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.”


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