If you’ve never heard of the Echo Nest, you’re not alone. Very few people have, and yet, the company is poised to utterly transform the music industry. A bold statement? Perhaps, but not an undeserving one. In order to understand what the Echo Nest is, and what it means for the future of music, we first have to sketch out in broad terms how the industry has already been transformed once, barely a decade ago, and how the old guard that led that first transformation, is about to become yesterday’s news.
The Age Of iTunes
Apple single handedly transformed the music industry back in 2003, with the launch of the iTunes store. For the first time ever, individual users could log on and buy copies of individual songs, download them to their iPods, and take them with them wherever they went. It was revolutionary. It was groundbreaking, and the music industry Fat Cats thought they’d found a way to defeat the illegal downloading of songs that had become a burgeoning threat with the rise of P2P (peer-to-peer) networks like Napster.
In the process of signing terms with Apple though, the record execs gave more ground than they were ultimately comfortable with, and began chaffing under Apple’s price restrictions (a ninety-nine cent per song cap). Ultimately, these were eased, and the record execs got some flexibility on price, but it was the creation of the iTunes store that further catapulted Apple into one of the world’s leading tech companies, even as they transformed the long stultified music industry.
Streaming – A New Trend
A little music company called Pandora figured out a different, and ultimately better way. They began offering a subscription-based service that has really caught on, and has spun literally dozens of competing services. In fact, Pandora, long the King of the subscription service, has recently be dethroned by rival upstart, Spotify, which now claims top billing in that space.
The thing that’s important about Pandora though, is their “Music Genome Project.” This project is an impressive undertaking, breathtaking in its scope that sees literally hundreds of people analyze and classify music based on dozens of different dimensions. Here, we’re talking about everything from speed and tempo, the gender of the lead vocalist, the vocal quality of that vocalist, primary instrumentation, and more. Using this highly involved classification system made it possible for Pandora to make recommendations to their listeners about what other music they might enjoy. The algorithm that drives the selection process is “smart,” as well, learning each specific user’s tastes and preferences, thanks to a simple “thumbs up/thumbs down” interface that allows the user to rate the suggested music.
It’s an impressive achievement, and if you’ve ever listened to Pandora, you know that their algorithm is fairly accurate. Even if it miscalculates a few times until it “gets to know you,” by about the fifth or sixth song, it’s recommending music that you consistently enjoy. Sounds great, but then, why isn’t Pandora listed as the transformational company, and not this Echo Nest? A fair question, and the answer ultimately comes down to Big Data.
The Echo Nest
You’ve probably heard that buzzword here and there on the web and not given it much thought. Big Data came into being as a consequence of the IoT (the Internet of Things). When we gained the ability to put objects on the internet and have them start sending the data they were collecting to Very Large Databases on cloud-based servers, suddenly, we found ourselves swimming in data. More data, about more things than had ever been amassed in history.
In fact, the sheer size of these Very Large Datasets actually broke all the data processing tools that had existed to that point, and a whole new suite of tools had to be invented, just to cope with the sheer amount of data that was coming in. What is a digital version of a song, other than unclassified, uncategorized data?
That’s the way some very smart people at MIT looked at the problem. They liked and admired the Music Genome Project’s goals and ambitions, but figured there had to be a better way. What the folks at Pandora Media were essentially doing was the same thing that Yahoo was doing when it first entered the search engine game. Each individual website was analyzed and classified by hand.
It gave Yahoo bragging rights. They could claim a more human touch, but ultimately, that was a fool’s errand, given the sheer size of the internet, and the pace at which new sites and pages of content are added. No collection of human beings anywhere could keep up with the volume, and human biases are bound to creep in to any human-based assessment.
For these reasons, the folks at MIT decided to sit down and see if they could come up with a computer program that would do most of the heavy lifting. It would analyze the raw data captured in the digitized version of the song, and begin analyzing. Essentially, this new and improved algorithm does the same thing that the folks at Pandora are doing, it’s just that the MIT algorithm does it better, faster, and across even more dimensions than Pandora’s algorithm.
The MIT algorithm has some spooky successes under its belt, too. It can, for example, analyze a song, and tell you with 95% certainty, where that song will end up on the Billboard charts, simply based on a detailed comparative analysis against all the other songs in the database, and their relative positions on the charts. It’s an amazing piece of technology, and MIT knew they had something when they started seeing that kind of success, which is how the Echo Nest was formed. As an MIT spinoff project.
The possibilities for this new algorithm are without limit, but chiefly, imagine it tied to a subscription-based model. Using the oceans of Big Data that are now being collected about not just the music you’re listening to, but each individual user’s tastes and preferences, it is possible to design a subscription-based streaming service that delivers all your favorites, makes near flawless recommendations about new music, and only displays advertising you’re already interested in.
Move over, Apple, the Echo Nest is the next big thing in music.