The question will likely be timeless: How do you discover new music? Some companies have bet on human editors, while others put their weight behind clever algorithms. One company thinks the solution is actually more like a pendulum that swings back and forth between the two.
"The best music discovery happens in a context," says Matthew Ogle, founder of This Is My Jam. "It comes from a friend, from someone you admire and trust, or at a specific time or place." The discovery question is one that Ogle has been trying to solve by asking a slightly unusual question: Which song is most likely to hook you on a new sound and keep you listening?
That One Song is a new feature from This Is My Jam that tries to determine that must-hear song by a given artist. It takes all the aggregate data about their songs and narrows the choice down to one track. To date, there have been around 1.5 million songs posted to the company’s site, of which about 500,000 are unique—not duplicates posted by different people.
Visiting the one song page, you literally fill in the blank. "What should I listen to by ____?" The feature was born quickly in about 48 hours and was spurred on by the Midem Hack Day. Searching through the concert listings in Cannes—where Midem was being held—and not recognizing many of the artist names led to the experimental feature.
Behind the scenes the feature works by grouping all the data and then regrouping by artist. Once that's sorted it's then weighted not only by raw number of times a song has been mentioned as someone's jam, but also adds play count and number of likes into the algorithmic decision as well.
"This method worked surprisingly well out of the gate," says Ogle. "Often highlighting either the obvious hit like "Royals" for Lorde, but also frequently throwing a song into the #1 slot that is well known but not usually on top, but still has that certain "jam-factor" like The Beach Boys' 'God Only Knows.'"
What about the obscure songs that have a lot less data attached to them? When someone picks those, it gets assumed that you're a bit more of a music connoisseur and your choice gets weighted heavier. It's an aspect that has more of the human element behind it. The one-song feature is a first step for the company that's finally able at a user level to see patterns in the data.
"The data is now in good enough shape that we can build public-facing experiments on top of it, like That One Song," Ogle says. "We’re super excited to light up those, currently invisible, connections between songs and people, and are having a lot of fun figuring out how best to bring those to life within the context of the site."
For those that follow the music tech scene, it may seem a bit odd for This Is My Jam to being doing its own data mining. The Echo Nest is a company known for making connections between various types of musical data that everyone from Twitter to the BBC use, but interestingly, This Is My Jam chose to spin off from The Echo Nest and is doing all its own data work.
"I was working on a bunch of different projects for the The Echo Nest at the time and This Is My Jam was initially a 'side project' idea that they, to my pleasant surprise, saw the possibilities in and helped support," Ogle says. "By the time the site started taking off, the The Echo Nest’s own B2B (business-to-business) business had started to catch fire as well, and it didn’t make a ton of sense for them to be incubating us forever so we decided to spin it out. An unorthodox route to an independent startup but it worked for us."
This Is My Jam still uses The Echo Nest to ensure that artist names, track titles, and other metadata are correct.
Just because This Is My Jam started as a simple one-trick pony doesn’t mean it’ll always stay that way. It also doesn’t mean that Ogle thinks building a simple service is the solution.
"It’s not simplicity for its own sake—though we do think simple experiences are delightful," Ogle says. "But it turns out simple experiences are great building blocks over time for more complex products/services."
Can This Is My Jam answer the tired question of how music discovery should be done? It doesn’t hurt that Ogle has a solid grip of the actual problem outside of buzzword territory. "Making ‘discovery’ the end goal of a service can be tricky—we struggled with this at Last.fm for a while," says Ogle. "It’s actually quite rare that someone sits down and says ‘I would like to discover music for the next 35 minutes.’ So it becomes more about asking ‘What existing behaviors around music can we enhance?’ or ’How do we motivate people with great taste and reputation to share the love." Do those sort of things well and discovery will be what happens incidentally in the cracks."