September 10th, 2012 | by RUTH BROWN Features | Posted In: Willamette Geek

Portland Digital eXperience: Days 2 and 3

Andrew McLaughlin gets political; hacking Elliott Smith

pdx
Ritual declaration of self interest: This is Willamette Week's festival. I work for Willamette Week. I was involved in some of the very early planning meetings. I am in no way able to report on this impartially, but I'll do my best. Read the report from day 1 of PDX here.

The second and final official day of MusicfestNW's Portland Digital eXperience took place Friday. With the caveat that I missed a couple of the morning panels, I once again felt the strongest events of the day were the keynote and a music panel. 

Friday's keynote speaker was Andrew McLaughlin, whose resume includes being the Deputy Chief Technology Officer for the United States (yes, the whole country), the Director of Global Public Policy for Google, and was until recently a VP at Tumblr. McLaughlin spoke eloquently about the Internet as a force for good—enabling free speech, mobilizing political activism, as an arm of democracy—and bad—censorship, surveillance, harassment. Although this is perhaps nothing too revelatory for anyone who follows such things, it was filled out with plenty of good data and statistics, and it seems incredibly important to me that technologists continue to talk and think about these issues—at length, and often. It was the kind of speech that had the whole room constantly tweeting and retweeting soundbites, which seems as good a measure of success as any.

The final panel of the day featured an all-star lineup of Portland music industry talent, with Jackpot Recording Studio's Larry Crane, concert promoter Mike Thrasher, musician and Tender Loving Empire label manager Jared Mees, Co-Executive Director of CASH Music Maggie Vail, WW music writer Bob Ham, Sahel Sounds' Christopher Kirkley and band photographer and music video director Alicia J. Rose, moderated by Banana Stand Media's Aaron Colter. Discussion ranged from more discussion about the problems with streaming music service like Spotify and whether they really encourage people to buy more music, the myths of music piracy, whether music writers respond better to being sent mp3s or physical CDs, the role of music videos in a digital world, and where the industry goes from here.  

Music is one of those subjects that basically appeals to everybody, and the audience seemed curious to take a peak behind the scenes on the industry. Larry Crane, in particular, discussed many tech-related things I doubt many in the room (including myself) knew, like how rarely producers, sound techs, etc. are credited on mp3s and streaming sites, how difficult it is to mix and master songs to sound right on iTunes, and how people sharing bootlegs digitally is ultimately degrading the audio by compressing tracks over and over again. Several speakers also made compelling arguments for the importance of physical albums and the related artwork, booklets, etc. I did not expect to walk out of a digital music session thinking, "Yeah, bands should release more on vinyl!"

Although this officially concluded PDX, the final event actually took place the next day. For a good six hours, a group of geeks (I overheard someone say 40, but, regardless, it was a good turnout) gathered in the offices of a Pearl tech startup for a hackathon with APIs provided by Spotify, Rumblefish, Twilio and Mapquest.

Here's one reason I love tech geeks: you offer them some data to play with and some free doughnuts, and they'll happily give up their entire Saturday to build projects with it just for fun. If you asked a group of journalists to give up their Saturday to write for free with a box of branded pens, they would use them to stab you in the eye.

I unfortunately missed the project unveilings (six hours on a Saturday!), but this guy from Twilio did a good job of covering some of them on Twitter:


There was one which combined WW's 2003 Elliott Smith obit with MapQuest and Spotify to create this musical map of "Elliott Smith's Portland."

I'd love to see more of these hands-on, creative events at next year's PDX. There was a really positive, energetic feeling in the room, and if this festival was an attempt to tap into the great things about Portland's tech community—collaboration, open source, the relative lack of dickheads and the free doughnuts—I feel like this event really nailed it. Hopefully, just a glimpse of things to come.

 
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