The Echo Nest

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.

Microsoft’s new Web Playlist dismantles traditional “station” listening

Tuesday, October 22, 2013 - 9:15am

Windows 8.1 was released last week, and with it an updated Xbox Music service. Some of the upgrades to Xbox Music are merely usability features that make interactions easier. But one entirely new feature expands the competency of Xbox Music and creates a brand new listening mode.

Called Web Playlist, the function can connect the Xbox Music app to any web page, and play music referenced on that page. To realize the breakthrough nature of this feature, it’s important to realize that actual music does not need to be on the page. Web Playlist is not grabbing existing files and streaming them. Instead, it is analyzing the page, identifying references to artists and bands, and building a playlist based on those references. Any web page -- a message board, the comment section of a blog post, a music festival promotion -- turns into a relevant streaming music platform.

In effect, Microsoft is positioning Xbox Music to compete against Google Play and iTunes Radio by recruiting the entire web as a dispersed global music service.

Aside from a clever idea and breakthrough underlying technology (provided by The Echo Nest), Web Playlist potentially disrupts consumer behavior. In a year when the online radio/jukebox space has started to seem glutted with overlapping and duplicative services (Slacker copying Songza, Rhapsody mimicking Spotify and Rdio), Microsoft’s new feature separates the user from stand-alone platforms entirely -- except for Microsoft’s, of course -- and unleashes the listener upon the web at large, its musical potential suddenly unlocked.

Time will tell how compelling Web Playlist is, and whether Xbox Music has enough momentum to lift off. It works only in the Windows 8.1 environment, so its market is sharply constrained by platform. Of course, so is iTunes Radio. Perhaps the question is: when will we see this feature replicated by other services? Microsoft built the app, but the underlying intelligence belongs to The Echo Nest, a provider whose technology layer runs through many music services. 

Stay tuned. RAIN spoke with Jim Lucchese, CEO of The Echo Nest, about Web Playlist, how The Echo Nest’s music analysis compares to Pandora, and what The Echo Nest employees listen to in the office. The interview will appear Wednesday.

Anticipation builds for Beats Music

Thursday, October 10, 2013 - 11:00am

Every few days rumors are published about the impending launch of Beats Music. We know it will be soon. We've heard that there will be a subscription component -- possibly all-subscription, like Rhapsody and Google All Access.

We don’t know whether Beats Music will be any good. Well, it’ll be good. We don’t know whether it will be a standout in the crowded field Beats is entering. The service will launch within months, and The Next Web reports that The Echo Nest is involved in creating the recommendation engine. Echo Nest is the tech company that white-labels Internet radio curation for Rhapsody, Spotify, and other leading brands.

Luke Wood, Beats Music president, has promised an acutely personalized and expertly curated listening environment. All the lean-forward platforms promise that, and honestly, delivery on that promise is pretty good. Pandora has some extra mojo for many listeners, but iTunes Radio, Spotify, Rdio -- they all produce a customized Internet radio experience across a huge catalog that was unthinkable not too many years ago

So the question isn’t when Beats will come to market, or whether it will be personalized. The question is whether the product development truly contains innovations that will set Beats apart from the pack. Because inducing users to stick around after the trial period is getting increasingly difficult.

QUICK HITS: Pink Floyd, Rhapsody, Lefsetz, Rdio

Friday, September 27, 2013 - 12:45pm

Pink Floyd drummer uncharacteristically praises music streaming. The iconic rock band has been a staunch and excoriating opponent of Pandora in the past, criticising the leading Internet radio platform for seeking lower royalty payouts. Speaking independently of the band, drummer Nick Mason granted an interview with the Wall Street Journal (“Streaming Is the Future”). Pandora wasn’t mentioned, but Spotify was, a lot. “Spotify for us was a success.” Mason seems to be basking in an epiphany: “Now it’s becoming clear that streaming is not another form of piracy.”


Rhapsody will add BandPage profiles. Music subscription service Rhapsody, which recently transitioned its leadership and suffered a deep-cut staff layoff, is adding a dimension to its programming through a partnership with BandPage. BandPage offer fan engagements and monetization opportunities to artists, who can craft experiences ranging from meet-and-greets to song critiques. Rhapsody will bundle BandPage experiences into its platform, synchronized with listener searches for participating bands. The partnership could be a pioneering way of inserting high-touch artist experiences into low-pay music streaming, increasing revenue for the band and engagement for the user.

Lefsetz on change. Bob Lefstez’s editorial rampages (see The Lefsetz Letter) are always entertaining, if not always on the money. The recent rant about iOS 7 was a lot of whine for the dime. Today’s disquisition (distractingly titled “Porn”) examines shifting consumer demands and the devaluation of legacy music assets and business models. “Change is constant. The key is to see the opportunities as opposed to mourning the loss.”

Rdio adds a feature. Lean-forward listening platform Rdio is encouraging lean-back use with its new Recommendations segment, fueled by Rdio’s ongoing relationship with The Echo Nest. The new feature surfaces albums, stations, and playlists based on usage history. It’s available on desktop now. Mobile-first evangelists would say that nothing is launched which isn’t a phone app, and presumably Rdio will roll out Recommendations to iOS and Android. (See Rdio’s blog announcement.), The Echo Nest to pit 80 million personalized Net radio channels against Pandora's service

Thursday, September 5, 2013 - 9:00am

The Next Web (via Hypebot) reports is transitioning each of the 80 million user-created playlists it hosts into "smart" online radio stations. And with them, says it will offer a "Pepsi Challenge"-style listening test to compare its new recommendation service to Pandora's artist stations.

RAIN readers may remember relaunched in July as a webcast service after telling listeners record labels "forced" it to abandon its on-demand, playlist-creating model (see our coverage here). is now working with music intelligence vendor The Echo Nest, which has taken each user playlist and created a custom radio station for it.

The service has a library of 20 million licensed songs, and offers 500 genre-based stations, in addition to the brand new playlist-generated streams.

Robert Davidorf, CEO, said, "We feel that Pandora is a little bit stagnant in [terms of features]...I think their service is not something that they’ve innovated on from a consumer standpoint very much in the past several years."

Read more in Hypebot here and The Next Web here.

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