Gracenote: Selling music by the cloud?
- 24 February 2011
- From the section Business
Marketing music in the digital age is fraught with difficulties, but one of the key problems is simply connecting with your audience.
In the old days, the main battle was to get records or CDs into the shops, in the hope that curious fans browsing in the racks would pick up on them.
Nowadays, modern technology makes it a breeze for artists to get their work on the internet. The trouble is, they're easily overlooked.
Most digital music services offer a wider range of tunes than any bricks-and-mortar shop could offer. But when it comes to recommending new, unheard music, they usually point you in the direction of what else the last listener bought.
"A music service might have 300,000 artists, but the average consumer only knows 10 artists, so what about the other 299,990?" says Ty Roberts, chief technology officer for music database firm Gracenote.
"Well we have software that analyses what we know about the music. It goes into the tunes and pulls them apart and analyses the energy, the tempo, the mood.
"It might take Black Sabbath and say, this is Gothic, dark, brooding, heavy metal. If people like that, we can then say what other kind of music you might like."
Accounting for taste
Gracenote's software is at the heart of many "cloud-based" music services - that is, services that do not require you to download songs or host them on your computer.
Instead, the music is on a server and is streamed to your PC, laptop, mobile phone or other device.
Services such as Spotify, Pandora and MOG all employ Gracenote's know-how to some extent.
But the one that makes the most use of Gracenote is Sony's new Music Unlimited service, available through its Qriocity online platform, a paid-for service which gives full access to six million tracks.
The service was launched last week in the US, having already been made available in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Canada and Japan.
The Sony service uses Gracenote's Discover technology to analyse musical taste, based on a user's existing collection.
As well as human input from an in-house team of international music experts, Gracenote also subjects tunes to computer-based analysis of their waveforms that produces what the firm calls "track-level descriptive data".
Using this information, the service can provide customised musical recommendations for individual consumers, giving them new songs to listen to.
'All the data'
"That technology is key to making these cloud services work," says Gracenote's Mr Roberts.
"A lot of people who use these services might have been disconnected from the music process for decades. They still like music, but they haven't gone to the record store in a long time."
It is not surprising that Sony is the most enthusiastic user of Gracenote's latest technology, since it bought the firm in 2008.
However, Gracenote has retained its headquarters in Emeryville, California, and the change of ownership has not stopped it providing services to other firms.
"We work with a lot of other companies that are competitors of Sony - every company we worked with in 2008 is still with us today," says Mr Roberts.
"Everyone gets all the data. We're part of the Silicon Valley community and there's a co-operative spirit.
"I've been doing this for 15 years and it's quite a good community. We all know each other."
Mr Roberts says it is a "challenge" for his firm to become "a more publicly acknowledged brand".
If you have heard of it, the chances are that it's because you have seen the "Connecting to the Gracenote database" message while ripping a CD in Apple's iTunes program.
The firm's most popular product remains its huge music database, which contains details of eight million CDs and 100 million tracks, allowing iTunes and other such programmes to produce perfectly tagged MP3 tracks for your music player.
"The music industry never thought of putting a number on the CD that indicates what it is," says Mr Roberts.
"Our system uses the length of the individual tracks. If you put those numbers into a sequence, it creates a telephone number for the CD.
"If you have six to 10 tracks, the sequence of the lengths is fairly unique. It's down to one seventy-fifth of a second."
Gracenote's MusicID product also helps to power Apple's Genius service, which scans your songs and compiles playlists based on any chosen artist.
And one-third of the firm's revenue now comes from cars, thanks to the incorporation of its database into products since as US Ford's Sync in-car communications system.
All these activities have helped Gracenote to grow fast. Founded in 1998, it had just 20 staff as recently as 2004, but now has 320, with offices in Munich, Berlin and Tokyo, as well as part-time workers inputting CD details all over the world.
"We now have a total access of 5.5 billion searches a month, so we're closing on McDonald's," says Mr Roberts. "We're like the McDonald's of music, but with less cheese."
The only problem is that all these cloud-based services are not necessarily persuading people to pay money for music.
Sony's Music Unlimited service has met with a lukewarm reception from some technology analysts, who cannot see why consumers should be expected to pay for something that they could get for nothing from the likes of Spotify.
Unlike Spotify, the Sony service does not have a free option.
Mr Roberts concedes that the something-for-nothing culture remains a problem for the music industry.
"There is increased usage of music," he says.
"People are playing more music everywhere, but that's not translating into sales, so we also have to get that right as well. We have to get that right, so we can be around to make more music."