Saturday, December 17, 2005

The places to discover music online: 


I looked in the trap, Ray

What It Do?
Basically, you give it the name of an artist you like or a song that you like and it plays a "radio station" of songs by artists that are similar to your request.

How It Do That?
Pandora is the business front-end for a concept called The Music Genome Project that has gone through over the last five years and tagged hundreds of thousands of songs with up to 400 different traits that they call "Genes." (As of March 2004 they had profiled over 350,000 songs according to this article.)

When you ask for them to start a radio station, my guess is that they look at the "Genes" for that particular song, and then start streaming songs that have matching genes. If you ask them why theuy're playing those partivcular songs, they say things like Electric Rock Instrumentation, Mild Rhythmic Syncopation, Subtle vocal harmony, major key tonality, Mixed Acoustic and Electric instrumentation

Example: "Everybody's Talkin'" by Nilsson.

Acoustic Rock Instrumentation
Mild Rhythmic Syncopation
Major Key Tonality
Acoustic Sonority
Extensive Vamping

Neil Diamond
James Taylor
New Christy Minstrels
Wilco & Billy Bragg
James Taylor
Jim Croce
Glen Campbell
Rolling Stones ("Angie")
Harry Nilsson ("Everybody's Talkin'")
Scott Walker
The Bee Gees
Hootie & the Blowfish covering Led Zeppelin's "Hey Hey What Can I Do"
Simon & Garfunkel
The Band

The Good:
They've got a really great Flash interface, the audio quality is really good, and they have a decent mix of stuff you already know and indie stuff you might not have heard before. You can click on any song and either try to buy it from iTunes or Amazon. You can kinda guide them along, telling them which songs on your "station" you like as they stream by, and which ones you'd never want to hear again. And if you don't mind looking at ads, it's free.

The Bad:
Some of the playlists are way off. This Wall Street Journal Article says:

The service can be hit-or-miss, though. Sleater-Kinney, a rock trio from Olympia, Wash., is known as much for its feminist ethos as for its punk influence. A Pandora search recently recommended several songs from other so-called "riot grrrl" groups -- but also an upbeat pop tune called "(I Wanna Be) Like Other Girls," which appears on the soundtrack for Disney's "Mulan 2" and includes a lyrical reference to marrying "someone I've met, who loves me for me."

The song, according to Pandora, shares Sleater-Kinney's "punk influences."

One time we looked up "I Am The Walrus" by The Beatles which has something like "elaborate studio techniques" and it started off the playlist with a live track for some reason.

Also, their license only allows you to skip something like 10 tracks in an hour, so if you end up with a fistful of duds in a row, after a while you're stuck listening to whatever they give you.

Pretty good, especially since it's free now. A handful of playlists are more "Miss" than "Hit" but when it's on, it's really right on.



Left of the Dial

What It Do?
You sign up with them and run a little program that scoops up the info in your iTunes or Winamp library (just the text of the track names, not the actual song files). Then you can go to their Radio page, look up an artist and start listening to a streamed radio station of similar songs.

How It Do That?
Dunno, really. There is a strong music community called AudioScrobbler and an open source data set called that are involved, and I'm guessing that there is some kind of pretty whip-smart collabrative filtering [definition] going on where enough people in this community have decided that Built to Spill sounds kinda like The Decemberists who sound kinda like The Shins. Either that or enough people share these tracks in their digital libraries that some algorithm did the math and said that if 78% of the people that have Journey in their collection also have Boston, then they could assume that those two bands would go together pretty well. Maybe?


I asked for a station with songs like The American Analog Set and I got:

Built to Spill - Velvet Waltz
Radiohead - Bullet Proof...I Wish I Was
Arab Strap - The Clearing
Neutral Milk Hotel - Marching Theme
Badly Drawn Boy - Camping Next to Water
Low - Kind of Girl
Death Cab for Cutie - 405
Pedro the Lion - Rejoice
Spoon - Jonathon Fisk
The Apples in Stereo - Seems So
The American Analog Set
Broken Social Scene
Yo La Tengo
Iron & Wine
The Arcade Fire
The Decembrists
Death Cab for Cutie
Sufjan Stevens
The Shins
The Unicorns
a mellow Interpol track

Overall a pretty great list.

A list of similar songs for Journey brought back Fleetwood Mac, The Who, Def Leppard, Boston, Billy Joel, Eric Clapton, Styx -- appropriate artists. The nice thing is that none of these were "Radio Cuts": The Who song was from Quadrophenia and the Billy Joel song wasn't "Piano Man" for a change.

The Good
Good sound, good lists of songs, the "Radio" part is a pretty straightforward interface, and I bet you could really explore a lot of stuff on the site and in the community. They also do some pretty cool stuff with custom tagging, so you could go in and tag a song as "Alt-Country" or "Twee" or even "Driving Music" and then that song would be associated with that tag. You can also look up songs by tags, so if you hit "Nice Elevator Music" you'll get a list of what at least one person thinks is appropriate for the lift. And it's totally free.

The Bad
You've gotta download the AudioScrobbler software, then let it spin through your digital collection before you get any really meaningful results (although I'm not sure, maybe you can just sign up and use the radio thingy without doing that part). I saw several track name errors/typos in the meta-data. Jazz gets a little sketchier than rock can jump from Hard Bop to Fusion to Contemporary Jazz in a heartbeat, sometimes OK, sometimes jarring. Reggae is similarly broad: Starting with Bluebeat/Ska gets you Bob Marley and Bad Manners. Overall the site is bretty cluttered, and sometimes it's hard to figure out where you are or what you're supposed to be doing. And the radio wiindow totally errors out if I try to launch it in Firefox.

This has the best range and service out there. Good songs, good picks for the most part, good audio, and a little air of mystery since I can't figure out how exactly they do it. It don't cost nuthin' and there are no ads, so I have no idea how they are paying for themselves, but if I was to recommend one place to check out, Last.FM would be it.



A fever for the Flavor

What it Do?
It's basically a community/service that allows you to manually build playlists, then get recommendations for other songs you might like, and then buy those songs/albums individually through iTunes/Amazon.

How It Do That?
I'm not super sure. Their data is pulled together by a company called Siren Systems and they use a "SongScore algorithm to compare 700 data points in songs before compiling its personalized list for users" so it sounds like they're doing descriptor tagging on the song level. They also say that they "chose a more automated route in an effort to ensure that there was nothing subjective in the categorizing and analyzing of content" (again according to this article) so it may be a combination of Machine Listening (analyzing wave forms in music to make educated guesses on what it sounds like) and editorial tagging. Either way, they just closed $2.3 million in Series A financing with Amicus Capital, so there is some serious money going to be dumped into this thing.


Asking for similar songs for "Thirteen" by Big Star gets me:

"St 100/6" - Big Star
"You Can Close Your Eyes" - James Taylor
"Jennifer Juniper" - Donovan
"Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" - Leonard Cohen
"Go My Way" - Gordon Lightfoot
"If I Were A Carpenter" - Ramblin' Jack Elliot
"West Indian Lady" - Donovan
"Her Majesty" - The Beatles
"Belle Isle" - Bob Dylan
"Come And Let Me Look In Your Eyes" - John Denver
"Although The Sun Is Shining" - Fleetwood Mac
"My Sweet Lady" - John Denver
"Sunshine on My Shoulders" - John Denver
"Annie's Song" - John Denver
"For Baby (For Bobbie)" - John Denver
"My Sweet Lady" - John Denver
"Diary" - Bread

That's a whole lot of John Denver in my opinion, but still, "Sunshine on My Shoulders" does have a similar feel, so they're not wrong.

The Good
There are hundreds of recomendations for many songs, and the interface works pretty well. They allow you to refine your search by setting importance ratings on Year, Lyrics, Tempo, Popularity, and Genre, and you can do "Quick Filters" on your final results (for Style, or New Releases, or "Emerging Artists") to drill down to exactly what you are looking for.

The Bad
It doesn't work as a streaming radio device (not that it advertises as such, but that would be pretty cool), and if you want to buy your whole playlist, you need to go through and purchase each song would be cool if you could hit one button and purchase all of the songs in one fell swoop. Also, not to get petty, but that salmon-colored background is pretty awful. There is also a community of SoundFlavor users, but I don't think I would want to hang out with any of them. There are sample playlists that you can scope out, but most of them are like "My First List" or "Test List" and my personal fave "Frank's Tryout Playlist" are all not very helpful.

A good place to do research, but you can't really get exposed to new music unless you click through the sound samples. Still, maybe if you get involved in the community other people could make good suggestions.


AMG Tapestry


Which brings us to Tapestry. The All Music Guide has been known for being the reference guide for music online, and one of the interesting things that we've always done is to add what we call "Descriptors" to our Albums. For example Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited is tagged as having the styles of Political Folk, Singer/ Songwriter, Folk-Rock, and Blues-Rock among others. The album has the Tones Bittersweet, Rebellious, Witty, Swaggering, Brash, and Irreverent, and the album is appropriate for the Themes of Reflection and the activities Guys Night Out, Hanging Out, Late Night, and Road Trip. This works well if you're trying to get a feel for what an album is all about, but trying to come up with lists of song recommendations based on these album-level descrtiptors may be misleading. If you were in the mood to listen to something Bittersweet (which is an element of "Highway 61 Revisited" like on the song "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry") but didn't want anything too Raucous (like "From a Buick 6") the album-level tags just don't cut it. They may be appropriate for the album as an overall work, but not specific enough to be able to say that all of the tracks have all of those characteristics.

So years ago, AMG started putting these descriptive tags on the song level too, and not just Styles, Tones and Themes, but also Instruments, Song Structures, Production Elements, and any number of over 6000 different unique elements that can be applied to any song.

Soon we will be able to make the results of this hard work available to the world.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, we'll be showing off a demonstration of our new technology, and then hopefully you'll start seing Tapestry's technology showing up in consumer electronics devices (MP3 players, home media centers), as an online recommendation engine (you go to a site that has digital downloads available, type in your favorite song and be offered recommendations based on our whip-smart algorithm and in-depth descriptive data), in cars (imagine a hard drive in your trunk that could pull up an 80-song playlist of your own "Road Trip" MP3s with the push of a button), streaming radio (request a list of songs that are "Hard Bop" and "Late Night" and "Wistful" and listen to that station like your own personal Alan Almond on Pillow Talk), collection builder (have a service sweep through your collection, see which styles you seem to like (or even what musical "feel" you like) and have it suggest other albums that you might need to complete your "British Invasion Essentials", that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Tapestry is intended to be a Business-To-Business service, so I don't see it being used in the All Music site, but it could be a powerful back-end for any service that wants to do some really dynamic intelligent playlisting.

This is a project that I've personally been involved with for a long time, and I'm really excited by the quality of the results we are seeing. It's been hard for me not to shout this from the rooftops, and hopefully by mid-January there will be some good buzz about it.

In all honesty, I think it works better than any other playlisting functions out there, and I'm really looking forward to being able to buy an MP3 player that does all of the nitty gritty playlisting stuff for me with the level of quality that I demand. I'm going to the beach? Bring up my "At the Beach" songs. I'm sitting on the porch with a beer? Bring up my "Folk"+"Hanging Out"+"Drinking" songs. My father-in-law is coming over for breakfast? Gimme two hours of "Big Band"+"Early Morning" tunes.

I can't wait.

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