Music Industry, Hack Yourself

Core77 posted our C60 Redux project this week. Here's a further look at why I think it was an important project to develop.

Though I started with vinyl, the bulk of my rock and roll upbringing is credited to nylon and metal cassettes. I would spend hours in front of stacked tape decks dubbing one song to the next to make the penultimate mix tape for my friends. I spent weekend sleepovers copying tapes between boom boxes with my friends. These labors of love weren't rooted in consumption. This was about love — love for the way a guitar hook delivered goose bumps, love for a drumbeat speeding up my heart, love for my friends and the joy of giving them something bespoke, love for pursuit and discovery and finding that new band I didn't know existed. This deep rooted passion stayed with me through college and my first professional years. I would dub CDs down to cassette so I could play it in my car, listen to it at work or share with friends.

When I Miss My Pencil launched, the C60 concept was an immediate win to me. It tapped into this reservoir of memories and obsessions. When I learned my Boston studio mates wanted to build it I was unequivocally compelled to help make it happen.

I've come to believe that when we use our sensibilities to create, they transmit into what we make and then transfer to the person interacting with the creation. Hear me out. If we take joy in tactility and sound when we create it, then they will give joy in return when the design is engaged by another person. Watching and listening to Bob Hartman, the electrical engineer behind c60, I witness my hypothesis come true. Each build of the RFID antennae configurations under the hood is a work of art. The multiple, staggered green and gold surfaces line up like toy soldiers in rank and file. Listening to Bob talk about each iteration, it's challenges, the solutions brings the beauty of this alive. And each designer he shows this to gets his contagious smile. We might not understand the explicit details of the schematic, or the code language that makes science seem like magic, but we understand the joy of design. But this is all background— the stuff that makes designers geek out. Joy must extend beyond the process into the users life. This is the litmus test of success.

This summer Bob took the the C60 prototype to a elementary school science fair. The school wants to give kids broad exposure to the future possibilities. It's the technology and design equivalent of a farm field trip to see Holsteins. When Bob returned he told me a story about a young kid interacting with the music player and of the way her face lit up as she dropped the album art on the platter to start the playing a song. Then he said something that stuck with me: "She would lay it down and pick it up to make the music start and stop. It's really an exciting user interface, even simpler than iTunes or the iPod because there are no buttons."

The whole concept came full circle for me. More than referencing past formats through form or name, we were experimenting with a new ceremony, one that takes advantage of today's digital advances without overlooking our desires for play and tangible influence on an outcome. Playing with the artwork through placement and interaction is just plain fun and I think that's what's been lost in today's dematerialized formats.

For years the music industry has blamed technology for their declining sales. Paradigm shifts are complicated and there's likely not a single cause for the change. There are obvious ones like the growth of internet access, faster data transfer speeds and a culture that's been built on the "more is more" mentality. But I think there is a less visible reason that might be just as obvious: the digital world is a dematerialized world and we are physical beings. In some cases we've done well to adapt digital technology to our needs. The ease of long distance communication has become nearly ubiquitous for example. But in the case of mass-distributed music we've failed.

I don't think we at IDEO suggest that C60 is THE new format we should embrace. But I do believe there is an insight to be gained from it and that is to bring ceremony and considered interaction back. In extreme cases we've reduced music to a single sense, sound — how do we bring touch, site and smell back to the experience? How can we make it a physical and spiritual moment again? Could the growth in live music sales be related somehow to this yearning? How can the digital world merge with the music business to enrich experiences?

Riffing on C60 Redux, it's not hard to imagine a ticket stub or poster with an RFID tag that gives you access to exclusive content before or after a concert. More than a memento, it could create a stronger connection with the artist and enrich the performance experience. Imagine adding social networking to it — tickets might contain different content, encouraging you to seek out like-minded fans before the show. Participation creates connection and community. Ideas like the RFID ticket are bootlegs are steroids, enriching the experiences and helping them live beyond their real-time moments

There are a few artists truly seeking new ways to engage fans with their music in a rapidly changing culture: Trent Reznor's USB bathroom releases, Radiohead's Pay-What-You-Want, Twisted Bittorrent and Reckoner remix stems, Mos Def's t-shirt album, Beck's free covers downloads and our U2 Blackberry app to name a few. None of these have suggested a standard yet. Maybe the iPad will make interacting with digital music a richer tangible experience? Or maybe it's going to come from left field, from a bunch of design-loving hackers like my colleagues or the kids at MIT that are seeking a richer interaction. From wherever it emerges, take note music industry, you need to start hacking yourself. If you don't, you'll be become the lost format.

c60 Redux from IDEO on Vimeo.