The era of “integrated music api´s”

This post was written for my client Spectralmind and appeared initially on their blog:

In a recent blog-post, music analyst Mark Mulligan muses about a “Music start-up strategy 2.0“.

In the essence, he asks the question, whether or not a music startup necessarily needs to obtain music licenses from record labels. This is a question, which we discussed quite seriously at Spectralmind as well. Why would a music tech startup need music licenses?

Of course, we need large music catalogs to analyze them. The larger the better. Currently we work with sample libraries in the range of 100k items.  What we need is temporal access to music inventories for the sake of running the tracks in high-speed through our analysis software, without altering them in any way. But sole analysis does not necessarily presume to acquire music distribution licenses. This seems to be in line with what Mulligan says:

“…. in the more immediate term start-ups should look at ways to deliver their experiences without licenses.  No I’m not advocating the Groove Shark approach, but instead leveraging the content licenses of digital music services that are pursuing ambitious API strategies.  Music start-ups should think hard about whether they really need to own music licenses themselves to deliver a great user experience, or at least whether they need to right away ……. In the era of integrated music API’s it is no longer crucial for a music service to have its own licenses.  An investor wouldn’t expect a mobile app developer to own Android, iOS or Windows Mobile so they need not expect a music service to own music licenses.”

Mulligan addresses the era of “integrated music API´s”. In fact, there is a range of companies out there, some of them startups itself, which are striving to fuel a new wave of music applications by granting access to music, music metadata or other music related information.

In other words: the scope of upcoming music apps goes far beyond the creation of just another download storefront or just another streaming portal. Playback of music is certainly a central use-case, but there´s much more possible with music. The interaction of music consumers with their content is manifold, and with the broadening of digital listening experiences (e.g. through smartphones, cars, connected homes), new needs for contextual services to improve discovery, search or social interaction about music, emerge. This new breed of music apps does not only accommodate to consumer needs, they help to create differentiators for the established digital music distributors, each of them struggling to extend their footprint, if nothing else, than to generate the returns needed to cover the upfront payments for music licenses.

Personal information management in the age of the cloud – a problem statement

This post was written for my client gnowsis and appeared initially on their blog:

Yes, I remember the cloudless days, when I started to work digitally. Digital work at that time was centered around a quintessential tool, the personal computer.

„Working with the PC“ created soon significant numbers of byproducts: files. I stored these files on my personal computer and considered them as my personal information – easy as that. With the growing number of files appeared the need, to keep all that non-physical stuff more organized. For this purpose, smart brains had invented „folders“, that helped me since then, to stow away digital documents like in virtual drawers. Over time, a kind of organizational structure of folders grew, more or less tightly reflecting my professional and privat life. Although, at some point in time, folders started to become annoying, simply because of their habit, to multiply and to stick into each other. Personal information management started to give me headaches. A little headache when I needed to save a file somewhere, and a bigger headaches, when I needed to find a previously saved file again. Nothing too dramatic, but with a growing touch of uneasiness. Manageable at the end of the day, at least with some clean-up sessions across the entire directory from time to time.

Since then, my once singular and comprehensible personal information space has splintered into branches. It started with the permission to use the company network. I expatriated a lot of files to a network drive. Not enough of owning a couple of personal network folders, I soon got used to let some files reside in community with other peoples files in shared folders. My PC no longer was the unique and privileged keeper of my files. IT-departments took charge. Still, I kept the majority of my docs local. Sharing was still the exception. But the term „personal“ in computing and in information management got scratches.

Over time, shared folders have migrated into the cloud. Place of storage increasingly ceased to indicate the attribute „personal“.

As of today, my information space is multi-homed. My documents are spread across private and shared Dropboxes, as requested by one customer, they live on a Google Drive for some editorial tasks with other clients. I would not be astonished, to see them populate SkyDrives, some amazonian folders or the iCloud with the next projects to come. In most cases, that´s perfectly fine: sharing is essential for collaboration, sharing avoids requests, to check out a single file and send it via mail. Shared folders create a home for the outcomes of jointly executed work. But when I need a file, I need to ask myself first, in which cloud it lives. When I save a file, I´m frightened to confuse a destination folder and save sensitive stuff unintentionally in a place, where it does not belong. I find myself preserving important documents in unshared folders, to avoid, that they are modified by others. I experience version conflicts with files edited, or replicated by others. Searching across various clouds is painful, with each cloud service provider handling search differently. Uneasy, still and again.

My notion of „personal information“ has started to blur as shared access is on the rise to become the default. My personal information space progressively overlaps with the personal information space of others. At the same time, this information space was never more fragmented then now. The benefits of sharing are offset by the risks of losing control:

  • Who „owns“ a document in a shared repository?
  • Does ownership migrate from me to others, who collaborate to some extent on „my“ file?
  • Do I have (or lose) the right to name a file and to keep it at a certain spot in the shared area?
  • When does a change of name, place or content of a document turn intended collaboration into misappropriation?
  • Who does the clean-up in a shared folder?
  • How can it be done without impacting other collaborators?
  • Is it probably arrogant to request it?

The bottom line: in hindsight, personal information management was never free from contradictions and problems in file handling and file organization. Granted the less-than-perfect ways to manage larger numbers of documents, but at least I had full and exclusive control and responsibility over all files.

The new hegemony of the cloud(s) relieves me from some pains. Think multi-device access, forget worries about storage space and back-ups, enjoy convenience in collaboration. What got lost while moving into the clouds, is a setting to easily obtain a central view and functionality to manage all aspects of file-level control in shared environments. I want to know for sure, who can view, edit, rename, duplicate, relocate or delete my files. In terms of search, I want to stay on top of my assets spread across multiple clouds and I want to be assured, that any file related policy is not violated or circumvented through search processes or contextual content discovery.

If it is control, that significantly constitutes the notion of „personal“ in „personal information management“, then it needs to be addressed in the domain of „shared information management“. With no IT department in charge between me and my files anymore, I´m ready to take my part of responsibilities. So, please: give me the tools.

The Creative Solitude of Online Collaboration

This post was written for my client gnowsis and appeared initially on their blog:

In her best-selling book „Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can´t Stop Talking„, the author, Susan Cain, challenges the suitability of collaboration as a means to produce great creativity outcomes or good decision making.

Opposing mainstream believes about the collaborative powers and benefits of groups, she refers to a number of research, which comes to the conclusion, that work in solitude frequently originates much better results, let alone the fact, that many people simply prefer to work in an uninterrupted and unobserved environment. Specifically, she warns, that working in teams, sharing of open-plan office spaces or other forms of unsheltered social exposure at work can be prone to a phenomenon called „groupthink“.

Groupthink, a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis (1972), occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment”.  Groupthink happens, when the desire for harmony in a decision-making group overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives. Individual creativity, uniqueness and independent thinking fall prey to the groups efforts to minimize conflict and reach consensus.

I´m sure, most of us have made unwelcome experiences with groups at work. Thinking of tired brainstorming sessions. Or phone conferences dominated only by the most vocal participants. Or the desire to flee from a noisy office.

How do these experiences relate to online collaboration? Is online collaboration equally susceptible to the socially negative cost of group work? Is online collaboration better qualified to emphasize creativity and to produce more appropriate business outcomes?

Even Susan Cain thinks this is the case: „Groups brainstorming electronically, when properly managed, not only do better than individuals, research shows; the larger the group, the better it performs. The same is true of academic research. Professors, who work together electronically, from different physical locations, tend to produce research, that is more influential than those either working alone or collaborating face-to-face.“

The online collaboration environment is both, a protective and stimulating place to work for all participants. Its separation from the immediacy of the direct conversation allows to unfold contributing behavior in an asynchronous way. This leaves more time to think and decelerates controversial discussions into a comprehensible, slow-motion pace.

As Susan Cain expressed it in her book: „Participating in an online working group is a form of solitude all its own.“

More about her balanced views on teamwork versus work in solitude in this New York Times article.

Music Visualization as the Content Interface

This post was written for my client Spectralmind and appeared initially on their blog:

In the history of mobile music, content discovery has always been a challenge. Music stores represent a special kind of information overload. Exploring the depth of a super-sized content catalog, given the limited screen size of a mobile device, is a bit like doing the weekly shopping while looking through a matchbox cover.

Already in the days of the ringtone craze, music distributors thought of methods to improve the content exploration experience on small screens, hoping to create a discovery convenience that ultimately adds to the stickiness of the mobile storefront and that stimulates higher consumption. Since then, a flurry of content discovery approaches have been put in place.

music discovery on a mobile phone

Here’s a quick overview of some of the main discovery methods:

In the beginning was the browsing portal. Drop-off rates of more than 50% per menu level, even in popularity-based menu structures invalidated this model. The battle for main page presence was decided shortly after in favor of access categories like “new” (aka “novelties” or “latest additions”), ”most wanted” (aka “charts”) combined with the display of lists of noteworthy, editorially selected albums or tracks.

  • Personalized storefronts. The idea is to rearrange a mobile storefront according to a user’s previous browsing history, assuming that the historic session would be indicative of the user’s preferences. Users appreciate personalization, but want popular content at other times.
  • Discovery through search. Valid idea, but only if the user knows exactly what to search for.
  • Recommendation engines. An attempt to infer a user’s music preference algorithmically from his/her past purchases, followed by suggestions of music bought by other users with similar preferences. Alternatively, recommendations are derived from human classification of content as the basis for the suggestion of matching titles. Such recommender systems have a permanent place in today’s music storefronts.
  • Social sharing and communities. This idea picks up the concept of “following” (another user and his/her purchases or music plays) or the sharing of playlists and their proliferation through social networks.

What we find in today’s music stores is a best-of-breed combination of all of the above. These are tried and tested methods. Still, we believe music discovery needs an innovative push. Music services are increasingly similar. They offer more or less the same content at the same price. They even look similar in terms of their user interfaces and they provide comparable user experiences. In short: music distribution needs differentiators to avoid commoditization.

Here at Spectralmind, we believe in data visualization as the new frontier of music discovery. Data visualization is an art, which attempts to turn even very big data sets into visual patterns, structures and elements, in order to make the data readable and understandable. There is no doubt that music represents an enormous body of data. The leading digital music distributors pride themselves on managing catalog sizes in the range of 15-20 million tracks. Visualization methods can repackage such volumes into easily accessible formats.

Our approach goes beyond the static visualization of data. In sonarflow, our visual music browser, graphical catalog visualization is the interface to navigate, operate and explore vast arrays of musical content and to expose music recommendations in a spacial and gestural environment.

This interface is capable of embracing core user needs for content discovery:

  • browsing through large stocks of content in an intuitive and seamless way
  • discovery through serendipitous expedition, ready to encounter music of unexpected relevance
  • personalization through playlist creation
  • social sharing

So hey, if you are in music distribution, don’t fall into the commodity trap. Get in touch, we would love to show you our approach.

Search Ain’t Misbehavin’

This post was written for my client Spectralmind and appeared initially on their blog:

Searching music offside of the mainstream can be tedious. Recently i fell for a particular jazz piano genre, called “Harlem Stride Piano” while listening to a radio broadcast. Stride piano developed in the 1920s and 1930s in New York as an advancement from Ragtime. It is characterized by a rhythmic left hand play, where the pianist alternates a bass note or octave on the first and third beat with chords on the second and fourth beat, while the right hand plays the melody line. This causes the left hand to leap great distances on the keyboard, often at neck-break speed. Back then, pianists like Fats Waller, James P. Johnson or Eubie Blake were famous stride virtuosos.

Louis Mazetier introduces harlem stride piano

Today, only a few pianists are capable to play stride, and I was curious to find out about contemporary ”Harlem Stride Piano” interpreters and recordings.

The textual search for “Harlem Stride Piano” in iTunes led to zero results. Even in the advanced search of iTunes, you can only search for artists and interpreters, title- or track names, but not for genres. A search just for “stride piano” brought up one album, fortunately carrying both terms in its title. Similar, Spotify´s search for “Harlem Stride Piano” did not match anything, whereas a search for “stride piano” returned a few albums because of the use of the terms “piano” and “stride” in their titles or tracks.

Still unsatisfied, i continued the search for contemporary stride players in Google, YouTube and Wikipedia to find out about artists like Louis Mazetier, Günther Straub or Bernd Lhotzky. Knowing their names finally helped me to find the desired tunes in iTunes and Spotify.

This little research clearly depicts the limits of text based music search. It´s results depend largely on the coincidental presence of the chosen search terms in the title or artist name. If you have nothing but a tune, search is often impossible. What´s missing is search for music based on the sounds of a sample track.

While chasing contemporary “Harlem Stride Piano” records through Spectralmind´s audio intelligence platform, I certainly would have used Fats Wallers “Ain´t Misbehavin“. For sure, a sound-similarity search would have brought up more and better results in far less time.

Working Center Stage

This post was written for my client gnowsis and appeared initially on their blog:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts ….

(William Shakespeare, As You Like It, 1623)

Working in a collaborative online-environment has some resemblance with a stage play. Here´s the observation:

As we work online, we perform. We create work artifacts, that appear in an activity stream, which is a stage. What we post, is immediately perceptible by a larger audience. Before their eyes, work unfolds, taking the form of a drama, comedy, problem play, impromptu, show or whodunit. The perfomance might captivate the audience´s attention or bore them to death, trigger frenetic jubilation or harsh criticism.

Online collaboration can take on the form of a modern play, where the line between performers and audience is blurred and anyone can enter the stage at any time, or, vice-versa, retire from acting out. Performance through individual and collective contribution and improvisation.

Or, to the contrary, online collaboration can follow a stricter dramaturgy, probably called business process, with well-defined roles, timed entrances from the left and from the right and a text rendered closely to the default.

For some it is easy to conquer such a stage. They seek the ramp, claim lead roles, they can play themselves in the foreground, sometimes undeserved.
For others it is much more difficult to step into the limelight. It requires confidence and trust. It may cause stage fright and come along with a shaky voice and feelings of exposure and vulnerability.

And there´s always the third group, that feels satisfied with the role of the passive viewer. Consuming the play out of the darkness of the auditorium. But probably applauding after the final curtain and taking home a little bit of wisdom, understanding or joy. Yes, that´s important too.