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Computer programmers new rockstars of music world

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Bertrand Bodson, head of global digital marketing for EMI, sits in the front row at the Hackers' Weekend. (Photo by Matthew Santiago.)

As the music industry tries to find its way forward in a world of MP3 and iTunes, the computer programmers who were once associated with Napster and other products that the music industry blamed for its malaise are now being brought closer together. The industry hopes programmers can help reinvent the industry.

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Hackers, who became anathema to the music labels at the dawn of digital file sharing, are now key players in the industry.

At the Rethink Music conference in Boston last month, programmers, developers and tinkerers showed up for a 24-hour coding frenzy — a hackathon at Microsoft’s New England Research and Development (NERD) Center — in an effort to make the coolest app that could transform music.

Music executives who once treated hackers almost like criminals treat programmers today "like they would treat emerging artists," explained Paul Lamere, a computer scientist who attended. "They're almost like the talent scouts from the 60s and 70s."

The events are not for the faint of heart.

"I've slept three hours in the last two and a half days," saids CJ Carr, a veteran at his third hackathon. "It was all over the place intellectually and emotionally — and physically. When Microsoft closed around 8:30 p.m., I went to Echo Nest, (an app development house). They had another hackathon going all night."

One team programmed a system that captures a dancer’s movement and generates music from it — helpful if you can’t follow a beat. Carr’s invention was a sonnet generator. Give it a few keywords and it will search various databases online to assemble some facsimile of lyrics:

Where I can score some of that heroin brown
When sex is a pretext to a disease
Gone to set the score, gone into the town
Rice and stuffing, macaroni and cheese 
But if it takes a cheap, tawdry scene
Stay on the scene, like a sex machine

Some of the projects might seem silly, useless, and impossible to monetize. But today it’s hard to tell the silly and useless from the next big app.

Carr’s sonnet generator didn’t recreate Shakespeare, nor guarantee a road to riches, but "I got three people who wanted to hire me,” he said, “so there's your monetization right there."

Try Swingify, a hackathon-invented app that turns every song into a swing song.


PRI's Peabody Award-winning "Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen" from WNYC is public radio's smart, surprising guide to what's happening in pop culture and the arts. Each week, Kurt introduces you to the people who are creating and shaping our culture. Let Studio 360 steer you to the must-see movie, the next book for your nightstand, or the song that will get stuck in your ear.

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Subscribe to comments feed Comments (2 posted)

Mark 14 May, 2012 02:44:49
one of the hacks mentioned
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Spirulina 20 May, 2012 04:37:26
Hackathons have actually proven to be so successful that even the EU and UK & USA governments have held and hosted hackathons because they stimulate the economy. So rock on!
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