Right as I got on the plane to Amsterdam to attend the great Music and Bits conference that headlines the Amsterdam Dance Event, I was sent this article that I am sure a lot you have already read: Are music startups destined to fail? Being the co-founder and CTO of a music startup that is not failing anytime soon, I felt the urge to respond in some meaningful way. Thankfully I was about to get on stage in front of the best and brightest of Europe’s music people, so I took the opportunity to work Dalton’s warning into my talk.
Let me first correct Mashable — your headline is terrible. Amazingly, and I think this is the first and last time I’ll defend these guys but when Techcrunch is more measured than you you may want to reconsider your editorial policies. Dalton said nothing about mass failure. Echo Nest was one of their first API clients and we were about to work together before they went away, we all give each other big hugs and air kisses. He was not trying to predict my particular imminent doom. However, he was discussing something that is very hard for a lot of people and it is Echo Nest’s business to make this easy and excellent. So I made my talk about that — there is this thing happening, that I call “the music platform,” that yes, we’re working on but so are a lot of other guys, and if you are thinking of a great music experience don’t let these guys put you off. We are here to help.
What is a music platform?
First, we all agree that the future of the music business is apps. This is not just a party line EN takes; it is a real thing that is happening. In the past couple of years your choices as a music listener have gone up exponentially. You can hear a song on any number of mobile applications, web sites or downloadable programs. It doesn’t take a “music futurist” to point at the movement from digital downloads to interactive applications— Pandora, Spotify, Guitar Hero. Shazam & Soundhound, Hype Machine, Shuffler. Even the killer iPad game, Osmos, is really an enhanced delivery mechanism for Loscil and labelmates. There is someone now making a thing somewhere that will destroy the iTunes interface (finally) for browsing. There are a few guys pumped after a Music Hack Day that just filed papers in Delaware for a new radio app. And, yes, Google and Apple are about to throw their gilded monocles, canes and top hats into the ring any day now.
So we’ve identified three very hard things in getting these apps out there. These three put together comprise a music platform— someone to help you take care of all the annoying stuff while you concentrate on the experience.
The first one is our bread and butter, what we call “engineering.” The Echo Nest has been doing this for years — providing an outsourced music database to companies and independent devs — and we’ve gotten quite good at it. We have a database of over 10 million unique songs and 1.2 million artists, each with insane amounts of metadata. We know the pitch of the third sound of the first b-side track on James Blake’s “CMYK.” We know how many people called Spoon’s latest record “angular,” and what web sites they said it on. We can give you the tempo of any song, similar artists, loudness, a recommender and new stuff like an excellent music fingerprinter, or the stuff needed to choose concerts based on the danceability curve of the setlists. You no longer need to worry about “big data” or figuring out why Tom Petty is not the same band as Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (ps work here if that pisses you off.) Other guys can help you with this too — the amazing Musicbrainz, of course last.fm and some other upstarts.
The second is audience— with your new experience, how can you get out to listeners? Fortunately there are very large companies competing for developers’ attention. At the rate we seem to be headed there will be an app store for combination microwave oven/toasters. But in the short term, audience from a mobile app store, social network is here now and viable. But we’d like to think it goes deeper than that— and by working with the content providers (more on that soon), we’ll be helping app developers get in front of fans with direct artist marketing.
The last, and trickiest, is content. As a music app developer, until about two months ago there was no easy way to get actual music to play without negotiating your own content deals. This is the last thing a dev wants to work on and we’ve made it our goal to help these guys out. This was the crux of Dalton’s pain, and from now on it may be helpful to consider the Echo Nest as a “proxy for the music industry.” We’ve already announced one major label deal to allow content, and we currently have two deals with digital distribution channels. With these deals in place, it takes an amazingly short amount of time to build your future vision of music. Look at this app, made in 24 hours— it is a Pandora style streaming radio app but has 10 million songs available. It uses only the Echo Nest API for all of its features. Annoying things like DMCA rules are built into our API.
Why it is awesome
I want an iPhone app that does Josh Millard’s Frasier fever dream on Prisoner episodes. I want a text message with a link to streaming audio whenever ILM flips out over a new artist. And I want imeem back, they were awesome. And with everything we’re trying I think it’s finally possible— the way we are experiencing music is changing and we want to work with brilliant people to make it change even faster. It’s not perfect yet, but we’re on the right track and I don’t think you’ll find a more focused and insane group of people in the world trying to make this work. If you’ve got ideas or questions, write me a mail.