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Cords Journal Interview: Craig Swann, founder of Looplabs


Cords Journal Interview: Craig Swann, founder of Looplabs

We recently caught up with Craig Swann, developer extraordinaire and democratizer of Music to talk about his origins, how he came up and built Looplabs and what's next. 

CFM: Tell us about yourself.

CS: I grew up in Toronto, Canada. My beginnings are in 1983, which was a huge year in music and technology. I was a part of the first generation to have access to computers and was online for the first time as a 9 year old with the name ‘Rumrunner’. I was connecting with people much older than me which made my mother wonder what was going on! But that was my beginning for me towards understanding how we connect through technology. At the same time, I was picking up the guitar, this other amazing way for people to connect through the power of music. I think I was very fortunate for that crossroads coming into my life at a time when what was going to be the internet was bubbling up and the connection I was starting to experience through music both as a listener and a creator was being formed. That set me on a path that led to where I am today.

CFM: Were there any actual connections between music and computers at the time? How did you take a passion for computers and a passion for music and bring it into one place? Did anything like that exist?

CS: No, there really wasn't. Eventually Amiga came along and you could do some more sophisticated stuff with music but it was ahead of its time. For me it wasn't for another ten years before I could even see the possibility of those things coming together because the digital tools were nowhere to be found except for the high end professional level. 

CFM: How did you start to play the guitar for the first time?

CS: Through my next door neighbor. I would hear these crazy sounds coming from next door and it was something I had never heard before. I asked through the hedge what the sounds were and he answered its Jimi Hendrix on the guitar playing Star Spangled Banner. I couldn't believe that this instrument could produce these sounds.

CFM: How old were you?

CS: I would have been around 14 then.

CFM: What bands were you listening to at the time?

CS: It was the 80's so it was the whole Madonna, Cyndi Lauper time. Lionel Ritchie, Michael Jackson those are the things that come to mind. So not much on the synth side of things, we were just starting to pick up what was happening with the synthesizer. It was really just mainstream pop; I wasn't exposed to a whole lot. Most of the things I listened to on the radio were through crazy things with computers. In Canada it was very different than how it was here in America. Radio shows would play back programs on data cassettes that would run on commodore 64 that would allow everyone to record them. They would play all these beeps and squeals for 30 minutes and it would be on the cassette and you would put it back in a computer and lo and behold there would be a video game. That's how we were transferring stuff.

CFM: So then you go to college and what did you study?

CS: I started out with a major in Business and a minor in Philosophy and then next year it was a major in Philosophy with a minor in Business. And since I was following around the Grateful Dead, I asked myself ‘what am I doing in university? This is silly. I was taking computer science in my first year and at that time in the early 90's we were exposed to the underpinning of the internet. I was exposed to email, music groups and all the different ways the university was leveraging that infrastructure. 10 years ago I was doing that through BBSing and here I saw this larger vision on how people could connect. I was also going to northeast shows with the Grateful Dead and you would go to a show with a 100,000 people that were so connected through music. I had an epiphany one night in a drum circle after a show where there was over 100 of us just jamming out in this parking lot. Imagine if this new internet thing (it wasn't called that) could connect people through music. At the time because there was no internet, there was nothing I could get access to at home, I had to wait years before I could ever make that dream a reality. But it put me on the path of learning how to code and growing up with the internet to develop the skills that eventually put me in a position to be able to leverage that.

CFM: What year was that? 

CS: '92

CFM: So from there you started in a career in flash.

CS: Yes. There was no flash in the early days and when I first got into the web it was still black and white there was no color. All I wanted to do was cutting edge stuff so that was the technology, which is now no longer with us. But as soon as it was remotely possible to do anything interactive with audio it was really flash that was the platform. I was the first guy in the world to jump in on that head first and focus on developing the first online place to make music and remix and share it. 

CFM: Tell us more about Looplabs, how it came about. What's the central goal and mission?

CS: The idea still stems from that parking lot, allowing people to share and connect through music. In the early days Looplabs was an extension of this idea. It was primitive but still cutting edge in the way it was being utilized. The interesting thing was the attention it drew. It gave us the opportunity to license to larger brands who saw the value in this being a part of their campaigns. A lot of time was focused on the consumer and making the platform easy to use. Which gave it the reputation of being a simple interactive platform and it became very successful.

In 2003, when we won a Webby award, when Looplabs was a product not the platform that it is today, they gave you five words to answer and mine were "everyone deserves to make music". That to me has always been what we are about; putting tools into the hands of people who maybe couldn't experience music and in return get the chance to participate in it. So that's really grown through the ups and downs of flash and finally I saw flash kind of fallen by the way side. All these new developments in technology made us stop and think what was the next step.

Fortunately, Google stepped in with a new platform called Web Audio which would allow us to do even more sophisticated things. It was now time to rethink the ten years of licensing and working with Looplabs as a product and say this is the time to change it into a platform that can connect the world. What I found frustrating was Heineken or Bacardi or Sony would come in and do amazing programs but only as a 3-month campaign. Millions of people would participate and make beats and then they would take away the site because it was just part of their road map. For me it felt as if you just empowered all of these amazing people to experience music making and then just pulled the rug from under them. That was frustrating for me not being able to see a place where they could continue to do that, despite the fact that it was very successful. So I think all those learnings led to deciding that it was time to build a platform that can stand the test of time.

CFM: What year was it launched into a platform?

CS: It only reached public beta last November so it’s only been roughly about 6 months. 

CFM: Give us some numbers, what has it been like?

CS: It's been amazing. There really has been no marketing push and there is a lot more work to do in putting together partnerships. That said, there are about 100,000 people on the platform now. The number of people will always continue to grow; what's more important to me is the engagement time which sits anywhere between 25 to 30 minutes per session, which is massive engagement for anyone coming in. I think that is simply because we have made music interactive allowing users to engage and co-create. It is the same engagement time as with video games and apps and other interactive experiences. Music, for most people, sits in the background and they listen passively. Now when they come onto the site there is massive engagement. If there is a metric that matters the most it’s the fact that they are spending a lot of time getting deep into music.

"If we can really own the space of music creation by making it simple, accessible and free, you're going to find a lot more people participating and expressing themselves through music."


CFM: You seem to be someone who cares a lot about giving back and music is obviously very important to you like it is for us. Tell us more about that, where does that stem from?

CS: My hippie days for sure. I was meant to be born during that time. I don't want to get too deep on this but I really believe that everything is sound, the universe is sound, the universe is music and it is fundamentally what connects all of us. It's an expression in math so on a deep profound level I believe it unifies everything and connects people. Whether I'm performing music in a band or in a parking lot drum circle, those connections are very profound. Any musician knows what I'm talking about but for all the people who don't play music, they don't experience that. They may experience a connection to a song or lyrics that makes them feel a certain way but that is not the same connection as the purity of creating with somebody else.

So I thought if there was a way technology could put tools in the hands of people or if we could look at music again as math. Then we would be able to let the computers do the complicated math that makes music creation more accessible and opens the door to people to be able to have that feeling that we as musicians have. As a platform for music creation, one of the things I think about often is the fact that being global and allowing everyone around the world to make music and ideally making it together, creates a deeper and different appreciation for us as humans. If a user was creating music with someone from the Middle East and an event happens, I think our platform could help facilitate a connection and an appreciation towards human life. I think music is a great opportunity to connect us on a much larger level beyond most other tools and other ways that we can unite as a species. 

CFM: Are there any success stories? Any kinds of examples on how Looplabs has achieved that?

CS: So far there has been a lot of amazing individual stories. We have an 8 year old, whose mother had reached out to us to talk about the impact that this platform had on him when he had tried a lot of other tools to do some of the same things. He was always very musical but never found a way to really express himself. Now his name is DJ Mission (worth checking out). He makes these amazing tracks and you would never think after listening to it that it was made by an 8 year old.

On the other side of the spectrum, we have a 67 year old woman who has created more tracks that anyone else on the platform. For her it's a musical meditation or even medication. There is a very therapeutic reason that she does it. It's the impact that it has had on their lives. One person has been set on a direction where they really want to make music a core part of their life and another one who has lived the majority of her life already and now found music as a way to do this amazing thing that is now a daily activity for her. As the platform grows from a collaborative perspective we are seeing collaborations between these types of individuals making tracks together. That's the amazing part of what we do. You wouldn't normally expect an 8 year old and a 67 year old to make music together and they probably don't even know how old each other is. To see more of this happening creates a unique place where people come together and connect through music.

CFM: From what parts of the world are people connecting?

CS: It's 100+ countries. I think we've had someone from every single country visit the platform. It's the traditional western countries, a lot of Europeans, Latin America is also a big one for us. The site has actually been localized so it allows for both English and Spanish translation so that if you are a native Spanish speaker and you log in, it will present that to you. So those being two of the biggest languages in the world we thought it was important from the get go to have those there for those people to connect. It's a very diverse community and on the site we make a point of showing everyone's flag next to their profile and when you listen to the top tracks or the newest recordings its always so fun to see where they come from. It also adds an element of learning. I know a lot of people who try to figure out which flags they are because some people don't always put their city. So for me seeing those flags and not seeing a bunch of American, Canadian or UK flags on the list is very interesting. It's a testament that music is a universal language.

CFM: What's the road map look for the next few years for Looplabs?

CS: Getting it to as many people as possible. I think what's unique about it being a platform is the fact that it is very multi-sided in nature. We are targeting the 95% of people that do not know how to make music but always wanted to participate in it. But there is a whole another world of people that are making music and are musicians whether they are hobbyist, semiprofessional or professional. We see ourselves bringing this demographic to a platform where they can provide their sounds to a generation of creators that aren't at their level of proficiency to write their own music, at least at that level. If I, as a professional musician, put some of my recordings onto this platform, then our users can experience and use those sounds to creates their own tracks. In addition, any producer around the world can put their sounds into a marketplace like a wall of sounds that kids can use like Lego blocks and lock together.

To me that's the exciting part being a partner in the industry, there is this massive opportunity from what's happening in the derivative work space with remixing. There are some complicated issues from the legal and cognitive perspective for sure but we can't change what's happening in culture. Today, this is what's happening. Kids are expected to just mash things up. Looplabs wants to be that next generation tool that allows them to use music and experience all the ways that they can express themselves with media. If we can really own the space of music creation by making it simple, accessible and free, you're going to find a lot more people participating and expressing themselves through music.

Recently I was talking to someone and I said "In the 70's, if you would have said everyone is going to have computers", they would have said "you're crazy. it's for super nerds." Even in the 80's with video games, they would have thought no way but now you look and those things are completely prevalent. The same thing with photography or publishing. The idea that 'Everyone will be a photographer one day' or people saying 'No that would never happen 20 years ago'. Then desktop publishing came around. But music is still in a place where not everyone is a participant. The opportunity that we see is to allow people to express themselves just as easily as they take pictures of their food or create videos but through producing music. That's the road map we are on. 



For more on Craig Swann and Looplabs, check out their website:

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