Posts tagged Making
I’m a music junkie. Like many of you, my life is often accompanied by a soundtrack. I’ve got playlists for working out, and just plain working. Music for when I’m feeling on top of the world, and music for when I’m down in the gutter. Songs that make me think, and songs that bring back memories. Music is important to me—and probably to you as well.
But despite the importance of music, technology is really what allows it to be such a huge part of our lives. So how is tech going to shape the future for music fans like me and you? I needed to find out.
I connected with the band Switchfoot—known for the songs “Meant To Live” and “Dare You To Move“—to see if and how they are embracing technology to make their music more enjoyable to fans. What I found is that they’re using tech to give their fans more: More access, more content and more control.
This isn’t a story about artists making more money. It’s a glimpse into what the future has in store for people who love music. People like you and me.
There’s no scientific reason for the choice. I wanted to pick an artist, so I picked one I was a fan of. As it turned out, the way these guys use technology to connect with their followers probably represents a decent cross-section of how artists in general are using tech to engage with fans. Switchfoot has a wide range of experiences that makes it a worthy envoy: The band has been independent, it’s been signed to a major label and it’s won a Grammy.
Within minutes of our first conversation, I could tell this band was using technology in innovative ways—especially to create closer connections with fans. According to Switchfoot’s bass player Tim Foreman (who majored in computer science and handled the band’s early Web development) the band’s music—and it’s use of technology—is all about connectivity.
“We’re part of this greater creative community that includes our fans,” Foreman said. “We want to make them co-conspirators with us. They’re just as much a part of this as we are. For us as a band, it’s all about the conversation, and to that end we’re always looking to eliminate barriers between us and the people that listen to our music.”
RebelMouse is a tool Switchfoot uses to simultaneously break down barriers and fuel the conversation. Implemented on one of the band’s websites, FadingWest.tv, RebelMouse pulls together tweets, Instagram photos and videos into a single unified hub. As social as social media is, not every fan has an account on every platform. With RebelMouse, fans on one network but not another—Twitter, but not Instagram, or vise-versa—suddenly have access to a treasure trove of content.
As empowering as the band’s social media strategy is, Switchfoot has gone even further to include fans in its journey—literally. Switchfoot has used services like WeDemand! to give fans a chance to help shape the touring schedule.
WeDemand! works by allowing fans to raise social support for bringing their favorite artists to areas that may normally be overlooked. Aside from demanding a show, fans can also leave comments for the band on the site. A glance at the band’s WeDemand! page shows a large group of commenters requesting a show in Omaha.
See also: Can Technology Predict The Grammys?
Band-to-fan communication is commonplace in the music industry, but fan-to-band communication is finally becoming more common. Switchfoot has also tried to encourage and enable fan-to-fan communication as well: When group messaging service GroupMe was brand new, the band encouraged fans that purchased tickets to download the app in order to communicate with each other while attending concerts and festivals.
A messaging app may not sound like the type of tech a band would be on the lookout for—and in truth, it isn’t always a natural fit—but Switchfoot is always looking for benefits that aren’t necessarily obvious.
“One of the interesting things I’ve discovered is that many times the primary use of technologies or services is not actually the primary benefit for us,” Foreman said. “For instance, we’ve used LivingSocial to promote some of our album and tour stuff. Most people are just focused on the sales numbers, but for us, that’s not really the main equation there. What’s often overlooked is the fact that they have this huge mailing list. So whether you sell 100 or 10,000 tickets, you’re reaching millions of eyeballs. I think a lot of technology and services out there have a second layer that is beneficial but often overlooked.”
Some services do offer obvious benefits, and the band has those covered, too. Will Call is an app that offers fans a better concert experience by helping them coordinate with other friends at the show, buy merch from their phones without having to face frenzied crowds, and even discover more concerts to attend. Switchfoot has been an early adopter of the Will Call service, which is currently only available in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles.
An Organized Strategy
Switchfoot doesn’t just stumble across new technology and decide to use it willy-nilly. Bruce Flohr, the band’s manager and an executive at Red Light Management, is dedicated to finding new tech that fits with the band’s desires to connect with fans.
So what’s his strategy? Flohr says he’s not just looking for the next Snapchat or Twitter.
“We’re trying to find things that make sense for our fans,” he said. “We look at things that fit into our fan’s lifestyle and try to work with technologies in that space.”
Flohr said it all comes down to one simple test: “The first question I ask is, ‘Would I use this?’ Because if it’s too complicated, then it’s very hard to get the early adopters on board.”
One piece of technology that passed Bruce’s test was Square, the payment platform led by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. At Switchfoot’s latest BroAm charity surf event in San Diego, volunteers were sent out with Square-equipped iPads to collect donations from the crowd of 11,000 people.
Though Square made it easy to collect donations for the band, the iPad has become instrumental for Switchfoot in other ways, including the way the band records.
“The iPad has become this incredible multi-instrument that let’s you do things that aren’t possible any other way,” Foreman said. “It’s exciting. Just the tactile nature of the iPad allows you to play certain instruments that don’t exist. You can sample things and manipulate them in ways you couldn’t otherwise and we did a lot of that on the new record.”
Foreman said many musicians tend to favor old gear like amps and guitars, but the bassist insisted Switchfoot enjoys exploring new tech.
“I think it’s exciting to kind of let go of that for a second and be freed of those constraints and look at everything as an instrument and a possibility,” Foreman said.
The Internet Isn’t Always Friendly
There have been times when technology has gotten in the way of the band’s connectivity to its fans.
About 10 years ago when the band was signed with Columbia Records, the label was experimenting with copy protection. One of the band’s albums—Nothing Is Sound, which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 albums chart—was included in the experiment… without the guys’ prior knowledge. Foreman explains:
“We got our copy of the album a couple of days before it was released to the public and saw this big disclaimer on the back and found out that it had this protection that didn’t allow you to put it on your iPod (which at the time was already a huge deal). And we were just so offended that they would put out this message that basically tells our fans that we don’t trust them. We felt it was the most disingenuous thing that could possibly be put on our album.”
At that point, Foreman’s background in computer science kicked in and he posted a hack on the band’s message boards to let fans circumvent the copy protection to “use the music they purchased and owned how they wanted.” According to Wikipedia, the workaround was quickly deleted by Sony.
Giving Fans What They Want
By now you’ve probably picked up on an emerging theme. We’ve already seen how the band has used services like RebelMouse to surface and amplify fan-generated content, but technology is also allowing the band to produce more content themselves.
In the future, harnessing, organizing and interpreting community information will help the band determine what kind of content to produce.
“Data can help the band give the consumer what they want,” Flohr said. “More and more we’re finding they might not want an entire album’s worth of material once every two years. They may want more material sooner and better experiences on the live side.”
Did you glaze over that last statement or did it sink all the way in? Because it’s important.
You, me, us, as music fans—we may be literally shaping what our favorite artists will produce in the future. We, the consumers, are really the ones being empowered, thanks to all of this technology.
The future of being a music fan is sounding pretty good right now, but it’s also looking better visually thanks to the welcome onslaught of quality video content heading our way. It’s only natural: As the makers of our devices and the networks that connect them build their pipes to be larger and more connected, there will only be more demand for water (“content”).
Water, Water, Everywhere
There are plenty of ways fans can get extra content these days, especially with all the “behind-the-scenes” goodies out there.
Flohr told me how music fans can use services like SoundHound to ID songs and unlock second-screen experiences with exclusive video content from the band. There’s GoPro footage taken on-stage, brief five-minute video podcasts with tour updates, and even webcam setups in recording studios—Switchfoot has kept busy producing this video content, and last year, it even made a feature-length film to accompany the band’s latest album. The two projects share the same name: Fading West.
The Fading West movie is a chance for fans to further immerse in the band’s story. “The smart artists realize that they are storytellers and Switchfoot is a perfect example of that,” Flohr said. “Fading West is not a music documentary, it’s not a concert film. It’s a story of the band’s passion of both music and surfing and how they’ve been able to incorporate both into their lives and how both have influenced their career.”
The film adds new depth to the group’s music and history, but after I watched it, I also felt like I’d gotten to know new friends. The film made me laugh, it made me sad, and it showed me things I didn’t expect to see. In short, it was great content. Content that my device—and inner fan—both craved. Content I’d like more of. (Fortunately for me, the YouTube lifestyle network focused on extreme sports called “Network A” partnered with Switchfoot to release some exclusive behind-the-scenes footage.)
Switchfoot’s movie—and the pipes that allow it to be delivered to new and existing fans around the world—have gone a long way toward helping the band’s fans feel more connected to the group.
“I feel like the sense of community at our shows has never been greater because of the film,” Foreman said. “I feel like we were really vulnerable and honest in it and showed a different side of ourselves that people hadn’t seen. And I think letting people in on that just kind of furthers that sense of community. It adds to the intrigue and brings people along with us.”
The Great Frontier
I was a bit surprised to discover Switchfoot isn’t just using technology; the band is helping drive its development, too. While the band hasn’t built any tech tools from scratch yet and probably won’t fund any new products angel investor-style, Flohr said he “could see the band developing new technology in partnership with a tech company where they help as early adopters and by doing R&D… And it would not surprise me if what they helped develop was not necessarily IP but maybe hardware.”
There’s a good chance your favorite artists will use some of these same tools and community-building techniques to engage fans as well, if they aren’t already.
“It’s like anything,” Flohr said. “Good ideas get repeated over and over again. Even though you might be first to market with technology, if it works you open the floodgates.”
So what kind of technology is the band looking into adopting next?
“We’re looking into [Bitcoin],” Foreman said. “I like the idea of straight peer-to-peer interaction. I think that’s something we’ve tried to do whether it’s online or offline—you know, like hanging out with kids after the show. It’s kind of the same concept of trying to eliminate barriers.”
Music will always be about bringing people together, but it’s clear that technology’s role will only help to amplify these community conversations to drive more—and better—content. And that’s something anyone can nod their head to.
Images courtesy of Shutterstock; Switchfoot images by Chris Burkhard
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ReadWriteBuilders is a series of interviews with developers, designers and other architects of the programmable future.
Long before she became the CEO of a tech company, Ayah Bdeir was an electronic artist whose installations shared messages about Arab identity. “Random Search” is an undergarment that records and shares the experience of an airport patdown. “Les Années Lumière,” or “The Years of Light,” visualizes three years of explosions in Lebanon with blinking LED lights on a map.
Bdeir’s creative expression was made possible in part by her background in electronics, which in turn helped inspire her to create LittleBits, an open source system of preassembled, modular circuit components that snap together with magnets. You don’t need to solder circuits, or even stick wires into a breadboard, to be creative with LittleBits. Bdeir’s strategy is to streamline engineering so that everyone can hack hardware almost as easily as software.
Making Electronics Modular
ReadWrite: Where did the LittleBits idea come from?
Ayah Bdeir: I have a background in computer engineering as an undergrad, and then I did my masters at MIT at the Media Lab. That’s where I, for the first time, learned about this idea of using engineering and technology for creative purposes. You know, being able to make art with electronics or with code or with mechanical engineering.
I started at the Media Lab to make my own artwork using electronics. Interactive installations, wearable technology, activist installations, stuff like that. And then at one point I started to get more interested in how you make this medium, or this material, accessible to other people, that had not, like me, gone through six years of engineering.
So I wanted to really make electronics the material. And I wanted to make it accessible to anyone, whether you are eight or 88, whether you are a PhD in engineering or an artist. And so the challenge there was to make electronics modular in the way that code has become modular, and you’re able to grab snippets of code that different people wrote, and Google them, and patch them up, and make something more complex that you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do by yourself.
And the second problem was, “How do you make hardware iterative?” With code you can copy-paste, you can move things around, you can see whether something works or not. With electronics, you’re typically going into production practices that are long and take forever, so by the time your experiment comes back, you forgot what you were experimenting with.
And so LittleBits was an idea to make electronics [projects] modular, to make them iterative, to make them creative, and to make them accessible to everybody so that you could use them for invention and creation purposes.
RW: Was it challenging to turn circuits, which are quite complicated for most people, into a toy a child could learn to play with?
AB: It’s been a long process. I’ve been working on LittleBits since 2008, and at the time when I started, there really wasn’t anybody thinking much about modular electronics yet. It was a difficult problem to solve at the time. Now you see more and more people doing it, and it is becoming a more common form factor. But in the beginning, thinking about how to make a “brick” out of electronic [components] was a challenging thing.
Initially it was about thinking about the system, and building it in such a way that every bit would work with every other bit in the system while still not requiring every bit to be a computer. Because if we make each one a computer then it’s like, “OK whatever, we’re recreating computers talking to each other.” But that wasn’t the goal. The goal was to keep it as lo-fi as possible.
So it was about three and a half years of development. Maybe the first six months to a year were working on the system, and then the rest of the time working on the magnetic connector which makes it magical and makes it so fast, and getting it manufactured.
RW: Do you think schools are doing a good job of teaching STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)?
AB: I’m happy that STEM has become more of a popular buzzword and is getting more traction. I myself believe more in STEAM, which is Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math, which is a concept brought on by John Maeda who used to be the president of RISD [the Rhode Island School of Design].
I think it’s super important because I think it starts to break up this idea that there are boundaries between disciplines. If we slice society and slice professions by discipline and say, “You’re an engineer, just do engineering things; you’re a programmer, just do programming things; you’re a designer, just do design things,” that’s not where innovation is going to come from because the solutions lie at the interactions.
And so I think the concept of STEAM is so important because it starts to expose kids to fields that are technical, that are artistic, that are scientific, at an early age, whether or not they decide to go into science. Even if you’re going to become a poet, why not have a background in math? Even if you’re going to become a mathematician, why not have a background in architecture? These ideas create fluidity between disciplines and I think that’s super important.
Building Blocks For Technology Education
RW: Has LittleBits worked with schools or teachers to implement the kits in the classroom?
AB: Yes. We don’t have an education department per se, we have a very small team—one person in fact—who’s our education account manager. But we have about 1,500 schools that are using littleBits.
Basically the way it happens is usually a teacher finds LittleBits, buys them, plays with them in their classroom. We’ve heard anything from science class to arts and crafts class to math class to even design class at the university level. And then typically they’ll come back and they’ll buy more, and then they’ll show it to other teachers at their school and just like that, we’ve started to get more and more schools on board, from a very sort of bottom-up campaign.
And we have on the website people sharing projects that they’ve made. Some are super simple that are shared by kids, some are much more advanced that are shared by teachers, so you can really pick and choose what you want to be involved with.
RW: All of your models are open source. Why was that was important?
AB: I’m a very, very big proponent of open source. I’ve been involved with the open hardware movement for a very long time. It used to be that open hardware was this sort of disparate group of people all over the world that were interested in learning from the best practices of software, and applying it to hardware.
In early 2008, I became a Creative Commons fellow. And my research there was focused on how do we apply open source to hardware when in hardware, the cost of copying is not zero, the cost of sharing is not zero, and there is financial investment as well as time investment when you create something new. So when you give it up, what are you left with?
I did research there and started this project called the Open Source Hardware Definition, where I brought together some of the leaders in the open hardware movement, and we sat together and said, “Let’s create a statement of principle for what ‘open hardware’ means.” And two years later, this statement of principle for this open hardware definition is now the basis for an open hardware license that CERN used for the Large Hadron Collider.
I co-founded the Open Hardware Summit, that became the seminal open hardware event of the year that happens every year. And so for me, it’s difficult to say sort of, “Why did you make this open source?” For me, it’s been a very big part of my life for the past many years, because I operate under the assumption that if I share this innovation, people will make better things. Also, it goes against the patent industry which is very territorial.
That being said, there is always a thin line that you have to tread when you’re working with hardware because there are large sums of money at stake. And there are people that copy without crediting. For us, LittleBits is a fine line where we put all the circuits on the website, you can download them, you can make them for yourself, but the magnetic connector, for example, is not open source. That’s something that we want to keep as a competitive advantage.
How To Make Hacking Gender-Neutral
RW: Does LittleBits appeal to children of both genders? Is it more popular with girls or boys?
AB: This is one of the hidden missions of the company—to get more … I mean, in general to make electronics more universal and get everybody interested, but also particularly get more girls.
The idea is that if we make products gendered, and we make a product for girls and a product for boys, then we’re going to perpetuate a stereotype. So the way we approach this is by making products that are gender neutral. And they’re very intentionally gender neutral, it’s a lot of hard work to make something gender neutral because the opportunities to lock in on gender, you know, there are many of them.
So we make decisions that are affecting color, look. That are affecting collections of bits. Sample projects that we show. How we showcase heroes and inventors that have made things. We use them to select kinds of projects—things that are not only robotic, only handheld, things that are more, for example, situational.
We try to create all these situations that allow every person to find their own flavor and so, as a result, we get 50 percent that are interested in LittleBits [i.e., roughly half of LittleBits users are girls], an astronomical increase from particular electronic and technological companies.
RW: On that same note, as a woman CEO, how do you feel about being a role model to women joining the technology field? I’m sure you get asked this all the time.
AB: I do. I get asked this all the time.
My main thing is that I try not to think about the fact that I’m a woman. For me, I really just try to do the best work I can, and to compete, and if I spend time and energy thinking about “This happened because I’m a woman,” or “This person said this because I’m a woman,” or “This thing didn’t work out because I’m a woman,” it’s just wasted energy and time and mental space. So I try to use that toward more productive things.
That being said, obviously there’s still a lot of work to be done on getting younger women involved in technology and also getting established women to explore careers in technology. So that’s something that I am involved with through talks and mentorships and things like that.
RW: Do you think the tech community needs to do more to empower women in tech?
AB: It’s really focusing on stories, to be honest.
I don’t agree very much with conferences that are woman-focused. For instance, I got invited to speak at DLDWomen. That’s not something I think needs to be separate. Why have one that’s focused on women? Let’s just put more women on stage at DLD. Or TEDWomen, same thing. Let’s put more women on stage at TED instead of having TEDWomen. That kind of thing. For me that means showcasing more women, but on the world stage, not on their own stage.
RW: How does littleBits address that?
AB: Let’s take an example of a classroom where there are girls and boys, and they’re trying to do an electronics class. If you start by saying, “We’re going to make a robot,” you’re going to attract more likely than not, more boys into that exercise, and if you do attract girls, you’re going to attract a certain type of girl that anyway was attracted to technology, whether or not you did something about it.
Whereas if you say, “We’re going to learn electronics because you can make a robot or you can make, I don’t know, an attractive display, or you can make a flashlight, or you can make a blinking shoe,” those are things that boys and girls are equally interested in, and then each person finds what they’re passionate about. If they’re passionate about functional things, they might want to make a flashlight and a hat that has a fan that responds to temperature. That’s not gendered, but it does show a certain ingenuity of a kid. Versus somebody else might want to say, “I want to make a house.” But that doesn’t mean it’s a girl that wants to make a house, because it could also be architectural.
It’s sticking these kinds of examples and lessons that we showcase that make it really diverse but not gendered.
RW: What’s on the horizon for LittleBits?
AB: We have a couple of very exciting products launching in the next months, a lot of key bits that are going to be very important to allow more programmability, more intelligence, more logic, and also showcasing more of this platform. LittleBits as a platform for invention as well as a product.
RW: Will there ever be LittleBits for adults? I’ve been working on an hardware project and wires have been a big hassle. It’d be nice to have magnets.
AB: What are you working on?
RW: A waterproof temperature sensor with an alert. Probably something kids wouldn’t do.
AB: Stay tuned. There’s something very special coming that will solve exactly that problem, and it will do it in minutes.
People tend to think of littleBits as a toy, but it’s actually a very complex and powerful engineering tool. So for people who are trying to prototype, people that are trying to do complex engineering, we see more and more people using them for prototyping and for iterating, and for creating complex mechanical things as well. You can do your thing with it and explore, and there are a lot of things you can get out of it.
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