Four days at the wild, AI-filled Collision Conference—before it bails for Canada

NEW ORLEANS—From the parades strolling through the showroom floor on its final day to various official evening meet-ups at hallowed French Quarter hotel bars, the annual Collision Conference has increasingly embraced its New Orleans home over the past three years. The setting, combined with the conference’s eclectic programming—featuring tech execs and developers, startups and investors, athletes and musicians, city planners and Hollywood types, plus Al Gore(?!)—has made Collision a unique and popular calendar addition.

It’s easy to believe in the organizing team’s favorite moniker: “North America’s fastest-growing tech conference.”

But nearly as soon as the curtain rose on the 2018 Collision Conference, attendees learned things would be changing for 2019. Sparked by feedback and the experience of the event’s international attendees, Collision’s European-based organizers announced their decision to take things north to Toronto, Canada, moving forward.

“New Orleans, Collision’s home for three years, is a very special town, but as Collision grows we needed to find a bigger base with more global connectivity. I believe that Canada and Toronto have lived to some extent in the technology shadow of America, but that’s changing and changing fast,” said Paddy Cosgrave, CEO of Collision and Web Summit, in a day-one press release. “It’s true that some international tech entrepreneurs have been denied visas to attend Collision in New Orleans in recent years. At the same time, Canada now fast-tracks international work visas.”

New Orleans doesn’t tend to suffer from a lack of critical hosting infrastructure. Louis Armstrong International, though currently small compared to airports in other destination cities, has expansion plans in the works. The city’s convention center is massive, and the local array of housing options and service-industry heavyweights has led everything from the Super Bowl to WrestleMania to choose the Crescent City.

But as Collision’s numbers ticked up—the final year in Vegas had 7,500 attendees from 89 different countries; last year in New Orleans saw 20,000 from 119 countries according to a spokesman’s figures—that also meant an increase in difficulty for international attendees. Other major tech and culture events, like South by Southwest, have been dealing with similar challenges in recent years, too.

From day one, the Trump administration has been clear with its desire to roll back international business policies like the Obama administration’s “startup visa” approach. That sentiment, combined with recurrent travel woes, made a change of scenery feel inevitable. So while cities like San Francisco and New York were pushed heavily in a poll for Collision attendees ahead of this year’s event, Toronto appeared like the preferred choice from the start. (Organizers even teased videos and messages from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when floating the idea of a location change to attendees.)

“At the very moment when some countries around the world seem to be shutting their borders, when intolerance is on the rise, Toronto stands for something very different,” Cosgrave wrote to attendees ahead of this year’s event. “One can only guess how many great tech entrepreneurs and engineers have been discouraged from even considering attending a tech conference in the United States recently because of uncertainty over immigration policies.”

TSwift no longer has to endlessly Google

If this proves to be the final year for this tech gathering in town, Collision certainly tried to leave New Orleans with a bang. Headliners included former Vice President Al Gore, CEOs of buzzy companies from Lyft to Ethereum, and notable people from across the popular-culture spectrum, like the lead data-analytics guru at Legendary Entertainment and Chris Mosier, the first transgender Olympian for Team USA. (Former Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix was even on the schedule as recently as this spring but, uh, something came up.) The conference itself also appeared to have more universal tech heavyweights—IBM, Amazon types—sponsoring stages or interactions rather than those roles being left to specialized or startup/investment organizations.

Like the previous two years, Ars was again on the ground both as observer and participant. Look for more video interviews with notable attendees in the coming weeks, but the panel I was invited to moderate is already online in full. Alongside industry pros like HFA/Rumblefish’s Lauren Apolito, Songtrust’s Joe Conyers, and Pex’s Amadea Choplin, we explored how musicians and songwriters can ensure they get paid in an era where their work seems to appear —from the latest user-generated content app to some social media channel you’ve barely heard of ().

Luckily, the music industry as a whole has been adapting to a digital-forward business model for a handful of years at this point. The standards and structures in place for musicians and labels working with heavyweights like YouTube or Spotify may still not be as robust as the old physical media days, but those arrangements have been slowly improving through better relationships and some recent judicial decisions. And from the music side, the length of those partnerships has even started changing the platforms themselves.

“These relationships now drive product features—this year, we finally made progress to get songwriter and producer credits back on Spotify,” Conyers noted. “When you think about a CD or vinyl, you had liner notes, but that experience has fallen to the wayside. But this year, we’ve convinced these [companies] to use that data to enrich the experience.”

Of course, increased relationships with tech companies doesn’t mean music licensing always happens correctly in 2018. New platforms constantly emerge, and any user-generated model will come with possible DMCA pitfalls. That means one of the biggest areas of tech growth from the music industry perspective has been enabling artificial intelligence and voice- or sound-recognition technologies to identify possible unlicensed usage.

“Traditionally, people tried to track their music through metadata. If I’m Taylor Swift, I’d type in ‘Taylor Swift’ and see if my song comes up,” Choplin said. “But for something just like ‘Shake It Off,’ now there [are] hundreds of thousands of copies of that song that come up in all kinds of content. It’s impossible to track it all unless you’re doing it automatically, unless you’re tracking the music itself rather than just the words. So it’s become fundamental, especially as there are more and more platforms, to do it all at once through one interface.”

According to the AI-tracking service Pex, 84 percent of YouTube videos today contain at least 10 seconds of music even if the video doesn’t appear in the “music” category on site. In light of such figures on even established platforms, Pex offers tracking service for musicians, songwriters, and labels across 20-plus online platforms including some big international hubs. And for licensing-focused entities like Rumblefish, Apolito noted such identifying tech has improved to the point where it can even differentiate versions of songs—originals versus a remix, covers versus a live performance.

“One of the things we build AI technology around is looking for these variations: the Chipmunks version, the baby version, or alterations like a male vocalist versus a female vocalist,” Conyers added. “We’re identifying things that audio recognition has struggled with, because in the past you might be in trouble with a ukulele version.”

The panel concluded with the three industry-side professionals encouraging Collision’s tech and startup-focused crowds to be cognizant of the many ways music can be applied today. They encourage any startup to take a cautious approach, researching the process to add music to an app or service appropriately before things progress too far. These days, as you can hear Spotify-integration on Instagram or 8-bit music composers soundtracking all day on Twitch, the need for basic music-licensing understanding is growing across all kinds of tech.

“Look at gaming and fitness apps; those are a real growing area,” Apolito said. “When people go to develop an app, they may not think of music as a key component—but we have to ensure artists get licensed.”

“Can you imagine doing Peloton without music?” Conyers replied. “That wouldn’t be very fun.”

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