Witnessing Gen Z-style innovation at the Canadian Music Week 2018 Hackathon

As someone who’s flirted with technology reporting for years, it was only a matter of time before I went from covering sterile ‘digital transformation!’ events hosted by middle-aged Corporation Men in grey suits to wacky ‘hackathons’ hosted by a man with a white afro wearing a Pac-Man suit.

Yes, the world is changing. Fast. And I think, on the whole, I prefer this emerging one. The Generation Zers at the Canadian Music Week 2018 Hackathon were hungry — full of purpose and the energy that comes from knowing that geeks are now certifiably cool and that you and your technological black magic are destined to inherit the Earth.

No whiff of the sinister intentions of the men in grey suits, just a collection of people resembling the cast of Watch Dogs 2 united in the belief that their coding can change the world. “Everyone wants to build something and make an impact,” said one attendee. “And music can change lives.”

“Let’s make the music industry what it should be,” said a blockchain advocate sporting red-tinted glasses and a black duster. It reminded me of Taylor Pearson’s Ribbon Farm article The Blockchain Man, in which he outlines how such people will soon take over from the Organization Man. I appear to have witnessed the primordial soup of that shift of power.

The Hackathon ran for 24 hours from the sunny Toronto afternoon of May 8 to the equally sunny afternoon of May 9 in a snack-filled basement office just off King Street. Experts in VR, AR, blockchain and AI were encouraged to attend, enticed with rare access to APIs from the likes of Universal Music Canada, which offered up its 15,000-track catalogue for the event.

As the hacking got underway I made my way around the tables to see what the teams were up to. I was first drawn to a guy wearing an Igorrr tee who said he’d found a way to create fully-automated death metal music using machine learning and neural techniques.

He wasn’t kidding. CJ Carr’s ‘band’ DADABOTS has been around for a while, and he was at the Hackathon looking for help to make his AI-generated music more coherent. There’s something eerily dystopian and detached about the idea of an artificial intelligence making our music, but Carr was infectiously passionate about his project, and it was pretty cool.

Toronto rock ’n’ roller SATE was there looking for help to build an augmented reality experience for her concerts. She wanted to create an app that would do things like make digital flames come out of her head while she’s on stage.

The team behind Music Moji used the Spotify API to build a machine learning tool that would help people find music they’re in the mood for based on the emojis they click. For example, click the sad face emoji and you’ll perhaps be presented with the likes of Fallout Boy.

Elsewhere, team Spotlight were building an app inspired by the live trivia game HQ and American Idol that would have users voting on live streams of independent artist performances. The idea is that more indie musicians will have the chance to make it big, and fans will have the satisfaction of knowing they played a part in making it happen.

Something grumpy and cynical could be said here about the soul being stripped out of music, which you can’t help but feel when you’re being shown AI-generated death metal and emoji-based recommendations, but I think that would be missing the point.

The ideas at the Hackathon might have seemed somewhat cold, but the collaboration and enthusiasm on show was nothing but warming. This was just a group of people doing what people have long done: come together to celebrate their love of music. The only difference, it seems, is that instead of bongos and banjos, the musically-inclined kids of today are jamming with neural networks and virtual reality.

See the Canadian Music Week Hackathon in action courtesy of Discovery Canada’s Daily Planet.

Twitter: @adamwinfield

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