Orpheus was a music search and exploration tool conceived as a solution to a problem on the horizon in 2003: how does one organize, search for and discover music when all digital music ever recorded is at the tip of ones fingers? This was my Master’s Thesis at UC Berkeley’s School of Information. My team (myself, Vijay Viswanathan and Jeannie Yang) won the best master’s project that year.

Becaue its like that.

Becaue it's like that.

This Friday at Olive is a special one. Stitcher won a Webby People’s Choice award, and we are throwing down at Olive to celebrate. Add to that the usual fun @ Olive on the 3rd Friday of the month, and you have a perfect storm of fun! Come on down, meet the Stitcher team, have a drink, eat some pizza, listen to some music and generally enjoy yourself!

The differences between the old administration and the Obama administration will be many and massive. One difference that I hope becomes most striking is the relative transparency of the two administrations. As citizens, we deserve deep access to the decision making apparatus in the White House. The last administration was notorious for it’s opaqueness. Hopefully the Obama administration will follow through on its commitment to be bring unprecendented transparency to government.

If the new White House website is any indication, they are moving swiftly and boldly in the correct direction. Via various sources, compare the ‘robots.txt‘ file from the old site, to the new site:

User-agent: *
Disallow: /cgi-bin
Disallow: /search
Disallow: /query.html
Disallow: /omb/search
Disallow: /omb/query.html
Disallow: /expectmore/search
Disallow: /expectmore/query.html
Disallow: /results/search
Disallow: /results/query.html
Disallow: /earmarks/search
Disallow: /earmarks/query.html
Disallow: /help
Disallow: /360pics/text
Disallow: /911/911day/text
Disallow: /911/heroes/text
…. (x 2,400)…


User-agent: *
Disallow: /includes/

That’s it! An encouraging, if small, indication of where we are going. Of course, this also illustrates a more elegant design that perhaps precludes the need to disallow crawling on 2,400+ different locations. Either way, it’s so nice to see smart work coming out of the highest office in the land. On a side note, nice work to all the folks who put this together! Congratulations.

I just stumbled upon a really pretty music visualization project. Flokoon uses Last.FM data to make a sleek network displays of artists.


When one clicks the ‘i’ icon on a particular artist, an information pane pops up with artist bio and discography information.


One can also browse the tagspace for a particular artist, and then browse the network via a tag.

It’s very well done. There are some items I’d like to see. For example, I’d like to have a visual representation of where I’ve traveled in the graph. If I go from Wolf Parade to Handsome Furs, I’d like that vertex colored differently or something. Also, tapping into audio for each artist would be nice.

Flokoon isn’t just about music . They use the same approach to visualize YouTube videos and images from fotolio.

Happy Flu is an interesting experiment in information diffusion on the interwebs. Jeannie, as my sole reader I’m relying on you to make sure my blog is not where the interwebs ends. Please. Via Ryan

SF – Image Courtesy of


My Living Room

Well, Philly anyway; then onwards to New York in the Fall.

This morning I gave notice to my building manager that I’ll be moving out of my wonderful apartment of 6 1/2 years on July 5th. The countdown is on! I’m moving back east to return to school (once again), this time to continue my research into the rapidly evolving intersection of music and technology. The next 4 years will be filled with many challenges, hard work, and surely rich rewards.

I’m very excited about the program and being closer to my family; but I’m also very sad to leave this wonderful city, my dear friends here, and a life that couldn’t have been more fulfilling in nearly every way.

More to come on exactly what I’ll be researching and learning in future posts. In the mean time, for those who are curious, check out the PhD program overview

And if you’re so inclined, clock the flickr set if you want to check out my lovely apartment. It’ll be refinished and available for rent (probably) in August. Also, some of this furniture is for sale. Contact me if you’re interested!

This weekend I did some housekeeping on the blog. I modified my theme to make it widget aware, and in the process made some other modifications. I’ve been using this theme (Connected) for years and I like it a lot. Now that I’ve made a lot of mods on the theme, I decided to rename it to Reconnected.

After making the theme widget aware, I removed all the hacked up content on the sidebar and rewrote all sidebar modules to be widgets that I can easily manage from the admin dashboard. I also added a few fun modules: the pretty recent listening widget from Last.FM replaces my hacked recent listening plugin; a cool album cloud from Last.FM; and a Google calendar that shows how I’m doing in my 30-day yoga challenge. I also fixed the search box so that it actually works.

In the process of this housecleaning project, I learned a little bit about writing widgets for WordPress, knowledge that may come in handy as I build tools for exploring and organizing music collections.

Digital Thought Leaders @ MusicTech

Copyright Panel


Audience @ Copyright Panel


Tech Talk


Tech Talk


Paul Lamere


Search Inside the Music

Today I attended the SanFran MusicTech Summit. The name says it all: this conference brings together technologists, musicians and business people to discuss trends and challenges at the intersection of music and technology. What follows is a brief run down of the highlights of the talks I was able to attend. I haven’t had much time to digest any of the talks, so there isn’t much insight here – just the interesting tidbits as I saw them.

Legal Issues in Searching, Linking & Blogging

Panelists: Howie Cockrill, Esq (BEAT LAW), Andrew Bridges, Esq (Winston & Strawn), Mark Palermo, Esp (ASCAP). Moderated by Joe Gratz, Esq (Keker & Van Nest)

The twenty minutes I spent in this talk made me super super stoked I didn’t chose law as a career. The talk focused on the nitty gritty details of the legal implications involved in maintaining music blogs – interesting from an intellectual perspective, but rather mundane in implementation.

Digital Thought Leaders

Panelists: Michael Petricone (Consumer Electronics), Ty Roberts (Gracenote), Tim Westergren (Pandora), Aza Raskin (Mozilla). Moderated by Brian Zisk (SF Music Tech)

Aza Raskin had some great comments on the need for better utilities for search and discovery of music (I think, I didn’t take notes).

Tim Westergren made some interesting observations about how musicians might better take advantage of the new music landscape. He suggested bands might add a member whose sole responsibility was to deal with the emerging technological aspects of the band – blogging, marketing, promotion, and all the various social networks and publishing channels now available. “The 5th Beatle” he called it.

There was a great question asked by an audience member regarding music metadata, and why Gracenote feels entitled to build a business model off other peoples’ data. Ty Roberts effectively brushed off the question, but it does raise the ongoing question of why this kind of data should be proprietary to begin with, and if it is proprietary, why a third party could own it. There were also some interesting points made on the problem of the metadata standards and normalization. While it wasn’t explicitly raised, the MusicBrainz model provides a very compelling counter model to Gracenote: At its core it is an open source, user moderated, better designed alternative to Gracenote.

Copyright Issues in Music Law

Panelists: Richard Idell, Esq. (Idell Seitel), Fred Von Lohmann, Esq. (EFF), Zahavah Levine, Esq. (YouTube), Maia Spilman, Esq. (INgrooves). Moderated by Whitney Broussard, Esq.

This was a great talk about the challenges of building a business given the terribly murky legal issues surrounding music distribution. It was nice to hear some of the newer problems arising in this space, particularly around the differences between purely audio tracks (like MP3s) and audio visual works, which have entirely different licensing requirements.

I really enjoyed listening to YouTube’s counsel discuss some of the ridiculous requirements and challenges she confronts trying to be sure YouTube’s content is legitimate and rights holders are compensated.

I don’t always agree with the EFF, particularly on the music/copyright issues, but this was one of the better talks I’ve seen Fred give over the years. There are clearly some new emerging problems at the intersection of music & technology, and he was a great advocate for the little guy and the disruptive technologies that make this intersection of music and technology so interesting. I left with a much greater appreciation for the value that EFF contributes in this particular arena. They are very good at thinking about, advocating for and articulating the problems that other lawyers, technologists and the “in” businesses might not care about or think about. Overall a great panel, with some good Q & A afterward as well.

Tech Talk

Panelists: Tom Conrad (Pandora), Marc Urbaitel (In Ticketing), Not Ethan Kaplan (Warner Bros.), Jack Moffit (Chesspark / Xiph), Jeremy Riney ( Moderated by Colin Brummelle (Rilli).

This was basically just serious music tech geek goodness. All the panelists talked about the technology behind their sites. Most were fairly straightforward, Drupal or other PHP implementations. An interesting conversation on Amazon’s EC2 cloud computing app and S3. On balance, Tom Conrad’s discussion of what Pandora’s tech stack took the cake. Their challenges and subsequent solutions are truly unique and worthy of more discussion. Tom did a great job of describing their infrastructure and the numerous challenges of storing a serving up a complicated set of music, playlists and recommendations all in a dynamic, highly scalable, high availability environment. Pandora’s technology: Java, Postgres, C, and Flash for the front end, among other technologies. In another life I’d work on their backend systems.

Individual Presentations

Presenters: Paul Lamere (Sun Labs – Search Inside The Music), Mike Troiano (Matchmine), Paul Anthony (Rumblefish), David Gratton (Project Opus).

I was eager to hear Paul’s talk on the Search Inside the Music project, as this is an area I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. His lab at Sun is doing some really promising work in making use of audio data to power visualizations and recommendation engines. His talk covered the basics on the SITM features, as well as some of the future directions the project may go in. Most exciting was his statement that this technology will be open sourced and available by September. This folds in wonderfully with my research needs. The rest of the presenters were interesting as well, although I had to leave.

There’s a lot more to talk about and see here. For more info, check out the sfmusictech tag on Flickr & Twitter, and the sites of the people who presented.

Major thanks to Brian and Shoshana Zisk for putting this together!

Music Mesh

Via Paul Lamere’s blog, a new music exploration tool recently came on line called MusicMesh. This application immediately caught my attention because it so closely resembles some of the novel features of Orpheus, and some of the ‘future steps‘ we wanted to incorporate. The graph based browsing, where nodes are artists or albums and the vertices represent finely grained measures of similarity, the rich information panes populated with track listings, discographies, interviews and album reviews, and the use of disparate web-based data, are all components of the original Orpheus application written in 2005. MusicMesh does this style of music exploration well.

MusicMesh also tackles some of the ‘future steps’ we imagined but never achieved in Orpheus. It is web-based, forgoing a fat client altogether; the graph is more visually appealing as it incorporates album art and artist photos directly into the graph; and it allows to users listen to full songs as they browse. In a cool twist, it actually uses YouTube videos to play the music and show some video footage while users listen. This is awesome. In general, the application makes good use of sources that were not yet available when Orpheus was developed, and makes better use of some of the sources that were available in 2004/2005.

What seems to be lacking is any personalized understanding of a users’ tastes. In Orpheus, we knew what music users had in their libraries, and we captured user rating information for that music as well. This data is potentially powerful as one begins to serve up implicit or explicit recommendations in the graph or elsewhere. That doesn’t seem to exist (yet) in MusicMesh.

The meaning of the vertices in the MusicMesh graph are also curious. The majority of first degree neighbors are other albums in an artists discography; and then there are a few random artists thrown in. It’s not immediately clear why these additional artists are presented. What is the connection supposed to represent? It is implied that the data is derived from Last.FM, but the semantic value of the connection remains unclear. Also, the value of displaying the artists’ discography in the graph is questionable. Why not show that in one of the information panes, freeing up graph space for other similar artists or recommendations?

We discovered in our Orpheus user studies that users liked being able to control what measures of similarity were used to construct connections between artists. Some users cared about collaboration, for example, while others were more concerned with label affiliation or sound similiarity. Giving users the power to choose what constitutes the vertices may improve the relevance of these connections, and by extension the browsing experience.

It’s interesting to see how they are dealing with the intellectual property issues that come with using potentially copyrighted data, including music, album art, 3rd party text, and video. Their ‘About’ section is mostly concerned with disclaimers and legalese that suggests you’ll be tarred and feathered if you do what they do: namely use someone else’s content on your site. They claim to have licensed their data from Amazon and YouTube, but I kind of doubt they actually license the music and video content. If they have, I’m sure there are a lot of companies that would love to learn how to convince big media companies to bend over and give it up so easily.

At any rate, it’s pretty cool to see people developing applications like this, and it’s fun to be able to browse around the graph and listen to the music at the same time, and see some video footage of the artist playing. Nice work!

Radiohead - In Rainbows
Radiohead – In Rainbows

Over the last 3 weeks, several major artists have parted ways with record labels and their traditional business and marketing strategies in favor of leveraging new-fangled Internet mechanisms for distribution and promotion.

Radiohead announced a week or two back that they would offer their new album “In Rainbows” for digital download, and let their fans pick the price they wanted to pay for it. This is a revolutionary (and maybe crazy) idea, and we’ll need to wait to see how it turns out. As one commenter put it, this “cuts straight to the moral dilemma of downloading,” but it also puts the question squarely on the fans: how much is this music worth to you?

For me, it’s less of a moral dilemma than a simple question. I don’t quibble with the argument that stealing music is wrong, but I do take issue with the cost of music, DRM-strapped files, and the fact that some record label is taking ninety cents on the dollar for every CD that goes out the door. The behavior of these major corporations doesn’t change the basic laws or ethics around illegal file sharing, but it is refreshing to see artists taking the music industry out of the equation. I downloaded Radiohead’s album today, and my price point was about 5 euros (about $7). I would pay about $10 for the CD or vinyl. That’s the standard Dischord price and I think it’s fair.

The album, by the way, is worth every penny I paid. Go get it. Besides the music, I’m thrilled that the money goes directly to Radiohead and whomever they have worked with to get this album out. This is what it should feel like to interact with your music and favorite artists. It feels good, empowering and personal.

Shortly after Radiohead’s announcement, Nine Inch Nails announced that the band will no longer have a relationship with a record label, and will heretofore be considered “free agents.” I don’t know what that means, and frankly I don’t care, but it’s another chip in the foundation of an already weak music empire. Funk rockers Jamiroquai and the crap Brit-pop outfit Oasis have made similar announcements.

Yesterday came the kicker from the godmother of pop, Madonna, that she too would forgo the support of the major music industry. Madonna’s business savvy has always been part of her brilliance as an artist, so the fact that she has made this decision suggests that the tide has turned conclusively against the labels.

Their options are slimming — if they can’t convince artists big artists like Madonna to stay on, they will lose their major revenue stream, which means they won’t have as much capitol to invest in up-and-comers. Conversely, if these young acts only view the major labels as a stepping stone to independence, rather than the other way around, the label’s expectation that they can milk an artist for 3 or 4 albums before putting them out to pasture will be gone. In short, their revenue model went bust.

The landscape is wide open, and fans and artists are winning. Digital downloads, Internet promotion, viral marketing, crowd-sourced videos, mash-ups. This has been on the horizon for a long time, but it’s by no means a stretch to say that the future of music is now.

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