The Death of Discovery: Goes Bye Bye

Matt Geraghty   May 10, 2010
Digital music as far as the eye can hear. (Image via Kables)

Over a year ago I posed some important questions in my post Miles Ahead of the Rest? regarding the future of, the innovative digital music service.

“Is it too good to be true? 6 million songs for free without the guilt of illegal downloading? Your entire music collection stored in the cloud, accessible from any browser? And a streamlined user experience to boot?”

Well it took about a year to answer but, yes, it IS too good to be true.  In a blow to music discovery, Lala just announced it will be shut down later this month by Apple who recently purchased them for a cool $80 million.

Lala subscribers who had thousands of web songs in their collection will now have to buy all of them again at iTunes — for likely  ten times the price, unless iTunes launches a similar cloud feature and pricing model.

Many think there is a big iTunes cloud announcement looming, yet if they really had their new digital refugees in mind, why not offer to migrate all of Lala user content into the new iTunes cloud rather than simply issue credit?

And what happened to the great Lala feature called Music Mover that transferred all of your iTunes collection into  Users should be able to use that to transfer your web collection right back into iTunes, right?  Not so much.

The greatest opportunities with digital music lie in allowing people to tell other people about music they love.  Word of mouth is beneficial both for artists and fans.  This is where Lala had a big leg up with music feeds, the ability to follow friends, and Facebook embeddable  songs and playlists.

The major European player in the music discovery space has been Spotify— the web cloud music service that provides you with access to 8 million songs and a robust set of social features and functionality.  Just ask anyone in the UK and they’ll be raving about it.  It’s not about ownership — but access.  It’s about enabling social collaboration, sharing, wireless syncing, and the iPhone/iTouch premium app. And it’s free too.

Spotify is due to hit the U.S. market sometime this year. Hopefully it will be launched with some of the more user-centric features we grew to love with  Or perhaps iTunes will roll out a new version with all the pricing, features and functionality that we had with Lala. After all with an overwhelming majority of music being consumed via illegal downloads (95 percent in 2008), the service that can best encourage illegal-file sharers to migrate to a legal model will likely be the most transformative for the music industry at large.  That too will be good news for artists and fans alike.

Lala — Rest in peace.

Order Out of Nothingness: Tagging 101

Robert Stribley   January 12, 2010
order-out-of-nothingness1Music tagging gone wild. (Image via Stribs)

The Breakdown: Look no further to solve all of your iTunes song tagging problems. Robert Stribley tells us how his review of iTunes reveals some interesting principles about metadata and tagging, and may help you get to the music you love most.

I’m organized but not overly so. I mean, I kept my books in alphabetical order as a kid, but I didn’t think of it as an early indicator of the career path I’d take. But I do appreciate order, so when I import a CD into iTunes and iTunes assigns metadata to my lovely new tunes via its Gracenotes system (which compiles user-generated and submitted data), it’s a relief to me, when the provided data has been entered with, you know, some semblance of order. Often, it isn’t. In reviewing this data over time, I noticed users make certain mistakes consistently when tagging their music. These mistakes then, reveal principles, and though they happen to apply to music in my iPod, in practice, they also apply to tagging other digital files.

For your consideration then:

1. Some tags are more important than others

In iTunes, the artist tag proves more important than other tags (album and genre do also), and how it’s completed can affect iTunes’ ability to filter and present your music effectively. The wrong date tag may not matter. A typo in the artist, album, or song field however, may mean you can’t find your music. A typo in the artist field also affects more files than misspelling a single song title. The consequences of errors in completing some fields are simply far greater than others. Specifically, when fields are tied into key functionality, such as sorting and filtering, creating flawed metadata within those fields blunts that helpful functionality.

2. Tag key fields consistently

Some fields like the song name allow you to tag each file differently. The artist and album fields don’t. For example, you should complete the artist field with the artist primarily associated with the work, and use another category to add additional artists, which happen to contribute to a single tune. In other words, tagging Mos Def’s recent song “History” as “Mos Def with Talib Kweli” screws up a sort on “Mos Def” in your iPod because your iPod now thinks “Mos Def” and “Mos Def with Talib Kweli” are two different artists. A solution is to add “(with Talib Kweli)” after the song title. Otherwise, I end up with one orphaned song in my iPod: If I select to play all songs by “Mos Def,” that song doesn’t even show up.

Similarly, tagging one album “R.E.M.” and another “REM” creates two different bands. Be consistent. Simple things like the use of the word “The” (“Cinematic Orchestra” or “The Cinematic Orchestra?) or an ampersand (“Antony & the Johnsons” or “Antony and the Johnsons”?), can throw a wrench in the works. If alternate spellings exist for a particular piece of information, you should decide which will be the primary spelling and enter that consistently.

3. Avoid meaningless tags

Completing the genre field with tags like “other,” “unknown,” “unclassifiable” and, arguably, even “alternative” provides little if any utility. You may as well leave the field blank. “Unclassifiable” sounds cute to the fan, who doesn’t want to pigeonhole their band, but what does the “unclassifiable” genre sound like as a playlist? Probably a pretty icky mélange. “Unclassifiable” may reflect one’s personal appreciation, but effectively, it’s no better a category than “miscellaneous.”

“Alternative” seems useless for different reasons. It originally referred to bands, who signed with non-mainstream labels, so “alternative” doesn’t necessarily refer to a well-defined sound or genre.  “Alternative” doesn’t mean two songs sound even remotely alike. Furthermore, bands which were once “alternative” may now be mainstream (Hello, Snow Patrol!). Wolfmother sounds enough like AC/DC that you may as well label both “rock.” Or “metal.” Or something more helpful than “alternative.”

4. Combine redundant tags

This principle overlaps with the point about consistency, but we should highlight the importance of both combining and distinguishing between categories – something that may apply to the same file or song. (For a related discussion, see Rachel Lovinger on splitting and lumping, too.) For instance, when I searched on “electronic” within iTunes, I found I had songs tagged with the following genres: electronic, electronica, Electronica/Dance and Dance/Electronic, Electronica & Dance and Rock/Electronic. That doesn’t even include electro, which I’d allow a separate genre for or other genres like downtempo, dubstep or trip-hop which would often fall under Electronic.

What a mess. I selected all of these and replaced them with “Electronic.” Could I have distinguished between Dance and Electronic? Perhaps, though, if they truly share the Electronic genre, I’m happy to go with that. That does bring us to our next point, though.

5. Distinguish between different tags

As important as it is to group things consistently, it’s also important to allow their distinctions. Trip-hop, glitch hop, dubstep and electro, for example, are all sub-genres, which might appear under electronic. They are all, also, arguably distinguishable. If you’re familiar with these genres, you’ll provide more sorting utility by labeling music with them, rather than simply placing them solely under an amorphous tag like “Electronic/Dance.” We’re spoiled with a wealth of musical variety in the 21st century. May as well help other folks discover these rich veins of music.

Now, if I could just get Apple to add a separate column for “tags” (or at least allow multiple genres), then I could place songs under more than one genre or subgenre (electronic and dubstep) and filter them in different ways (dubstep is also chill is also electronic). Then I could tag a tune like Burial’s “Shell of Light” with all of these. Creating a playlist just ain’t the same, and it’s more difficult to create playlists when songs aren’t tagged correctly.  Besides, I use playlists to create groupings, which ignore genre (workout, Summer Party, NYC, road trip, romantic, etc). Finally, allowing for additional, well-crafted tags would allow me to better create new playlists on the fly.

Well, back to my iTunes. I have housecleaning to do.

*Links provided to songs and bands on, purely for your listening enjoyment

Pandora Pandemic

Matt Geraghty   May 15, 2009


Is the writing on the wall for traditional and satellite radio? (image via Hyrck)

Pandora. It’s the most downloaded app for the iPhone. There are a whopping 27 million existing listeners. 10,000 new songs are added monthly. They have a growing roster of 70,000 artists. It’s the most popular radio station in virtually every major market across the nation. The average listening time is over 3 hours every day. So what’s Pandora’s secret?

It’s content strategy, of course. Pandora’s robust taxonomy and selective curatorial process are the two major building blocks to their service which now boasts adding 60,000 listeners a day, competing directly with Sirius XM and going head to head with broadcast radio.

Behold the Taxonomy

Begun in 2000, Pandora spent years building the Music Genome Project: a taxonomy-based music categorization platform. By identifying over 400 different characteristics of a piece of music, it categorizes and classifies all musical submissions. Your favorite songs might be tagged as having avant-garde leanings, a driving swing feel, a vamping harmony, a minor key tonality, emotional vocals, an outside piano solo or aggressive drumming. Give it thumbs up or thumbs down and Pandora begins algorithmically analyzing your likes and dislikes, serving you up engaging recommendations of music that have similar musical DNA. Pandora works as a personal music classifier instantly becoming your audio tastemaker. For good or bad.

Sifting Through the Submissions

Pandora has also honed its content curation process and this might be what makes it stand out from other online music services. According to founder Tim Westergren at a recent Town Hall at Razorfish in NYC, “The challenge isn’t [expanding] the size of the catalog, it’s not having the catalog get too big. Only 10% of the music submitted is actually ready for prime time.”

Their team of musicologists sifts through submissions to look for strictly high quality music that they deem worthy of inclusion in Pandora. Each song that makes the cut to be part of the Pandora library is evaluated for its musical characteristics. “We spend up to 30 minutes analyzing a song and assigning its unique descriptive characteristics,” says Westergren. It then lives in Pandora waiting to be served up to online fans.

Beyond the Browser

But will this marriage of musicology, taxonomy, content curation and user feedback aid in the demise of broadcast and satellite radio as we know it? The tide could be turning as Pandora offers an enticing alternative to the ‘pay for content’ model.

“Our goal is to have a billion listeners,” says Westergren. “This will be replacing the hours you spend on satellite radio. In some cases, we want all of your listening hours, whether it is an iPod, broadcast radio, or satellite. We think the most vulnerable is satellite radio right now. It’s tough competing with personalized free radio compared to paying $15 dollars a month. We’re pretty confident about that trade off.”

So how will Westergren increase adoption? It’s hard to say, but now with 1/3 of Pandora’s new listeners signing up every day through their mobile device it’s clear that he is strategizing beyond the browser and striving to integrate his product into users’ daily lives. But Pandora has its shortcomings, too.

Pandora vs. iTunes

Can a piece of art really be objectively judged solely by the sum of its parts? If your tastes are very specific, you will be interested in Pandora until it stops playing what you want—then you might be inclined to skip to the next song. A common pain point users have is the restriction of only 6 skips per hour. This is a minor inconvenience but a necessary limitation built into their current licensing model.

And how can Pandora effectively distinguish between artists who are identified for their original sound and less desirable ones that simply emulate that style? Pandora falls short as well if I want seamless uninterrupted listening on my morning subway commute to the office. The iPod is the logical choice, loaded with my favorite music, already with on-demand access. Will a user base armed with iPods continue to sacrifice control and reliability for free access to Pandora’s library? We’ll stay tuned to find out. Miles Ahead of the Rest?

Matt Geraghty   March 16, 2009
miles-davis-lala-albumsMiles runs the voodoo down, one free track at a time. (via)

Is it too good to be true? 6 million songs for free without the guilt of illegal downloading? Your entire music collection stored in the cloud, accessible from any browser? And a streamlined user experience to boot?

Enter Out of the 1000’s of digital music services to choose from, Lala shines for four reasons: its content, delivery model, interface and user experience.

First, Lala says good riddance to mere 30-second sound bites and gives users access to free, full-length tracks. These are free samples users can really sink their teeth into: 6 million tracks, free for the first play and rock-bottom 10 cent pricing to add it to your online library. Listen to the entire discography of Miles Davis (140 albums), loads of tracks by Fela Kuti (over 30 albums), or the sounds of Rio de Janeiro with Jobim (32 albums). Lala knows that people are accustomed to getting their music content for free. Listening to just 30 second clips on iTunes of Stevie Wonder’s entire discography would probably perturb rather than encourage a purchase. Lala gets it. Give them free content and then users will be more prone to want to call Lala home.

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Scatter/Gather is a blog about the intersection of content strategy, pop culture and human behavior. Contributors are all practicing Content Strategists at the offices of Razorfish, an international digital design agency.

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