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Taking Notes

In just six years, The Echo Nest has indexed 30 million songs and a galaxy of articles, blog posts and sales figures. The end result will revolutionize the way we listen to music.

Author Alyssa Giacobbe Illustration Alex Nabaum

AS PH.D. STUDENTS at MIT, Tristan Jehan and Brian Whitman were bitter rivals. Between them, they’d spent 15 years trying to teach computers to understand music the way people do, analyzing songs and artists based on qualities like voice, tonality, genre and cultural significance. The ideal program, according to Jehan, could tell you, for example, not just who Justin Bieber sounds like, but what he sounds like, in terms of qualities like tone and tempo. Whitman thought it would be more important to look at the Bieb’s cultural impact at any given time, not through how he sounds but through what the music community is saying about him.

Eventually, the two realized that their goals were essentially the same and they joined forces. Six years later, their company has one clear, if lofty, purpose: to aggregate, index, interpret and share every last note — and every last word written about every last note — within the vast world of music. Building on technology Jehan and Whitman created at school, the company develops engines based on a number of variables: artists and songs, listeners’ habits, what people are blogging about, buying or sharing with their friends and so on. These engines power music recommendations and intelligent apps like Pocket Hipster, mainly, but they also provide valuable market information to record labels, subscription music services and radio stations — “collaborative filtering,” as the company likes to call it. “Music is this universal language, but there are literally millions of dialects around the world, and they’re changing every day,” says Jim Lucchese, a former Manhattan music lawyer who was brought on as CEO in 2007. “It’s an enormous data problem to understand that activity.”

At The Echo Nest’s Somerville, Mass., offices, a few dozen employees, most of them software engineers, man computers that acquire and synthesize data, monitor Echo Nest–powered servers and argue over what’s playing on the office sound system, which, in the span of an hour, includes Pink Floyd, Willie Nelson, Deadmau5 and some bootleg reggae. “On any given day it’s somewhere between democracy and anarchy,” says Lucchese, noting that these are people who take their music very seriously. At least 60 percent of the staff, including both founders and Lucchese himself, are in local bands.

Every day, The Echo Nest’s large-scale web crawlers retrieve and file more than 350 new song releases, countless record sales figures and tens of thousands of blog posts and tweets in real time. It’s an overwhelming amount of data. In six years, they have catalogued more than 30 million songs. In comparison, Pandora, which uses real musicians to log song titles and descriptions, has spent a decade indexing about 800,000.

If you’re wondering why this is the first you’re hearing of The Echo Nest, it’s because the company works largely behind the scenes, providing its database to a network of more than 7,000 independent developers. Access to the database is free for non-commercial use; if a developer later charges for his or her app, which most do, The Echo Nest earns a licensing cut that varies from client to client. (The company declined to release revenue figures.) The Echo Nest has powered more than 150 music applications; some of them, like BiPolar Radio, which uses key, rhythm and timbre to create mood-based playlists (workout playlist, dinner party playlist), are among the most successful of the genre. More interactive music apps have included gigZme, which scans your music library to recommend upcoming concerts near you. Clients range from major corporations with in-house development teams — like MTV, the BBC and Island Def Jam Records — to Dave McKinney, an Australian who created the Discovr music recommendation app, a bestseller in more than 40 countries.

“Before, you could create a MySpace page and be one of 5 million needles in a very big haystack,” says Lucchese. “But using our understanding of the entire music universe, it’s become much easier for newer bands to reach the people most into what they’re doing.” Because The Echo Nest digs up content from even the tiniest blog communities, its technology can, say, help pair Beatles fans with similar-sounding — if obscure — Brooklyn- based singer-songwriters making music in their bedrooms. In addition to analytics, there are also predictive applications, like providing data that can help record labels figure out which blogs most influence sales, which editors might be inclined to favor a particular artist, or how well a hip-hop upstart might sell in Cleveland before he’s even signed.

Of course, part of the thrill of music lies in the search and discovery, not to mention the bragging rights of being able to introduce your friends to the next Arcade Fire. Lucchese insists that Echo Nest technology won’t be robbing anyone of organic experiences like stumbling down 6th Street in Austin or discovering new music through your favorite underground blogger. Rather, the technology represents the perfect union of man and machine. “People are a critical part of what we do,” says Lucchese. “We’re just a window into the conversation. We’re giving you the ability to say, ‘I’m kind of done with Led Zeppelin. But I’d like to know what bands that sound like Led Zeppelin are going to play in Boston soon. And what people are saying about them, and who on Facebook might want to come with me to the show.’ To be able to answer those questions — that’s just awesome.”

Hemispheres contributor ALYSSA GIACOBBE is kind of done with Justin Bieber.


The Echo Nest’s major partnerships further the field of music intelligence

Island Def Jam The first direct partnership between a major label and the app-dev community, orchestrated by The Echo Nest, gives developers access to IDJ’s catalog at no initial cost, in exchange for a cut of future profits.

Columbia’s LabROSA A collaboration with Columbia University, with funding from the National Science Foundation, is the company’s way of giving back to researchers working in the field of music information retrieval.

Rdio The Echo Nest’s partnership with the on-demand social music service has given music app developers access to Rdio’s 8 million–deep catalog of licensed songs, doing away with the ordeal of going directly to artists or labels.

The BBC Powered by Echo Nest technology, the BBC’s Music Showcase curates and compiles music content from the BBC’s library, online conversations and blog posts, and helps tailor what users hear and see, all in a user-friendly web forum.

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