140 – The Natural Order in Social Media Pop Culture

All forms of pop culture media have a natural, ideal length. In pop music, the short catchy tune that has you singing, bopping and craving for more is about 2 and 1/2 minutes long. That romantic comedy flick that didn’t have you shifting in your seat to bring blood to the numb parts of your ass is 90 minutes long. The NY Times best seller fiction novel you’re flipping through is not a word over 200 pages. What if these numbers are all part of the natural order of the universe…like pi is to geometry and Avogadro’s constant to chemistry. If this is so, then 140 characters might just be the natural order number for social media.

Difficult Decisions in Artist Extraction

In my TuneUp CTO days, I tried to create a better News feed about (music) Artists than what I could get from say Google News API. TuneUp was an effective and slick veneer on top of Gracenote’s MusicID-File product but had little-to-no intellectual property. I figured could create some IP by datamining our then 2 million users’ collection data to make correlations between currently active artists and current news about artists to extract the articles effectively and removing the noise that I was seeing in Google News where certain band names create false positives. Examples of these bands are The Cure (“the cure for multiple sclerosis blah, blah, blah”), Live (XYZ is playing live this weekend at…), Prince and just about any of the geographic band names that were popular in the 70s and 80s (Chicago, Kansas, Boston, UK, Asia, Europe). The idea was to map the found artists and see if they were experiencing a spike in playcounts. Also, we added additional algorithms to see how often the band name is repeated throughout the article, if band name was in the publication name (get rid of false positives where the extractor would think that every article in The Chicago Tribune is about the band Chicago) and created blacklists of special words in various languages that cause problems (eg. the word “war” in German) that we needed to treat specially. It worked fairly well and you can still see some of the preliminary results in the News feed in the Tuniverse tab within TuneUp. However, the solution here is one of those never ending problems that can only improve with empirical testing, constant tweaking and addition of subalgorithms…to complicate matters, the problem is compounded I just read that The Echo Next is tackling the same problem. You can test it out here. I tried it with these phrases which were some of my testing phrases from the TuneUp daze: “Prince and princess of Monaco will be visiting in Chicago. Yes, they will.” In an ideal solution, it wouldn’t find anything. I also tried this one: “Deep Purple’s Machine Head is an iconic album.” In this example, the API could improve simply by removing artists that form the name of the other artist’s discography (which The Echo Nest must have somewhere). It seems the API method still has a long way to go. FWIW.

Factory Records as a model for a startup

There is an interesting scene in 24-hour Party People, Michael Winterbottom’s fictionalized movie about the Manchester music scene, that often gets me thinking. Roger Ames, when negotiating the purchase of the assets of Factory Records, reads the contract Tony Wilson wrote for the label’s bands (Joy Division’s contract was rumored to be written in Wilson’s own blood): “The artists own all their work. The label owns nothing. Our bands have the freedom … to fuck off.” I’ve often thought that Factory Records’ simplistic approach to business could well be applied to your standard Silicon Valley, VC-backed high-tech startup. Be done with the endless 50+ page closing documents (and accompanying onerous lawyer charges) just to start the business. Be done with useless board meetings where VCs recite trite scenes from Caddyshack or Blazing Saddles giving operational recommendations on areas where they have no operational expertise. A start-up can lose about 10% of its operating expenses just in closing costs. If they raise, say $800K in seed funding, then the start-up should have very much close to $800K in the bank when the company is fully operational (ie, incorporated with money in the bank) considering that the steps to do this are practically the same for every VC-funded company. Asking the company to pay the VC’s closing costs for a standard deal is a sin on behalf of the VC. Let’s give it a try, shall we? More about Factory Records in a five-part BBC documentary. Here is Part 1 which will lead you to the rest

Why can’t we be friends?

I recently attended Gary Shapiro’s talk at The Commonwealth Club. Gary is the CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association. The talk was in part to promote the publication of his new book, The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream. Gary’s talk, and seemingly his book (which I admittedly haven’t read), dealt a fair amount with politics both national and international. On the national front, he’s scared shitless of the debt and, rightfully so, sees its reduction as the most important task facing the nation and our politicians — but no real solution in the talk (maybe the book comes up with some ideas). He also harped on about education. Shapiro mentioned that K-12 needs major work but that he is admittedly not very knowledgeable at that level. His book focuses more on the graduate level (which he says is tops in the world) and how our current flawed immigration policy forces many of the recent grads out of the country (often against their will). Internationally, his talk was obsessed with China…perhaps rightfully so but also perhaps a bit misguided. Certainly, the China economy is booming and if things continue in the same direction, they will surpass USA as the largest economy. However, at what expense? They are destroying their environment in the name of progress (ain’t we all?) and with uncounted human rights violations. Is that really what we want? Even the portion of his talk that most dealt with technology (and consequently, consumer electronics) was framed by politics. Shapiro believes that wireless broadband — and its national ubiquity — is the most pressing technological issue facing the nation today. He was particularly proud that Congress and the FCC seem to be coalescing in a bipartisan manner behind an effort to free up frequency currently leased to broadcasters to re-purpose it for wireless broadband. Gary Shapiro talk on June 7, 2011Although I agree that wireless broadband is the number one issue to solve, it is a pity that we (the tax payers) will be paying the large broadcasters to use something we (the people) own.  Something to the tune of $30 billion (with a B). Shapiro was very clear about actions that the government needed to take to energize this country back into economic supremacy. However, there is an equally important aspect — what the government should NOT be doing. The one question I wanted to ask — and still burns most brightly in my mind — is regarding reduction of military spending. It seems obviously to me that our current military spend is half our problem. Reducing this would allow for debt reduction, increased education spend AND job creation programs. Simple. Stop the wars now. The real ones like Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya as well as the phantom ones like drugs.

Being On Time – An Artform or just luck

Back in 2000, I joined a video-sharing website pretty much like YouTube. We raised $12 million including a fair share from AOL. AOL had just launched YouGotPictures and had purchased both Spinner and WinAmp. That is to say, they’d made their moves in photos and music…we were pretty sure video would be next. We were in heaven. The AOL investment could only mean that they’d acquire us at some point. Fast-forward 24 months and we had run out of money. Broadband was in its infancy and limited to Bay Area nerd community. Camcorders captured rather longish videos on tape which either mostly stayed on tape or whose length made them too boring for online viewing. There was no dominant playback format so UIs were very cumbersome offering the user the option to playback in Real (remember that one?), Quicktime and Windows Media formats…to say nothing of the backend infrastructure required to support all three formats. There were about 5-8 other venture-backed companies that entered the space in the same era – VideoShare, Eveo, Spotlife, POPcast, Wirebreak…all RIP.  Five years later, YouTube comes along and takes it all. Today, there are a bunch of companies slogging it out in the music subscription services. Here is a quick table listing a few:
Subscription Services Digital Lockers Dead
Rhapsody Napster (bestbuy) Rdio MOG Beyond Oblivion 7Digital Slacker Spotify Sony Qriosity Simfy Amazon Google mp3tunes mSpot Thumbplay (ClearChannel) imeem (MySpace)
Add to these (and I may have forgot some) Apple’s upcoming iCloud service. Projections are wildly optimistic for this sector. ABI research projects massive growth from about 6 million by the end of 2011 to about 160 million by 2016.

Mobile Cloud Music Services - 2011 to 2016 Projections

These projections depict massive growth in Asia-Pacific. If we were to look simply at North America — the geographic target for the bulk of the services above — and, for Spotify, at Europe, the growth is good but this is over five years. Is there enough for ten or twelve players? It seems that companies  in this arena will have the market the shit out of their products and that differentiation will be difficult (they’re all dealing with essentially the same catalogue). Deep pockets (names in italics) and patience will ultimately prevail as companies will need enough to last them at least another 3-5 years until these projections take hold. Traditional VCs may not have it in them to keep funding the new entrants for so long round after round… I don’t have the patience (much less the deep pockets) to weather this one. Expect consolidation, fire sales…and, yes, new entrants…

Hey, Mr. Consumer, do you own the cover art for that music you bought?

Things were so much clearer then. You bought an album or a CD and they’d come with a cover with liner notes and perhaps lyrics. You’d pore over them, roll j’s with them and spill coffee on them. Nowadays, it just ain’t so clear. Nowadays, it just ain’t so clear. I had to do a start-up to build a tool to ge all the cover art for my digital music collection. Online use of cover art has always been a nebulous area. Ecommerce sites like Amazon and iTunes can obviously use cover art to promote sales of the actual product. Digital music purchased from these sites come with the album art in the ID3 tag (or equivalent for other file formats). Pitchfork, Rolling Stones and other online magazines claim editorial fair use. But what about Microsoft’s Windows Media Player? When you insert a CD into your computer and rip it with WMP, it uses a CDDB-like 4k technology to determine the Artist/Album and sends down all the appropriate metadata including the cover art saving it into the file itself in the ID3 tag field for Album Art. Has Microsoft licensed every piece of cover art that match their CD recognition? iTunes has a similar feature — Get Album Artwork — but I’ve never actually been able to get it to work. I presume it does some text matching and only finds artwork for what is in its store (which is why it never works for me). Either way, it doesn’t save the artwork to the music file but puts it in some odd location on your hard drive, renames the image file and does some base64encoding so you can’t easily access it. In 2006, when i was working on cover art solutions, there were rumors that Universal Music Groups was sending cease & desist letters to software companies that were using cover art without licensing it.

Dragging Cover Art from Google Images in a browser to iTunes

When Yahoo! bought MusicMatch (sometime in late 2004) , they closed down its awesome SuperTagger feature which was the best and easiest way to get cover art for your digital music collection in those days… was it due to legal problems or cost of running a service for a piece of software they were going to kill because it competed with their own Yahoo! Music Player? But who really owns the rights to all that cover art out there. Think of an album like Patti Smith’s Horses. The photograph is of Patti Smith…does she own the rights? The photograph was taken by Robert Mapplethorpe? Does the Robert Mapplethorpe estate own the rights? Does Arista Records own it?  Or does Sony own it because Arista is their subsidiary? I can’t imagine these parties ever signed any agreement detailing the rights for digital use of the photograph. Fire up your browser, point it at Bing or Google Images and earch for Patti Smith Horses…or just about any combination of aritst/album or your likinng. Then simply drag and drop any of the image results (large is nice!) straight into iTunes’ lower left-hand corner (make sure you’ve highlighted the matching album in iTunes!) This does indeed copy the image into the file making it viewable on any device or software you bring that file into. Does this make Microsoft and Google in violation of some copyright law? Or iTunes for “encouraging” people to go searching for cover art to put into iTunes? Have the labels or the RIAA sent them cease and desist letters for not protecting copyrighted material? Or do the labels and other copyright owners of the cover art have to send all these search engines takedown notices for each and every item? There are (t)rumors that the labels are again sending out cease and desist letters to software companies that automate the process of getting cover art for their music collection. Should they fight or try to license? Who cares?

Back to Consulting

After a four year consulting hiatus during which I co-founded TuneUp Media and built the TuneUp products, I now return to consulting. It was a great four years during which I built a kickass engineering team — a rather small team that managed to build a great platform for all sorts of music information services. With the platform solidly built, I leave it to others to develop the new services on top and move onto other things. Consulting for now…but incubating new ideas as well…