Technology shaping the future of music but its soul remains the same

March 1, 2018
Hertz Staff
Aaron Aupperlee

It wasn't your typical night at Belvederes Ultra-Dive in Lawrenceville.

Though nights at the bar known for hosting roller skating parties, '90s dances parties and other zany parties are rarely typical.

There was a DJ on stage, but you couldn't hear the music.

And there were people on the dance floor, but they weren't dancing.

The club was silent as about a dozen people bent and stretched through a yoga practice while listening to a mix of trance and ambient music and the yoga instructor's directions all piped in to the headphones.

With the background noise of the bar muffled, the headphones created a personal, intimate space in the crowd of people. And no one seemed to mind that they were rolling around on the floor of a bar that publicizes itself as an "ultra-dive."

Ryan Ondriezek started hosting silent discos — dance parties and shows where everyone listens to music through wireless headphones, not through sound systems or speakers — in the Pittsburgh area about five years ago. First among friends and at concerts, silent discos have grown to events at the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Schenley Park Ice Rink, a music festival in Arizona and a silent disco yoga class earlier this month at Belvederes.

Ondriezek, who started a company, Frequency 528 , to host silent discos and now owns 450 pairs of wireless headphones, packed the dance floor at Charlie Murdochs on the South Side every Saturday for several months last year. Everyone dancing, feeling the music, wearing headphones and the club eerily silent.

"Super happy people that are 100 percent into the music," Ondriezek said. "When you experience it all together, it's the most immersive way of listening to music."

Music biz in flux

From the great concert halls of Europe to the phonograph, to hi-fi stereo systems in living rooms to headphones plugged into digital music players, the music industry is in a constant state of flux. Technology for decades has changed the way people create and consume music while its traditional roots never seem to fade. Symphony halls still draw a crowd for work written hundreds of years ago. Kids still play their electric guitars too loud. The Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club band, which was released in 1967, was the No. 1 selling vinyl LP in 2017.

Best Buy announced this month it will soon stop selling CDs but will continued selling records along side its turntables. Top audio brands debuted cutting-edge turntables in January at the CES electronics trade show in Las Vegas.

Streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music and Deezer continue to grow at breakneck paces. Americans streamed nearly 60 percent more in 2017 than 2016, according to numbers from Nielsen's 2017 Year-End Music Report. Spotify is on the verge of going public, leaving the music biz questioning whether a company can really make money streaming music.

Live or not?

Live shows don't need to have live performers anymore. Hatsune Miku, a Japanese pop star with long neon blue pigtails, opened for Lady Gaga and sold out shows on her own 10-city tour.

She's not real. She's an animated character who appears as a hologram during live shows, but people still love her.

And 30 years after his death, Roy Orbison is going back out on tour, or at least his hologram is. Orbison's hologram will play with local symphony orchestras throughout Europe, Australia and North America.

"That's a bad idea," said Erica Weston, who plays in Pittsburgh bands Spish and Moonspeaker. "It's too hokey."

Whatever the future of music holds, Weston doesn't think lives shows will fade away. Concerts are an opportunity for fans to connect with musicians and for musicians to connect with fans. In a time when people simply stream the latest album instead of buying a physical copy of it, live shows have become that personal connection, Weston said.

And concerts fit with the millennial preference for experience over stuff. Weston was bummed she missed out on tickets for Mitsuki at Cattivo next month. She said the show will be amazing in the small venue.

What to wear to Beyoncé?

Large shows matter too. When Beyoncé came to Heinz Field last summer, Weston went. She said the concert was an event. She fretted about what to wear.

"It was like somebody's wedding," Weston said. "I don't think that experience is ever going to decrease."

Don Pitts, an Austin-based music consultant hired by the city, the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and WYEP to study the live music scene in Pittsburgh, said Pittsburgh is in a good spot, but the entire industry needs to adapt. Venues and bands complain about sparse shows. Instrument manufacturers are worried about the popularity of hip-hop and electronic dance music, EDM.

Pitts, who founded Sound Music Cities, said technology can't replace what has helped musicians and scene thrive and grow in the past.

"We as a music community need to be really creative and try different things," Pitts said. "More people are consuming music now than ever before, and we have just to tap into this amazing consumption of music."

A bagpipe playing robot

Technology has and will change the way music is composed and produced. A kid with a laptop and the right software has access to the instruments and sounds of an entire symphony.

Before Brandon Lucia moved to Pittsburgh to be an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, he was in the Seattle band netcat. The band blended cello, drums, synthesizers, computers and Chango, an instrument of Lucia's making, with technology to create sound in interesting ways. For an album release party, the band set up a wireless network at the venue and then created music based on the WiFi usage of fans who logged into the next work. The WiFi music played in the background and netact improvised over top of it.

"It honestly sounded really good," Lucia said.

netcat. From left, Brandon Lucia, David Balatero and Andrew Olmstead.

You can download Chango here and turn your computer into the instrument.

Netcat also released an album as a Linux kernal. If you know what that is, you're a real nerd.

The band's next project will involve sending a satellite into space and release small computer chips that will record and send back data to Earth. That data will be turned into music, Lucia said, if the band ever gets all the clearances it needs from the government.

Lucia said no matter how someone creates the music, it has to sound good. Music that isn't appealing or interesting to listen to, no matter how technologically advanced its creation, isn't worth it.

But technology has its limitations. Roger Dannenberg is a professor of computer science at CMU and a professional trumpet player. He plays in jazz bands around Pittsburgh and co-wrote an opera that premiered in Spain in 2016.

Dannenberg is also building a robotic bagpipe player, McBlare.

Computers can't listen to music like humans do, Dannenberg said. Nor can they compose it.

"There's a lot of machine generated music that sounds pretty good in the short term," Dannenberg said. "But once you get into longer forms, music by humans seems to have a purpose and a destination and structure that we haven't been able to model with computers as well."

Dannenberg wants to know what it is about human-made music that humans connect to. What can computers learn from humans about creativity and emotion. Until researchers figure that out, the job of musician will be safe from automation, robotics and artificial intelligence, Dannenberg said.

Roger Dannenberg is a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University and a professional trumpet player.

Automation, robotics and artificial intelligence will change the music people hear, Dannenberg said. Before too long, researchers will likely learn enough about how humans listen to music and why humans like the music they like to begin programming computers to edit, mix, compose or create hit songs. Complex artificial intelligence will be able to pipe music into stores or offices to create the perfect vibe for the given time of day or activity. Music could even be used to nudge a customer to buy something.

The algorithms could react quickly, creating music to adjust to changing conditions like the weather or the mood of a particular shopping.

It's Muzak, Dannenberg said, but on artificially intelligent, super computer powered steroids.

"I don't really know if it's a good or not," Dannenberg said. "But it's coming."