Can Novelty Music Apps Serve a Meaningful Role in the Recruitment and Development of Future Musicians?

One of my favorite design verticals is anything to do with music. The topic of my MFA grad thesis in interdisciplinary design (at California College of the Arts) was on technology and music, and I have since worked for several music startups as a Creative Design Director. As a musician, I stay abreast of emerging technological innovations, in both the professional as well as hobbyst/novice realms, and on Mobile it’s interesting how it all blurs together. I consider the smart phone to be the most important and versatile musical instrument in the world today; however I believe that we are still in the very initial and exploratory stages in terms of realizing the depth of creative potential on these devices. I fully expect there to be a “Jimi Hendrix” type figure emerging in popular music culture in the next several years, who will have mastered this new creative environment enough to produce a breakout and innovative hit record using nothing but a smart phone and a handful of apps. I also predict that this person—perhaps someone in Gen Z? will have discovered their passion for creating music not from piano lessons—but from a novelty game on their iPhone.

No stranger to software instruments on the “pro” side, I first discovered the world of novelty music apps only about 5 years ago, when my daughter (then around 5) discovered “Songify”. Smule is the name of the company that created Songify, as well as several other unique apps that have also been huge hits for them, such as the Magic Piano app, as well as Ocarena, which is a digital “wind instrument” that uses the iphone’s microphone input to measure the amount of air being blown into it by the player, and then synthesizes digital note sounds based on your finger position, and can even add vibrato based on the position of the accelerometer. It’s surprisingly expressive and you can also “listen in” on others around the world as they play their Ocarenas. Due to the huge popularity of several of their apps, Smule has brought this niche of non-professional (yet highly entertaining and addictive) music apps into the mainstream, all of which enable non-musicians to participate in music creation in a meaningful way, as well as collaborate and share with others. Besides YouTube, I’m pretty sure they are now the world’s largest social network dedicated to this type of activity at 50 million active users, and continuing to grow.

Music is a sacred form of magic, capable of connecting and moving us in ways no other shared human experience can. At this moment in our culture, however, it seems to have become commodified to mere utility, it’s primary function reduced to the pulse of a lonely treadmill workout. The musical literacy and competence of individuals is also suffering. Pianos, once viewed as as integral to the American family’s educated upper middle class identity, are now being given over to landfills at a tragic rate. Returning to and re-elevating some of these important ideals about music are therefore admirable goals for our culture. The mission of Smule is to get people playing music together again, something co-founder Ge Wang feels has been lost in a world where it’s “so easy to just press play”; where despite the availability of more tools then ever to make music, it seems there is far less music being made. I particularly want to focus in on the idea that the social aspects of music have been lost, due to technology. The loss of social connection is something technology has been accused of with just about every new innovation since Marshall McLuhan came to terms with the television’s replacement of radio in the 1960s.

Humans crave connection. As Brené Brown points out, we are “hard wired” for it. It’s something we need just as much as we need air. Although we won’t immediately die without it, in just about every situation where there has been a loss of connection, you will see human beings working very hard at hacking back into, and re-establishing it. Music making was once not long ago primarily a group activity of live performers playing for an audience—a circuit of human connection involving composer, performer, and audience. While this tradition remains, it’s primacy has been replaced by individuals producing music with computers, and sharing these works over the internet. What is uniquely possible that wasn’t before, is something altogether different, (yet potentially even more powerful then attending a Bob Dylan concert in 1965)—a breaking down of the barriers between artist and audience, which makes it possible for more people to be active participants in the creative process then ever before. This is why I believe music as a meaningful and widespread social activity is right at the precipice of a revolutionary leap forward in it’s evolution.

The internet has evolved into an amazingly rich and bizarre landscape of human interaction and creative innovation. In order to deconstruct and understand how global scale connectivity has changed both the creative process as well as the relationship between artist and audience, I want to look more closely at the strange and delightful phenomenon of Internet Memes, as this form of creative innovation embodies how these ideas work.

The Meme is a form of “hit single”, if you will—it’s popularity and effectiveness has been something marketers have been struggling to understand for years. It’s power is mysterious and impossible to fully understand, reproduce, or control. It’s particular media can take many forms. It can be a video shared on YouTube, an animated GIF, a still image with text. What all memes have in common is the distinct lack of attributable authorship, as their existence emerges from a conversation between many creative forces across many online “channels”, over nonlinear distance and time. Memes are often funny, but they can also be touching, or even politically motivating. They often employ theft, or “iterative creativity”, in order to further evolve and push an idea forward. In their ways, popular music, design, and art are all more “elevated” forms of this human behavior, an individual creative act based on a specific formula or construct, re-invented over and over again by multiple participants, and pushed forward with each iteration on a theme. A meme is the most “base” form of collective creativity—it’s perhaps the digital equivalent of a timeless truth written on a bathroom wall. It touches us in an immediate way, similar to a popular song, or a really effective advertisement. And even on the internet, it’s a form of connective tissue that bonds us. It’s my belief that the evolution of popular music is ultimately heading in this direction—towards the unification of creator and audience—the form of which will be the musical meme. The funny thing is that this has always been the case—mimicry is in our DNA, just as equally as connectivity. Rock And Roll was invented by Elvis who was just imitating Chuck Berry. Etc. Only now we are all Elvis, operating on the same canvas of space and time.

Companies like Smule have created an important niche: making fun and delightful musical toys; these apps can ultimately serve as either pure entertainment, or hopefully as a “gateway” into more creative and unique forms of music-making. I believe Smule is uniquely poised to achieve this more lofty goal, and in the process retain more users who might otherwise eventually move on to more robust and adaptive toolsets. A key strength of Smule’s design philosophy that should be tenaciously defended and maintained, is simplicity—the reason why their apps have thousands of users is because they are all dirt simple to use, so I am not advocating for more features. The beauty in this type of innovation is that nothing much need change, except for one thing: interoperability.

Each of Smule’s app offerings connects users to “instant gratification” music-making in completely different and unique ways—through karaoke, pitch shifting your voice over rap beats, playing and learning popular songs on piano and guitar, and performing and recording rhythms with your own live recorded sounds. Each of these apps combine just the right amount of user input with intelligent automation and behind the scenes magic in order to ensure the result always delights and invokes the pleasure of having made something cool with relatively minor effort. But I’d venture to say that it’s not really possible to make anything with these apps that doesn’t bear the unmistakable stamp of having been made with one of these apps. The same lack of complexity that make them so immediately accessible and fun, are the constraints that ultimately prevent them from producing anything unique.

The next evolutionary step that could bridge “Smulesicians” into more expressive and adaptive modes of creative expression could be the ability to combine some of these singularly unique, yet limited apps into one “master” environment—a DAW for novices, if you will. This type of inter-operability already exists in mobile environments through the use of apps like Audiobus (for iOS), which allow musicians to “daisy-chain” a multitude of discreet audio apps (instruments, effects, and other types of processors), and link up “the bus” with multi-track environments like Garage Band, thus allowing these complex signal paths to be recorded, layered, chopped up, and mixed down into final productions. The creative potential in the ability to do something like this on a smart phone is simply astounding, yet for the most part this is something only brave, technically adept and advanced creative musicians will ever bother with.

Smule could change this without doing much more other then allowing the outputs of it’s existing apps to be wired together, opening up an entirely new frontier of untapped creative potential, based on tools already familiar to it’s user base. Imagine being able to layer your own sample based drum kit from MadPad across the chord progression of John Mayer’s “Your Body is a Wonderland” while rapping the indiscernible lyrics of “Panda” by Desiigner, and you’ve merely scratched the surface of the hilarious musical atrocities that await. Audiences and performers alike could use this technology to create ever evolving musical memes that are always fresh, and never “canonized”—(think bootieSF, my personal favorite source of innovative pop music mashups, but combined with a little “Can’t Hug Every Cat“). Time will tell if this type of thing will come to pass for Smule’s product offerings, but I think the opportunity is there to push these musical “toys” into a new phase of innovation, if only to hear the strange things millions of people will do when left to participate in a musical conversation where more “cross-pollination” can occur without as many limits.

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How the Research of Brené Brown Can Teach Both Makers (As Well As Their Clients) a Thing or Two About The Creative Process.

I have a confession. I’ve become fascinated with Dr. Brené Brown over the summer. A bit of a crush, truth be told. I’ve read 3 of her books now—Rising Strong, Daring Greatly, and I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t). A self described “shame researcher”, Brené has unearthed a trove of wisdom around what happens when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, or as she puts it, to take off our masks and “show up and be seen”. Those of us who are good at this, she terms the “whole hearted”.

Shame, the shadow underbelly of vulnerability, is also a big topic of her research, which has involved interviews with hundreds of people over many years. This research has brought to light a trait in some subjects she calls “shame resilience”; this is what allows some people to move through shame (which is destructive and poisonous), and into vulnerability (which is ultimately positive, and constructive). Most interestingly, she has noted that vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change—all desirable things in the corporate sector, especially in the world of design. I know that Brené’s work will continue to resonate with my ever evolving views on the creative process, and in my postings here. There’s a few things her work helped me to consider in a deeper way:

Brené says that being vulnerable means risk. Often it means going “all in”, despite knowing you could fail. Without the risk intrinsic in creating something new and the possibility of looking foolish, there can be no creative spark. This brings me to a question that I have been trying to answer for myself: is it better for designers to specialize in a particular vertical or design problem? Or is this familiarity counter-intuitive to vulnerability, and therefore destructive to creative innovation?

In the design community, it’s not uncommon for clients (or their agents) to ask if you’ve ever designed a very specific type of thing (no big surprise that it’s precisely the thing they are looking to have designed)—examples might be, say, an application flow that books a complex travel plan, or a software application for data visualization, or content for an e-learning platform. On the more fun & exciting side of the design continuum, it might be a music festival poster, or an infographic exploring Beyonce’s involvement in the Illuminati, or perhaps an underwater ringtone for dolphins (I would love that assignment). My belief is that past experience should matter far less then the rigors and adaptability of the individual designer’s creative process—and the broader the base of experiences a designer has had looking at the world with a “beginner’s mind”, the better. A design thinker’s ability to holistically consider the many facets of human experience, business goals, and other disparate points of data, their ability to effectively research, distill and discern what matters from what doesn’t, and use not only factual information but more importantly gut intuition and creativity in order to effectively balance these things on the head of a pin, and then iterate towards greatness—this is what an elevated design process looks like. Beyond this, what designers should really strive for is making a difference in the world—creating something better then the last person who looked at that particular problem. Often the impetus for this creative ability lies in being ignorant or skeptical of that which others might take for granted as gospel truth; or conversely, in noticing connections that those with dulled sensitivities (due to overexposure) may have overlooked.

The reason why the askers of this question preference the specific experience of having designed the very thing they need, is because there’s risk intrinsic to great design, and it’s risk that is often considered to be something we can (and should) eliminate from the design process. But if you eliminate discovery, curiosity and chance, what really is there left to “design”? Aren’t you better off just hiring a “copyist” instead of a designer? Is there a difference?

It’s often pointed out that Steve Jobs never invented anything in his life, he was “merely” good at synthesizing ideas that came from the world around him, and putting those same pieces together in a more elegant and therefore more desirable way. To a large degree, all designed experiences, objects, and “inventions” are really just varying degrees of theft—old ideas, simply iterated upon and adapted into new realms of experience. The problem with people who only stay with specific types of problems or ideas is that once they learn how to do something a certain way, it becomes hard wired and predictable. It’s much more difficult to invent things when you skip over the messy and unpredictable process of discovery and play, in favor of the known path you or someone else has already taken before. Truly superior design that is on target and effective is almost always the result of having taken a fresh approach, with a deep understanding of creativity and process, but without the baggage of assumption and risk mitigation which can stifle creativity. This is what makes an audience sit up and take notice, and what changes the world, little by little.

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Design Leadership

The design profession is rife with multiple constituents, politics and ruffled feathers. I consider it a super-sized magnet for backseat drivers as a profession. You never tell someone who cleans your teeth, or files your lawsuit, or does your taxes, “you’re doing it wrong”, but as a designer, you simply can’t escape criticism. It’s built in at the epicenter of every engagement.

Which is why, along with pretty thick skin, I’ve developed a genuine ability to connect these seemingly disparate strands of human emotional and mental complexity, and rally stakeholders behind an inclusive and collaborative vision. Through the rigors of design, I form consensus—which is a full-on magic trick. This is far more than just plying crabby sleep deprived engineers with chocolate chip cookies. It only emerges, I believe, after many years of practicing the art of storytelling and craft, but most importantly listening and paying attention, which allows the truth of a situation to be revealed.

I can also destroy any tense situation with humor, which in the design world is uncommon, and frankly necessary. As is having every possible design solution to a particular problem explored, documented, and, if imperfect, thrown in the pile of almost-but-not-quite-good-enoughs. A true design champion knows they haven’t gotten to the good stuff until that pile of discards is starting to block the view to the parking lot.

As a true disruptor by blood, I have plenty of experience with falling down, getting back up, and learning from failure. That’s what the design process fundamentally IS. To make, to break. Over and over. These types of designers are rare because they aren’t motivated by the so-called perfection of final conclusions, but by the open ended mess of curiosity, and questioning.

What product, service, or experience out there are you most itching to redesign and why?

Facebook, because it’s so ubiquitous! However the design experience feels antiquated, flat and IMHO should be able to support a wider range of users, use cases, and devices in a more nuanced and intelligent way. There are many things Facebook has done well that they don’t capitalize on (such as utilizing the more authentic nature of identity to make online reviews more legitimate—they could literally destroy Yelp overnight if they wanted to). There are tons of interesting ways they could innovate in the realm of inter-personal communications which they haven’t seemed at all interested in exploring, and instead seem stuck in the “AOL” dark ages with regards to interaction design. Given how much mindshare Facebook occupies on a global scale (as well as how much world class design talent they’ve gobbled up), I think they are inexplicably conservative when it comes to exploring new frontiers.

Critique a modern design trend.

“Flat” UI design has become an acceptable cop-out. The overall look & feel of modern digital interfaces have reached a state of near permanent homogeneity; the go-to commodity of legitimacy is now overly generic and lacking in personality and differentiation. There is a benefit to this, but I feel it comes at too high a price. As digital interfaces have become more about executing complex tasks and less about the more filmic qualities of story and seduction, we have lost some of the more experimental and interesting qualities of the early web which have now been replaced with more rigid beliefs about “what works” in design; as a result I think less risk is being taken in places where designers have traditionally been more willing to push boundaries. I would love to see things in the design world evolve to the point where many opposing and disparate aesthetic ideas can live together side by side, not so uniformly driven by trends which are unquestioned and unchallenged. I feel that the desire for minimal and clean simplicity has over-ridden the need for unique and original “voice” in interface design, which makes using most software uninspiring and fatiguing.

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