Why no IMDB for Music?

TailChris Anderson’s Long Tail asks: “Why are the current generation of music services so dumb?”

That’s an interesting question, and there are some counter-intuitive answers. Chris’s frame of reference is IMDB, the fabulous site (owned by Amazon) of enormous utility to film fans.

Its no surprise that someone interested in the Long Tail would be
curious about an algorithm capable of taking mainstream (i.e., short
head) content, and using it to drive consumers toward Long Tail
(less well known) material.

There are a few possible answers to his question, and I expect they will have an impact on technology development in this space. So not only is it relevant to music fans, but its something investors and VCs may want to think about in their longer term perspective. 

Much of what IMDB does for film can be assembled — pieced together really — via many separate pages, apps and services for music. Chris is correct in noting that no single site has managed to do for music what IMDB does for Movies.

There are several reasons why this is so:

1) There is much, much more music than film; Think 30,000 new CDs per year versus a few 100 films;
2) Musical preferences are a much more personal and less communal experience than film; I’ll bet that you can take 4 archetype films, and working off of a database and user surveys, have a high probability of predicting how people will feel about a 5th film. Not so with music. (Much of the time, people will not have even heard of the 5th band);
3) The language of Film is far more accessible — even universal — than that of Music. Our modern era of Irony, since Animal House and Caddyshack, uses film quotes as a shorthand for nearly any situation we encounter.
4)  The lingua franca of Music is so much broader and deeper than film that it encourages smaller niches; Mainstream music, much more so than film, embodies the Short Head (mega hit records) and the Long Tail (lots of small but ardently followed by their fans records).

Given all that, what if we wanted to put together an IMDB – but for Music? We’d have to combine some code from each of the following sites:

Indy Custom Radio (colloborative filter radio)
Mercora Search (MP3 search)
Music Maps (genre studies)
Music Plasma (linking musical influences)

Use the recomendation algorithm of Indy Custom Radio with the reach of Mercora; Everyone else gets used for data feeds and to refine the recommendation engine.

Chris has a somewhat different approach:

Allmusic.com (great info, but no streaming, downloading or radio)
MusicBrainz (wiki-style, no music listening)
Last.FM (incorporates audiscrobbler; just radio)
upto11 (no music listening)
Discogs (no music listening)

Also of note are music recommendation services Pandora, MusicStrands, and LivePlasma.

Its amusing to note — right on cue — where the language of Film shows up: upto11. They take their name from a terribly amusing scene in This is Spinal Tap  (when asked why their amps go up to 11: "Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it? It’s not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You’re on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you’re on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?)

Of course, there was something that already  did EXACTLY what Chris wants: It was called Napster.

Not the in name only present service, but the one that allowed users to peruse other people’s hard drives, and encouraged experimental downloading of other people’s music, based on liking other music on people’s hard drive (Hey, they like A and B and C and D, also — whats this Z? — maybe I’ll like that, too).

Too bad the music industry refused to cannibalize itself when it had the opportunity. They should have put the Napster Cooption Business Model into effect while they had the chance.    

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