“Lookout honey cause I’m using technology!”—Iggy Pop
Jimmy Iovine told us he was taking retirement seriously. Apart from some family investments, the renowned producer and record executive had moved on from music and was focusing on education at both USC and XQ Institute with his business partner Dr. Dre. But throughout our conversation it became clear to us that he hadn’t truly walked away from the career that made him. He was actually digging deeper, as if he were trying to unearth the elements necessary to create the chemical compounds that make tomorrow’s innovators.
That’s the idea for the curriculum they’ve been promoting: merging art, business and technology. The students are taught the value of these different disciplines in a fluid program that mixes them. It’s a musical mindset — a perspective that seeks possibility, values collaboration, embraces risks and remixes ideas to invent new ones. And it’s no surprise he’d focus on teaching this to others, given that Iovine, a college drop out, says his real schooling came from working in the studio with John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith in his early 20’s.
To understand this musical mindset in practice, just look at how musicians have used significant technological advancements to innovate. Early TV shows were radio shows done with pictures. Live format dominated music television until the Beatles rejected it and began making short films — some of the first mainstream music videos that set the stage for MTV 15 years later. Social media was pioneered through music platforms Friendster and MySpace — from which the Arctic Monkeys skyrocketed with fan-based support. Radiohead pioneered the-pay-what-you-want format. Bjork released an entire album through an interactive app. Travis Scott performed in Fortnite.
Now non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are the toast of the town. Much of today’s conversation about NFTs is still centered on its novelty to the mainstream. People outside the field are in a learning phase, focusing on the how and what of the technology. Discussions get muddled in the terminology and still-complex onboarding into the cryptoworld. And the millions of dollars being passed around are distracting to say the least. But musicians are approaching the technology with a mindset of “what can I make?” instead of “what can I take?” Their compulsion to create and connect is what will drive the technology forward.
Musicians are approaching the technology with a mindset of “what can I make?” instead of “what can I take?”
The Weeknd and Zedd have both made audiovisual artworks with NFTs that combine unique virtual environments and soundscapes like a video game. Snoop Dogg has released an eight part biographical retrospective with a NFT. Perhaps the most interesting move is from British artrockers, HMLTD. The band has created a song that gives its owners power to remix it at any time. Each layer of the song — drums, guitars, vocals, etc — can be purchased. The owner then has the ability to choose what version of that layer they want to play in the moment. This means the “final” version of the song is never final because the collective owner/fans will always be changing it based upon the track they choose from their library of stems. According to the band this results in 6,400 possible combinations for the song.
Iovine told us that once Napster came on line he saw that the biggest risk to the music establishment was its loss of distribution. Digital technologies made it possible to remove the labels from the middle and give artists and streaming platforms a direct connection to their fans. What’s happening with NFTs is a continuation of that shift. Bandcamp, Kickstarter and Patreon are descendants of the direct to fan model. Participation is even deeper today with a technology that allows fans to collaborate and share in the financial upside. Iovine believes that what we’re seeing is just a continuation of the challenge the industry has had for 20 years. “The more the artists learn about the technology, they’re going to win this fight,” he told us matter of factly last Spring. The battle he’s talking about is between those that want to preserve the old business models, and those who want to build new ones.
He thought back to Beats by Dre. He said the biggest challenge in building the company came from peers not understanding that the headphones weren’t about audiophile accuracy. They were about feel. It was a struggle to find collaborators that understood this. “To make a product like Beats, someone has to have an understanding for technology and a feel for popular culture,” he said. But he was only finding experts wearing separate hats: engineers separate from industrial designers separate from influencers. But perhaps in this new world where musical mindsets that blend art, business and technology are taught and encouraged, those “someones” will be easier to find. “This needs to be the same person, right?” he asked. Right.
The NFT space is filled with prospectors right now. Those who succeed in the long run will be the ones who approach this technology with a musical mind to unlock its creative potential.
Panos A. Panay and R. Michael Hendrix are authors of Two Beats Ahead: What Musical Minds Teach Us About Innovation. They are also the co-founders of the Open Music Initiative, a music and technology industry consortium encouraging fair attribution for creative rights holders. This article was originally shared with Two Beats Ahead newsletter subscribers.