Picture a classroom where students would be taught how to ask
music consumers thoughtful questions and elicit meaningful
answers in order to create a product that aligns with their
needs. They might start out the course with one vision for a
new Internet radio website and app, for example, and end up
presenting a completely different concept by the time the
semester’s final projects were due.
Envision a music business program that would go beyond teaching
students how to read record label contracts and create online
marketing plans to showing students how music can be used to
catalyze innovation and entrepreneurship.
Many of these ideas are being incubated and iterated upon at
the Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship (ICE) that
Berklee College of Music founded in January of 2014 and
appointed Sonicbids founder Panos Panay to manage.
Panay, the founding managing director, has been laying the
foundation for the institute, naming key advisory board
members, developing music and technology partnerships, and
teaching classes on creative entrepreneurship, among other
things, for over a year now. His ambitious plan is to build a
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab for the
music business students, wherein an interdisciplinary team of
academic researchers and startup practitioners would attempt to
create the future of music across every vertical. It’ll take
Panay several years and fundraising efforts to achieve, but
he’s determined to build this future until it becomes the
Recently, I talked to Panay about the founding story of Berklee
ICE, several of the current initiatives that are underway, and
his vision for the future of the music business. This interview
segment has been edited for length and clarity.
Kyle Bylin: The news story about Berklee’s
Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship broke in January 2014.
That means you’ve been the managing director of Berklee ICE for
just over a year now. Let’s start out this interview by talking
about how this project came to be. When did the conversation
with Berklee about this effort begin, and how did it evolve?
Panos Panay: I’ve been friends with Roger
Brown, the president of Berklee College of Music, for the last
ten years. He was on my board of directors at my company,
Sonicbids. I was chair of the Advisory Board at Berklee College
of Music for about seven years.
Throughout that time, we were talking a lot about the evolving
landscape of the music business and, ultimately, what role
Berklee was playing in preparing its graduates for a transition
into and participation in a landscape that was and is
dramatically different from the one that I found 20 years ago.
So the idea—the inspiration—of the Institute for Creative
Entrepreneurship came from Roger. After we started talking, he
approached me about the possibility of coming here to found and
run it. After giving it a lot of consideration, I got excited
at the prospect of playing this role. So that’s how Berklee ICE
came to be.
MIT MEDIA LAB
Kyle Bylin: When did you start to see the
potential of building an MIT Media Lab for the music industry?
Panos Panay: Certainly, after I came here and
began to get exposed to both the students within Berklee as
well as the role that Berklee plays—it goes beyond just merely
producing performers. We have 12 majors here, including such
diverse areas as music production and engineering, music
therapy, and sound design.
So the idea of building an MIT Media Lab grew with my knowledge
of Berklee, coupled with my own experience in the music space
or in the broader entertainment space. I feel the industry has
been disrupted perhaps more than any other industry, yet
there’s been very little appetite or interest from the music
industry to reach outside of its confines for inspiration.
There’s been very little courage, I feel, from within the music
industry—there’s little evidence of a desire to ask the big
questions and then leverage a partnership of industry,
academia, and government to come up with answers. That sort of
gave me the inspiration behind it. My being located about a
mile from the MIT Media Lab and having been there many, many
times undoubtedly played a role in this ambition.
But I feel that there is a vacuum on the creative side with
respect to a research center, something that, again, brings
different people of different backgrounds and different
disciplines together to envision a different future or a better
So that’s when I got inspired to embark on this.
Kyle Bylin: I like the idea of a research
center, because there isn’t a lot of original research
happening around the music industry. There is a handful of
influential academics who are diving into this space, but as a
whole, in-depth studies of the music industry, the music
consumer, shifts in listening behavior, and startup trends have
not been pursued.
Panos Panay: For me, not being an academic, I
see research as not just being an academic exercise. I see
research as being a means to understanding something, asking
the difficult questions, looking at answers from different
angles but then hopefully embarking on something
tangible—something that begins to architect what the future is.
Looking at even the definition of an entrepreneur, people often
think that entrepreneurs are people who predict the future, but
my stance is that entrepreneurs are people who simply create
So you cannot be talking about an institute for
entrepreneurship unless you do two things: thoughtfully
understand the past, dive into understanding better the
different forces at play with respect to the movement of a
particular industry, and then dare to ask the questions and
envision the future there could be within the space.
From an institute standpoint, we have both a practical
objective—to inspire and cultivate the entrepreneurial thinking
among our students, faculty, and alumni—as well as an
idealistic hope of being able to initiate a disruptive effect.
We envision a different future for the industry than what
popular media may have us believing that the space is doomed
for. Being an eternal optimist, I believe that you can always
create a better future than you have right now. That’s what we
aspire to do.
THE STARTUP LAB
Kyle Bylin: One of the venues that you’re
currently using to explore this idea is a course that you have
called “The Startup Lab.” Can you give me an overview of what
“The Startup Lab” course is and the kind of work that students
are doing in it?
Panos Panay: The Startup Lab is inspired by a
course that I saw at the Stanford d.school called “Launch Pad.”
The course is really developed around a principle called
“design thinking” that a firm called IDEO has pioneered. Think
of design thinking as effectively the fundamental philosophy
that you can apply the principles of design to just about any
problem. That means that you start first and foremost with
understanding the user—understanding the customer. It’s not
about worrying first about whether something is viable or
feasible. First, you have to understand what is desirable, and
then you start working toward the other two.
The idea of the Startup Lab is simply to get students to
develop their ideas by applying these principles—which, by the
way, you often find even within the creation of music. You
prototype something, you put it out there, you get feedback,
you iterate, and you just do it again and again and again until
you “perfect” it. So the idea of the class is to get students
to work on ideas that they have. Some of them may be as simple
as their band; others may be as aspirational as launching a new
music therapy product. We hope to give them some structure and
to develop the sort of behaviors and mindset that they need to
be able to take these ideas and make them a reality.
I co-teach the course with Ken Zolot from MIT. Part of what
we’re trying to do is awaken and inspire the students by
bringing different folks together in that room. The course also
has students from all Berklee majors, unlike most classes,
which are very major-specific. We teach the course at IDEO’s
offices so students get to experience a lot of these themes
that come from the creator’s mouth. We don’t expect that the
default mode of the course and these ideas is success. As a
matter of fact, we want students to embrace failure and course
correction as parts of the process. A lot of them, by the end
of the semester, will emerge with completely different ideas
than what they had coming in.
Kyle Bylin: You touched on one of my favorite
subjects, which is that when you’re building a music consumer
product, you have to think about who the user is, and by the
user, I mean the music listener. Sometimes, I think startup
founders mistake themselves, as passionate music fans, for the
users of the product and predict that the rest of the market
will feel like they do about their products. The likelihood is
that they don’t, right? They’re not as fanatical or passionate
about music. How do you encourage your students to learn about
who music listeners are more broadly and ask questions about
how they consume music today—not necessarily how they think
they’ll consume music tomorrow?
Panos Panay: First, I’ll clarify that the
institute’s aspiration is not to just launch a bunch of music
startups. Having been the founder of one, I’ll tell you I’m not
sure that the world needs a whole lot more. The world needs
startups with an understanding of what the customer needs
rather than clever ideas about what they think the customer
needs. Look, the only way to understand people is to develop
empathy for them. The only way you develop empathy for them is
if you spend time with them and experience their lives—to
accomplish this, you have to be curious and do a lot less
talking and a lot more listening and observing.
I come at it from the standpoint that musicians are primed to
be good listeners and good observers because that’s what makes
a good musician to begin with: listening to the environment
around you, listening to the metaphorical chord changes around
you, and then adjusting and correcting accordingly. The way
that we tell our students this and the way that we inspire them
to go and do these things is by getting them out there. This is
the reason why we don’t teach the class at the college—we get
the students outside of their comfort zone and the bubble of an
MUSIC STARTUP LANDSCAPE
Kyle Bylin: You could say a lot of things
about the current state of music startups. You could say, “The
streaming market is fairly crowded.” You could say, “The DIY
musician app vertical is fairly crowded. You could say, “We’re
now seeing a lot of consolidation, we’re seeing a lot of
acquisitions, and we’re also seeing a lot of shutdowns.” How do
you personally describe the current music startup landscape to
Panos Panay: Again, our ambition is not to get
students to launch a bunch of music startups. Our ambition is
to get students to look at music as a catalyst for innovation,
which is a paradigm that can be applied in any field.
Innovation could be evidenced through performing, through
starting a music startup, or through catalyzing social change
by helping child soldiers in Uganda reintegrate into society.
True, by the way. This is an example of an actual music project
But to answer your question, I think it’s fantastic that
there’s an over-cluttering of music startups in the different
sectors that you talked about. Because I believe that
competition—and I believe that even excess capital flows into a
certain sector—ultimately leads to innovation and to the
creation of standards and the creation of a different future.
And you see this throughout history. Having been around long
enough, I experienced the early wave of Internet mania. I
experienced the wave of excessive investment in broadband
infrastructure. If you read about the excessive investment in
railroads—if you look at the history of business—every bubble
was definitely followed by a burst. But every burst was
followed by ultimately the creation and the survival and of an
ecosystem that drove the world forward.
So for me, looking at it from the streaming side of things, I
think that this competition, this over-investment, this
oversupply will ultimately lead to the emergence of one or two
major players that will be better than everybody else. They’ll
be forced to be better than everybody else because people have
options, because they have competitions. And “better” means
more than just surviving and dominating.
“Better” means that they devise an effective business model,
deliver music in the right way, and satisfy customer needs, so
that five years from now we can say, “Huh, so this is the
future that we were hoping to get. Boy, did we get the right
BERKLEE ICE RESEARCH
Kyle Bylin: Moving along in this conversation,
I know research projects are also something that students
engage in at Berklee ICE. I believe you spent some of the last
year laying the groundwork for partnerships with outside
academic institutions and music companies. Can you tell me
about some of the kinds of research projects that are being
conducted at Berklee ICE right now?
Panos Panay: The first one we’ve embarked on
is done under the Rethink Music umbrella. Rethink is an event
that Berklee has had for a while. It is now not only part of
the institute but envisioned as a conduit for, as the name of
the event says, envisioning where the music industry can go. So
the first project that we’ve embarked on is called the Fair
Music Project. We’re doing it in conjunction with the Harvard
Berkman Center over at Harvard Law. And it’s sponsored by
Kobalt Music, even though it doesn’t have any stake in the
outcome; it’s simply the underwriter of the research.
But we’re really looking at the flows of money from consumer to
content creator. We’re trying to understand why there are so
many intermediaries in this exchange and why there is so much
obfuscation and lack of transparency in how that money flows
and who takes what and who takes how much. Our ambitions for
this project are not just to have a better understanding of the
existing state of affairs, which, frankly, is something that
most people don’t even understand, not even the creators
We also ask the big question: if we were building this system
today—if we were building this industry today with the tools we
have today, with the technology we have today, with the
consumers that we have today—what would it look like? How would
that money flow? What role would technology play? What role
would a standard play? What role would emerging crypto
currencies like Bitcoin play? We want to be asking the big
We’re not always sure we’re going to come up with answers, but
we think that if we attempt to define the questions we should
be asking, then we’ll end up with some interesting insights
and, hopefully, inspiration for where the industry go. Ideally,
this would result in something tangible rather than yet another
boring academic white paper that five people read.
THE FUTURE OF MUSIC
Kyle Bylin: So that is one of my favorite
questions, which is what does the future that we’re trying to
build look like? And if we were to start building today with
the services and tools that are available, and this newfound
knowledge, how would we build it differently?
Panos Panay: Oh, man. My job is not so much to
tell you right now what the future is because I’m still
thinking about what questions we should be asking about what
that future is. What I do know is what it’s not. And I’ll tell
you a couple things that are in my head: 1) I do not believe
that the future of music is one where all music consumed is
free, and 2) I also don’t believe that consumers are not
willing to pay for music. I believe that the way that they used
to pay for music has changed and will surely change in the
future. But I, for one, don’t buy that the future of music is
one where music is offered to everyone for free and that
creators can’t make any money. I don’t believe that.
Music is too important to our society. Music is too highly
valued by mankind. I just don’t buy that we’re not willing to
pay for it. To get people to pay for anything, whether it’s a
cup of coffee, a bottle of expensive water, a primetime show on
one of the cable channels, or music, you have to create an
experience. Currently, that experience is not being offered to
For those of us who grew up in another era, our experience of
music involved physically going to a store and flipping through
album covers and LPs, touching them and spinning them. That
whole process contributed to our enjoyment of music. It wasn’t
just what we heard. It was also the process of discovery that
was part of that overall experience—not just finding the
artist, but also finding out more about the artist.
So what I know in terms of the future of music is that if you
create those experiences—and I don’t know what they are,
yet—people will be willing to pay for them.
Kyle Bylin: How do you cultivate an
entrepreneurial mindset among students that encourages them to
invent their own places in this ever-changing job market?
Panos Panay: Well, I think you said it right
there. For me, it’s not about helping people get jobs—it’s
about helping people create their jobs. That is what this
mindset is. This is not just true of the music space. Frankly,
I think it’s true in the broader job environment, in general. I
think to excel today, you have to apply this entrepreneurial
mindset to whatever you’re doing. What does this mindset mean?
Well, it’s building a good network, for example. It’s being
proactive. It’s approaching yourself as never quite the
finished product—you’re always evolving. It’s about developing
empathy with your “customer.” Who is that? Do you understand
that customer? Do you have a methodology that you’re using to
understand that customer? It’s about being resourceful and
making the most with what you have around you. It’s about
leveraging your own talents to create something bigger and
better than the individual parts that comprise you.
These are some of the things that I feel make successful
The Upward Spiral
Kyle Bylin is a user researcher at
SoundHound and author of Promised Land: Youth Culture, Disruptive
Startups, and the Social Music Revolution.