Music is what matters


The Musictechifesto | Conductr Ableton Live Controller for iPad

On 24 March 2014, 21 people came together at Microsoft Research New England for a symposium called “What Is Music Technology For?” held just after the first Music Tech Fest in North America. Those at the symposium were motivated by a passion for music, a fascination with technology and culture, and a concern for how music technology is now developing. Recognizing the fertility of music technology as a subject that bridges computational, scientific, social scientific and humanistic approaches, we looked for common ground across those fields. They debated and developed a set of shared principles about the future of music technology.

Built from the notes of that day’s event, and revised together in the weeks that followed, this manifesto is the collaboratively-authored product of this meeting.

Music Technology Matters…

Music technology has never been more exciting.  Every day brings new ways to be musical through new software, instruments, devices, platforms and protocols for fans, artists, and organizations.  People are experimenting with new ways to perform, collaborate and compose, to listen to their favorite artists and discover new ones, and to share the music they love.

Music technologies help us explore what it means to be human, to create, and to participate.  Music has always been technological.  Bone flutes and drums are among the oldest known technologies.  But music technologies are more than devices. They range from instruments and objects to toys, musical scales, notation, concert venues, software, books, policies, laws, copyright, platforms, habits and more.  They are ways of doing and being. They are both ordinary and extraordinary. Music gains life through an enormous range of practices and spaces.

Music technologies create possible futures and offer new ways to inhabit the present and past. Their changes presage changes in culture, signaling trends yet to come. They are thus sites of struggles over money, membership, power, and prestige.  Technological change is inseparable from economic, cultural and political change.

…But It Can Be More

Meaningful innovation is sustainable and just – yet the current landscape of music technology favors short-term profit-making, too often at the expense of deeper cultural concerns. Landfills swell with carelessly-designed consumer electronics, discs, cartridges, instruments, toys and gadgets. Like other cultural workers, many who contribute most to the richness of musical cultures lead increasingly precarious economic lives. But those who stand to profit the most economically have the biggest say in policy discussions. Too often music technologies are used as tools of exclusion rather than inclusion. Because what counts as “music,” “technology,” and “music technology” is unsettled, those with the most power create the most powerful definitions.

Meaningful innovation bridges multiple perspectives – yet the music technology field remains predominantly white, male, and tends toward assumptions that its user base is Western and able-bodied. Music is too often denigrated as frivolous or fetishized as sacred, shutting down discussion, action and investment in transformation. Technology, too, is fetishized, as if it did not come from and contribute to particular cultural worlds. It suffers from the glamour of the new, when it should be understood within its long history.

Meaningful innovation happens when fields intersect – yet those who work in music technology are too often siloed in distinct fields within universities, industry, startups, journalism, hobbyist and fan subcultures. We don’t always know how to think together, and we often do not know what others can contribute. We don’t even know what we don’t know. When fields do come together, old hierarchies too often overshadow the spirit of collaboration and mutual learning. Institutional barriers challenge our ability to work together, from the way organizations are structured to reward-systems that encourage people to keep doing what they have always done.

Let’s Build Better Worlds

Music technologies make worlds. Let us make better worlds. Let music technology do good, serve public interest, foster belonging, justice, collaboration and sharing, enable greater access to positive musical experiences and personal connections, and create durable objects and practices.

We call for greater awareness of the cultural forces already in new music technologies, and the courage to challenge or change them when the collective good demands it.

Ask of any music technology: For whom will this make things better? How? Is it open or closed to creativity and innovation it has not yet anticipated?

Ask of any policy: Whose rights and opportunities are being promoted?  Whose are being eroded? What idea of culture does it presume?

Ask of any practice: Who is invited to join in? Who is left out? Where will it find support?

Ask of any organization: How does it help people come together? Does it exploit them in doing so?

We must create more opportunities for people to engage one another through music. We must fight for people’s rights to create music and music technologies, and to enjoy music free of rent-seeking and unwarranted legal intimidation. We must stand up to abusive musical practices, from exploiting people’s dreams of making a living in music, to criminalizing whole classes of audiences and musicians, to subjecting people to hearing loss, to the use of music in coercion, warfare and torture.

Those concerned with music technology must develop a sense of ourselves as a “we” across different fields: creators, theorists, scholars, engineers, journalists, lawyers, activists, policy-makers, and others all together. We may not always agree, but we must have a sense of the whole and of our places within it.  We must acknowledge one another as equals so that we can collaborate on equal footing.

We call for cultural policies that foster music in its many forms and understand music technology as integral to culture.  We call for policies that support the arts through practices that go beyond markets. We call for a long-term perspective that privileges collective meaning and sustainability over profit. We call for everyone with a stake in music to have equally powerful voices in policy.

We call on scholars of music technology to ask big, important, difficult questions.  We call on their institutions to expand the range of practices that are considered legitimate modes of inquiry and to reduce barriers to collaboration.

We call for spaces that foster the highest levels of intellectual engagement through serious, sustained, challenging discussions and through play and creativity. We call for large and small venues where people work together across divisions—industrial, cultural, intellectual—in order to create more meaningful music technologies and to support others doing the same. We call for speakers, panels, conferences, and meetings to include people who may not seem to belong there.  We call on music technologists to explore venues where they may not think they fit.

We call on companies to produce music technologies that matter, that foster meaningful communities, that consider musical culture and user bases as much more than cash registers.

We call for technologies to be created with an eye for the long-term. Musical objects should last as long as the materials out of which they are made or they should be modular, recyclable, or transformable. They should be forward-compatible whenever possible.  Data must be portable and not bound to a particular company or platform.  At the same time, standards must not become coercive.  Music is not standard. We must cultivate the freedom to build and use nonstandard tools.

We are Music Technologists. We work in science, art, engineering, humanities, activism, social science, policy and industry. We believe in music technology and we want to build better worlds. We invite you to join us.

Click HERE to support the Musictechifesto.

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