Spotify’s Secret Weapon

Spotify announced in March the acquisition of The Echo Nest, the industry’s leading music intelligence company. The deal signals the rising importance of big data in the music industry. Founded by MIT Media Lab doctoral students Tristan Jehan and Brian Whitman, The Echo Nest provided intelligence to some of the world’s leading music services including Clear Channel’s iHeart radio, Rdio, SiriusXM, and social media networks such as Foursquare, MTV, Twitter, and Yahoo.  This might change as the company moves away from being an open source platform, useful to outside developers as well, and services Spotify exclusively. Spotify, whose market cap is estimated at around $5billion, acquired the music discovery company for reportedly $100M, with 90% paid up in equity.

Tristan Jehan earned his doctorate in Media Arts and Sciences from MIT in 2005. His academic work combined machine listening and machine learning technologies in teaching computers how to hear and make music. He first earned a Masters in Science in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Rennes in France, later working on music signal parameter extraction at the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies at U.C. Berkeley. He has worked with leading research and development labs in the U.S. and France as a software and hardware engineer in areas of machine listening, video identification and audio analysis.

Brian Whitman is recognized as a leading scientist in the area of music and text retrieval and natural language processing. He also received his doctorate from MIT’s Media Lab in 2005 in Barry Vercoe’s Machine Listening group and has a master’s degree in computer science from Columbia University’s Natural Language Processing Group. Brian’s research focuses on the cultural analysis of music through large-scale data mining and machine learning.

Scaling and care in managing music related data is, according to Whitman, the basis of The Echo Nest’s work.  A greater quantity of music processed, of course, gives more punctual choices for better recommendations. Talent and content is identified regardless of popularity rankings, for that would not help discovering artists. Over two million of them and over thirty million songs get tracked.  Apparently no other streaming service or manually edited database in the world has a similar reach. If recommendations are to be creative, moreover, projections have to be made about what the user is intending with his/her search, and this may depend on context. A search for Black Sabbath, for instance, may or may not require pulling Ozzy Osborne’s solo projects.

To return recommendations, and for other reasons, The Echo Nest scans over ten million music related pages on the Internet daily. “Every word anyone utters about music goes through our system”, says Whitman. “We look for descriptive terms, noun phrases, and other text, and such terms as we find bucket up into what we call cultural vectors; each artist and song has thousands of daily top terms that are changing, so we are able to understand them quickly as they are produced.”

In fact, The Echo Nest claims to run over one trillion data points for the songs and artists they track. For purposes of analysis and recommendation, songs are not taken whole but rather are broken down into specific attributes, qualities, and even segments. Acoustic analysis has a major role in the company’s algorithms when it decides what to play next. Listeners expect smooth transitions between songs in playlists, so this involves, in part, the analysis of tempo, key, and overall genre.

By dissecting these particulars, The Echo Nest can both create coherent playlists and applications with which listeners can manipulate music. The latter is especially important,  for new consumer devices will inevitably hit the marketplace soon. The renegotiation over new users’ rights is not, naturally, a concern of the company right now, but if music were used with a new number of attributes in mind, such as The Echo Nest is working on, copyright law would have to evolve in tandem.

Paul Lamere, one of their top software developers, has built several of The Echo Nest’s popular web applications; see ‘Girl Talk in a Box’ allows interaction with a user’s favorite song by speeding, skipping beats, playing it backwards, swinging it, and more. ‘The Infinite Jukebox’, on the other hand, will generate a never-ending and ever changing version of an MP3 song, which it breaks into beats: at every beat there’s a chance that it will jump to a different part of song that happens to sound very similar to the current beat.

These two applications are for the fun user market, and, perhaps, DJ’s. There is much more behind the scene at a pro level, such as its use of Spotify’s entire range of streaming data to identify, for example, where user listener wanes during a song—is it the extended drum or guitar solo, the weak chorus, or what? There has never been such a measurable tracking of listening habits and musical tastes, and in a digital world of 0s and 1s data reduction is more necessary than ever.

Jim Lucchese, CEO of The Echo Nest’s CEO, is right when he says that Spotify has added value to its platform. This is especially true, and Spotify has since been better prepared for an early liquidation event, possibly a merger with one of the tech giants or an IPO. Press reports say that Google’s Larry Page balked at the $10 billion dollar tag that Spotify’s owner Daniel Ek seemed to be demanding this July–a figure that if true, would more than duplicate the value of the company a year before. Not all of this is due to The Echo Nest. Still, the market continues to attach an inordinate value to consumer information that is cross-pollinated with music intelligence. Let musicians become the wiser for it.

By Christopher D’Amico


1. Dickson, Daniel and Shanley, Mia. “Spotify Re-posts Job Ad for Position That Sparked IPO Talk”, August 8, 2014,

2. The Echo Nest Blog. “Spotify Acquires The Echo Nest”, March 6, 2014,

3. The Echo Nest Blog. “The Echo Nest Joins Spotify!”, March 6, 2014,

4. Lunden, Ingrid. “Spotify Acquired Music Tech Company The Echo Nest In A $100M Deal”, March 7, 2014,   

5. Whitman, Brian. “How Music Recommendation Works- and Doesn’t Work”



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