Musicians on an Inclusion Mission

In this interview I speak to the founders of Digit Music and creators of Control One, a device that removes the restrictions to music creation for disabled artists.

Owain Wilson and Si Tew are the founders of Digit Music. Jess Fisher is a content creator and performer with Digit Music as well. I interviewed the trio for a recent episode of my Inclusive Growth podcast.

We got started by asking Owain what Digit Music does and why the agency was set up.

‘We’re made up of a collection of musicians, technologists, designers and educators. Fundamentally, the company is a pro audio company, meaning we make music content for different uses. People might have heard of Splice or Loopmasters, where you can buy pre-prepared building blocks of music content. We also record library albums for Universal Music and people like that.

Being professional musicians and performers in our own right, part of the ethos of music is supporting the next generation as well. We manufacture a piece of technology which is called Control One. It’s a universally designed MIDI controller for digital DJing and music-making. The idea is whether you’ve got two dexterous hands or whether you’ve just got the use of one finger, you can drive the device in the same way to create music.

We wrap education experiences around that technology as well, so skills training. Music is quite dependent on understanding how to create those building blocks and we make that access route and pathways easier for people. It’s also about training people on soft skills and job skills, so that when they come out of one of our training programmes, should they wish to, they can look at a career within the music industry and the creative wider industries.

Music is used more and more across different platforms. You’re watching TV, you’re hearing music, you’re listening to music on the radio, but on the internet as well, there’s music that needs to be synced for content there as well. That’s what the company does in a nutshell.’

Owain told me that Si and he had previously known each other as community musicians, first and foremost. Although the exact length of time they’ve known each other for is contested, Owain said, ‘It’s about 20 years. I don’t think either of us wants to admit to that because we’re getting older and greyer! I’m going to let Si tell you how the ethos of Digit was born.’

Si picked up the conversation telling me that Digit was set up to enable universal creativity. He elaborated, ‘Creativity is for everybody, and as listeners, selfishly, we want everybody in the world to be able to create. That’s how you get the best music to listen to.

I’ve been involved in several different projects over the years. Before Digit, I worked as a community musician for 20 years. One of those projects was called the Able Orchestra, which is a project run by an organisation called Inspire Youth Arts of Nottinghamshire and also with Orchestras Live. These projects aimed to place disabled young musicians at the forefront of the composition process. Rather than it being a passive experience, it’s about enabling people with the right kind of tools and the techniques to be able to compose from the get-go. Meaning people can build pieces of music and performances and bring in traditional musicians and pro musicians around that.

We worked with the Hallé orchestra. Did a project with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. This project, it’s still running now. We’ve actually got something coming up this summer, and then again in the autumn term as well. It was during this time that we met Jess who was a part of that group, and we recognised the need for a new type of controller. If somebody’s been using a wheelchair controller all day, every day to explore the world, then we saw a need to reinvent that to explore music, which is where Control One came from. Control One was almost the impetus for setting up the rest of the company. We’d designed this device that was unique and was starting to get some traction, and was kind of enabling creativity for people.

Digit was set up to support that mission, bringing in our skills and professional experience under one roof.’

Digit Music does so much. What I love about it all is that it’s built on this bedrock of universal access to the creative arts and music. I discovered Digit because I saw the Control One controller online, which looks like a joystick with buttons on it. I asked Si to explain what it does and how people use it.

‘From a design perspective, the reason it is designed in the way that it was, was to allow people to use muscle memory that they’ve already built up. If a young person’s been using a wheelchair for their life, as soon as you put the Control One in front of them, they know how to interact with it. Initially, we wanted it to be a musical instrument, we wanted it to feel dynamic and to really be able to play with it. So that’s kind of initially where it was designed to play music. It can interact with whichever applications that you might use, everything from Chromebooks to iPads and various tablets and phones all the way through to a pro-end studio. You can plug it into Abbey Road and drive the main machine there if you wanted to, as it is just a MIDI controller at its core.

There are a few other things it can do too. You can DJ and it gives full control of your operating system. The idea is that the device can be a tool for somebody to use, from the moment they turn their computer on and start to create a piece of music, to going and performing live, to chasing the promoter for payment.

That one device can see you all the way through, is our hope and our intention. It’s only through working with people like Jess who are going out and performing and using the device that we’ll get close to achieving that.’

Control One is an amazing piece of kit and it was a great point to bring Jess Fisher into the conversation. Jess works with Digit Music as a content creator and performer. I asked Jess to tell me more about her background and her work within the creative industries.

‘I grew up in Nottinghamshire. I’ve always been around music, always grew up around it, but I never knew because of my impairments, how it is possible to play and make music. As Si mentioned, we started the Able Orchestra and that opened my eyes to the ways around the impairment that I can still do these things. The controller has taken it to a whole different level. Now I can sit at my computer and create music from scratch without worrying about the fact that I can’t hold anything.

I want to carry on making music, that’s what I’m passionate about, but I think one of the biggest things is making sure the next generation gets the opportunity and they’re not missed out. It’s not disabled, it’s not non-disabled. It’s just that we’re all musicians and it doesn’t matter how you do that, we should be on an even playing field.’

I love a track called “Time Stood Still” by Jess, so I asked her how she created that piece of music using the controller.

‘I created that track at the beginning of my journey with the help of Inspire and Si. When I look back now, I can’t believe how long it’s been. They came into my college at the time and did some work with me. It was about listening to what sounds I liked, how I wanted things put together. I’ll never forget it. I felt free. It was like all this emotion that was built up for years was just being poured out into this one song.

I remember going home at the end of the day, like, “I’ve done this at college today.” And then my parents listened and said, “Oh, you’re actually… This could be done seriously.” So people are taking it seriously. It was a nice experience. With the controller, it was just, pick a sound that I like, play it into the software and it removed all those barriers. If Digit hadn’t come up with this idea, I think I’d still be in the bubble of, I’ve got all this creativity, but I don’t know what to do with it.’

Si was keen to make the point that Jess is a tenacious individual so Control One couldn’t take all the credit for her success! He added, ‘The way the device is now, is through Jess’s input as one of the first people to use it.’

I am very mindful of how technology can increase access for people and I use my own assistive technology. To do my job, I need to use speech-to-text software, which is called Dragon NaturallySpeaking. I’ve also adapted quite a lot of “mainstream technologies” to live independently. I’ve wired my home up using the Amazon Echo devices so that I can control the thermostat and I can turn the lighting on and off, and things like that. Technology plays such a crucial role in inclusion, opening up opportunities for people. Interestingly, a lot of assistive technology turns into mainstream technology as well.  Take text messaging, for example. The keyboard was created donkeys’ years ago, in Italy for a blind countess who wanted to write love letters to her lover and we all use keyboards nowadays. They’re on every device that we use pretty much.

I asked Owain if they were finding that there are non-disabled people interested in using Control One?

‘Yes. We’re very fortunate in that we’ve got early adopters right across the spectrum. So, we’ve got a young lady called Millie, who is a seven-year-old, who’s never been able to partake in music-making with her family. Her grandmother is a music therapist, and now she’s able to engage with the family through music and that’s a great thing.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have got some A-list technicians that are building live rigs for some very well-known household names, which for various reasons, we can’t mention at the moment. But people would recognise who they are if we said. I think that’s the important thing because it’s about making people realise this device is being used by a broad spectrum of people. It’s about not making someone with additional needs think, “Well, I have to go and use this thing over here, which no one else is going to be using because that’s all that’s available to me.”

Anyone needs to be able to see themselves within it. One of the driving things for us is that it’s about culture. In our view, good culture only exists if everyone is putting into it. And if everyone can’t put into that culture, then there’s a question mark around, well, what are society’s priorities at this point in time?

We’ve been through such an adverse period over the last 18 months globally, culture and society and creativity are more important now than ever before. Arguably that also means that the demand for everyone to be able to input into that is more important than ever before as well.’

I asked Si how he sees Control One developing over the next few years?

‘Not only is there the accessibility consideration from a physical design point of view, but it’s also from a musical perspective. One of the things that we’ve tried to make Control One do, is removing some of the initial complexity from creating music. Traditionally there’s a lot of learning that needs to be done. There’s music theory etc. If you are at a keyboard, you can’t play every single note in a certain order because you’ll end up with things that are slightly out of key. We’re not looking to replace music theory or to remove the importance of some of those things but I think Control One’s an open tune device. That means that you’ve got eight directions and each one plays a note from the scale, so you can’t play a wrong note.

Removing that initial complexity allows that creative spark to grow. When Jess first started, it was very much about that creative spark – liking a sound and exploring playing it in this or that direction. Whereas now, Jess is really digging into the kind of the music production and the technicalities of things, and mixing things using Logic and arranging things here and working with this orchestra over here. But it’s that initial spark from removing some of the fear of doing something wrong. We were in a Pupil Referral Unit the week before last and the young people there didn’t have any additional access needs, but most weren’t trained musicians. Due to the nature of the device, it meant that five of them were able to start playing music together, collaborate, and start to generate that musical conversation. Sometimes that’s all that’s needed for somebody to go, “Right, actually it’s worth that additional time spent to learn the basics and the fundamentals of these things.”

In terms of where Control One’s going, it’s at the forefront of our thinking and it’s a huge part of our business as we’re building and developing it. The big thing for us is when we come to market and the devices are available, then it’s going to be interesting to see how people use them. Although the technical side of it can interact with different pieces of software, meaning it can interact with any computer operating system, that’s not where the excitement comes from. The excitement is seeing how people interact and where they interact, and what they try to achieve with it themselves.’

Jess added, ‘I want to carry on making music. I’m passionate about that. With Control One, what I’m excited to see is, not only how people who identify as disabled like me use it, but how non-disabled people use it. It can just be called another instrument. That’s what I am looking forward to seeing it being another instrument that doesn’t define who I am as a disabled person.’

Owain was also keen to emphasise that Jess made an interesting point about Control One as an instrument saying, ‘For us, it’s redefining, to a slight degree, what a traditional instrument is as well. In the digital era, we have this new territory to explore. Ultimately, it’s a device for playing music. Someone who’s used it extensively described it as having personality and I think that’s an important thing as well. We find when we plug Control One into our existing studio setups, we play things differently with it. We end up with different melody lines or riffs or things like that, and as a creative, that’s super exciting because it then sparks you to go off and explore new horizons that perhaps you wouldn’t have ended up with if you were using a more traditional interface. That’s not to say that we are trying to replace traditional interfaces, we’re not, we’re just trying to augment and enhance the current experience that people have and broaden the opportunities for more people to experience that creativity as well.

From the business model perspective, our bread and butter is releasing music, but I think that’s important to enable that for our Control One users too. If you buy Control One and you start making decent content with it, submit that content to us because part of what we need is more content. So hopefully, it’s a good thing for business and it’s a good thing for society as well.’

Since I was talking to Digit Music for the Inclusive Growth Show, I asked Owain and Simon, from a business perspective, to tell me what does Inclusive Growth means to them.

Owain told me that Inclusive Growth is about making sure we are ticking off what the agenda for the company is, which is about increasing representation in the creative industries. He continued, ‘We want people to be able to see themselves in the values of the company, but by seeing themselves in our values, they then want to go and amplify those. As long as we are increasing creative pathways for people, we are growing as a company, but we still have to be hitting that inclusivity bit. If we’re not doing that, then we’re not meeting one of the main aims that the company was set up for.’

Simon said he’d second that view. He added that ‘It’s at the core of everything that we do, inclusivity, accessibility. I think in terms of growth, it’s exciting to see that it’s part of a lot of conversations these days and maybe that is because we’re in this world, so we’re in an echo chamber. But it does seem to be that inclusion is at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds. I’m sure we all know there’s a long way to go and there’s work to do, but it does seem to be a more important part of the conversation for people, not just from the social, from the human perspective, but the business perspective as well, which is exciting to see.’

Owain was keen to point out too that accessibility isn’t just made up of one thing. ‘It is about technology, it is about society, it is about all of those things. As much as we might provide a piece of technology for someone to use, that’s only actually a small part of the puzzle. Hopefully, by us getting that bit of the puzzle right, it encourages other people to get their bits of the puzzle right, working in collaboration, and then we get the complete picture.’

As a content creator and performer, Jess had her own take on Inclusive Growth.

‘I think if we can get rid of stereotypes and all these things that don’t need to be around anymore. The more people can be themselves and not have to worry “I can’t take part in this because… Or I can’t do this because… ” Let’s just move as many of those “becauses” as we can.’

To get in touch with Owain Wilson or Simon Tew check out their LinkedIn profiles. To contact Digit Music you can email [email protected] and keep up with them through the usual social channels. Jess can be found on SoundCloud or email her at [email protected] and she’ll be happy to answer any questions too.

Musicians on an Inclusion Mission - Mildon