Co.Design

The Next Big Thing In Music? Apps That Read Your Mind

Inspired by radio's killer app, The Echo Nest thinks tomorrow's music services will be mind-reading personal DJs.

If you watched the Super Bowl on Sunday, you might have caught Ellen DeGeneres's Goldilocks-inspired ad for Beats Music. A new streaming service a la Rdio or Spotify, Beats Music distinguishes itself from the competition with a "Sentence" feature that is effectively a Mad Libs for music: tell Beats where you are, who you're with, how you're feeling and what you're doing, and Beats Music will come up with some tunes to match.

This is the next big frontier in music: figuring out not just the kind of music people like, but what kind of music they like in specific settings, situations, and moods. Building services that can do this well will pose a new type of design challenge: "zero UI" music players with interfaces that will adapt themselves for different audiences.

Paul Lamere is the director of developer platforms at The Echo Nest, a music intelligence platform out of Somerville, Mass., that provides the engine that powers the recommendation and discovery engines of Spotify, Rdio, MOG and more. He says that the music player of the future will know a lot more about you than just what music you'll like; it'll know where you are, who you're with, and more.

"If you look where the music industry is going, music in the future will be played almost entirely on people's phones," Lamere tells Co.Design. "And your phone knows a lot about you, which is data we can use to predict the music you like."

This is important because in many ways, today's music services have still not been able to match the experience of the more than 100-year-old medium they are trying to disrupt. Simple terrestrial radio, Lamere says, is still in many ways the ultimate zero-button music experience. There's no barrier to entry. You don't have to open a search box, find an album you like, or type in a password. To listen to the radio, you just turn it on.

Image courtesy of the iPhone Moves app

This is radio's killer app: it doesn't have a UI, it's as simple as turning on and playing. And that's important, because the vast majority of people don't have any interest in thinking about music any more than hitting a button.

According to a study conducted in 2006, as far as the music industry is concerned, there are only four types of music lovers. First, there are the diehards, the savants: the guys whose entire identities are wrapped up in the music that they listen to. They make up about 10% of all music listeners. The next 20% are enthusiasts, the kinds of people who find music to be an enriching aspect of their lives, but balance it against other interests. If you have a Rdio or Spotify subscription, buy a few CDs every year, or regularly kick back to listen to an album while reading a book, this is probably you. Next, there are 30% who are casual fans, people who might buy a few songs off iTunes every year, or turn on the radio from time to time, but otherwise don't think much about music at all. The remaining 40% of people who are left are the indifferents, people who wouldn't even notice if music ceased to exist at all.

If you do the math--and the music industry has--this means that 70% of music listeners are essentially up for grabs, if only publishers can figure out how to reach them, and a full 90% are further monetizable, if only you could figure out how to convert them into a different type of listener.

This, says Lamere, is where the music apps of tomorrow are going. They want to be as simple to use as the radio, but use a wealth of contextual data about you to anticipate what kind of music you want to listen to at any given moment. Context is key for the next generation of music players. "The ideal music player has zero buttons," Lamere says. "When you get in your car, it automatically starts playing NPR. When you come home, it knows if your wife is home: if she is, it plays jazz on the stereo, and if not, it puts on death metal."

The possibilities are limitless. For example, in the future, Rdio or Spotify could communicate with wearable devices such as the iWatch or a future Jawbone Up to take your pulse and adjust the BPMs of your playlist to match when it detects you're at the gym. And using similar techniques to do what IBM is doing with the linguistic analysis of social media to create psychic Twitter bots, the zero UI music player of the future might stalk you on Facebook or Twitter to see what your mood is, and adjust the music it plays you accordingly.

According to Lamere, all of these features are the "holy grail" of future music player UIs. "We're opening the kimono a little bit here, as far as what we expect and the types of things we think the Echo Nest will be doing in the future," Lamere says.

Holy grail or not, Lamere doesn't think the zero-UI music apps of tomorrow are that far off: he says we should start seeing prototypes this year of music players that can read our minds.

To read more of Lamere's thoughts on zero-button music interfaces, check out his post on the Music Machinery blog here.

[Image: Headphones in the winter via Shutterstock]

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