NEST BUILDERS From left, Tristan Jehan, Jim Lucchese, and Brian Whitman in the Echo Nest’s Davis Square headquarters.
Music is data. A shitload of it packed in every single song. To people, music equals entertainment. To a computer, it's a precise stream of ones and zeros.
If you could teach computers to understand those ones and zeros — to digest them like we do — then you could manipulate sounds in ways even Prefuse 73 hasn't dreamed of. You could use your iPhone as a violin. You could settle scores over who liked an artist first — you, or your obnoxious friend with the impossibly skinny jeans. You could take your favorite Jay-Z album, tweak one cut into a two-step swing remix, add cowbell to another, and determine which bangers the Grateful Dead would have been most likely to cover in the early 1970s — all on your smart phone, while in line for a Metallica show.
You can do all this now. And you can thank the Echo Nest: a small Somerville company founded by two audiophilic tech heroes, who have given developers everywhere the tools to shape the future of music.
The Echo Nest is so far ahead of the rest of the music industry that their 15-minute demo at the South by Southwest tech summit last month looked like a magic trick — even to some of the highest-paid engineers from the world's biggest multimedia behemoths. After the Echo Nest's presentation, attendees rushed the microphones — all asking some form of the question, How the fuck did you do that?
The short answer: the Echo Nest has analyzed tens of millions of songs, as well as virtually every fan and artist profile, blog post, comment, and article about music that's available online. Through that process, they've amassed an incredibly dynamic war chest of data — their Application Programming Interface (API) — that can power music apps in radical new ways. With these extensive resources in their clutches, the Echo Nest is the platform on which the next generation of music fans will discover, follow, remix, and recommend their favorite bands. Most of what the company's intelligence can do hasn't even been invented yet.
CEO Jim Lucchese says the Echo Nest doesn't want to be the next MTV, or the next Spotify, or the next Island Def Jam (IDJ). Instead, they've sealed watershed deals with those companies and many more, all of which are tapping the Echo Nest API to gauge what's hot and what's not for who, what, when, and where. In its search of the next killer app, IDJ has even given Echo Nest's community of 7000 independent developers access to more than one million songs to play with.
Yet despite receiving tons of tech press, the Davis Square company remains in the shadows of pop culture. They're not even as well-known as Pandora, which, according to Lucchese, has taken a decade to index the same number of songs that his crew could crunch in two hours. For their scrapper status, Lucchese credits the fact that Echo Nest provides no direct-to-consumer products, and concedes that the business is hardly run by marketing mavens. But he suspects they won't be underdogs for much longer.