Xbox Music

RAIN Hotspots: Week of Oct. 21-25

Friday, October 25, 2013 - 11:45am

Here are the top five, most-read articles this week, published at any time. 

Sirius XM apparently drops stations, infuriates users: RAIN noticed that Sirius XM’s Facebook page was exploding with comments from outrages users, over missing stations in the satellite broadcaster’s channel lineup. We never got a response to several requests for comment from Sirius XM. [READ]

Sirius XM will reportedly drop Clear Channel stations soon: Related to the above, from which many readers clicked over for background information. Sirius XM remains in the news, having announced slightly higher subscription prices for 2014. [READ]

Apple announces 20-million iTunes Radio users; fuzzy math abounds: The Apple-vs.-Pandora media tornado got moving when Cupertino announced latest audience metrics for iTunes Radio. Problems arise when you compare apples to oranges. (See what we did there?) [READ]

INTERVIEW: Jim Lucchese, CEO, The Echo Nest: Readers settled into Part 1 of our conversation with the head of a powerful unseen force in music services. [READ] (Part 2 is here.) 

Microsoft’s new Web Playlist dismantles traditional “station” listening: Readers are interested in a unique new feature in Xbox Music that unleashes the hidden musical quality of web pages. [READ]

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.

Xbox Music set for re-launch

Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - 10:20am

As Windows 8.1 counts down to lift-off, Microsoft is placing multiple bets during one of the most tumultuous and transitional times in its history. One of those bets is a renovated Xbox Music app, which will be available to all users by the end of this week.

From Redmond's perspective, the last year can be viewed as an attempt to develop a consumer market for the Windows 8 experience. The Windows 8.1 update makes a few course corrections derived from user pain points in the 8.0 operating system. While the year might not be termed a success, it is undeniable that Microsoft owns the only OS which is truly unified across desktop, phone, and tablet devices -- a bold and forward-looking business strategy that will take time to play out, for good or bad.

In that unified ecosystem, many moving parts update at different times, lurching the whole thing along. Xbox Music has always been a work in progress, intended as a listening platform planted in the home base of Xbox gamers, Outlook emailers, Windows phone mobile users, and Windows 8 desktop pioneers.

Microsoft claims to have based its Xbox Music improvements on feedback from users, and brags that the service is “completely re-imagined and rebuilt.” The design as a whole is reportedly simplified, smoothing previously clunky performance in certain devices. The player controls now remain visible at all times -- a tweak that many users will doubtless welcome as a “well, duh” improvement. The overall thrust, based on previews and leaks reported in Winbeta and The Verge, is quicker access to personalized music, requiring fewer clicks to get the sound going.

Improvements and all, Xbox Music lacks differentiating spotlight features that separate it from the increasingly homogenized streaming-music pack. Its earliest iteration was frankly rudimentary, and it remains mainly an ecosystem touch-point produced by a many-faceted software company.

Xbox Music expands Microsoft "Radio" service

Monday, September 9, 2013 - 11:45am

Microsoft waded boldly into new waters today by extending its Xbox Music service to non-Windows mobile devices, and eliminating subscription fees from the desktop web version.

The maneuver comes one day before Apple’s iPhone/iOS 7 event on Tuesday. The timing seems intended to counter the soon-to-be-launched iTunes Radio service, while also driving a stake into the ground occupied by Spotify and Rdio.

As of today, Xbox Music has a familiar two-tiered model. Unsubscribed users (the free tier) can hear music through the desktop interface, but not in the mobile app. Subscribed users (the payment tier) can listen to the "Radio" portion of the service (formerly called Smart DJ), and will, in future versions, be able to download tracks to their smartphones for offline playback.

By releasing Xbox Music apps on iOS and Android platforms, Microsoft is implicitly acknowledging the distant third-place position of Windows mobile devices, and that Xbox gamers likely do not carry Windows phones. Stepping into competing ecosystems is a necessary distribution tactic to fully engage the existing Xbox user base.

While it’s easy to interpret the expansion of Xbox Music as a "Watch out Spotify" moment, Microsoft’s service is currently rudimentary compared to the more sophisticated Spotify client and app experiences. Entrenched users of existing services have invested in their favorite platforms by developing social relationships, making service-specific playlists, and downloading subscription tracks for offline listening. This "service equity" immunizes the platform from user churn to some extent.

At the same time, Spotify and all other independent listening platforms have reason to fear the usage clout of the major ecosystem companies -- Apple (iOS), Google (Android), Microsoft (Windows 8.x), and Amazon (Prime, if it ever gets into Internet radio) and their massive built-in audiences.
 

Xbox Music likely coming to the web next week

Wednesday, June 26, 2013 - 9:15am

Microsoft will reportedly update its Xbox Music streaming service app for Windows 8.1 to include a "Pandora-like radio feature that lets you pick any song in teh Xbox Music collection and start a new station with related results," reports TechCrunch. The update is purported to come "by the end of the year."

The Verge, meanwhile, reports the company will also launch a web version of the streaming service at music.xbox.com -- as soon as next week.

Xbox Music is already available on Xbox 360 gaming console, Windows 8, and Windows 8 Phone.

According to TechCrunch, the Xbox Music customized radio feature won't allow the listener to "thumbs up or down" songs to influence playlist selection, but its seems there will be unlimited song-skipping allowed. Also interesting will be Xbox Music's ability to create an instant playlist based on music and artists merely mentioned on any website. For instance, if a reviewer posts a "Top Ten Songs for Summer," Xbox Music can scan it for names and titles and instantly build a playlist.

Read more in TechCrunch here and The Verge here.

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