Music discovery takes center stage as digital-track availability just keeps on rising

The number of digital tracks available to music customers has grown at an incredible rate over the past few years. At launch, Apple’s iTunes offered only 200,000 tracks, and the company says it now has more than 18 million tracks in its database. Users have never had it so good and to help them find the music they want, a number of digital-media companies are building customized high-performance music-discovery engines, seeking to offer the “perfect” version of such a service.

Last month Google entered the fray with the beta launch of playlist-building app Instant Mix, which like many discovery tools tackles the job of generating promising song suggestions by taking a seed song from a user’s existing collection and applying an “acoustic similarity” test. But Instant Mix – which Google has been touting as a killer app of sorts for its new music offering – wasn’t an instant hit with digital-music users, who generally gave it a thumbs-down for being a generic solution that didn’t perform as well as the competition. Google execs probably aren’t too worried as the service is something of a prototype.

Also aiming to up the ante is Gracenote, a digital-media company owned by Sony Corp., which last month rolled out the latest version of its Discover music-recommendation technology. Unlike Instant Mix, this software cedes some control to users: In addition to using songs’ sonic attributes to build playlists, the offering enables users to customize song requests based on categories such as mood characteristics, genre, tempo and era. Gracenote is high-profile in this field and has deals in place with all four majors and a number of leading independents, such as IODA, IRIS and The Orchard. That means the company’s music database is stocked with the metadata needed to power its recommendation engine. Gracenote’s music-ID and discovery technologies are part of Sony’s Music Unlimited Powered by Qriocity digital-music platform, which is in the process of being rolled out across the globe.

Companies such as Gracenote, along with their record-company partners, aren’t the only ones attempting to fine-tune discovery services in the hope that the music recommendations they generate will encourage audiences to buy tracks. For example, in September Apple’s iTunes, which has long had a recommendation service of its own in the form of the Genius platform, launched Ping, a “social network for music” that enables users to find out what their friends and other fans of their favorite artists have been listening to.

Appetite for discovery
Users certainly have appetite for music discovery. According to a global study, Music, Money & Mobile: A Global Music Outlook, published in April by The Nielsen Company, discovery applications were far and away the most popular smartphone music apps among the more than 25,000 respondents.

In an effort to take advantage of this enthusiasm, Sony Ericsson launched a line of Xperia smartphones with Facebook integration, enabling users to access the social network via a number of areas on the phone, including from the handset’s music player. Users can “like” a song running on their player and post it to the wall on their Facebook page.

Outside of the mobile arena, Last.fm, which is at core a music-recommendation platform, announced last month that it was integrating its service with Facebook Connect – a social feature enabling friends to keep in touch on the Facebook community – so that subscribers can amend their Last.fm profiles to include the artists they have “liked” on the social network. Last.fm says the integration provides a way for users to discover new music and to share tracks.

Social elements are definitely important for music-discovery services. “For many fans, the thriving communities built online around music are almost as important as the music itself,” the BPI stated in its Digital Music Nation 2010 report. “Digital services have evolved and adapted to cater for social networking, allowing like-minded fans to talk about music, recommending and sharing links to it with friends online.”

The perfect service
But the quest for perfection in music discovery might be misguided, according to Joel Stamp, whose study Music Taste and Web 2.0, for the Music Management & Media program at the University of Gloucestershire, examined how people view music-recommendation services. Stamp found that, particularly for committed music fans, the appeal of new music lies in working hard at finding it. He suggested that they like using current recommendation services because they aren’t that good, meaning that the users have to do much of the work themselves. He added that although services are falling over themselves to claim that they offer the solution to users’ music-discovery needs, it is impossible to make a music-recommendation service that works well for all users.

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