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Developers Reinvent the Music Store

A service for developers combines music recommendation and streaming.

A new partnership between “music intelligence” platform Echonest and streaming music service Play.me lets developers create apps that offer new ways to find music and stream whole tracks for free. The deal can be used to create an app that streams up to five hours a week of music from a catalog of three million tracks; once the weekly streaming limit is reached, users have to pay up $10 a month for unlimited streaming–a pricing scheme identical to competitor Spotify.

Music wheel: The Slice app for Android was created by students at Olin College of Engineering. It uses data from Echonest and Play.me to explore music visually.

Music Explorer FX is just one of more than 70 that already take advantage of Echonest’s application programming interface (API), which feeds data to apps from a vast catalog of artists and tracks. The API maps connections between similar songs and artists, is available to any developer who signs up for an Echonest API key. Through the deal with Play.me, Echonest’s service can be used to stream tracks from labels including Sony, EMI, and the Orchard. Overnight, online music stalwarts Pandora, Last.fm, and Grooveshark find that they have dozens of competitors built by small teams and even individual coders. “App developers are, we believe, the future of this space, says Echonest’s CEO, Jim Lucchese. “They are the future of [music] retail.”

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Developers don’t sell music under the new deal, but they get a cut whenever a user signs up for the Play.me streaming service through their app. This makes them, in essence, sales affiliates for Play.me, and by extension for all the labels whose music it aggregates.

Developers have always been able to cut deals with record labels individually, but that process was prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. By obtaining blanket rights to stream all the music in its catalog, Play.me has eliminated that headache. “From a lawyer standpoint, an API is a very efficient contract,” says Lucchese. “It’s as if you said, ‘Here’s my stuff, and here are the rules, and as long as you play by the rules, we’re good to go.’ “

Using the API that allows access to Echonest’s database, five students at Olin College of Engineering were able to put together, in a single semester, a mobile app that explores unexpected connections between bands. The result is the Slice app for Android. The app uses a spinning, color-coded wheel to make it easy to hop from one artist to the next. The goal is to create something more dynamic than traditional Internet radio offerings by giving users a different way to explore the relatedness of artists and genres.

Replacing individual contracts between developers and labels with a blanket contract and an API is equally advantageous for record labels, Lucchese says. “[Play.me and its labels] basically get an outsourced app development team and a powerful affiliate network of cool apps.”

But the complicated tangle of rights attached to the music libraries owned by major labels means there are limits to the kinds of apps that developers can build with Play.me. For example, if a developer created a piece of software that syncs a track streamed from Play.me to a video–as in a Guitar Hero-style rhythm game–it would require a totally separate set of licenses, including a “sync license.”

Even with these limitations in place, there are plenty of opportunities for developers.

Eventually, says Lucchese, Play.me, Echonest, and all of its affiliated apps could have access to the catalogs of almost every label. “There are probably more than 20 [online] services that have content from all four of the major labels. I’m sure Play.me is going to get there–it just takes time to license them all,” says Lucchese.

Keep up with the latest in artificial intelligence at EmTech Digital.

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