The Echo Nest’s Rosetta Stone: Unlocking Social Music

November 14, 2013

"Social" has arguably been overused as a buzzword for at least a decade. Music continues to be one of the areas of our business and cultural lives most transformed by the Internet and attendant technologies.

You’d think “music” and “social” would be best of friends by now, but that is not the case.

Music can’t be shared socially the way most, say, cat videos or blog posts can, because different people have different ways of accessing the same music. You might like Rdio, I might like Spotify, our friend might like Rhapsody, their friend might like iTunes, and other people might like Google Play Music All Access, Amazon Cloud Player, or just listening to artist stations on Pandora, iHeartRadio, Slacker, or elsewhere.

Another problem: how do you make each of these services more social, so like-minded music fans can meet each other, thereby significantly improving their experience (through chat, message boards, recommendations, listening rooms, shared playlists, “following,” and the like)?

The Echo Nest is working to fix both of these situations in order to make “social music” a real thing, rather than a buzzword with delusions of reality.

Unlocking Musical Identity

Music fandom used to be like high school: You could tell the mods from the rockers or punks from the jamband kids by their clothes. Now that we’re doing much of our listening and socializing online, you can’t rely on those cues. Really, clothes were never the greatest delineation of what we call one’s Musical Identity in the first place.

You know what can figure out what people really like to listen to? The way they behave as they listen to online music. People interacting with an online music service reveal more about their identity than they do when they’re doing just about anything else because

  1. Music tells you a lot about a person, and
  2. When people listen to music these days, they skip some songs, favorite other ones, turn specific artists into radio stations, each time generating another data point.

Social networks and music services of all stripes have a big incentive to introduce people to each other, because when they’re friends with people somewhere, they have another reason to keep using a service. As such, the “people you might know (or might want to know)” feature is incredibly important, not just within music services, but also for general social networks, online video services, multiplayer games, and just anywhere else people might run into each other online.

Understanding Musical Identity makes for better suggestions, introductions, and groupings of people. If we know even a little bit about a person’s listening habits, we can draw conclusions that allow services to introduce, or otherwise group people, based on their compatibility as music fans, and therefore, as a community of fans.

The social graph is noisy, but music can make sense of it due to our unique ability to understand both music and people. But, what about that other problem we mentioned, about sharing songs across various services?

Frictionless Sharing Through ID Resolution

After making an old-school mixtape back in the day, you could hand it to someone, and it would simply play, regardless of the brand of the cassette deck.

Our new “mixtape”-sharing options online, for all their other advantages, are far more constrained in that sense. The word for this is interoperability, and music fans don’t have it these days, as Union Square Ventures’ Fred Wilson pointed out.

As just one example of how this affects music fans every day, when Facebook began letting people see what their friends are listening to in late 2011, it offered a feature that would be amazing, if it really worked. When you listen to a song on Spotify, your Facebook friend, noticing your activity, can ostensibly listen to that same song in Rdio.

The examples of Spotify and Rdio aren’t crucial here; it could be any two music services. The point is, the same music, or slices of it, exists on every on-demand music service, internet radio station, download store, and music video site — and yet people can’t reliably share across them in a way that scales as well as the cassette tape did in our example above.

Recognizing the opportunity, Facebook currently attempts to function as a hinge between some of these services, but it’s a rusty hinge that doesn’t always work. As The Echo Nest’s CTO and co-founder Brian Whitman pointed out, even a popular artist like Adele can have their song hijacked by a spammer, faker, or cloner when people try to share a song or mix across services.

If that happens with Adele on Facebook, what hope is there for more arcane musicians — or for services that lack Facebook’s funding to try to solve these problems as they arise?

We have already built a large part of the answer to that problem, and we’re building more of it each day. The Echo Nest’s Rosetta Stone translates the unique identifiers that identify artists and songs on these services. This enables apps, the music services themselves, social networks, and all sorts of other resources to forge connections across an otherwise fragmented ecosystem.

We offer our Rosetta Stone solution for free, for non-commercial purposes. One advantage for our business is if a developer wants to use Rosetta Stone, their unique identifiers get added to our system so other people can use them too — and of course all of it hooks seamlessly into our deep music intelligence, so if these companies and developers want to leverage other Rosetta Stone-compatible services too, it’s really easy for them to do that.

Please note that this is not the complete list of Rosetta Stone partners, which you can find here — just the ones that have playable music, plus the top two social networks, to demonstrate the specific social music functionality we referred to above:

The term “ID translation” might not sound too exciting, but giving developers the ability, for the first time ever, to build strong music sharing features that play across services is quite exciting indeed. It’s the best of both worlds, combining the universal interoperability of physical media with the ubiquity and connectedness of social networks and music streaming services.

Musical Identity + Frictionless Sharing

The Echo Nest’s understanding of each fan’s Musical Identity (who you are as a music fan and what that says about you) combined with Rosetta Stone’s ability to translate unique identifiers across sites, apps, and services will go a long way towards making true “social music” a reality.

This post was about horizontal music sharing — as in across services. Stay tuned for the second article in this series, where we’ll explain how developers, music services, social networks, and other parties can leverage our data to provide vertical context around music.