It’s just before the launch of Google Music in November, and a group of music geeks–former writers, record store clerks, and short order cooks–is in Building 44, the home of Android and a haven for engineers at Google’s Mountain View headquarters, engaged in yet another long heated argument over music. It’s the kind of debate that goes on in offices all over Google’s campus, but this particular group was deciding where to put one music partner’s song selection on the massively visible store homepage.
Oh, and the guy leading the discussion is the bona fide former front man of a semi-popular ’90s band, Too Much Joy, who was sued by Bozo the Clown and arrested for indecency. Google it.
“We were in the happy position of having more stuff to feature than we had slots for,” says Tim Quirk, Google’s head of global content programming and the former “front dude” in question. “Someone said, ‘We can just put it in staff picks.’ I looked at the room and asked, ‘Who in this room unabashedly loves this particular title?’ Everyone just kind of coughed uncomfortably. ‘If no one is going to raise their hand and say they love this, then it doesn’t qualify as a staff pick.'”
This is the “inviolable rule” of Google Music: Staff picks “are not for sale,” Quirk says. He declined to tell me which song or artist his staff had been arguing over. “It didn’t even wind up on the homepage,” he says. “We had to go back to the partner and say, ‘We can put you in another slot next week–we’re all booked.'”
Shelf space might be unlimited in an online music store, but homepage placement isn’t. Plus, Google is entering the music industry years late, and they’re hoping attention to detail may help distinguish its service from Apple, Spotify, and myriad other competitors. Quirk’s music team consists of roughly a half-dozen full-timers and two-dozen freelancers, who are working to foster an identity for Google Music through staff picks, exclusive tracks, hand-crafted genre selections, and original editorial content. The aim is to breathe life into Google Music–to give it a human touch, and show it’s not a service run by cold, lifeless algorithms.
Quirk (right) has a colorful history in the industry that demonstrates his dedication to creativity and musical ethics. In Too Much Joy, he fumbled through the issue of copyright after being sued by Bozo the Clown for sampling five seconds from a Bozo record. (The sample was removed in a later release.) And shortly after raunch rap pioneers 2 Live Crew were arrested on indecency charges due to their explicit lyrics, Quirk’s band protested by performing 2 Live Crew covers in concert. The band was subsequently arrested, and spent the night in jail.
Cut to today, and Quirk’s working for one of the largest, most influential corporations in the world, a company known far more for engineers and algorithms than former rockstars.
“I’m well aware that people have lots of different views about Google. Most of them are positive, but most of them are technology-based,” Quirk says. “They don’t necessarily think, Oh, there’s a bunch of human beings that care passionately about music working on this thing. I want them to know that there are.”
It’s especially crucial considering how personal and emotional consumers can be about music. It’s why Apple has invested so much to make iTunes not just a store but a lifestyle. Steve Jobs is said to have personally selected many of the songs for Apple commercials, including tracks from bands ranging from The Asteroids Galaxy Tour and Franz Ferdinand to Coldplay and U2. Commercials for iPods evoked bright colors, dancing–euphoric fun. And when iTunes finally gained access to The Beatles, it became a worldwide event. (Walter Isaacson’s biography on Jobs reiterated just how much influence Bob Dylan and The Beatles had on Apple.)
At Spotify’s event last week, founder and CEO Daniel Ek spent much of his time stressing how much he loved music. He talked about singing song lyrics with the TuneWiki app; he showed off social sharing by playing songs from Daft Punk and Prodigy; and booked an indie band he personally loved to play on stage. Pandora and other services have taken a similar approach to crafting their musical identities.
Google is no different, and while late to the party, Google Music at least trying to be fashionably late. The service launched with exclusive tracks designed to show the company’s love for music, including a never-before-released live album from the Rolling Stones, from their 1973 concert in Brussels. They’ve launched Antenna, a weekly feature that helps users discover new up-and-coming artists, and Magnifier, a recurring video feature, that already includes interviews with Drake, Shakira, and Keith Richards.
Quirk describes his team members as being like the “Jack Black character from the movie High Fidelity.” That is, if Jack Black’s character were nice and welcoming. He says it’s depressing how often he hears the phrase, “I like all music–except country.” He crafted his team to be much more open.
“The one thing that everyone on my team has in common is that they appreciate all genres of music,” he says. “Nobody is here to make you feel bad about what type of music you personally like–we just want to tell you more about it.”
It’s a sentiment that’s proved especially helpful at Google, where engineers from all backgrounds roam the halls. “You can sit down in a room with engineers, and even the nerdiest engineer tends to be a music fan. Even if they only have the collective works of They Might Be Giants, they feel very passionately,” he says. Before Google, Quirk had stints at Rhapsody and Listen.com, where he said there was always a rift between engineers and his team of music lovers. “I would constantly get the feedback, ‘Oh, your team is too cool for school.’ And I would always say to them, ‘No! My team is just a bunch of shy introverts! They don’t think they’re cooler than you! I promise that!'” Quirk says. At Google, though, “Everyone feels comfortable coming up to us and saying, ‘Hey, why don’t you feature so and so?'”
Of course, that doesn’t mean engineer suggestions will easily get passed Quirk’s music gurus–even if from Google’s top engineer, CEO Larry Page.
Says Quirk, with a chuckle, “Larry hasn’t yet [made any suggestions] but based on past experience, I’m sure it won’t be too long before I get asked why something has been featured in the Top 10.”