Musicathon — Let’s Rock IT Innovation

I am a research software engineer in the Deezer R&D team and happen to be in Germany for a three-month experience in our Berlin office. My work within the R&D team consists in making all the necessary data conveniently available for various experiments involving machine learning or natural language understanding. I focus on matching entities from one database to another, and I rarely miss an opportunity to have fun in hackathons, like this one, or this one, or this one.

So when I saw the Eventbrite event about the Musicathon, I didn’t hesitate to register. Musicathon is a hackathon — about music! Hosted by Universal Music in Berlin, it ran on April 19th and 20th and brought together 50 happy hackers.

The event took place in the Porsche Digital Lab in a pristine location just by the Spree river, in front of the Molecule Man, a 45 ton aluminum sculpture symbolizing the encounter between three neighborhoods of Berlin: Treptow, Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain.

The first day started with an ice-breaker. We had to build a structure with raw spaghetti that could support a marshmallow, in less than 3 minutes. In our random team of six, we quickly brainstormed and tried our best to make the highest construction possible. It unfortunately failed… but we nonetheless knew a bit more about our teammates.

After the introduction of the members of the jury, Anton (Marketing Intern at Deezer Berlin and fresh hackathon enthusiast) and myself went on stage to talk about our idea. It was not a tightly-defined idea but rather a list of thoughts around the Amazon Echo device. Although Deezer is already available on Alexa, we wanted to get our hands dirty and attach external capabilities to a new Skill.

We managed to gather a group of seven people and immediately started to brainstorm and narrow our ideas to one realistic project. To this end, Michael from Amazon (and a jury member as well) gave us some input to help us decide. For instance, he confirmed there is a way to retrieve a textual version of a user talk (from speech-to-text) and that we can retrieve a slot with no limited content, like an “open text” rather than a value in a list. In the end, our project led to recommending music based on a voice prompt, possibly without any musical clue. The user would say something about its day and the device would recommend a Deezer song accordingly.

Then, we got to work. On the first day, we struggled a lot with testing our Skill in the Alexa Skill Center. I found other people experiencing the same issue in a forum post. It ended around 11pm with the bitter feeling of an unresolvable issue. Fortunately, the day after went better and we could finally make our first Skill work from a new Amazon account! We plugged the Watson API for emotion detection and the Deezer API for music search.

During the whole hackathon, free drinks (including the unavoidable Club Maté) and excellent food were provided. A huge cymbal extracted us from concentrated work every six hours or so to give us general information, such as “Lunch!”

Club-Maté and hackathons go well together!
Each project owner introduced their project
Our team brainstormed with an Amazon team member
Our team at work: myself, Susanne and Barbara (from left to right)

Finally, the last cymbal hit resonated in the lab at 6pm on Friday. “Presentation time!” At the same moment, our project stopped working. Oh no! We ended up with the issue we encountered the day before. We applied the workaround found in the morning as fast as possible. It worked! We could safely (well… with some glitches) present our work.

The ideas from other teams were very diverse, going from blockchain pre-payment to dynamic digital headphone labeling. Even with Universal’s promised awards going up to 3,000€, we did not find the atmosphere competitive at all. Participants from a various range of backgrounds showed up, from students to marketing people, from Brazil to Israel and India, all with one interest in common: music.

A BBQ was served while the jury deliberated. Eating on the terrace was undoubtedly the most relaxing moment of the event, far away from the stress of the last 48 hours. It was a good time to get to know other hackers better. The jury came back one hour later, apparently exhausted.

To our great surprise and satisfaction, our team got one of two third prizes! Our hack caught the jury’s interest as well as many other projects. This is the reason why they doubled the third prize. A playlist generator from two distinct profiles and an automatic web scraping tool got the second and first prize respectively. In a cheerful and enthusiastic atmosphere, we picked up our limited-edition Musicathon vinyl, along with a 500€ voucher to share with all the team members.

The DJ started to play music for the last hours in the Digital Lab. We said goodbye to our ephemeral team and promised to keep in touch.

Anton and Marlene, polishing the presentation slides
Marisa, happy and proud to collect her prize
Annika and Suzanne hacking