Tag Archives: Beats Music

Bringing My A Game for the Algorithm

securedownloadEveryone wants to look good in front of a mirror, even if it’s a virtual one.

My experience with Beats Music yesterday triggered an unexpected pang of performance anxiety.  I began, as I always do, by looking through the list of recommendations served up “just for me” by the Beats Music algorithm.  But as I made my way through this tour, I found myself surrounded by mile markers of all too obvious influences.  

Front and center was far more hip hop than I would self-describe.  Thankfully, the usual suspects were comfortably couched by a fair amount of old school credibility.  While I couldn’t begin to guess when I last listened to Eric B & Rakim (or will again), my inner music snob found it nice to have them around.

On either side of this rap heap were towering totems of (recent) life phases.

On one side there was a lineup that I’ve carried with me from my collegiate years, along with each and every other person who went off to school in the mid-90’s.  As I scrolled past Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins and Jane’s Addiction, I began to quicken the pace as I searched for the recommendations that would validate the peerless music knowledge that I (thought I) had during those years.  Where was the Mary Lou Lord b side?  How about the rare Pearl Jam bootleg that would prove that even though I liked the biggest band on the planet at the time I did so in a clever way?  Alas, the only faint nod that Beats gave to my collegiate self-estimation was an Air album.

Flanking these juggernauts of college rock was the soundtrack from nights of my twenties.  Browsing lounge dwellers such as Portishead and Basement Jaxx and DJ Shadow, I could almost feel myself staying up past midnight once again.

This walk down my musical memory lane was impressive in its accuracy and unnerving in its honesty.

Nowhere to be found was the rare jazz cut, the emerging artist, or the instrumentalist from a country’s whose name I can’t quite spell.  While I’d like to explain this away by blaming the inherent logic of every recommendation engine (built to please, not surprise), I knew I couldn’t let myself off this easy.  Because behavior doesn’t lie.  Algorithms serve up what you have demonstrated that you will enjoy: not necessarily what you’d like to tell others that you enjoy.

The unexpected wrinkle within the algorithms that are working their way into more and more facets of our everyday lives is the fact that we’re going to care about how we look like in all of these virtual mirrors.  We may even find our decisions swayed by the desire to shape the recommendations that will get played back to us.  Will your next Netflix viewing be a decision made for you, or a decision made for what will get reflected back to you?

Here’s a track that I’d like to see the next time I glance in the Beats Music mirror.   I think you’ll enjoy it as well.

Two, Antlers

The Demise of Turntable.fm and the Difficulty of Leaning Forward

Screen Shot 2013-12-08 at 1.08.15 PMI fondly recall spending the better part of the summer of 2011 on Turntable.fm.

Oblivious to sunshine or sleep or other such distractions, I spent hours hunched over my laptop plotting how to get a roomful of avatars to bob their heads back and forth.  I looked up only long enough to breathlessly blog about the phenomenon.

I was far from alone in my fandom.  Soon dubbed “the most exciting social service of the year,” Turntable.fm had everyone from Zuckerberg to Diplo at the decks and was reportedly drawing money from the likes of Lady Gaga and The Roots.

But then, a mere matter of months after being dubbed the next big thing, the wind began to seep from Turntable’s sails.  And now, a year or so after most people presumed Turntable dead, this week the axe finally fell on yet another music service.

Why did Turntable fail?

The obvious but incomplete reason is that it’s a major pain in the ass to run a music service that is both legal and profitable.  Labels, still persistently pursuing immediate pennies over dollars of the future, insist on licensing deals that make the economics of music services virtually impossible (because, you know, why would the music industry want to incentivize consumers to discover new music?).  Having decided to be legal (and global) from the early days, Turntable set a profit hurdle that was nearly certain never to be met.

But the bigger reason for the demise of Turntable and other such services is that it is wickedly difficult to get consumers to lean forward for music.

Interactive music discovery services remain like those foreign documentaries in your Netflix queue: you’re proud to have found them, you have every intention of leaning forward into them someday, but you keep finding yourself slumping into the couch and watching House Hunters.

Likewise, when you put the time into it, Turntable was unquestionably more rewarding than the Pandoras of the world.  Trouble is, generally speaking, we don’t end up putting the time into it.  Effortless okay almost always wins out over time-consuming awesome.  This trade-off of ease for awesome remains the Gordian knot of music services.

It’s hard to substantiate sadness for the end of a service that I had left long ago.  But yet here I am, reaching for my wallet to buy the t-shirt that they’re printing to commemorate what was… just like the nostalgic concert t-shirt for a band that you always knew was going to break up.

Ironically, this unfinished demo from J. Cole is the song that I posted when I first wrote about Turntable.  As I re-post the track, I do so hoping that Turntable served as an unfinished demo for what music can become: something for which we don’t have to give up awesome for easy.  I’ve got high hopes for Ian and my friends at Beats Music as they make their debut next month: if they can crack this dilemma, we’ll all be the better for it.

Cheer Up, J.Cole (unfinished demo)