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Cracking the Music Genome

By (September 1, 2009) No Comment

“And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools / Tryin’ to anesthetize the way that you feel.”
– Elvis Costello, “Radio Radio”

I can only assume that Elvis Costello would be content with the state of Internet radio today.

I’pandoram incredibly lucky to have been young during the Internet’s infancy. Instant gratification is de rigeur. Instead of keeping in touch with your favorite music vicariously through the occasional concert and frantic AM/FM tuning gymnastics, there are ample ways to access the songs you want for free.

Not all of them are legal, of course. The Internet frontier, with help proffered by the RIAA and its Pinkerton force, has rapidly gone through its own Wild West days. Bit torrents are still of concern, but the empires of Napster, Limewire and WinMX crumbled away a few years ago. You may still be able to access and download songs for your free personal use, but if your IP address gets tracked you might be looking at thousands of dollars worth of fines. It doesn’t happen often, but you still wouldn’t want it to happen to you.

What exists as a legal option for accessing music on the Internet? ITunes and Amazon alone gives an individual access to hundreds of thousands of tracks, more music at one dollar per song than you could easily imagine. Of course, no one likes spending money if they can manage it. So what can you do legally for free?

Enacted in 1998, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) set the rules for digital music royalty fees, and for the past decade has been the American legal framework for Internet radio. Drafted to dissuade digital piracy, the DMCA is the binding legal clause for a number of Internet sources of free music. Today, under the protection of the DMCA, you can browse thousands of Internet radio stations spanning genres you didn‘t even know existed. You can visit a website that turns your mood into a playlist. There’s even a personal DJ service, allowing any registered user the free opportunity to create their own radio station for private use.

Live365.com is an Internet radio service that hosts broadcasting for thousands of different stations which are broken down into more than 200 different genres. I had no idea that there were over 200 ways to classify music. Although it’s difficult to substantiate the claim of hosting more than 5,000 different radio stations, Live365 certainly kicks the snot out of the old fashioned AM/FM tuner. As of this writing, twenty stations hosted on Live365 specialize in music from the 1930s. Fourteen different radio stations specialize in avant garde programming, which, to me, sounds like an oxymoron. Happen to know what ‘zouk’ is? Well, if you’re interested in the rhythmic party music originating from Guadeloupe, Haiti and other Caribbean locales, seven different radio stations can satisfy that hunger.

The Live365.com interface is relatively conducive to browsing. Selecting ‘Listen to Radio’ from the top margin will bring you to a page of daily station recommendations. You can select ‘Browse’ to visit the genre list I was previously expounding upon. The ‘Search’ option brings up an advanced search engine, allowing you to find a radio station by artist, album or even location. Listening to any of these stations consists simply of selecting that station’s Live365 page, selecting the bright yellow ‘Play Now’ button at the top left of the page and finding the sanity to sit through about 20 to 30 seconds worth of advertising. Live365 even allows you to save these stations as a quaint Preset function for their registered users. Have your own website and looking to share this music? Live365 even has a free widget-creating service that links browsers directly to stations broadcast on the site. Select a genre, or stations from your personal preset list, choose a color scheme and get a free code that will allow you to embed the station widget on your website.

But how does a station fight its way into the Live365 ranks? To be broadcast on Live365, a station first purchases one of Live365’s Professional Broadcasting Services packages. These services allow an individual to create a radio station by either uploading MP3 files to the Live365 server, known as Basic mode, or by streaming live audio content that is digitally encoded and sent to the Live365 servers via the Internet.

Wildman Steve of Auburn, AL, believes that this model is the future of radio. “Internet radio will put satellite radio out of business,” he said in an interview. Wildman Steve is the operator of WildmanSteve Radio, a Live365 station that plays an eclectic mix of Americana, freeform, and rock. “My belief is that good music has no genre,” he said. “I might play Black Sabbath, and then follow it with some bluegrass.”

Wildman Steve got his start decades ago as a professional musician in Auburn. After operating Wildman Steve Records in Auburn from 1987 until 2000, he began doing an eclectic radio program on local station WQNR 99.9 FM and slowly rose to the program director position by 2004. During his tenure, WQNR was recognized as College Station of the Year by radio trade publication New Music Weekly from 2004 through 2007. In June 2007, he bucked the geographical confines of terrestrial radio for the Internet broadcast of WildmanSteve Radio, available at www.wildmansteve.com.

Although industry connections and local reputation brought listeners to the online stream right away, Wildman decided to bring the station to the Live365 ranks. He purchased a ‘PRO Broadcasting’ large station package, which gives his station a Live365 bandwidth of 5,000 listener hours. “We average about 4,000 [listener hours] a month,” he said. Although he doesn’t receive information on how many people access his station, Live365 reports indicate an average user-listening length of 70 to 80 minutes.

“I’ve had some very good success in the radio world using an unorthodox approach,” Wildman said. “I felt that it was time to take it to the world.” His strongest listener bases are the Auburn, Birmingham and Montgomery communities where he’s well known, but WildmanSteve Radio pulls regular listeners from Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany and Sweden. And the station has been making enough money from advertising, both on the website and during the live broadcast, and listener donations to pull a profit since Day 1. “We’re not making a living yet, but we’re not losing money either,” Wildman said.

Wildman broadcasts over the Internet because he believes the sheer massive size of streams available far outweighs the benefits of other radio formats.“The technology is coming that will make Internet radio available in your car, or portably, all the same ways that you can get satellite,” he said. “For the same monthly fee, you can have tens of thousands of stations.”

Now what about that mood playlist I was talking about earlier? Musicovery is a personalized Internet radio service operating out of France that offers users a virtual remote control to access music based on the aesthetic they’re looking for. The key application available on the virtual remote control is the mood matrix. The matrix is a rectangular field bounded by the vertical spectrum from Energetic to Calm, and a horizontal spectrum from Dark to Positive.

Musicovery offers the best musical experimentation experience on the Internet. The mood matrix takes advantage of a graphic discovery engine known as LivePlasma. LivePlasma designates specific values on the mood matrix that may be invisible to our eyes, but corresponds to a library that spans over 12,000 artists.

Although the listener simply has to click on the LivePlasma mood matrix to access instant music, the task of figuring out which song corresponds to which value in the engine is where the work starts becoming pretty labor intensive for the Musicovery team. Each song in the library has been classified by 40 different musical descriptors, each descriptor having 10 different values that can be associated with them. The sum of these values gives a song a specific area on the mood matrix.

Let’s do a little experimentation, shall we? Clicking the top-right corner, where the Energetic and Positive values are the highest, brings up the 1967 Kim Weston and Marvin Gaye duet “It Takes Two.” Another click in the same area gives you “I’ll Be There For You” by The Rembrandts. Having a pissy day and looking to wallow in your ever increasing misery? Clicking the bottom-left corner of the matrix, home to the strongest Dark and Calm values, brings up the slow, morbid piano ballad “Colorblind” from The Counting Crows. Clicking the matrix again brings you a 1941 recording of Billie Holliday and her version of the infamous Hungarian suicide song, “Gloomy Sunday.”

The songs shuffle, so it’s almost impossible to click twice in the same exact area of the matrix and get the same exact music. But you’re not just choosing songs; you’re choosing programs. When you’ve made a selection on the LivePlasma mood matrix, a chart appears on the Musicovery interface that shows the song currently playing, plus songs across genres that also pertain to your chosen mood. The next song on the chart will be connected to the currently playing song through a gray line.

Although the LivePlasma mood matrix is intriguing enough on its own, you can further bound the scope of your musical selections with other choices on the virtual remote. A slider that resembles an AM/FM tuning strip of sorts allows you to restrict the music to the time period of your choice. Buttons at the top allow you to limit your music programming to “hits,” although the “hit” criterion isn’t clearly explained, or to travel the lesser known musical underground using the ‘Discovery’ function. The bottom half of the remote control allows you select any combination of 18 different genres to be played from, including jazz, gospel, blues, metal, rock, vocal pop, pop, disco, funk, R&B, rap, electro, latino, classical, soundtrack, world, reggae and soul. As a default, all genres are selected, but if you want to bound your results to R&B, electro and gospel, just click the checkmark boxes to the left of the names.

Although you can use the Musicovery service without registering, free registration is required for any level of interactivity, such as marking or banning certain songs from your playlist, and without a paid account you’ll be encountering ads and an inability to skip songs. However, the paid version only costs four dollars US per month. But there’s a free music programming experience that works far better than Musicovery.

That service is Pandora, and is powered by the quixotic Music Genome Project, which was inspired by the DNA mapping of the Human Genome Project. It works similarly to the musical descriptor process explained for the Musicovery service. Since January 2000, the Music Genome Project has been trying to map the attributes of every song ever made. In November 2005, Tim Westergren and the rest of the Music Genome Project unveiled Pandora, a software engine with an Internet interface to make the findings of the Music Genome Project accessible to the general public.

The Pandora engine is simple, and the user interface is much cleaner than the jarring, poorly designed Musicovery.com. When you access Pandora.com for the first time, you will see what appears to be a search engine asking you for a name of an artist or song that you particularly enjoy. Under the DMCA, Pandora is unable to play the song you first select; that level of individual control over music would disqualify Pandora as an “Internet radio service.” Instead, Pandora takes the music you like and builds a play list around it. The Pandora engine is designed to allow you to customize your own radio station, playing music similar to your own personal tastes.

According to Westergren, the Pandora library includes over 700,000 individual song titles from over 80,000 different artists, and each song has been rigorously studied by the Music Genome Project’s team to classify that song’s genes, or musical attributes. “When you type in a song, you’re inputting into the engine a musical fingerprint,” said Westergren in a phone interview. The genes attributed to the song by the Music Genome Project each have a mathematical value. Inputting a song indicates a specific musical value that you enjoy, and songs that have a similar value will begin playing on your Pandora radio station.

Another quick experiment. First, let’s enter a well-known song: Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl.” Again, “Brown Eyed Girl” won’t actually play first, but Pandora does bring up Morrison’s “Domino” from 1970’s His Band and the Street Choir. The next offering is a 1996 cover of “Pretty Woman” from English duo Robson & Jerome, then “Stuck In The Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel.

You can add more music to give your radio station some additional flair. Personally, I’m interested to see what happens when we add the American heavy metal group Disturbed to the musical makeup of this station. I just have to select ‘add more variety’ underneath the title of the radio station I’m currently listening to, type ‘Disturbed’ into the text field that appears, and then select ‘Add.’ To my surprise, my browser did not close out in an epileptic fit, but brings up Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 1970 top 10 hit “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?” Not exactly halfway between Disturbed and Van Morrison, but we’re going places.

Better than anyone else, Pandora offers an evolving musical interface, controlled by the thumbing function. Thumbing a song down bans it from your station. Thumbing a song up tells Pandora to search the Music Genome Project for its friends, and to bring them to the party as well. “Thumbing a song up or down trains the algorithms to learn what you like about music,” Westergren said. Pandora will be streaming over two billion hours of music this year for 32 million registered users. In July alone, Pandora users listened to over 90 percent of the 700,000 song library.

Free music on the Internet may be a popular topic, but talking to Westergren makes these services seem akin to a civic duty. A musician himself, Westergren founded Pandora and the Music Genome Project with an eye towards connoisseurs. “How do you help all these working artists that no one knows about?” asked Westergren. “[Pandora] is a compelling way for talented, unknown artists to find themselves in the public consciousness.”

That service description ultimately is the work of any radio station or music service broadcasting over the Internet. Internet radio is not about finding the music that you love, but about finding new music to love. I used to think that the digital AM/FM car radios displaying song and artist names were pretty handy. Now, you can get in-depth biographical information at the push of the button (Pandora’s ‘About The Music’ section, which displays as your station plays, is the strongest example of this). If you didn’t like the music an FM radio station was playing at a given time, your best option was to tune to a different station entirely, wiping out a complete genre full of possibilities. And God help you if a commercial comes on, because they all go to commercial break at the same damned time.

Although the good DMCA giveth the legal ability to broadcast digital music via the Internet, it taketh exorbitant royalty fees which many have found to be unfairly inflated beyond those which landlocked AM/FM stations need to pay. Many services haven’t found the capital to keep operating under the weight of heavy royalties and pay per play fees. Although paid subscriptions offer some backing capital, advertising pays for the brunt of the services. But it’s no longer just about making money. It’s about taking radio out of the hands of those fools trying to anesthetize us, and putting it in our hands. Music is recorded to compel, not anesthetize, and ultimately the consumer should be in charge of selecting what compels them best.

Steve Brachmann is a freelance writer and actor from Buffalo, NY. Has had work published for Dissolver Magazine, Image Icon Entertainment, Northeastern’s Times New Roman and The Buffalo News. His personal blog can be found at http://scubasteve519.livejournal.com/.

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