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In my last post, Pirates Didn’t Kill the Music Industry, after bashing on everything about the way music is sold, I promised to make up for it by talking about something actually going right:  Which music websites help people discover new music?  The music-service-aware reader might be expecting me to praise Pandora, Last.fm, and Grooveshark, but I’m not going to.  Admittedly, I use all three of those websites.  I think they’re great for listening to music.  But they all have recommendation features that work algorithmically.  They look at data, like people who listened to song A also listened to song B, and are even able to calculate which songs sound similar, then they play music like what I’m already listening to.  This model hardly fosters, in fact maybe even hinders, the discovery of new and different music and that’s why I have never heard a song that I didn’t already know about on any of these sites.

One of my favorite websites of all time was imeem.  It was the perfect social network for music.  Users uploaded their music, and if the record labels approved anybody could listen to it, but often users uploaded songs they had recorded or remixed themselves.  Then everyone could listen, rate, comment, and recommend music to others.  You could friend other users and join groups just like any social network.  Here’s the magic part of it though:  By joining groups of people with similar tastes in music, essentially every day you could get a full list of songs hand-picked by people who like what you like.

We have a long way to go before an algorithm can identify my personality type and know how to recommend music cross-genres when even I’m not yet aware I like a certain genre.  The music I was introduced to on imeem was often not well known nor a style I had ever heard before.  When faced with something new and different, an algorithm has to aggregate the data before it can make a suggestion, but we’re caught in the middle of a bell curve and everybody’s only listening to the most popular of the popular songs so it will probably never get that data until you already know about it.  Only other people, with all their complexity and imperfection, can make such precisely targeted recommendations after hearing new music for the first time.

Imeem ended up getting itself into a lot of debt to record labels and was ultimately shutdown and its memberships bought by MySpace.  I must insist that this isn’t because it couldn’t have driven music sales.  It’s debt was to the record labels for streaming their music for free.  First off, I found the usefulness of the site had less to do with its offering of free mainstream content than it did with the community and its recommendations and the lesser known music.  But secondly, I am among many users who claim we would have paid to use it.  Grooveshark manages to stay in business with an optional premium service that costs only $6 a month.  Imeem had a VIP service too, but frankly it didn’t include features I cared about nor was I aware they were in such dire need of money at the time.

Just a note:  Perhaps a bit unfairly, I have not tried using MySpace music.  I cannot deal with the dozens of simultaneously auto-playing flash objects on every single page of the site.

A site that’s still around and useful is the Hype Machine.  Some people have described Hype Machine as being just like a Google for music that crawls all of the web; in fact, it’s more refined than that.  Essentially, the staff chooses specific sources to include, written by people who are experts at picking music.  The result is a continually updated selection of new and unique music.  If you just browse down the latest songs on the homepage, you probably won’t like everything you hear.  But you can follow specific music reviewers and categories, and what I find interesting is the possibility that the personality types for music taste may be easily exhaustible and could perhaps be well represented by a finite number of reviewers selected by the Hype Machine staff.  I don’t think it’s there yet, but the implication is that a single reviewer, or much smaller combination of reviewers, could epitomize my experience with imeem from a larger group of people.

There are tons of sites out there claiming to help people discover new music, but far too many are taking an algorithmic approach when really there ought to be much more emphasis on the people.  Humans are still good for plenty of things, even with all our technological advances.  “Apps” are ruling people’s decisions when it should be the other way around.

If you haven’t picked up on it, this entire post is also a bit of a metaphor for all the discussion regarding Facebook friends providing personal recommendations being a threat to Google.

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