Music fans have more tools than ever for discovering new music. Streaming services like Pandora and Spotify have designed algorithms that create playlists based on your preferences. Online marketplaces like iTunes and Amazon make millions of recordings available for purchase. But some worry that these tools are having unintended consequences, making it harder to find good, original music and more difficult for promising bands to support themselves. Tech Tuesday explores how technology is affecting popular music.

Guests

  • Eric Bieschke Chief Scientist, Pandora
  • Chris Richards Pop Music Critic, The Washington Post
  • Brian Whitman Co-Founder & CTO, The Echo Nest

Transcript

  • 12:06:40

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. Remember how you used to discover new music? You were in a record store, and a colorful album cover caught your attention. Or maybe you were driving with a friend, and he or she put a CD that you'd never heard. Or perhaps you were just scanning the radio dial and found yourself drawn in by a beat.

  • 12:07:14

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIToday, the entire landscape of musical discovery is being transformed by new technology. Websites like Pandora will do the work for you. Plug in an artist, and out comes an everlasting playlist. Services like Rdio don't even ask users to think of an artist with personalized stations based on what they think you want to hear.

  • 12:07:34

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut even the engineers of these sites will admit that this new technology is not perfect. Listeners still can get stuck in a musical echo chamber while independent musicians sometimes fall through the digital cracks. Joining me to talk about this in our Washington studio is Chris Richards. He is The Washington Post pop music critic. Chris, thank you so much for joining us in studio.

  • 12:07:57

    MR. CHRIS RICHARDSPleasure to be here. Thanks.

  • 12:07:59

    NNAMDIJoining us from studios in Boston is Brian Whitman. He is co-founder and chief technology officer at The Echo Nest, a music intelligence data provider. The Echo Nest licenses software to a number of online streaming services, including Spotify and Rdio. Brian Whitman, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:19

    MR. BRIAN WHITMANThanks very much for having me.

  • 12:08:21

    NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone from Pandora offices in Oakland is Eric Bieschke. He is chief scientist and vice president of playlist at Pandora. Eric, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:34

    MR. ERIC BIESCHKEThanks for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:08:35

    NNAMDIIt's a conversation you can participate in by calling 800-433-8850. How do you find new music? You can also send email to kojo@wamu.org or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Brian, I'll start with you. Music taste and preferences hardly follow an exact science. We may like a song because a friend recommended it, because it makes us nostalgic, or simply because we found it while in a good or, well, maybe a bad mood. How can any online streaming service take into account all of the different things that shape our musical tastes?

  • 12:09:12

    WHITMANWell, you have to do it by being really careful about the information you take in. I think looking at all possible sources whenever possible is the way to do this, looking at social signals, like what you mentioned, or looking at things like how the music sounds or what people are saying about it or how popular they are, or, you know, what their album cover looks like. You know, the more information you have about the music, the better you can be about recommending it to people.

  • 12:09:38

    NNAMDISame question to you, Eric.

  • 12:09:42

    BIESCHKEYeah. I think Brian made some good thoughts there. I think the other thing to think about is just really understanding what's unique and special about the person. I think people's musical tastes are incredibly unique, and the more data you have about them can really help, and also understanding where they are in their life, like the context of where are they right now, both in terms of location and in terms of where they are in their life.

  • 12:10:11

    BIESCHKEAre they, you know, having a baby or getting married? Those things are all really important to understand people's connection in their lives with music. I think it's a very personal thing.

  • 12:10:24

    NNAMDISo personal, Brian, that if any of us asked ourselves why we like the music that we listen to, we'd probably say, because it sounds good, because music that other people like just isn't as good as the music I like. But how do social and cultural factors play into our music preferences?

  • 12:10:41

    WHITMANSo the way we look at it at The Echo Nest is, you know, assuming that there are millions of people in the world that love describing and sharing music with each other. You know, we tend to obviously use a lot of computers to do this. But at the end of the day, what we're doing is aggregating sort of the human-scale emotional reaction to all music across the entire universe. So looking at things like someone will say on their blog, or they'll tweet something about an artist, the words they used or who they shared it with or how many times they did it.

  • 12:11:07

    WHITMANWe also obviously can look at things like how often you play a thing or what time of day you're playing a thing. There are all sorts of contextual, outside things there. Always you're estimating human reaction. No computer, no service, none of us on this call or anywhere will ever be able to really crack the very human code of what music does for us emotionally, but I think we're getting really good at trying.

  • 12:11:29

    NNAMDIChris, the Internet has fundamentally changed how we access and how we listen to music. You can find just about any song you like on YouTube or buy it on iTunes. How do you think this is changing how we discover new music?

  • 12:11:40

    RICHARDSI think it's changed completely the landscape. It's just so different. Every year, almost, there seem to be more and more outlets to discover things. I find that the two -- you know, my very anecdotal, kind of incomprehensive research among people I know and people that I talk to, sources and stories, I find out that there's kind of Spotify people and Pandora people, largely, you know?

  • 12:11:58

    RICHARDSAnd the Pandora people, they're the kind of people who want -- you know, it's like their music discovery experience is like a road trip. You know, they want to get in the car and drive to the beach, and maybe something's going to pop up on the car, out the radio, and it'll find them. The music will find you. The Spotify people are kind of like the more Indiana Jones music explorers. They want to dig around.

  • 12:12:14

    RICHARDSThey're looking for it. They're not going to wait for you to tell them what to listen to. I think it's very interesting. And -- but the key component of both of those platforms is this magic word of discovery, and I think that's something that people really care so much about in the music industry today. And in a sense, I mean, it's always been that way in music.

  • 12:12:29

    RICHARDSFrom your opening remarks to the program, Kojo, you're saying that this is something we've been doing forever. The fact that there's technology that finds a better way to monitor it is what makes it so interesting, and I'm looking forward to talking to the folks today about that as well.

  • 12:12:41

    NNAMDIDiscovery is the key word. If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Tell us what you have discovered. Do you use an online streaming service like Pandora, Spotify or Rdio? 800-433-8850, or you can send email to kojo@wamu.org. It's a Tech Tuesday conversation on music and technology. You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Eric, it's one thing to provide music fans with a shortcut to new music that they might like, but do you think recommendation technology has the potential to introduce listeners to music that they would never have found otherwise?

  • 12:13:23

    BIESCHKEYeah, absolutely. You know, I like Chris' point about discovery being a primary thing people are looking for, and that can take a lot of different forms. You know, like it's a discovery moment the first time you hear "The White Album" by The Beatles. Even though that's a well-known, established album, you know, I look forward to playing that to my nephew the first time. And it's also a discovery moment when you, you know, you hear something you've never heard before.

  • 12:13:52

    BIESCHKERecommendation systems like Pandora are already doing this for people. People are already discovering things they've never heard before. And it's a tricky challenge to sort of thread the needle between playing what's familiar to people and invokes emotions about nostalgia or moments in their life that are powerful to them and sort of balancing that with exposing people to new things they've never heard before that will create new moments of joy in their life, and that's the -- it's one of the tricky things we're tackling here.

  • 12:14:29

    NNAMDIBrian, recommendation technology and introducing listeners to things -- music they may have never heard before?

  • 12:14:36

    WHITMANAbsolutely. One of the things we track at The Echo Nest to make sure that we're doing a good job for the world is sort of average listener diversity over the years. We've been at it, you know, honestly, for three or four years, powering tons of these services and -- or watching is the diversity and the way -- the different styles people listen to and the spread of popularity or how, you know, how well known these artists are over the years have just gone up because of these systems. And obviously Pandora is a trailblazer here.

  • 12:15:03

    WHITMANBut we've got, you know, tons of ways to discover new music. And we're just watching as these services are integrating people's lives, they are listening to more kinds of music, and that's, you know, a direct result of these technologies.

  • 12:15:14

    NNAMDIHere's Mathias in Rockville, Md., on the phone. Mathias, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:15:20

    MATHIASOh, thank you so much, Kojo, for having me on the show. I would just like to say for Brian and Chris and Eric, you know, thank you so much for the -- I use service for Spotify a lot and, like you guys all said, you know, that discovery element. I just recently got into it. My friend recommended it to me.

  • 12:15:35

    MATHIASAnd right now the -- some albums that I've yet to listen to since I was really young I finally got into them again and -- excited -- I love, like, The Andrew Sisters and Bing Crosby, you know, sort of these, like, classics, you know, that Spotify can really hone in on. And they kind of put in the recommendations for me as well, so I really appreciate for that service.

  • 12:16:00

    NNAMDIThat's the music I grew up with, Mathias. Thank you very much.

  • 12:16:02

    MATHIASOh, yeah.

  • 12:16:04

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. How well do you think these online music services capture your taste in music? 800-433-8850, or send email to kojo@wamu.org. Chris, independent artists have now more opportunities than ever for getting their work online and in the public sphere. Once they're out there, though, what does it take for independent and unknown musicians to get real exposure?

  • 12:16:31

    RICHARDSYes. This is a huge question in the music industry right now because you can put your music online. It can be heard anywhere on the planet. So you think, great, you know? But how do you stand out in this gigantic field, this very competitive field, this field that can feel infinite? And that's something that's kind of being debated right now, most heavily in terms of Spotify.

  • 12:16:49

    RICHARDSYou know, this summer, the producer Nigel Godrich and Thom Yorke of Radiohead, they just recently kind of yanked their tunes off of Spotify, sort of protesting over this very tiny loyalty rate that -- or, I'm sorry, royalty rate that Spotify plays. You know, they're saying millions of streams translates into about a -- you know, thousands of dollars, and people are getting paid fractions upon fractions of a penny per play.

  • 12:17:11

    RICHARDSSo they created -- so they're basically saying Spotify is creating a system where young artists, yes, can be there. They can be exposed, but they can't profit from it in any way. And it's creating an untenable situation. If we live in this world, we're never going to get Led Zeppelin's "Houses of the Holy" or, you know, Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" records that were very expensive to make without artists making dough. So, you know, whether or not these streaming services are affecting the state of the art, I think, is very interesting. And so far, you know, from my vantage point, the...

  • 12:17:41

    NNAMDII was about to say you're a musician, too.

  • 12:17:42

    RICHARDSYeah. Yeah. Well, we don't talk about that on the air.

  • 12:17:45

    NNAMDIYes, we do.

  • 12:17:45

    RICHARDSBut I try to be. I try to be.

  • 12:17:48

    NNAMDII think we'll make that the focus of this conversation.

  • 12:17:49

    RICHARDSOh, really? OK. Great. Oh, no, I just gave myself up. You know, I think the jury is still out, though, whether or not these technology platforms are hurting the music itself because, in one sense, I think you have an entire generation of musicians that are coming up now with a literacy that I would have dreamed of having growing up as a teenager. I'm 34 years old. You know, I got my first email address in my freshman year of college.

  • 12:18:08

    RICHARDSThe Internet was the thing I would go check out during lunch in the computer lab at my high school. So to find out about music, you had to ask people. You had to go to record stores. You had to find the cool kid in a weird T-shirt in the cafeteria in high school to discover things. Now, there's a whole universe of music at everyone's fingertips.

  • 12:18:24

    RICHARDSAnd I think it's really increased the musical vocabulary that you're seeing in a rising generation of artists. So, yes, we might lose "Houses of the Holy," or we might lose, you know, expensive "The Wall," Pink Floyd records, things like that, but what do we gain? I think we gain a more vibrant, fluent pop music culture.

  • 12:18:42

    NNAMDIIf, in fact, Brian, we're gaining a more vibrant, fluid pop music culture with so much music available, shouldn't listeners be in a better spot to find the musicians that don't make Top 40 lists?

  • 12:18:55

    WHITMANYes, absolutely. And one of the focuses of, you know, the technology that we work on at The Echo Nest is based around making sure that all music is accessible to all of our partners and providers. There are many ways of doing music discovery. You know, the fruit fly of this is what, you know, Amazon has been doing for years called collaborative filtering, which is, you know, if people buy music X and someone else also buys that same music, they relate it somehow.

  • 12:19:19

    WHITMANThat fails in tons of ways, and I think the whole industry is moving away from that in the more content-focused ways that guys like Eric here are doing. The Pandora way of actually understanding the music itself is really getting around that. But there's a scale issue, right? I mean, there -- we track at The Echo Nest 35 million songs and over 2.5 million artists right now, and we're making sure that we know about everybody no matter how small they are, how unknown they are, you know?

  • 12:19:43

    WHITMANIt turns out that a lot of people like more of the sort of Top 40 radio experience where it's almost curated or, you know, someone's made the decision for you about, you know, a gatekeeper sort of way of seeing what music is in there. As an independent musician myself a very small time when, you know -- I've always bristled against that because if my stuff isn't in there, then how is anyone ever going to get to hear it? How is anyone going to discover it? So I've always wanted a purely bias-free, you know, no gatekeeper way of getting my music out there.

  • 12:20:11

    NNAMDIEric Bieschke, how can music recommendation services work best for both listeners and for musicians?

  • 12:20:18

    BIESCHKEYeah. I mean I think the great thing about where the industry is right now is that those things are aligned, like listeners want to find music they love, and artists want to find their perfect audience. And those things are absolutely aligned. At Pandora, we get to sort of help facilitate that happening. I like the point you made, Kojo, about, you know, Top 40 versus independent. The great thing about where we are here at Pandora is we don't have to play Top 40 for everybody.

  • 12:20:54

    BIESCHKEWe're not broadcast radio. We get to make a completely personalized stream for every person listening. So we don't have to get caught up in what's Top 40, or -- you know, it's really what's Top 40 for you right now? What are the songs right now that you'd love to hear? Those are the things that, you know, that we're going to do our best job of connecting you.

  • 12:21:15

    NNAMDIWe've got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this Tech Tuesday conversation on music, technology and discovery, but you can still call us at 800-433-8850. How do you think new technology has changed how we experience music? Send us an email to kojo@wamu.org. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org, and make a comment, ask a question there, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:23:15

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Chris Richards. He's The Washington Post's pop music critic. Eric Bieschke is a chief scientist and vice president of playlist at Pandora. And Brian Whitman is co-founder and chief technology officer at The Echo Nest, a music intelligence data provider. Echo Nest licenses software to a number of online streaming services, including Spotify and Rdio. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850.

  • 12:23:41

    NNAMDIBrian, a common complaint about music recommendations from sites like Pandora, Spotify or Last FM is that they aren't -- they just aren't useful. One service may recommend a band like Radiohead anytime you play something close to alternative rock. Another might only suggest other albums by an artist you're already listening to. How come that on some occasions this technology doesn't seem to work very well?

  • 12:24:07

    WHITMANWell, a lot of ways that music recommendation can fail. The biggest one obviously is just giving really bad results. You know, see if you give Coldplay for Radiohead, that's boring, but, I guess, reasonable results. I think the way in which we can get around this is giving the service access to much more data than just simply these artists sound similar, right?

  • 12:24:27

    WHITMANAnd so at The Echo Nest, we obviously have a lot of, you know, knobs and tunes that people can change, things like how adventurous do we want these recommendations to be, you know, given this user's history and their interaction with us -- what we call the taste profile -- how can we give more diverse recommendations than just something simple? And it comes down to just understanding the user and their expectations at that point.

  • 12:24:49

    NNAMDIBut to suggest something new, you have to know what music a listener doesn't already know. So how can technology gauge what I know about music in the first place?

  • 12:25:02

    WHITMANSo there's a lot of new ways of doing that. We're all in this new social media world, and whether you know it or not, you'll probably been broadcasting. You're listening, you know, to, you know, various services like Facebook or Twitter, and a lot of the on-boarding processes of new services like Rdio, for example, will, you know, take in what they already know about you without even you having to do anything.

  • 12:25:22

    WHITMANAnd this, you know, might seem creepy, but it's also really useful for your first time experience looking at these services, just knowing all of a sudden that this person, he knows this kind of music, tastes are, and here's what we candidate of with the first song we play it'd better be a really good one.

  • 12:25:36

    NNAMDIYou know, Chris, here's an email we've got from Mike in Baltimore: Pandora and the other big names are great, but there are literally dozens of other services out there, not to mention Internet radio apps, too many services and Internet stations to list here. One complaint about many of the services, they're mostly geared toward those between 12 and 30. I wish there was a service dedicated to classical and jazz spectrums educating users about artists, et cetera. Actually, I get some of that from Pandora myself.

  • 12:26:03

    RICHARDSSure. In terms of the diversifying of these platforms, I think it's just sort of a waiting game. It continues to grow and grow and grow. Now, when do we become overwhelmed by this and feel that there are too many choices. I think that's something that these companies are constantly thinking about and ways to kind of assert their experience, a unique user experience to get people to come back.

  • 12:26:23

    RICHARDSYou have to have kind of a simple concept or an audience in mind to make it click. But, yeah, I think the Internet, it's bound to, like, resemble our planet more and more. I mean, there's millions of places you can go on this Earth, and there are millions of sounds you can listen to, millions of places it could be found.

  • 12:26:37

    NNAMDISo our emailer might just not be searching in the right places if he's only finding recommendations for people between the ages of 12 and 30.

  • 12:26:44

    RICHARDSSure. I think -- it's the hunt. I think it's all out there. You just have to find a way to do it.

  • 12:26:50

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Andrew in Arlington, Va. Andrew, you're on the air. Go ahead please.

  • 12:26:55

    ANDREWHi, Kojo. I just want to say I love your show.

  • 12:26:57

    NNAMDIThank you.

  • 12:26:58

    ANDREWI have a couple of concerns with the seamlessness of social sharing now that that's becoming more and more prevalent among the extremes. For me, I find music to be kind of a highly personal event. And the last thing I want to do is when I'm going through a hard time have whatever I'm playing show up on Facebook and then potentially being reminded through Facebook's advertisements. What's being done to kind of get a reign in on privacy with this respect? And I'll take the answer off the air.

  • 12:27:26

    NNAMDIEric, can you speak to that at all?

  • 12:27:28

    BIESCHKEYeah. So a couple of things, I can speak, you know, about Pandora in particular. You know, we have a commitment to just making this a really important issue, and it is a really important issue. As a tech geek myself, a lot of us are very interested in protecting privacy in the right ways. At Pandora, we use data that we collect for only two things. And the two things are personalized listening experience, so, like, you know, we do use your data to figure out how to play the perfect music just for you.

  • 12:28:05

    BIESCHKEAnd then the second thing we use it for is to also personalize the advertisements that you see. So those are the two purposes that we use -- data about our listeners who are here. But I think it is -- one thing that I get excited by is I like that the term privacy is something we're talking about publicly because it is something important. I do think it's a slippery slope, and we have to remain vigilant to protect it.

  • 12:28:33

    NNAMDIYeah. Chris, but a number of people who are used to getting recommendations from their friends would also like to get recommendations from their Facebook friends. So how do you balance this need for privacy with, well, the need to share?

  • 12:28:45

    RICHARDSSure. It's something, I think, our entire civilization is trying is figure out right now with where these lines sort of exist and, you know, to me that's very interesting. I think of -- I sort of flashback just now in that last caller's comment about the local punk musician Henry Rollins. He was raised here in Washington, D.C.

  • 12:29:00

    NNAMDIYeah.

  • 12:29:00

    RICHARDSHe said this amazing thing -- I'm paraphrasing here, but he said this amazing thing about growing up with music. He said, I love records because records didn't beat me up. Records didn't take my lunch money. You know what I mean? And music is a very personalized thing. You want to enjoy it privately. And I think -- you got the streaming services do run a very treacherous risk where they have to make more algorithms.

  • 12:29:21

    RICHARDSBut the algorithms become more -- become stronger, you know, you have to have more and more information -- you have to give up more and more information about yourself. And I think we're starting to see a pushback with that. Most visibly, maybe recently, was with this whole Jay-Z Samsung app, which maybe we'll talk about later in the program, too.

  • 12:29:34

    NNAMDIYeah, we will.

  • 12:29:35

    RICHARDSBut, I mean, it seems like users are very uncomfortable with the idea of not just on having, you know, what the song they've been, you know, crying about over a break up on Facebook being posted to other friends, but more so having information about their habits gathered. So it seems like a very slippery slope. I'd love to hear from Brian and Eric about how those sort of concerns are being negotiated.

  • 12:29:52

    NNAMDIBrian, you're next.

  • 12:29:54

    WHITMANAbsolutely. So for me, personally, I would say just like everyone on this show where beautiful, personal music thing in our lives, you know, when Spotify turned on their -- their more or less by defaults sharing with the world, I had to stop using it 'cause it's actually hard to turn it off. It's scary to think about how much you sort of give away when you broadcast the songs you like or the things you listen to.

  • 12:30:15

    WHITMANYou know, where all of us, you know, especially, I guess, Eric and I are in this world of, you know, somehow figuring out more about people based on, you know, their music taste and that will become an interesting privacy battleground for sure in the future. As of right now, you know, phones like the Jay-Z app and also your iPhone will let anyone get access to your music library without asking you. There's no privacy panel for it, right?

  • 12:30:37

    WHITMANIt's very peculiar that they haven't, you know, thought about this thing, what if someone looks at my recent music history, they're going to learn way too much about me. So at The Echo Nest, I mean, we're a bit -- we're a level up from the services in the sense that no one really knows who we are, what we do to power these services, and we do maintain a lot of that profile data. We keep it all anonymized, we keep it secure. We don't give it out directly to anyone, and that's a huge focus of our privacy plan going forward.

  • 12:31:00

    NNAMDII want to get back to the issue that you raised, Chris. When Jay-Z first released the album "Magna Carta... Holy Grail," it was available to Samsung customers only. How do you think technology might change how we access and listen to artists as well-known as Jay-Z? And as you pointed out, Jay-Z's Samsung app had a lot of people concerned about privacy because the app collected data from the user's phone.

  • 12:31:23

    RICHARDSYeah, I think this was kind of a gigantic failure on Jay-Z's part. And I think it's kind of blown up in his face. The murky subtext of this entire endeavor is that this was about discovering music, you know. I highly doubt Samsung subscribers have never heard of this guy named Jay-Z before and they said, Let me click on this app and see what's up. You know, he made his music available via this app.

  • 12:31:44

    RICHARDSIt wanted access to your social media platforms. It wanted access to different information in your phone, and it was very Big Brother. And then of course the album got bad reviews 'cause the music was pretty lacking, and it was sort of seen as this kind of, like, corporate partnership smokescreen to distract people from the fact that Jay might be feeling a little less than imaginative in the studio, a little more imaginative in the boardroom than he is in the studio these days.

  • 12:32:05

    RICHARDSSo -- and now we see things changing. Lady Gaga is getting ready to release a huge record this fall. She had said that this is going to be, you know, a huge app to come along with it, which she describes as a multimedia experience. I was reading in The Guardian, she described it once as a musical and visual engineering system but now has sort of downgraded that to say, it's merely...

  • 12:32:24

    NNAMDICan we just get a song?

  • 12:32:25

    RICHARDSI know, right? Exactly. Exactly. Can we get a song? That's what I'm saying. So I think people are sort of backing away from this. The thing that's interesting, too, I think app technology is something that's really -- there's tons of potential in it, and people aren't really using it. There's a local group here in Washington, D.C. called Bluebrain. They are sort of -- I'd say they're experimental musicians on all accounts. But they have made this amazing app they call location-aware album, which you can use on the National Mall.

  • 12:32:48

    RICHARDSIt uses GPS technology to change the music you're listening to based on where you walk, so it's kind of like walking through a videogame. They call it, you know, a choose your own adventure style kind of album. But based on your physical location, their compositions kind of change and dovetail into one another. This is the kind of, you know, imaginative use of app technology and where I think you can call it discovery. You know...

  • 12:33:08

    NNAMDIYeah.

  • 12:33:08

    RICHARDS...the Jay-Z-Samsung app doesn't sound like discovery to me, it sounds like.

  • 12:33:10

    NNAMDIThat doesn't violate privacy. 800-433-8850, but if the phones are busy, send us an email to kojo@wamu.org. Do you care if music streaming services collect data about your taste and your preferences? Have you avoided any of these sites to protect your privacy? Shoot us an email to kojo@wamu.org. Back to the telephones. Here is Lorrie in Germantown, Md. Hi, Lorrie.

  • 12:33:33

    LORRIEHi. I just attended my 29-year-old niece's wedding, and to my surprise, she had the DJ play Frank Sinatra. And I later asked her, well, how did that happen? And she said, well, Pandora -- I was looking to Shakira, and Pandora recommended Frank Sinatra. And I was pretty amazed. I was very excited because I'm 63, and I love Frank Sinatra. I thought I would have to be cringing in the corner from whatever she requested. So that was...

  • 12:34:07

    NNAMDIEric Bieschke, can you explain that or...

  • 12:34:11

    BIESCHKESo I love Sinatra, too.

  • 12:34:16

    NNAMDIWell, that's the explanation.

  • 12:34:17

    BIESCHKEYeah, I think, you know, we're talking about discovery earlier that it can happen in really surprising ways. And it -- you actually probably can draw a path of how you get -- go from listening to Shakira to listening to Sinatra if you take sort of enough intermediate steps without looking up exactly what happened for your daughter's listening (unintelligible) I can't tell you how that happened. But I'm glad that it did.

  • 12:34:45

    NNAMDILorrie, thank you very much for your call. We move on now to Renzo (sp?) in Alexandria, Va. Renzo, your turn.

  • 12:34:53

    RENZOHi. Hello to everybody. I never thought I'd get a chance to talk to people like you guys. So a little bit of context. I've been kind of a digital DJ for quite a while. I don't know if you guys are familiar with that type of software, like, Traktor or VirtualDJ, things like that.

  • 12:35:09

    WHITMANSure.

  • 12:35:09

    RENZOBut what you got is that -- a big display of what the sound waves of a track sounds like. And in sort of doing this, I actually discovered that not only do I prefer certain types of music, but I actually even prefer music in certain keys. And I was wondering if it would be possible to sort of analyze the wave form of music you like and then attribute it to other things that have similarities.

  • 12:35:33

    NNAMDIWe'll start with you, Brian.

  • 12:35:35

    WHITMANYeah, I mean, that's half of what The Echo Nest does is that. So we automatically analyze the audio, the sound wave of the song, and we can automatically pick out the key, its tempo, how the instruments sound, the loudness and all sorts of things. It turns out, in general -- and this is something that, you know, I've been in this field academically and then, you know, so is this company for about 15 years now, that looking at this acoustic data alone doesn't really tell people too much about preference or taste.

  • 12:36:01

    WHITMANAnd the fact that two songs share a key is not really useful for most people. Now, obviously, for a lot of people, their tastes are very specific, and, you know, they might have something to do with the tempo or how the instruments sound. But for a general population, the actual sound waves is not the most useful thing.

  • 12:36:17

    WHITMANWe tend to find a lot more use in how people talk about music, how they react to it. But certainly, we do power a lot of services that use that acoustic information, like DJ software, to pick songs that will sound good together when they're played next to each other. There's lot of use cases beyond just simply, here's a playlists, to music discovery that we power.

  • 12:36:34

    NNAMDIChris, you have a comment?

  • 12:36:36

    RICHARDSI just think it's incredibly interesting. I was looking forward to the answer, to be honest.

  • 12:36:40

    NNAMDIHow about you, Eric?

  • 12:36:42

    BIESCHKEYeah. You know, it's one of the things that we can use to figure out what music people love, and I think like Brian said, it's not the complete picture. There are a lot of other things that help determine someone's perfect musical tastes, but it's useful. And both Brian and I are in the business of, you know, having scientists who can do that all day long to help figure out which key or, you know, which wave forms actually do make you happiest.

  • 12:37:16

    NNAMDIRenzo, thank you very much for your call. Brian, you say that journalists tend to peg The Echo Nest as the machine approach to music discovery and Pandora as the human approach. While you may not fully agree with that description, why do you think that many categorize the two approaches in that way?

  • 12:37:36

    WHITMANSo I think a lot of this comes from, you know, we know about all music in the world, and we do it automatically, and that's been one of our focuses since early on. And the reason we do that is because we want to make sure that all music is listened to and, you know, consider for recommendation. But the end of the day though, I mean, you know, and Eric can describe how Pandora does it, but, you know, we're looking at the aggregate, you know, response to music across the entire Internet.

  • 12:37:59

    WHITMANWe're on the Web crawling all sorts of text about people saying, I saw a show last night or this is my favorite song because of this or a blog post or a tweet, whatever. And in that sense, you know, even though we, you know, both, I think, Eric and I use a lot of computers to do the, you know, the distance between songs or figuring out the next song to play, the source of the data, you know, might be considered more machine on our end because we do it in such a large scale, and we do it anonymously.

  • 12:38:24

    NNAMDIDo you use those categories, Chris, the machine approach and the human approach?

  • 12:38:30

    RICHARDSI'm strictly human.

  • 12:38:32

    RICHARDSI'm completely human, 100 percent human through and through. You know, in fact, you know, I feel like, you know, like I'm out of touch because I really do treasure going to record stores still and talking to record store clerks and asking friends about stuff. I -- literally, when I was waiting outside the studio right now, I got three text messages from friends asking me, have I heard this song or that song or whatever? So I just roll in a circle of people who are highly enthusiastic about music and want to share it with each other.

  • 12:38:57

    RICHARDSI think maybe going back to a question you're asking earlier, Kojo, about, you know, whether or not it's -- whether it's a choice to share or not, if Spotify is going to just tell the world what I'm listening to without my, you know, permission although you can turn those functions off, that's troublesome. But I do find that people are so enthusiastic about music. And social media has become this incredible platform for it where you can just simply say, hey check this out. Check this out. Look at this thing I found.

  • 12:39:19

    RICHARDSAnd everyone's kind of pointing around. I think that's a pretty organic way, and I think what's happening here is these businesses are trying to figure out, OK, how do we, you know, make this into an algorithm? How do we can modify it? How do we make money out of it? How do we make it profitable for musicians, record labels, everyone involved?

  • 12:39:33

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Bonnie in Fredericksburg, who says, "I find new music through YouTube or from Googling an artist and listening to music posted on fan websites. I find that recommendations from friends are still my biggest source of new music." And an email from Tyler who said, "I completely agree with the statement your guest made about there being Pandora people and Spotify people.

  • 12:39:50

    NNAMDI"I classify myself as a Pandora person and feel that I have a more passive approach to discovering music while my friends who are more active in discovering new music are Spotify people. I do rely on Spotify friends of mine to pass on their new discoveries while I do the same through discovering new music through Pandora." Eric, how do you feel about the categories of the machine approach to music discovery and the human approach as people characterize Pandora?

  • 12:40:18

    BIESCHKEYeah. I mean, you know, to the person who just wrote in, I think that sounds like a really healthy music ecosystem to me. Like, I think it's fantastic that he's discovering things that he's listening to on Pandora, his friends are listening to other services, discovering things that way. And that to me feels like a great system we set up where lots of people are discovering the music and sharing it with each other.

  • 12:40:44

    BIESCHKEBack to this sort of human versus machine approaches, yeah, Pandora's sort of foundation is built on the Music Genome Project. And we have employed musicians full-time for the past decade to listen to music and, in a quantitative way, express how they connect with it and also kind of describe the music. Now, that being said, Pandora isn't totally married to this technique.

  • 12:41:16

    BIESCHKEIt's super effective because humans are still better at understanding music than machines are. But here at Pandora, we -- we're open to doing whatever. We use, you know, we use machines to listen to music. We mostly use humans to listen to music. We use techniques like collaborative filtering that Brian mentioned earlier. We do things around the collective intelligence because of our scale, the scale of our listeners.

  • 12:41:40

    BIESCHKEWe've had -- you know, we've had more than, like, 71 million active monthly users in the last month. That really gives us a huge amount of data for us to really create a better listening experience for people. And it's really the convergence of using all of these techniques simultaneously without pigeonholing you into any one particular technique that really sort of lets you turn it up to 11 as it were.

  • 12:42:07

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. It's a Tech Tuesday conversation on music, technology and discovery, a conversation we'd like you to join by calling 800-433-8850. Do you listen to music differently when you stream it on YouTube than when you listen to it on a CD? Do you still listen to full albums? Or do you listen to playlists online? 800-433-8850, or shoot us an email to kojo@wamu.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:44:10

    NNAMDIWelcome back. It's a Tech Tuesday conversation on music, technology and discovery with Eric Bieschke. He is chief scientist and vice president of playlist at Pandora. Brian Whitman is co-founder and chief technology officer at the Echo Nest, a music intelligence data provider which licenses software to a number of online streaming services, including Spotify and Rdio. And Chris Richards is The Washington Post pop music critic. If the lines are busy, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to kojo@wamu.org. Kate in Washington, D.C., you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:44:44

    KATEHi, Kojo. Thanks. This is a great topic. I was interested and more with a comment to get some feedback from your panel about in their work, how is everyone considering the musicians? And overall, what's this doing to the artist community? You know, I grew up with LPs, and the B side was always as important as the main hit. And we are unconcerned, not looking at artist and musicians and their wholeness and piecemealing them away. So I'd be interested in any comments, and I can take -- hear it -- listen off the air.

  • 12:45:18

    NNAMDIThank you for your call, Kate. Chris was pointing out to me that we're having a conversation here about music lovers. But what's this doing to other people who are a part of the music community including musicians?

  • 12:45:29

    RICHARDSRight. Yeah, this has been a very rosy chat because we're the beneficiaries of the streaming world where everything is at our fingertips. If this was a panel of musicians and record label owners, it'd be a much more heated conversation because the revenues that are generated from these streaming services are incredibly low.

  • 12:45:42

    RICHARDSAnd we've gotten to the point where some artists don't even consider their albums the product anymore. They consider the album or the recording, I should say, the advertisement for their career, you know what I mean? They're advertising their live show through a recording rather than trying to...

  • 12:45:53

    NNAMDIThat's the impression I've been getting, yes.

  • 12:45:55

    RICHARDSRather than being on tour to support an album. It's been reverse. So it's a very good time to be a music fan, but I think the industry is just kind of convulsing over how to figure this out. There's a really interesting advocacy group based here in Washington, D.C. called the Future of Music Coalition, and they have very robust debate on their website about this constantly. They are describing sort of the streaming revenue pie, how it's sliced between labels and artist, if fans, you know, are complicit in baking that pie, to some degree.

  • 12:46:22

    RICHARDSAnd basically, what they're trying to do is work towards what they call legitimate digital marketplace. And I think the question for fans is -- you know, that's beginning to sort of sprout up now is if you participate in Spotify, are you hurting artists? And I think we live in a world where there are so many different artists with so many different goals. It's very, very difficult to ascertain that right now.

  • 12:46:40

    NNAMDIKate, thank you very much for you call. We move on to Cameron in Silver Spring, Md. Cameron, your turn.

  • 12:46:47

    CAMERONHi. Thank you. I had one comment and one question, and the comment is just that I have used Pandora for years and I have been incredibly impressed with the accuracy of them figuring out. I mean, their algorithm seems great. One thing that I do is I always make sure I have different channels. And If I hit click like when I'm on a blues channel, if I click like to something that sounds classical, well, I'm going to be screwing up my own algorithm.

  • 12:47:17

    CAMERONBut sometimes they will post something like the woman who said that she got a Frank Sinatra recommendation for her niece. And sometimes I will click and I'll say, well, why did they think of that? And I will say, you know, why did you pick this? And it will say, oh, because this particular rhythm sounds like this, and you have an underlying theme of blah, blah. And it's like, wow.

  • 12:47:36

    CAMERONSo I, for one, have been very impressed with Pandora, and they have introduced me to a lot of new music. But my question is we keep hearing about how these systems are great for musicians who are not so well known and they're not with major record companies. How do these musicians connect with Pandora, though? I mean, if somebody is a musician and has cut a couple of CDs privately, how do they make the connection so that Pandora or any of these other organizations can then play them?

  • 12:48:09

    NNAMDIEric Bieschke.

  • 12:48:10

    BIESCHKEYeah. So thanks so much. I'm glad Pandora has been able to make your life just a little bit better over the last couple of last years. Also, at Pandora, any independent artist in the world who would like to submit music to us can do that directly. We're always looking for new independent musicians to play on Pandora.

  • 12:48:30

    BIESCHKEAnd you do that by going to submit.pandora.com, and there's literally a Web form you can do there to give us your music. And we have a team of people here whose job it is to -- we literally listen to every single one of the records submitted to us directly, and we try to find everything that people might love and deliver those to our listeners. So that's a big source for us of independent music.

  • 12:49:00

    NNAMDIEric, it also -- allow me to ask you about Pandora's Music Genome Project, which was launched nearly a decade ago. Could you explain for our listeners, what is the Music Genome Project? How has the technology evolved since the beginning? You were one of the first employees at Pandora's, and you've clearly seen this service grow.

  • 12:49:19

    BIESCHKEYeah, absolutely. So the company was founded in March of 2000. I started here the same month, so it's been a really fun journey. The Music Genome Project, what it is is we employ musicians who have a strong understanding of music theory. And what we have them do is we have them listen to tracks one at a time.

  • 12:49:48

    BIESCHKEAnd as they listen to these tracks, they create a quantitative representation of the music. So they're scoring everything from, you know, how gritty are the vocals to, you know, how sociopolitical is the content of the lyrics, to how, you know, danceable is the beat. We have hundreds of these characteristics, and our musicians listen to songs one at a time and sort of characterize them.

  • 12:50:18

    BIESCHKEAnd with this sort of huge pool of data that we've now built up over the last 13 years, it lets us do very interesting -- ask very interesting questions on the algorithmic front. We can compute the distance between any two songs that we've listened to. We can compute, like, hey, what vocalist sounds the most similar to John Lennon?

  • 12:50:40

    BIESCHKEWhat drummer sounds the most similar to your favorite drummer? It's sort of the core of what we've done here. Now, over the last 13 years, a lot of things have changed. In particular, when we launched the actual Pandora project half a decade now, maybe eight years ago, the key thing we were basing everything off of was the Music Genome Project. But since then, we've had more than 200 million people register for our service, and those people create huge amounts of data that we can use to leverage for what we play for people.

  • 12:51:16

    BIESCHKESo today, we're -- we've kind of got two giant data pools, one, created through the Music Genome Project, and that's purely about the music, and the other created by our listeners. And through their listening, they're telling us what they love about music. And today, our system sort of combined these two pools of music to really do the right the thing for people, like the listener who just called in.

  • 12:51:42

    NNAMDICameron, thank you very much for your call. Move on to Tom in Alexandria, Va. Tom, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:51:51

    TOMGood afternoon. Great show. I'm 62. I only listen to CDs. I've never downloaded anything. My son and my wife flips out over all that stuff, and I kind of, like, fall asleep. I'm out listening to stuff on iTunes and stuff like that. But I want -- and I'm using a regular phone right now. I don't have an iPhone and that kind of stuff. And I'd like the CDs and albums because I want to know what the artist was doing. You know, I can't just pick and choose a song. I'll do that later.

  • 12:52:21

    TOMBut I want to know -- if David Bowie has a new album out, you know, I want to hear his idea, his production, all those songs. If Ellington did something, he did a whole album that you listened to and it sounds like, you know, like a concert, Miles Davis or The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. And so I have a hard time...

  • 12:52:40

    NNAMDII'm glad you brought that up, Tom, because, Chris Richards, when everybody is streaming playlist online, where does that leave the album as a unit of music? Will artists continue making music in the same format even if it's not how listeners are consuming it?

  • 12:52:53

    RICHARDSThat's a great question. Everyone said, you know, the album is dead as soon as iTunes showed up on the scene. We haven't seen that. But I have noticed the rise of EPs. You know, there's a lot more five, six-song recordings going out. So I think, slowly but surely, the album format is moving away. It's interesting, too, I love albums. I think they're fantastic. I have more record, you know, more copies of vinyl in my apartment than I should. And it's a wonderful format. But also, it was an industry format as well.

  • 12:53:17

    RICHARDSIt was -- Columbia Records decided this is how much music they could fit on a wax disc, and that's how the album was created. So as the, you know, the containers changed, I think the way we consume the music changes. And the context that we have for artists, it's not so much the album format or there have to be nine other songs around it. Maybe there's a couple, you know, maybe there's 16. I think this sort of Wild Wild West that we're living in right now is interesting and maybe even liberating in a sense to artists.

  • 12:53:40

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Brian, what role do you think music recommendation technology will play in the future of the music industry?

  • 12:53:51

    WHITMANI think that, you know, having these tools and services and getting people more comfortable with something, choosing the songs for you no matter what the methodology is in the backend there, I think people are getting used to sort of little, you know, automatic rock, you know, sort of stuff just happening without having to make much decision on it.

  • 12:54:09

    WHITMANThe diversity, again, is just going to go up, more people listening to more different kinds of music than ever because of all this technology. And people are getting used to -- they're getting used to going on YouTube and hearing a song immediately or clicking around on Spotify or Rdio.

  • 12:54:23

    WHITMANSo I think what will happen to the industry in general with this stuff is they'll be a larger pool of listening ears across the entire span of all kinds of music being made, and that covers both, you know, individual musicians but also styles of music. We've seen an explosion of the kinds of genres and styles that we at The Echo Nest track. You know, we've added, you know, '80 styles, I think, in the past year. There's new stuff that's just happening. And so I think we're going to see more diversity both in musician and kinds of music being made.

  • 12:54:53

    NNAMDIAnd, Eric, I got a real Tech Tuesday question from Bruce in Virginia by a way of email. "Please ask your guests whether their firms offer APIs to allow open-source software clients to play their streams. I use Linux. And I like being able to stream programs on the Rhythmbox player that is integrated into my desktop instead of doing it with a Web browser. Are they receptive to this kind of thing?" Are you, Eric?

  • 12:55:18

    BIESCHKESo it's interesting he brought up Linux. Pandora's entire backend runs on top of Linux. We do not have an open API, but we do have a closed API. So if you were building a product that you'd like to do that with Pandora, you know, if you get in touch with us, we can open our API for you. I think that was, you know, that was the question.

  • 12:55:44

    NNAMDIOh, OK. Then here is Lisa in Gaithersburg, Md. Lisa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:55:50

    LISAHi there. I'm calling because I'm curious about how Spotify and Pandora are working with classical music. And it's sort of a two-part question. Regarding Pandora, I have several channels, and I'm finding things like -- for example, when I have my Baroque channel, I'll find things on it such as Chopin or Beethoven or other people that can't even be argued that they're close to Baroque music.

  • 12:56:16

    LISAAnd so it makes me wonder how really good that algorithm thing is. And, two, when you do put in a classical piece of music -- let's say, you are doing a Beethoven symphony -- how in the world can you decide which particular performance to do...

  • 12:56:38

    BIESCHKEYeah.

  • 12:56:39

    NNAMDIOK. Eric, you only got about 30 seconds.

  • 12:56:42

    BIESCHKEYeah. Classical -- yeah. The short answer is classical music is so incredibly complex and interesting that it's a huge challenge. We ask human experts to tell us, what's the perfect performance to have for every classical work that we can think of?

  • 12:57:00

    NNAMDIAnd, finally, there is this, Chris. We got a tweet from Erin, who says, "Pandora radio stations are where I find new and old music. It never comes from anywhere else. Many users are seeking online streaming sites like Pandora, Spotify so that they can listen to never-ending playlists, which sounds very similar to an older kind of technology called, well, the radio.

  • 12:57:20

    NNAMDI"Why is it that, with the all the new technology, we're still seeking out the same old listening experiences?"

  • 12:57:26

    RICHARDSI think there's a greater diversity in these streaming channels than the radio. I mean, mainstream radio, the playlists are pretty limited. And I think there's more out there to be heard.

  • 12:57:31

    NNAMDITrue.

  • 12:57:33

    RICHARDSOne point, I want to return to the two callers back if we can...

  • 12:57:34

    NNAMDIPlease do.

  • 12:57:36

    RICHARDS...some -- the caller -- I think his name is Cameron -- said that the streaming services are good for the livelihood of musicians. I think that's a very dangerous kind of idea that I want to make sure we don't want to spread here because it's hotly debated right now. If you consider that -- if you're a musician trying to make money from your recordings to support...

  • 12:57:52

    NNAMDIRoyalties alone.

  • 12:57:53

    RICHARDS...your livelihood, this is not a good system. If you are looking for exposure, and that exposure is going to push revenue in some other way, well, that could be a good system. And people are still trying to figure that out. So, again, this whole conversation has been great 'cause we're great -- we're fans of music, we love it, we're basking in it, but the musicians are still struggling without (unintelligible).

  • 12:58:07

    NNAMDIWarning to the wise from Chris Richards. He's The Washington Post pop music critic. Eric Bieschke is chief scientist and vice president of playlist at Pandora. And Brian Whitman is co-founder and chief technology officer at The Echo Nest, a music intelligent data provider, which licenses software to a number of online streaming services, including Spotify and Rdio. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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