The Value of Pure Research
Hardware technology, the Internet, and new software applications are determining the future of music. The acquisition and distribution of recorded sound, and the increased interaction between artists and their fans, have changed the fortunes of the business. It is less well known that a new generation of entrepreneurial talent, often stealthy in its approach, is colonizing a new music space, a place where the set of skills necessary to succeed seem far removed from a musician’s traditional bag of tricks. These entrepreneurs work behind a computer screen, collect and store all kinds of music stats for app developers, and propose algorithms that map the music mind of a neighborhood or, really, any bird of the same musical feather.
Gathering intelligence about music is indeed becoming a big business, and the market is putting a premium on early starters. This MBJ correspondent interned over the summer with Echo Nest, a standout new business that in July received a new round of $17.5 million in venture financing. The market is talking and likes what it sees.
The heart of the Echo Nest is a “musical brain”, a platform containing an array of valuable data points organized in a database. For instance, they include objective information about a song, including metronomic tempo, time signature, and key center.1 This seems trivial, until it is realized that aggregating songs under these parameters might not be neutral as new services emerge that use music in unforeseen ways. Moreover, attributes like these are important for powering many of the platform’s features, such as advanced playlists.2 Other layers of information for app developers include the subjective appreciation of a song, for example when ratings are given for ‘energy’ or dancing potential.3 Here again, the Echo Nest is moving into new territory.
If the premise is that music listening is, above all, a social experience, there must also be a wealth of cultural markers embedded in the music. Music is consumed a lot over the Web, and that is where users demonstrate many of their preferences. The Echo Nest claims that its computers can crawl and search qualitative data in blogs or other sites and can detect fan tweets on their favorite band in the hour.4 More interactive radio programing and listening could follow as playlists become more current.5
Moreover, it should be apparent that correlating dates, and other data, with the charts, is useful. For instance, a recent app asks users to enter their birthday and tells them what music their parents would have been listening to nine months before, at conception. New technology also breeds new thinking!
There is no question that developers are being empowered to create new apps with Echo Nest’s platform. Commercial use requires proper licensing, but free non-commercial early access gives developers a chance to get to know the product well before acquiring a license. For instance, the company sponsors ‘music hack days’ for hundreds of developers to come together and create apps using the Echo Nest’s proprietary API programing interface.
History and Potential
The origins of the Echo nest are curious. It is a case of pure research begetting a music business application. The company was the brainchild of co-founders Brian Whitman and Tristan Jehan, two PhD students who worked in the media lab at MIT. They started the business with three grants from the Small Business Innovations Research agency (itself supported, in this particular case, by the National Science Foundation). Public money was in fact there well before venture capital moved in.
Echo Nest has likely surpassed the hopes of its original grant makers. It has since opened up a huge repository of dynamic music data for every stakeholder in online music – from independent developers to the largest media companies in the world.6 A measure of its success is that its clients now include the BBC, Spotify, Clear Channel’s iHeartRadio, MOG, eMusic, VEVO, and Nokia.7
Music, one of the most recognized commodities of the digital domain and one of the first to be traded openly, is perceived differently today than it was ten years ago. It has experienced a metamorphosis in value. Its power of engagement, however, has always been steady. Businesses would do well to take notice and exploit its compelling allure. Echo Nest is trying and mapping out uncharted terrain.
By Ben Scudder