I’ve been thinking about the music industry a lot lately. There are so many players in this space trying to figure the new economics of this industry, yet so few seem to get it right. Some services such as iTunes, Spotify and Last.fm are truly exceptional, while others last a mere few months. And once in a while you come across something as beautiful as Planetary. How do you even conceive such a thing? I think it has to do with data.
Let’s talk data for a bit
When music went digital, it became easily replicable and easily transmissible – and hence it became abundant. I think this abundance is what makes re-imagining music the way Planetary does truly valuable. And I think the best way to create more services that provide such novelty is to start thinking of this industry as not the music business, but the data business. And when data becomes abundant, we have to broaden our vision and get into the metadata business.
The data pyramid
In college, my professor taught me a very simple way of looking at information – the data pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid lies DATA – raw data. It could be words, numbers, images…anything. Then comes INFORMATION – this is defined data. This is the difference between 5.6 (just datum) and 5.6 feet. Adding the data-type “feet” gives the number context. Once INFORMATION is given some sort of personal significance it becomes KNOWLEDGE. The statement “Neda is 5.6 feet tall” counts as information with some significance to Neda. The topmost level is WISDOM or INTELLIGENCE – this is applied KNOWLEDGE. An example could be how Neda’s physician uses her height as a metric to prescribe medicine or if her height is used by her tailor to sew the perfect dress.
At each level of the data pyramid more meaning is being added to data. And that meaning comes from increasing the amount and/or complexity of metadata. When data goes digital, it becomes easier to manipulate this metadata – finding new ways to scale up the data pyramid.
The dull definition of metadata is:
Metadata is data about data.
I personally prefer this one:
Metadata is information about a thing, apart from the thing itself.
As Rishad Tobaccowala points out – when this “thing” is some form of data and when that data is abundant, metadata becomes even more important.
Music and metadata
When music was sold on cassettes, records and CDs – the best way of discovering new music was to go to the record. Store owners meticulously organized the music by genre, artist and date. Sometimes they would also act as curators and tastemakers – showing you which new albums are worthy of your attention.
MP3s made music extremely portable and transmissible. What if buying music meant just getting a file without any information associated with it – no filename, no song name, no artist nor album name. Chris Anderson points out in his book FREE that you can easily download a song from a torrent site for free but choose iTunes because it guarantees you the right album name, the right song name and genre. What matters most when you listen to music? The file! But we choose to pay 99 cents for a file that we can easily get for free – we are paying for quality metadata.
Metadata for discovery
Your iTunes library is essentially a database. A database might seem like a mundane way of just stacking up files, but a closer look shows how databases are all about relationships and associations derived from metadata. This makes itself evident each time you sort your iTunes library based on one of the fields. The “jazz” genre is not just another field, but a connector that makes associations between three disparate music files.
This property of establishing relationships between datum can be used as a tool for discovery in giant databases. This is exactly what services like Last.fm and Pandora do. They use connector metadata to suggest new music to you. For Last.fm it’s more about the artist+genre while Pandora cares about the waveform and the music pattern.
Discovery is one of the most important services that any data dependent entity can provide today. Think about it, 10 years ago – music was what you found in the store. Now the concept of music is infinite. There was always enough and more music to go around the world – but the fact that it is now extremely accessible makes it daunting to explore. The same applies to books, movies, TV series, YouTube clips, articles and news items. Anything that has turned digital has turned abundant at the same time. This is the reason why we need more help than ever before to wade through the crap to get to the good stuff.
The Human Side
Metadata depends on how we interpret and manipulate it. We appropriate our music in countless ways – each of those appropriations could lead to a new service. For example, a lot music buffs look to music blogs and sites like Pitchfork for their new music recommendations. Shuffler.fm takes that behavior and added a metadata lens to it. Finding new ways to re-interpret metadata will have to be based in some core human trait. Ghostly does a great job of understanding the need for “work music” and the correlation between moods, colors and beats. There are plenty of other examples out there such as Musicovery and HypeM. The latest addition is a service that uses data from live shows – Songkick.
The best part about this is that creating new services around data is limited only by our imagination of metadata. For example, a lot of my friends listen to songs based on the weather outside – they have rainy songs, sunny songs, summer mixes and so on. I could start a new service that uses local weather data and plays you songs accordingly. Of course, the service would need a ridiculous name like Clou.dy or Sun.ny.
Pivoting on metadata
Planetary does exactly this – it takes musical data, extracts the metadata and finds an entirely new way of looking at it – and eventually visualizing it. It doesn’t answer the question “what else can I do with this music” but “how else can i imagine this data” – at least that’s how it seems to me.
The concept of metadata applies to all types of media – images, videos, films, TV series, cartography, house listings, classifieds, online dating etc.
In a world where everyday behavior is being digitized, data of any sort will become abundant. Once that happens, metadata becomes the key to organize, relate and discover. Metadata lies in the eyes of the beholder. If the interpretation, manipulation and use of it comes from core human understanding, what comes out of it will become a digital conduit to serve a human desire.
This, I think, is the key to engineering serendipity in an algorithm-driven digital world. Thoughts?