Thanks to the rise of new methods of content delivery like podcasting and user-created video, 2006 was undeniably the year of social media. But while podcasting, that red-headed step-child of traditional broadcasting, has been getting all the attention, Internet radio stations–the stodgy non-web 2.0 versions of terrestrial broadcasting that have been online since the late 90’s–have received a social inheritance of their own. They’re called “music discovery services,” and in 2007, they’re poised to change the way we all listen to music.
Martin Stiksel, an Austrian music journalist, co-founded Last.fm in 2002, which boasted at least 1.5 million users by mid-2006. Last.fm monitors what a user listens to and creates a custom streaming radio station based on their musical tastes. The service lets users rate and tag songs and recommends new music based on how other people with the same tastes have tagged and rated similar songs. Last tracks a user’s listening habits through third-party media players like iTunes, and can determine which songs have been played the most and which ones are the most popular.
The main ingredient of every music discovery service is the voice it gives to lesser-known artists. Not surprisingly, independent labels have been quick to embrace services like Last.fm, with larger labels slowly following. “The independent labels have been supportive since the very beginning. The majors are taking longer, but they are already convinced, too,” says Stiksel.
“It will allow the rise of a musician’s middle class,” adds Tim Westergren, founder of music discovery service Pandora. “I think we’ll be giving exposure and access to a group of musicians that until now haven’t had a chance because there’s just not enough space for them in main stream promotional channels like radio and retail.” Pandora has some of the same goals as Last.fm, but its music discovery is entirely different, and relies on musical similarities instead of user tags and playlists.
Westergren, himself a musician, knew firsthand the challenges of getting publicity as an independent artist, and through his work as a film composer, he began thinking about music as a series of attributes. That way of thinking manifested itself in 2000 with the creation of the Music Genome Project, the technology that now powers Pandora.
A group of about 45 musicians break down each song in Pandora’s database into just over 400 musicological elements based on things like melody, instrumentation, vocals, and rhythm. A Pandora user creates a list of musicians and song titles they like. Pandora then goes out and scans the database for tunes that share those same characteristics and builds a custom streaming radio station on-the-fly.
There’s some minor contention between the camps that advocate social recommendation systems like Last.fm’s and those that advocate algorithmic systems like Pandora, but both services result in streaming playlists that are a leap ahead of any static form of radio.
Like standard internet radio, these new services can reach across countries though the Internet. “You can think of it like technology that allows the user to become a DJ and have their own radio station that can be located in New York or California or Paris, France,” says Avikk Ghose, VP of business development for music discovery service Mercora. During our conversation, Ghose claims to have been listening to a Mercora DJ in Paris webcasting tunes from the Algerian-born French pop singer Nadiya.