higher if you wanted to join in on drums or backup vocals.

A project called Aura offered a new take on the set playlist of favorite songs. It would use software to "live mix" songs from your favorite artists with new music, segueing seamlessly from one song to another. The software would pay attention to weather and what you're doing. If you're walking to work and it's snowing, that'd be a different mix of music than if it's nighttime and you're trying to go to sleep.

INTRSTLR (pronounced like "interstellar") would create a website to help lesser-known sidemen and backup musicians who work with big-name performers book house party gigs.

My favorite project of the bunch, Beam, was described by Berklee student Summer Whittaker as "like Pokemon Go plus Yik Yak plus geo-caching." What does that mean, exactly? The Beam app would let users propose the perfect song for a given location in the city, and vote on the songs others had suggested, creating the ultimate set of songs for, say, sitting under a tree in the Public Garden or walking down Salem Street in the North End.

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Bands might also "offer sneak previews at specific locations, so that fans could hear an album first, and connect with each other and talk about the music," said Raul Feliz, another Berklee student. If you chose to buy the digital album, you'd be able to listen to it anywhere else.

After all of the lawsuits and hand-wringing that followed Napster's launch, it was encouraging to hear all these clean-sheet-of-paper ideas for reinvigorating the art of making music and the business of selling it.

It's a weird time for the music biz. Some things feel pre-Edisonian. Bands are focusing on live performances as a way to make money. They get patrons to fund tours or recordings or the creation of videos — regular folks instead of royalty — often using "crowdfunding" sites like Kickstarter. In 2012, Beck released an album of 20 new songs as sheet music, without recording them himself.

And dead formats are coming back to life: Gershon is considering pressing his first record in 30 years, and Ryan Walsh, the lead singer of Boston band Hallelujah the Hills, says his band sells five times as many vinyl records these days than CDs.

Everything feels like an experiment that could work once and then never again. "The dust might never settle," Walsh says. "Everything might just keep changing and reacting. When people talk about, 'Let's go back to this moment or that moment in the music industry,' they just mean, 'Let's get back to that anomaly that worked for me.' "

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Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.