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SF Music Tech Summit Tackles Algorithm-Based Curation, Blockchain's Practicality & More

If there was some sort of very general, overarching theme to yesterday's SF Music Tech Summit, it might've been this: Things in the music business have gotten really complicated, and are only getting more so. These complications are manifest in the vast quantities of data now swirling around the creation and sharing of music; the complexity of the algorithms needed to understand this data; the myriad platforms upon which to present and discover music; not to mention the sheer amount of music available at the touch of a button.

The fact that the conference was filled to the brim, with many attendees crammed into doorways or seated on the floor during panels, speaks to the fact that these issues are nowhere near resolution, even as the conference enters its seventh year at Hotel Kabuki in San Francisco's pagoda-dotted Japantown.

But according to several speakers on multiple panels throughout the day, there's a silver lining to all this complexity: For those who've stuck it out in the music industry for this long, the amount of data we now have on artists and their fanbases has a richness and a depth not before seen in modern times. And we are quickly developing the tools needed to harness and interpret this information. And, for those who take the time to learn how to use and manipulate this information to their advantage, the rewards can be plentiful.

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On one panel, "The State of Recommendation, Discovery and Computer Curation," panelists wrestled with issues regarding the role of human input versus algorithms when it comes to curation. "Soon the human interaction part is going to go out the window," said J. Gibson (head of content strategy, Rumblefish), a comment that was met with audible disagreement from several panelists and an audience member, who chimed in with "algorithms alone aren't enough!"

Yet the role of computers and algorithmic data is key to many such developments on the horizon. Michael Jeffrey (VP Market Solutions, Rovi) predicted that in the near future, a wrist watch might be able to detect that we are going for a run -- using biometric data that indicates that we are sweating -- and send a signal to pump up the music. "I would love for a service to be able to do that without [my direct input]," he said.

Another panel, "Data Analytics," featured speakers who were all working on one tool or another to help people aggregate and make sense of all the data available to them. Applauze founder and CEO Kiran Bellubbi talked about Applauze's ticketing platform as way for touring artists to track things like ticket sales in real time "and not have spreadsheets flying around." Applauze can also help determine an artist's primary and secondary markets, Bellubbi said. Matt Urmy, CEO and co-founder of Artist Growth, offers artists support vis-a-vis business and logistics, such as collating all the information on the logistics of running a tour -- the kind of information that often lives on people's desktops and in spreadsheets -- and putting it all in the cloud. "We look at markets over time, see how your decisions have impacted different [metrics]," he said. "It's not sexy on the front end, but when you put it all together, you can paint some really interesting pictures." Eron Bucciarelli-Tieger, former Hawthorne Heights drummer and co-founder and CEO of Music Play Analytics, made the point that "the real power of music is its ability to sell other products," and if you're able to capture data that proves that when your band plays a show, your fans buy a lot of Red Bull, "you can take that data to Red Bull and maybe get them to sponsor your next tour."

Liv Buli, a data journalist at Next Big Sound -- which was recently acquired by Pandora -- talked about the sheer growth she was seeing in the streaming sector. "We've tracked more than one trillion streams across streaming services for the first six months of 2015, as compared to 454 billion for all of 2014." She also noted the immense recent growth of music fans on Instagram: "Six times the activity we saw a year ago." Buli also underscored the importance of keeping Wikipedia pages up-to-date, as many fans refer to them around the time of release dates. Her mantra, echoed by many Music Tech participants: "How can all this data help us make more informed decisions?"

"The Future of Indies" panel addressed the changing role of the record label. "With all of these tech companies bridging the gap between artists and fans now, it can be really hard on the labels," said Christiane Kinney, musician and partner at LeClairRyan law. While maintaining that the role of label-as-gatekeeper is no more, labels are still vital for reasons of curation, "like galleries are for art," said Bruce Pavitt (co-founder, Subpop and 8Stem).

Although the word "future" kept cropping up during discussions, one popular talking point was one of the oldest in the book: How artists can get fairly compensated for their work. On one of the last panels of the day, "The Data-Driven Future of Music," the conversation was fast and loose (one panelist alluded to the presence of tequila in the "green room"), and centered around issues of transparency and tracking one's work on platforms like Spotify and Pandora. "I think blockchain has a huge role to play here," said Stephen White (CEO, Dubset Media Holdings). "There's been a lot of discussion of blockchain and its use in the right space that is fairly utopian, but there are some very real things that we can do with blockchain today that will draw some of this transparency that we are talking about."

Not to mention that many artists enter the requisite metadata incorrectly, thus kissing any potential profits for their work goodbye. Michael Simon (President and CEO, Harry Fox/Rumblefish) cited their patented RADkey micro-licensing technology as a way to attach a barcode of sorts to your work so that plays can be tracked on YouTube. "The message for all the artists in the audience is, take responsibility for this as it relates to your own career," said White. "The metadata elements that are associated with your work are as important as the creative work itself."