In 2013 I started a small company called Sonation to empower people to create meaningful, personal, rewarding musical experiences. They play their instruments in real-time, with “in-the-moment” musical expression, surrounded by a rich sound-world created by some of the greatest composers who have ever lived. I founded Sonation so people could experience the rewarding satisfaction of making music. True “augmented reality” in the world of sound and imagination.
Cadenza was the app we created that accompanied a musician with a real orchestra. It listened to the musician and used sophisticated, predictive algorithms to keep the orchestra in synch in real time, even when they change speed and expression.
Cadenza relied on the best accompaniment technology in the world. It had latency of 4–5 milliseconds or lower. It could synchronize audio, video and VR media with live audio. It worked just as well with the most difficult virtuoso masterpieces, like the Brahms Violin Concerto as it did with music for beginners, like Bach’s Minuet in G.
The technology was the least important thing.
Each person who plays music wants to hear and be a part of the whole musical fabric that makes music great. They want to play a role in creating that — to be there in the moment, at the center of that — each person, whether they’re just starting out or already at the top of their game — each person should be free to be true to themselves, to play the way that works for them in that very moment.
I do not believe there is much value in shoe-horning yourself into pre-recorded, frozen music. Cadenza eliminated that unnecessary restraint and made it possible for you to play the way you want to. Whether you played slowly and carefully, or let the excitement carry the music forward, faster and faster, with Cadenza you got to experience freedom of expression in music-making, the likes of which we are already starting to forget.
Music is about what we do in the moment. The unique moment when we play or sing. The importance of “that moment” is being crowded out by a wrong-headed notion that playing music is about conforming to a frozen, unchanging recording that is completely unaware of you—of this space you’re in now, of how you feel now and how you respond to the sounds.
Our apps like Cadenza freed you to play your music without trying to fit into something artificial and unchanging. They supported world-class virtuosos as well as the second-year flute players who play the way they do because they’re still beginners. They did not chastise, or give grades. They supported you, and gave you a beautiful, rich musical world to play in. They made you feel like a star.
That’s Sonation’s apps were all about: freeing people to be themselves, to feel alive, to experience the validation of their own, living breathing voice in this unique moment — as imagined by the greatest musical minds that have ever lived: Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Williams, Franck, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Debussy, Gershwin, Beethoven and more.
Sonation’s job was to reveal what is possible and to give you a way to achieve it.
What about the formidable technology that enabled this? The predictive algorithms or responsive timing changes, or best-in-class pitch recognition, or machine learning, were all just means to an end. We used technology to bring people what really matters: the simple opportunity to be free, to be heard, to be alive in the moment, and to have their voice join in the mysterious, powerful, emotional art of music-making.
Maker or Consumer?
The most successful music-oriented businesses deliver recorded music for consumption (otherwise known as listening). To these businesses, customers are vessels that “consume.” In their view, customers are not creative contributors. They are passive consumers. In their view, only “artists” create, and the fruit of their creation is intellectual property owned by a company and provisionally licensed to a consumer in exchange for money.
This has been the music business model for nearly 100 years: Mass-produce recordings, own them, master and control their delivery, and extract value at various points along this “delivery” chain. A classic and very successful pipeline business model that, by design, sees music-makers as suppliers feeding content in at the beginning of the pipeline. This model is still the foundation of Spotify, Apple, Google, Amazon, Pandora, etc.
What if recorded music could become unique for each of us?
Even though there are literally millions of recorded tracks available to listen to anytime, anywhere, each track is the same each time it’s “consumed.” Sonation transformed these static materials into a personal, emotionally vibrant context for unique, individual expression.
Technology can empower people to transform a spare five minutes into an expressive experience where the very notions of time and individuality and space can be explored, challenged, or even transcended. Music in this “model” becomes a unique moment of transformation — not a sonic, recorded artifact divorced from one of it’s most essential ingredients: the time and space in which the sounds come into being.
Even though the titans of the digital revolution have all succeeded by enabling an unprecedented flowering of human expression (YouTube, Facebook, Google, Instagram, Snapchat), when it comes to music, they still think of it as the passive consumption of “intellectual property.” To them, music remains an object — a piece of consumable content that can be monetized. An old-fashioned business model with little room for growth or relevance.
Yet, the digital tech titans are not quite ready to apply their own highly successful, proven business models that have already spawned behemoth platforms like YouTube. Or, more accurately, they are not allowed to do so by the complex, restrictive licensing and ownership constraints imposed by the owners of the content supply.
Obviously, that 100-year-old business model is not going to go away anytime soon. However, neither is the more than 80,000-year-old deeply human need to make music in the moment. That need is far more robust, universal, and generative than the need for repeated listening to recorded material disconnected from the moment.
Perhaps the companies that enable and enhance individual music-making will create a new platform for the flowering of musical expression on the scale of YouTube and Facebook. Companies that stick with a core pipeline business model that monetizes passive consumption probably will not be among them.