The Echo Nest: a powerful preference engine


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With a vast library of music available online (in many cases, legally -- imagine that), a sort of paralysis of options can set in. Where do you start? What do you play? Who are these guys, anyway? That’s why, ever since the original Napster opened the floodgates of MP3s online, tech entrepreneurs have peddled tools to help music fans assemble playlists of things they like. Consider it another front in the age-old battle between humans and machines: Services such as Music Buddha and the Music Genome Project (now Pandora) employed real people to categorize artists and songs, while others such as MongoMusic (bought and cast into obscurity by Microsoft) relied on algorithms and other software wizardry to detect the similarities between Estelle and Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band.

I’ve talked to a bunch of companies in this field over the last decade, and most haven’t survived. Yet new entrants pop up all the time, the latest (in the machine-powered category) being The Echo Nest, a project that grew out of the work of two MIT Media Lab PhDs: Brian Whitman, who specializes in software that recognizes and understands what people write about online, and Tristan Jehan, who does the same for the music posted there. Backed by three National Science Foundation small-business grants, they’ve developed a software platform they call the Musical Brain, and it rocks.


Jim Lucchese, an entertainment attorney who serves as the start-up’s CEO, said the Musical Brain crawls the Web and reads everything it can find about music, extracting information from blogs, reviews, social networks and playlists about bands and the music they’re associated with. It also measures how hot a band is, at least in cyberspace, by looking at indicators such as blog mentions or its Amazon sales ranking. The Brain’s other major function is to analyze all the songs in a collection for tempo, dominant key and other psychoacoustic properties. The point, Lucchese said, is to provide the depth of analysis that human-powered preference engines do, but at a cost (in dollars and time) more suitable to mass-scale applications.

The company is unveiling the Musical Brain today at the DEMOfall 08 conference in San Diego with a few showy customized applications. The less serious one is More Cowbell, a site that adds more cowbell clanks (and more goofy snippets from Christopher Walken) to songs uploaded by users. The point here is to demonstrate the Musical Brain’s ability to detect and match tempos. (The site wasn’t letting me upload anything yesterday, so I can’t vouch for its abilities.) The more impressive piece of work is called The Echotron, which shows off the Brain’s ability to analyze music, create playlists and assemble rich tapestries of audio, video, blog posts and data about artists. The playlist it created from my input was first-rate, matching my obscure indie-band tastes with an array of equally obscure but compatible artists. And with a couple of clicks, each artist on the playlist led to its own customized group of musicians. Think of it as an intelligent overlay to the chaos of music online, a tour guide to the amusement park.

The Echo Nest isn’t planning to make a living by offering its wares directly to the public. Instead, its business model depends on commercial websites employing the Musical Brain in their services. The hope, Lucchese said, is that ‘we’ll power the next hundred Last.FM-type plays instead of trying to be the next one ourselves.’ One of the first to use the Brain is iMeem, which will offer a Pandora-style personalized radio stream powered by Echo Nest’s technology. The company is also offering a tool it calls Myxdup, which automates the process of mashing up audio and video. According to Lucchese, the software can automatically match song tempos, interpolate key changes and cross-fade songs while doing some basic video analysis to synchronize the visuals to the sounds.

Naturally, Lucchese harbors larger ambitions. ‘Ultimately, what we’d love to be able to do,’ he said, is ‘engage with the content owners directly.’ His goal is to be a bridge between copyright holders and start-ups, helping to draw entrepreneurial developers away from the ‘Infringe copyrights, run like hell, get a user base, get sued, negotiate your license deals for there’ mode they’ve been in since Shawn Fanning unleashed Napster on an unsuspecting world. Umm, good luck with that. Judging solely by the number of preference-engine businesses that have died a premature death, The Echo Nest will have problems enough just trying to meet the simple objective of staying alive.

Thanks to AP photographer Jeff Roberson for the ear and Webweaver for the clipart.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times’ Opinion Manufacturing Division.