B Story

British music service Pure Connect set for U.S. expansion

Friday, October 25, 2013 - 11:45am

Pure is a British consumer electronics company and ecosystem developer whose products include Internet-enabled radios, WiFi speakers, and a freemium listening platform called Pure Connect. The company’s business model ties together the Connect service with its in-home listening gadgets, much as Apple, Google, and Microsoft link music services with branded hardware devices.

Pure devices and the music service are sailing across the pond together -- the Jongo series of WiFi speakers is already available to U.S. consumers via Amazon and other outlets.

According to a rundown at Stuff.tv, Pure Connect holds a library of 15-million tracks and offers three levels of service, adding value on each tier with jukebox listening and downloading for offline listening.

The Jongo WiFi devices, naturally, are optimized to work with Pure Connect. This trick is similar to Spotify Connect, which is enabled via partnerships with speaker manufacturers. Spotify does not make its own speaker systems, whereas Pure’s many product components are all produced in-house.

INTERVIEW: Part 2, Jim Lucchese, CEO, The Echo Nest

Thursday, October 24, 2013 - 12:10pm

This is Part 2. Read Part 1 here.

You might have The Echo Nest to thank for the thing you love most about your favorite music service.

The Echo Nest is a data company that develops music intelligence technology, used by many of the most popular listening services covered by RAIN every day. Through the company’s application programming interfaces (APIs), music services can develop apps and features for their users, such as song recommendations and artist-based stations. The Echo Nest has furnished music intelligence for Spotify, Rdio, MOG, iHeartRadio, Xbox Music, and many others

This is Part 2 of RAIN’s conversation with Jim Lucchese, CEO.

Read Part 1 here.

RAIN: How does The Echo Nest develop its music intelligence?

JL: Our approach to understanding music is [twofold]. On the content side, we have software that analyzes a full-length song in about three seconds, and call tell you the time signature, whether it’s live or studio, whether it’s vocal or instrumental, the structure of the song, the mood -- all kinds of acoustic attributes.

We combine that with cultural analysis, where we are crawling the web, and listening to what the online world says about music every day. We’re parsing the text on about 10M documents every day. Every blog post, news item, social media post, review -- everything written about music on the web, we’re crawling it. We have the technology to understand it. We take all that understanding, and we open it up in the developer API top power a range of applications.

RAIN: You mentioned the three-second analysis. It’s natural to compare that kind of computer-based process with Pandora’s human-powered Music Genome Project. Can you give me some kind of qualitative comparison of what you get in three seconds, and the results Pandora gets in its more labor-intensive process?

JL: I don’t know enough about the Genome to do a one-for-one comparison. Pandora also has an exceptional amount of user-interaction data as well. I’m a fan of what they built. We have different technology approaches. But they’re doing a really good job.

We often hear a man-vs.-machine theme in music discovery, and I generally think it’s a myth. There’s nobody at The Echo Nest who doesn’t think that music is ultimately about people connecting with it, and how personal that is. What we’re trying to do, is harness and understand how tens of millions of people are experiencing music all the time.

What we do obviously scales. We cover a lot more ground a lot more quickly [than Pandora]. But we’re actually bringing in the voices of a lot more people, which eliminates a lot of human bias. Danceability is a good example. To get a subjective measurement like that, we get experts to rate songs for whatever characteristic we’re trying to determine. Then, because we’ve got the underlying audio analysis, we’re able to machine-learn what that sound is like, and assign it to other songs. We’ve got real people, music experts, determining whether we’re getting that right. So there is a lot of human editorial subjectivity inherent in what we do, but we do it in a way that scales. We’re crowd-sourcing the entire base of music fans to understand how they’re describing every artist song and album. We’re able to synthesize all that.

Another critical element that we’ve spent a lot of time in the last two years thinking about, is music is a cultural output. It’s the backbone to a culture. It’s different all over the world. When we started digging into the music of India, it opens up a whole new world. the harmonic structure is different. What key is the song in? It’s a whole different bag. what time is it in? Well, it’s in seventeen. Most Western music is in four, three, or six, and you’re pretty much done. The point is, when you start thinking about this globally, there are so many biases that you don’t understand until you dig into the music. Having an underlying technology platform that starts with a deep cultural understanding of that music and its fans, is critical to understanding.

There’s no question you need people to understand music. But you need people and technology if you’re going to scale and completely understand all the music out there in a really nuanced way.

RAIN: Do you have a music background?

JL: I’m a drummer, not a musician. Probably 75 percent of the people here are musicians or serious DJs, or have some background in playing. That’s one of the cool things about the company. People can combine their obsession for music with their ability to write code. And it’s critical. The problems that we’re solving are big, thorny problems, but if you’re a huge music fan, they are some of the most fun problems out there.

RAIN: In the office, is everyone buried in their headphones, or is there music in the air?

JL: I have to moderate my response, because I could talk about this for an hour! We have a communal music queue in the office, where anyone can put on a song. We have speakers throughout the office. One of our guys wrote an app tying together the two offices, so in San Francisco and Boston, we’re listening to the same thing. You can put a song on the common queue right now. Anyone can delete that song. We have a chat area where you can comment and complain about selections. It has really taken off. It’s every man for himself. This morning … [pause as Lucchese brings up the Echo Nest office music app] … right now Dire Threat is on; before that it was Miles Davis’ “Someday My Prince Will Come”; coming up is a whole bunch of straight-edge punk. It’s chaos every day.

RAIN: Does anybody get any work done?

JL: It’s part of the work.

RAIN: Sounds like fun. Wouldn’t that make a good public-facing service?

JL: [laughs] We get that a lot with the stuff we build in the office.

RAIN: It’s easy to imagine your office’s social music queue as a Spotify app.

JL: We’re hacking on this stuff a lot, and sometimes share with our customers, and hopefully, sometimes, it influences their product direction.

INTERVIEW: Jim Lucchese, CEO, The Echo Nest

Wednesday, October 23, 2013 - 11:35am

You might have The Echo Nest to thank for the thing you love most about your favorite music service.

The Echo Nest is a data company that develops music intelligence technology, used by many of the most popular listening services covered by RAIN every day. Through the company’s application programming interfaces (APIs), music services can develop apps and features for their users, such as song recommendations and artist-based stations. The Echo Nest has furnished music intelligence for Spotify, Rdio, MOG, iHeartRadio, Xbox Music, and many others.

RAIN spoke with Jim Lucchese, CEO, about The Echo Nest’s influence over the streaming music experience. This is Part 1 of a two-part interview.

RAIN: It seems The Echo Nest is the hidden lynchpin that informs many people’s experiences with interactive music and music services. Is it fair to say the The Echo Nest is the main determinant of what most people hear in popular music services?

JL: It’s certainly what we’re aspiring to. There’s still a lot of work to be done, first from the standpoint of customer adoption -- we’re not powering every [service], but we’re powering many of the players.

The area where I feel there is still a lot of work to do, is to work with our customers to help make streaming music truly a mainstream experience. In the last 12 months there’s been massive progress in bringing streaming consumption to the mainstream, but we’re still in relatively early days. I see our role as making the cold-start experience for a first-time listener exceptional, and making the personalized experience so intuitive, that when someone tries it they never leave. I think we’ve been very influential, and I think we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.

RAIN: Besides providing technology, how do you do advocate for streaming music?

JL: We drive adoption by enabling the best listener experience. We are obsessive about that.

Another aspect of evangelism -- we’re betting on app developers. They are the architects of how we consume music today. This is one of the most exciting parts about the space.

Think about terrestrial radio: it requires a massive investment, and new market entrants are few and far between. In digital, making changes to the listening experience on a mobile application can come from anywhere. A couple of developers from nowhere can avail themselves of compulsory licenses under the DMCA, build an app, and get it out there. I’m not saying it’s easy to go from there to a whole business.

But we built what I think is the largest music hacker community out there, about 30,000 music hackers building on our API. We’re trying to build a community that our commercial customers are part of, and can tap into. That’s where a lot of the next generation of integration is going to come from. Some of it may come from guys who work here full time. But it’s also going to come from [external] people using our API, building stuff we never thought of.

On the evangelism side we are directly consumer-focused. But bringing together that community and facilitating connections to the larger established media companies is an important goal of ours.

RAIN: That leads to an inevitable question: Will The Echo Nest ever consider launching its own music service?

JL: We sure have considered it, many times. It’s really not in the plans. Our reasoning is largely driven by staying focused on our strengths. We’re a company in Boston run by a lawyer and founded by two PhD’s. We’re not a consumer-facing media company. We’re music data dorks.

When we looked at the data opportunity, we thought the business opportunity was being the dominant player in the intelligence layer between people and their music. It’s a massive opportunity. We looked at our strengths. We’re in a great position to define that market and dominate it.

When you look at what it takes to build a consumer-facing service, there are a lot of core competencies that are outside of our scope. We really felt that there was a huge biz opportunity in being that intelligence layer, enabling lot of innovation and diverse applications.

An additional piece -- we’ve got a nice business here. It would cause us to lose focus, and probably be confusing to the market if we were to take different paths.

RAIN: Speaking of data dorkness and domination, there is the audacious banner on your website. It advertises that you have over 1B data points stretching across 35M songs, recorded by 2.5M artists, on 431 applications. Do you have any meaningful competition?

JL: Sure. When I think about competition, I really think about two things. As digital music and streaming become more mainstream, you see some of the largest technology companies in the world starting to invest more [in that direction]. In those cases, our competition is making a case that working with us is considerably better than in-house development for companies with limitless engineering resources. They don’t ”get” music. There are about 12 people who graduate with advanced degrees in music information retrieval every year.

RAIN: Wait -- there’s a degree for music information retrieval?

JL: Oh yeah, and we’ve got five of them with PHD’s who work here. There is a scarcity of "depth-of-domain" expertise. I think a lot of companies look at this as a data problem, not as a “domain understanding” problem -- understanding content and culture of music. That education process for companies that are strong in data engineering, is one area that I see as competition.

The other area that I worry about is the next Echo Nest. The next group of really smart, completely music success guys, who have the next disruptive idea. Sooner of later they’re going to be coming, as the space continues to grow. Venture capital, on the data side, is easier than it was when we started. At this point, there’s nobody that I put in that ballpark, but that’s what I think about in terms of future competition.

RAIN: When you say “big players,” you probably mean Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Do you work with any of the big ecosystem companies?

Funny you should mention that. Our first peek of a product collaboration with Xbox launched this morning [last week]. The feature is called Web Playlist. It allows you to create playlists when you are on any site that features an artist or band. [See RAIN coverage here.]

RAIN: That seems different.

JL: [Xbox Music engineers] leveraged our artist extract capability. We’re parsing the text on about 10M documents every day. We can look at a block of text and identify the band names -- we analyze much more than band names, but they pulled the band information and matched it to their playlist technology, which automatically builds a playlist based on bands mentioned on a web page. This is something we envisioned, but these guys took it much further.

It’s a pretty cool implementation. We've talked about hackers, people who are pushing the envelope -- well, there’s a crew at Xbox Music that comes from that world. It’s a good example of that working in a commercial context.

Look for Part 2 of RAIN’s interview with Jim Lucchese tomorrow. In it, we ask The Echo Nest CEO to compare his computer-modeled music analysis with Pandora’s Music Genome Project … and also what’s playing every day in The Echo Nest office.

Rhapsody gives a free month to CD buyers

Tuesday, October 22, 2013 - 9:15am

It makes sense. Put the new model where the old model lives. Try to bring in a new audience that might not have sampled competing services yet.

That’s what Rhapsody’s just-announced partnership with Best Buy is attempting. Anyone buying a (qualified) CD from Best Buy’s racks will be gifted with a month of Rhapsody’s subscription-only online listening/collecting platform. It’s a nice surprise for the buyer, and a bit of incentive that Best Buy can promote on its CD shelves. Rhapsody’s play is to drive a wedge into the CD consumers’ buying habits, introduce them to an access model that might be entirely new to them, and convert ‘em. In that context, Rhapsody and Best Buy are at cross-purposes.

Rhapsody competes most directly with the laboriously-named Google Play Music All Access, which likewise provides subscription-only service, with a cloud-storage component Rhapsody lacks. Among indies, Rhapsody is most often compared to Spotify and Rdio, both of which, in addition to offering premium subscriptions to avoid ads and enable downloads, provide a layer of free listening.

In recent months Rhapsody has suffered a management shake-up and sweeping staff layoff. Last week Rhapsody announced an international telecom partnership with Telefonica, for international distribution of its service in Europe and Latin America. (RAIN coverage here.)

SiriusXM apparently drops stations; infuriates users

Monday, October 21, 2013 - 11:00am

SiriusXM appears to have modified its channel lineup on Sunday morning, to the acute displeasure of subscribers posting to the satellite company’s Facebook page. One ex-subscriber on the Facebook page who claimed to have canceled his membership remarked, “I’d rather use a crystal set in a thunderstorm” than continue receiving the service.

Affected channels noted in the comments include talk radio programs, Fox sports programming, and some terrestrial stations. RAIN has reached out to SiriusXM for information and comment; there was no response at the time of this post.

In August, RAIN and many other outlets reported that Clear Channel stations might disappear from SiriusXM, corresponding to Clear Channel’s divestment of SiriusXM stock. Indeed, several of the Clear Channel stations mentioned in that reporting (WHTZ/New York, WLTW/Chicago, WSIX/Nashville) do not appear today on the web listing of SiriusXM channels. Each of those stations is available on Clear Channel-owned iHeartRadio.

Likewise, station numbers corresponding to missing talk stations mourned by Facebook commenters do not appear on the channel list.

RAIN will follow up as additional information becomes available. Follow us on @RAINtwitter.

The dot-RADIO domain controversy explained

Friday, October 18, 2013 - 10:25am

Domain extensions (the end-part of website addresses like .com and .org) can be valuable signifiers of a brand’s industry and positioning. Any website with a dot-org address represents a verified non-profit. A dot-edu address signifies an educational institution.

The addressing of the Internet is a complicated business, handled by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN determines which “top level” domains (like .com, .org, and .edu) are legitimate, and assigns rights to register those domains to website owners, through an elaborate application process. The competition to administer domains that have qualification rules can be intense.

This scenario sets the stage for a controversy that affects the Internet addressing of radio-related websites. ICANN has approved a new .radio top level domain, but has not yet assigned an administrator. Dot-radio obviously relates to radio businesses, just as the .FM and .AM domains do. Dot-FM and dot-AM domain spaces are administered by BRS Media, a California company run by George Bundy.

Bundy has identified potential problems with ICANN’s management of applicants for the role of administering the dot-radio domain space. Bundy caused media ripples this week with a call to protest two developments regarding the new domain. 

First, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) was accepted into ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC). This happened last summer, after the .radio domain was approved by ICANN. The GAC advises ICANN on various national regulations that intersect with the business of assigning Internet addresses. It is a helpful body for ICANN, which sets rules that apply to the virtual space of the entire planet. The EBU’s presence on ICANN’s influential advisory board sets up potential conflict of interest in the scramble to acquire administrative rights in the .radio domain space.

Second, the EBU (not unpredictably) applied for those administrative rights, according to Bundy, through a Geneva-based company called CORE, which is positioned in this drama as a service provider which would handle the day-to-day administration of dot-radio on the EBU’s behalf. RAIN spoke to George Bundy to clarify why CORE’s involvement was problematic, aside from the EBU conflict-of-interest issue.

“CORE would run the registry on behalf of the EBU. CORE has domain experience, but has no connection to, or understanding of, the radio industry. As such, what they may determine to be radio content may or may not qualify.”

Bundy is troubled by what he sees as CORE’s inevitable learning curve, and how that might create instability in the dot-radio domain space.

“CORE’s [compliance expertise] will be learned over time. This year, if you have a RADIO domain name, and you happen to be policed by CORE, you might pass inspection. Then next year, they learn over time that your content is not radio-related, and you might not be entitled to own that domain anymore.”

Bundy’s central concern relates to one aspect of EBU/CORE’s application, which hinges on classifying the .radio domain space as a “restricted community.” RAIN asked Bundy to explain what that means, why it should concern stakeholders in the radio industry.

“It’s part of ICANN rolling out all these new extensions. There is a ruling in their application process which gives [defined] communities a leg up. An example is the .catholic domain space. The Catholic church applied for dot-catholic, as a community. They were granted that aspect [by ICANN]. They are a community, and if somebody else applied for dot-Catholic, the Catholic church would get the priority for that extension [because the church represents a defined community]. The EBU [leveraged] this rule, and submitted an application that claims RADIO is a community, which has a membership. As such, they claim they should be granted the priority to run it.”

The issue goes beyond unfair application tactics, according to Bundy, whose company aspires to manage the dot-radio domain space. In his viewpoint, it is fundamentally wrong to classify an open community of radio industry stakeholders as a restricted community analogous to the Catholic church.

“The restricted ‘Community-Bias’ request [submitted by the EBU/CORE application] is flawed and discriminates against major segments of the open radio industry. Any licensed radio broadcasters, companies serving the radio industry, Web radios, licensed amateur radio and clubs, and radio professionals should be extremely concerned.”

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