A new way of doing things in the startup world is being copied in academia and beyond. The “hackathon” is a method for making an innovative idea tangible in a short amount of time, starting from inception to creation and involving as many stakeholders together as possible in one place.
Hackathons may have been popularized by the Oscar-winning film The Social Network, which narrates the story of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. In a memorable scene in his Harvard dorm room, Zuckenberg pulls a sleepless all-nighter, continuously coding with his friends, all abetted by energy drinks and snacking. The result was Facebook’s shell. This scene has become the metaphor for a new working paradigm in technology circles, and now corporations and colleges with business departments endorse that paradigm too.
The thinking behind hackathons is twofold: that they will bring out the best from the brightest and most engaged stakeholders, and that creation thrives under pressure. Recent hackathons are credited with producing Facebook’s Like button and its Timeline feature, as well as more chat and video capabilities in other social media platforms. High-speed industries that depend on technology, including the music trade, are the likeliest candidates for success.1
Recently, companies have been encouraging employees to create and build ideas through their own internal events. The hackathon exercise is meant to boost productivity, but it also allows employees to interact with management and create a prototype product or service.
Public hackathons, instead, have been used to launch platforms for established companies. In that case, the sponsors look to scout, recruit, and hire new talent. Shutterstock, the successful global stock photography provider, was created at a hackathon and now conducts its own similar event annually. Attendees are given 24-48 hours to imagine, design, and implement any idea that they think could be of value to the company.2 In an effort to attract more participants and accelerate the synergy of ideas, hackathons have been held in unlikely places such as yachts, planes, and even luxury buses. Prizes for successful ‘hacks’ come with prestige, but it is the quick integration into personal computing devices, including smartphones, that makes the challenge of a hack immediately worthwhile for participants.
At college, it can be difficult for students, who can contribute much to technological innovation, to interact with executives, venture capitalists, and headhunters. Enter Hacking Arts, a MIT Media Lab project. The Media Lab is a key venue for exploring the intersection of art, entertainment, technology, and entrepreneurship. This yearly event brings students together from MIT, Harvard, and Berklee College of Music to produce technology based projects related to art and entertainment, explore demos from early stage music start-ups, experience tech-enabled live performances, and hear from entrepreneurial thinkers in all the creative industries.3 Engineers from companies such as Sonos, Google, Pandora, and some CEOs were available for two-hour mentorship sessions to help refine concepts and prepare hackers for the pitch. The pitch was given to a panel of judges composed of innovators from Time Warner Inc., ArtScience Labs, Artsy, MIT, Berklee, IDEO, and Sonos.
Hackathons are by nature geared towards large-scale industry problem solving. The entrepreneurial spirit necessary to develop fresh thinking around technology and implement change from the ground up is useful for trades caught in the middle of the digital revolution.
For instance, Rethink Music, an initiative of the Berklee Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship (Berklee ICE), held an all-day conference and workshop early in October to tackle transparency and fair payments for music. Public forums such as these may become more common in the future as different industries explore new ways of doing business with their technology partners.4
Lady Gaga has been a pioneer in the technology field. South by Southwest (SXSW) takes place annually in Austin, Texas, and the conference blends music and emerging technologies for creative problem solving. In 2012, Lady Gaga decided to organize the first music hackathon at SXSW ever to be live streamed. Gaga’s start-up Backplane held the hackathon in order to encourage designers to develop new apps, platforms, and technologies to advance the future of digital music distribution.5 Backplane secured fundraising from several Silicon Valley venture capitalists with LittleMonsters.com, a parallel one-stop shop for people who share a particular passion for everything Gaga. Ten thousand fans were chosen, from a million applicants, to use the platform that enabled users to download her music, buy tickets for shows, and chat with each other through translation software, despite language barriers. It also featured social ticketing, which allowed fans to find concert seats near their friends and even start conversations beforehand with strangers they would be sitting with. Most importantly, the data generated by the site was valuable and identified key influencers along with their insights.6
And there is more evidence to pick on. The MIDEM Hack Day in Cannes, France, offers competitions to pitch and meet potential partners and investors on an international scale. For the last five years MIDEM has brought together approximately 20-30 developers from around the world to build music apps on site. These hackers are vetted beforehand for their ability. Non-participants are able to pitch their own ideas into the mix, and the final award is delivered with much fanfare and incorporated into MIDEM’s promo kit.7
Still, some argue that the biggest and most impressive music hackathon is the Music HackDay Boston. Its sponsors include SoundCloud, MailChimp, Spotify, and Free Music Archive. The Echo Nest, which is owned by Spotify, organizes the event. This hackathon awards prizes for the best contributions to Echo Nest’s API, one of the most ubiquitous data gathering back-end apps in the business (Echo Nest is also active in a Monthly Music Hackathon in New York City).
Another instance is Pandora. In 2013, the non-interactive music streaming service held a hackathon in its hometown of Oakland, California. The goal was to create new tools and apps for users to discover and listen to music, and most importantly, to make their music experience even more enjoyable.8 Currently, Pandora also runs an internal hackathon twice a year and requires full participation for most of its labor force. This is a 72-hour event and winners are rewarded for Best Demo, Most Creative Idea, Best Improvement to Pandora, and Best Project Not Related to Pandora.
Overall, hackathons are a sign of the times. As technology evolves, software developers have to cooperate to provide better business-oriented solutions. Clearly, there is much demand across the business spectrum. The music trade, of course, is perhaps one the most impacted by the digital revolution and not surprisingly music intermediaries wish to stay the course by understanding the game that is played. That game is defined by rules that lie outside of their control and have to do with the independent evolution of online tools for mobile and desktop devices. Better to know what is at stake. And if there are investors that value music for its societal reach, all the better.
By Natalie Cotton & Klementina Milosic
1. Leckart, Steven. “The Hackathon Fast Track, From Campus to Silicon Valley.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 11 Apr. 2015. Web. 4 Oct. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/education/edlife/the-hackathon-fast-track-from-campus-to-silicon-valley.html>.
2. “Hackathons to Watch Out for in 2014 – The Shutterstock Blog.” The Shutterstock Blog. 15 Jan. 2014. Web. 6 Oct. 2015. <http://www.shutterstock.com/blog/hackathons-to-watch-out-for-in-2014>.
3. Kiendl, William. “Inside the MIT Media Lab.” Music Business Journal Berklee College of Music RSS. 1 Oct. 2013. Web. 6 Oct. 2015. <http://www.thembj.org/2013/10/inside-the-mit-media-lab/>.
4. “Rethink Music.” Rethink Music. Web. 6 Oct. 2015. <http://www.rethink-music.com>.
5. “Backplane To Hold Music Hackathon At SXSW, With Top Industry Managers As Judges.” TechCrunch. 6 Feb. 2012. Web. 4 Oct. 2015. <http://techcrunch.com/2012/02/06/backplane-to-hold-music-hackathon-at-sxsw-with-top-industry-managers-as-judges/>.
6. “Hackathons to Watch Out for in 2014 – The Shutterstock Blog.” The Shutterstock Blog. 15 Jan. 2014. Web. 6 Oct. 2015. <http://www.shutterstock.com/blog/hackathons-to-watch-out-for-in-2014>.
7. “Music Machinery.” Music Machinery. 7 Feb. 2014. Web. 6 Oct. 2015. <http://musicmachinery.com/tag/midem-music-hack-day/>.
8. Leckart, Steven. “The Hackathon Fast Track, From Campus to Silicon Valley.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 11 Apr. 2015. Web. 4 Oct. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/education/edlife/the-hackathon-fast-track-from-campus-to-silicon-valley.html>.