The quest for new music: how the rise of the machine isn’t such a bad thing

Photo provided by Glide Magazine

Photo provided by Glide Magazine

How do we find the music that draws us in and never lets us go? This is the question drummer, DJ, record producer, and music journalist Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson asked in his cover story in this month’s issue of Wired. For those that love the feeling of discovering new or hidden musical gems, it’s a very relevant question.

Even though according to a new study, AM/FM radio is still the top source overall for keeping up-to-date with music, there are so many apps and online options to help you find your new jam.

One “machine” that is heavily involved in music discovery is The Echo Nest, the self-proclaimed leading music intelligence company. The Echo Nest allows developers to use their platform and solutions for their apps and programs, currently powering more than 400 apps and sites.

Some feel using the “machine” to find music is less authentic and not very effective. Brian Whitman, the CTO of The Echo Nest spoke to Billboard about how their solutions are more than just algorithms:

“It’s a lot more than that. We are obviously doing a ton of computer stuff but it’s all based on what people are saying and choosing and that stuff. We hate this stupid man versus machine dichotomy.”

Photo provided by Mashable

Photo provided by Mashable

The digital music services that rely on The Echo Nest’s Music Discovery and Personalization solution to connect users to new music include iHeartRadio, XBOX Music, SiriusXM, Vevo, and Spotify. Depending on the service or site, The Echo Nest uses DMCA-compliant playlisting, personalized playlisting and radio, or a hybrid of the two, combining automated playlisting with expert curation. It’s a more complicated process than critics think, and it’s all about the listener, Whitman said.

“The more we know about the listener, the better everybody is. Any smart service would want to know all sorts of tracking data across everywhere you go. It’s not just for them obviously, it’s for you to know more about your taste.”

Recently, music-streaming giant Spotify acquired The Echo Nest, which has caused some companies to drop their partnerships with the company, including Rdio and Rhapsody. This just goes to show that music discovery is definitely in flux. Nevertheless, The Echo Nest still powers most of the leading options for music discovery.

As a daily Spotify user myself, I think them teaming up with The Echo Nest is a gamechanger. Daniel Ek, chief executive of Spotify, explained to Billboard why they bought The Echo Nest when they could just as easily, if not more inexpensively, get the company’s services as a customer:

“With our [application programming interface], you have the ability to play music. With The Echo Nest API, you can now understand the music. That means you can build the ultimate running app, for example, using music that is tuned to your pace. Data will just be a massive advantage for us in this game.”

Meanwhile, The Echo Nest’s biggest competitor, with a whopping 200 million users according to Wired, is Pandora Radio, a site and app that allows you to create stations that automatically stream music recommended to you based on a certain song or artist. The service uses their own music discovery software, The Music Genome Project, which uses a methodology including precisely defined terminology, a consistent frame of reference, redundant analysis, and ongoing quality control without machine-listening or other forms of automated data extraction.

Despite it’s massive popularity, some criticize Pandora for it’s small music library, which is only about 1 million songs, as opposed to Spotify, which has over 20 million songs. I agree that Pandora does not have the variety that Spotify has, which is why I prefer Spotify. Whitman shared his thoughts on Pandora to Billboard as well:

“I think the people who rely on Pandora, for example, that kind of freaks me out because it’s such a small amount of music they are listening to it’s almost just like top 40 radio all over again. With all the power that technology gives you, I would like to see people doing more with it then just listening to the same 20 songs over and over again.”

Some other music discovery services include the very popular SoundCloud,, and the new Beats Music, which has a really cool feature called The Sentence, which recommends music based on a sentence made up by you using the many choices given. For example, the sentence “I’m on a boat and feel like going back in time with my family to vintage should and funk” prompts “Isn’t She Lovely” by Stevie Wonder.

Other music discovery services are Songza, Shazam, SoundHound, Bandcamp, Mixcloud, This Is My Jam, Soundtracking and Soundwave.

This all may seem overwhelming, but I think it’s fun to try them out and see which ones I like and are most helpful in finding me cool new music. It’s all about using the “machine” to connect you to new music that fits your taste or mood.

This is how Questlove views modern music discovery (and I think it’s a pretty good perspective):

“I try to navigate the waters by remembering where I’m going. When it comes to players, to programs, to services, think of them as ships bringing you to the music you need, have always needed, will continue to need. They’re not the voyage. They’re the vessel. Learn how to steer in the prevailing winds and soon you’ll be sailing.”


A magical moment on the Tonight Show with the help of an iPad app

Image courtesy of NBC

Image courtesy of NBC

Since this is my first post, I thought I’d start with something fun.

Last night, I watched the Tonight Show with new host Jimmy Fallon, mainly because Billy Joel was a guest. Not only is he a musical legend with a string of hits and awards that would make most top 40 hit-makers of today drool, but he is genuinely a cool guy. The native New Yorker came off pretty humble and relaxed for most New Yorkers I know, but at the same time, he’s definitely from the city.

Joel was on the show to promote his new live album A Matter of Trust: The Bridge to Russia, which was released yesterday. He also mentioned his franchise of shows at Madison Square Garden this year (don’t bother, they’re all sold out), but he’s also a friend of Fallon’s. After a commercial break, Fallon asked Joel if he wanted to sing a little something with him. The late night host whipped out his iPad and said he wanted to use the Loopy app, which allows users to record phrases and play them on a loop. Joel looked a little hesitant, but agreed, and the impromptu doo-wop duet began to sing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

By looping the back-up vocals, they were able to sing all different harmonies and create a full sound with only two people. It was a pretty special moment and it all happened because of an iPad app. Sure, they could have sung just their own two parts, but by using a simple app, they were able to add multiple layers right on the spot without additional singers.

The company behind the app, A Tasty Pixel, is a one-man indie software development company run by solo programmer Michael Tyson. The company has released multiple iOS apps including the Loopy app, which launched in 2009 and has received a lot of good reviews from app developers and recording artists alike. For example, Pete Mitchell of the band No More Kings gave the app his vote of approval on the Loopy app website:

“This is an incredible app,” Mitchell said. “I’m definitely using Loopy to write my next album.”

From serious artists and music-enthusists looking for some fun, the Loopy app includes a whole host of features and capabilities to play with. The interface has 12 circular loops and features overdubbing, count-in and count-out and record chaining. Users can import loops from a computer and adjust the tempo while recording. Music pros can use several industry-standard MIDI features, allowing them to interact with external equipment and other audio software and apps. When you’re done recording, tracks can be shared via SoundCloud, Twitter, Facebook or email. 

Currently, the $7.99 app has a five out of five star rating with 35 total ratings, including a five star rating from Marlco:

“This is my favorite music app on the App Store, and I have dozens of them,” Marlco said. “Any time I write a song Loopy HD is the first app I go to. It’s really stable, has extensive MIDI support, the best clock sync on iOS, and is fun and intuitive.”

Artists have been using loopers for decades, from recordings to live performances. 2014 Best New Artist Grammy nominee Ed Sheeran is a big fan of using a looping station live. For example, at the iTunes Festival in 2012, Sheeran used a looper in his performance of “Grade 8” off his debut album + (yes, just the symbol). Other examples of artists using the Looper app specifically include Dub FX, a reggae hip-hop artist who specializes in beatboxing, and has given the app his blessing through a Youtube tutorial. Electric cellist ecce cello (David Fernández) has also given the app a spin with his rendition of “The Son.”

There are both advantages and disadvantages to using loops in music, according to eHow, a website that serves as an online resource for professional advice in 30 categories, from cooking to budgeting. Owen Wuerker, an eHow contributor who covers the music industry and home recording, described the advantages of looping:

“Loop-based music tends to take the emphasis away from the development of individual instrumental parts and puts it instead on development through layering, which is an exciting new way to approach song writing,” Wuerker said.

On the other hand, some might say that using a looper is almost cheating, allowing the artist to avoid mistakes more easily with less effort. Some might even go as far as to say looping isn’t real music. According to Wuerker, the disadvantage to using looping is that when the method is used sloppily, the human element and need for true musicianship is lost, a statement I definably agree with. However, when used correctly, looping is an innovative way to approach songwriting. 

Whether loopers take the authenticity of music away or not, the app seemed pretty cool to me. I see last night’s Tonight Show performance as an example of technology being used to help the average person create music in a personal way. Almost all technology can be used for evil, but it can also be used for good, and sometimes, moments of greatness come as a result. Last night was one of those special moments in the music world.