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As we kick-start 2017, the United Kingdom appears to be leading the debate about the music industry and its use of smart technology, from Virtual Reality (VR) to Artificial Intelligence (AI).

The year 2016 saw the release of numerous VR-content projects but they were mostly marketing concepts promoting audio-visual entertainment: TV shows (National Geographic Channel’s Mars), blockbuster action movies (Warner Bros.’ Suicide Squad), or video games (Capcom’s Resident Evil 7).

This year should see the audio-focused business of music gaining momentum in the VR space, starting with MelodyVR, a VR tech manufacturer and content studio listed on the UK’s AIM stock exchange as EVR Holdings plc.

After a soft launch last year, it is set to go fully commercial in 2017 with the sale of its VR music apps. It is also one of the few VR entertainment ventures to go public with a business model aimed at a mass market.

Last November, co-founder Steven Hancock told delegates at the London-based Music 4.5 conference on The New Creative Tech that MelodyVR apps will be on sale with prices ranging from 69 pence (US$0.85) to £10.99 (US$13.56). 

“There will be no advertising, brands or sponsors. It will be VR on demand, similar to iTunes and the revenue will be split among the rights owners,” he said.

Record labels are notorious for raising obstacles against new digital-media inventions applying for the required music rights. Yet, MelodyVR appears to be making headway.

It has sealed agreements with several music companies, including major label Warner Music Group. Additionally, it is working with a reported 400-plus artists who include big international acts like Norwegian DJ/record producer Kygo (pictured), The Who, Duran Duran, and the London Symphony Orchestra.

The rights snapped up by MelodyVR appear to vary from artist to artist, from label to label, from concert promoter to concert promoter. But it promises its service will offer premium downloadable VR gigs and music videos. And the long-term goal is to stream live concerts too.

The company guarantees its technology is VR headset-agnostic, meaning it is compatible with Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Sony’s recently launched PlayStation VR, Samsung’s Gear VR and headsets that are not yet in the market.

In September, it announced a partnership to promote the MelodyVR app at 665 O2 branded retail outlets belonging to telecoms giant Telefonica in Germany, one of Europe’s biggest music markets. Moreover, 65 of the key O2 stores will actively encourage customers to try out MelodyVR.

Hancock told the Music 4.5 audience: “We’re sitting on the world’s largest VR music library and have a strategic relationship with all the record companies. We’re working with artists to create intimate gigs, including ones of just you, the fan, and the artist. Two and a half years ago, no one was creating content but we saw an opportunity for artists to engage in a way not done before.”

Hancock also spoke at another London-based event, the Futuresource Audio Collaborative, where a session was devoted to the place of audio technology in VR entertainment.

Speaking during the same Futuresource session was Daryl Atkins, Creative Director at Rewind.co, the VR creative agency and digital production house famous for its collaboration with Bjork in 2015.

He highlighted the importance of getting the optimum sound in VR music content.

“The content is the most important thing. So you need to make the audio future-proof now,” he said. “Technology can age very quickly, so it’s important to create great content now. In the last year, it’s been about rich content. It’s now the responsibility of the content creators to do something to keep the medium alive.”

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is another digital tech that has taken the music industry by storm.

AI is melds a combination of algorithms, Big Data analytics and machine learning to enable content creators to communicate with consumers and connect with them emotionally by offering personalized experiences.

BPI, the UK recorded music industry’s trade organization, held a seminar last November to explore such smart technology and its impact on the sector.

Called Music’s Smart Future: How Will Artificial Intelligence Impact the Music Industry, it was co-hosted with consultancy firm Music Ally and several participants came from record labels, including Polydor, Sony Music Entertainment and Universal Music Group.

Attendees would have learned about the use of AI to compose music via companies like UK-based Jukedeck and Melodrive, as well as Chinese Internet conglomerate Baidu, which has built AI Composer to create music inspired by art.

Delegates at the BPI seminar would have also discovered artists like Brian Eno are creating music with AI. Other British acts, such as Bastille, Olly Murs, Radiohead and Robbie Williams, communicate with fans via AI.

Digital streaming platforms, including Apple Music Deezer, and Spotify, employ AI to direct relevant tracks to listeners.  And voice-activated digital assistants like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa are being programmed to help consumers discover, select and access songs to listen to on their digital devices.

As BPI CEO Geoff Taylor said: “AI is enabling the creation of hyper-personalized playlists using contextual data and deep analysis of the relationship between songs, while artists and labels are now using chatbots to engage fan-bases in campaigns. Algorithms are also beginning to influence the composition of music, as artists embrace the technology to enhance their own creativity.”

Research firm CB Insights calculates that almost 140 start-ups specializing in advance AI have been acquired since 2011 with corporations like Google, Samsung and Apple among the big buyers in 2016. E-commerce giant Amazon.com says its best-selling product during the recent Christmas holidays was Echo, its Alexa-powered wireless speaker.

But, as another Music 4.5 presenter reminded us, all matters new-tech take time before they go truly commercial.

Mick Grierson (Reader, Director of Creative Computing, Computational Arts at University of London’s Goldsmiths college) noted that the application of smart technology will vary from use to use. And while there are still more questions than answers for the music industry, AI is here to stay.

He said: “AI promises a lot because no one is really sure what it is. It isn’t the kind of AI you see in films. This is not about mimicking human intelligence. Think of it as machine learning. It is growing at a remarkable rate and it is going to change everything, whether you like it or not.”

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