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Does EMI uniquely understand that enabling and enhancing the music experience is where the money is?

Over the last six months, EMI hired Doug Merrill, formerly VP of Engineering at Google.  Rumor has it that EMI is selling off their recorded music business.  And now, EMI has hired Cory Ondrejka one of the founders and the computer science guy behind the popular virtual world called Second Life.

I believe that EMI has uniquely discovered that there is a paradigm shift underway, and they don’t want to be left behind.  The days for selling recorded music are numbered (you heard that before).  The competition for consumer mindshare is going to be between those that can provide the best music experience for the money.

Think outside the box and clear the slate.  Go down to the phone store and use the gorgeous Cover Flow interface built into the iPhone.  Look at Microsoft’s Surface computing platform.  Spend a couple of hours looking into Same Sonic Science (music information retrieval).  Try out Sony’s Play Station 3.  Consider the adoption of broadband in the home and the adoption of 3G wireless technologies.  Play the new versions of Halo.

It doesn’t take a futurist to see where this is all going. Record labels that are not in the user experience / user interface business will be disintermediated (forced to become marginalized middlemen) by those that are.  

Here’s a user interface that can be built today.  Forget looking for songs using genre, forget charts, and forget simple sounds-like lookups.  Discovering songs like this sucks.  Take any ten thousand songs and combine it with any high-resolution landscape image.  Break down the songs into mathematical equivalents, and using Same Sonic Science, divide them into 100 buckets by similarity.  Break down the image and logically map the buckets of songs onto fragments of the image using artificial intelligence.
Touch the sunny segment of the image and listen.
You want more sun, move your hand into the sun.
Touch the water in the image and listen.
Touch the dark shades in the image and listen.
Listen to the blue sky.
Cover flow to the next image.  Try an urban landscape.
More your hand over the image.
Zoom in, zoom out.
You want harsh, touch harsh.  You want soft, touch soft.
You want to get complicated, go into a virtual world.
Hang this on the wall in your living room using a 60” touch screen TV.
Or, just use it in your iPhone.
Pay a small subscription fee or deal with the strategically placed ads that appear.

Yeah, some of this is a bit out there.  But the reality is way closer than some people think.  The hardest part to get your arms around is the part that uses the Same Sonic Science.  Same Sonic Science enables ANY song to go into the system, and EVERY song to come out SOMEPLACE within SOMEONE’S “landscape”.  Subjective terms like “great” and “suck” are sensitively mapped into the user interfaces, which learn the tastes and preferences of their users.  There may be only one person that wants to listen to fingernails on the chalkboard, but if it’s music to his ears, then he will find it.

The implications of what I just described for any company in the music business are huge.  What’s smarter, investing in recorded music (if you are not an artist) or investing in the music experience?  It seems like EMI may know the answer.  If you are one of the major labels, don’t you ask yourself…self, how do we leapfrog Apple?  

Reader Comments (18)

I don't think half a clue is going to be enough and we'll dance amongst the ruins. Someone should book a live band.

Apple. Gosh, there's only one thing bigger than Apple.

June 10 | Unregistered CommenterMatt @ Kurb

I love that vision, Bruce. I can hear my music in that landscape. Of course, many will fight this idea because they know that they wont be needed anymore. Royalties will replace track sales, I'm shure.

June 10 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Blue

I would ask the same question. But totally the opposite way:
Would Emi be the only one to get fooled by such a pile of bulls**t?
I'm sorry, are you working for this thing Same sonic science, to speak so highly of it? Sounds like CDDB with marketing, in order to sell it to idiots CEOs and make a pile of cash.

Future is without majors? Artists going directly to listeners? Wake up, that already exists (have you ever heard of myspace and p2p?).

Future is some people listening music while looking at ray-traced 3D landscapes? My god, you must be a geek (or work at Google or 2nd life) to actually believe this would be a great experience.

I tell you, the future is a couple of majors still holding thanks to the copyrights of the Beatles, and besides new music, lots of musicians at every corner, that will build their fan base on the internet, then come and go across the world to meet their fans (be ten or ten thousands). Why not a virtual concert in places that don't have enough fans, and real concerts in big places?

Music will probably be more a leisure than a paying job, to the point that eventually even for your project manager who's doing some hold rock in his garage with his band, they will go to Russia to play in front of 500 people during holidays. Those guys won't earn any significant money but they will be the new kind of rock-stars.

June 10 | Unregistered CommenterAl


That's a pretty self-righteous, condescending comment dude. But, thanks for the feedback.

Look for me in my yellow Google shirt with the propeller on my head at the GoGo Bordello concert in Gorky Park.

Long live the Politburo.

June 10 | Registered CommenterBruce Warila

I've been struggling to articulate what my problem is with this vision. There are lots of strands to it, but it essentially amounts to this: music and people are both far more interesting than this would suggest.

I guess that could be said of everything that the major record labels have been busying themselves with up until now - but at least with recorded music, people could have some control over the experience of that music.

Does it go in my headphones on the bus, or do I make a mixtape? Shall I put it on in the lounge while I make a stir fry in the kitchen, or shall I sit with my son and talk about the songs from my teen years that this track samples from? Shall I put them in alphabetical order or shall I frame and hang my spare copy of Larry Young's Unity album because I like the cover? Shall I learn the words and sing along, or shall I invite my friend Clutch over to listen to it while we share a whisky? And so on and on.

When you think about it, what an immersive music navigation environment introduces is a reduction in interactivity.

That's not a reason not to build it - but it sure as hell won't replace anything. The only way this would be of any value whatsoever, is if it adds to the range of things that people can do with recorded music.

But - here's a thought: is music discovery only a problem for artists whose music is not currently being found? I don't know anyone who is having difficulty locating music that they enjoy.

June 11 | Registered CommenterAndrew Dubber

A crucial point Andrew. As Coolfer points out today, "Album sales are down but the number of individual track sales and ringtones are greater than the decrease in album units" - people are finding (and buying) new music (even if they're 'consuming' it differently to 10 years ago). The music fan is really quite sorted. The artist... well, there are still too few good solutions for music makers to connect in a meaningful and effective way. Tunecore and Amiestreet I think lead the way. The Sixty One looks good, but needs to build its audience. And there's obviously. But despite a crowded field, the truly useful options are surprisingly limited.

"I don't know anyone who is having difficulty locating music that they enjoy."


Smash your iPod, put your CDs in the microwave, have the dials removed from your radios, and go back to wax.

Have you ever looked for new music on iTunes? Why are all of the charts limited to 100 songs? Why not 1,000 songs? The state of music exploration in general...bites.

Input Genre One
Input Genre Two

Yeah that really works...

The vision described above is the evolution of the radio dial. Perhaps you would prefer your radio to be programmed by humans that are on the payrolls or record labels, and that the dial should remain a big dull knob that you can spin left and right?

Why did you buy an iPod anyways? Possibly, it was because you had difficulty accessing the music you enjoy when you wanted to enjoy it?

"Reduction in interactivity"


These systems expand interactivity tenfold.

"It won't replace anything."

Yeah OK, let's halt the evolution of music technology? How many LPs can you fit on that spindle?

These interfaces don't stop where the description above does. God, I could have continued for hours. You want the lyrics, press the button. You want to save to a mix, press a button. You want to share, press a button. You want album art, press a button. You want your screen to be filled with the album cover, press a button.

Please take more time to understand what I call Same Sonic Science. Do a search on Music Information Retrieval. This science LIBERATES discovery and it works well! It liberates. Think about that please. It's the difference between top-down central planning and practically pure consumer control.

Note to everyone. Andrew and I are friends. Please don't misread my sarcastic tone. Cheers.

June 11 | Registered CommenterBruce Warila

Andrew, If you said you would rather a more "organic" experience, than I would agree with that (maybe). Me, I want to touch my wall and rub the dash of my auto to shake more music out of it...

June 11 | Registered CommenterBruce Warila

I'll play devil's advocate and say that most music fans want to be guided - whether that's by Radio 1 playlists, a major label marketing campaign telling them Adele is the new Winehouse, a Pitchfork review, or a friend's recommendation. Giving them an immersive experience and letting them intuitively navigate round it/manipulate it - is that natural thing to do? And are we not comparative when we search for music? I like the Zombies - how do I find similar stuff? (Of course people *play* music based on mood - but for discovery? What's the strike rate going to be like there?)

And for all our talk of one grand tool to streamline this process, is music discovery not, for most people (even the most tech savvy), a series of happy accidents? You hear something on Hype Machine, it crops up again on your radio, maybe you catch a mention on Stereogum, and it all adds up to you seeking it out on Amazon MP3 (or Piratebay...) In which sense, isn't this immersive music discovery tool already here - the internet?


Great comments. I agree, guidance is good. The 10,000 songs in the pool will probably be stocked by Trusted Curators. See my last post on this on Unsprung.

I wonder if discovery is more motived by emotive spike hunting than random clicking? (I.e.: searching the dial for something that makes your blood flow.)

Anyways, the fancy interface I described is just one of dozens that one could imagine. Create the 2012 screen experience for Pitch Fork. Does it still have a lot of text or does it leverage what's possible?

The primary point of the post was: It may be more profitable to be a provider of unique experiences than it is to be an investor in random artists. Furthermore, the new experiences account for every artist, not just the ones a label invests in..

June 11 | Registered CommenterBruce Warila

"...reduction in interactivity..."

In my simple opinion there is almost too much interactivity as it is. I would not be surprised if there are more people out there that feel this way...What I mean by "Too Much Interactivity" is this:

Simple is good. Easy is good.

All this excess interactive widgets, gadgets, etc. etc.. sometimes do nothing but muddy up the already over-saturated music environment.

How many profiles does a person have to fill out any way? (Artist or consumer)

I am starting to truly believe this is all becoming uber-convoluted.

Just my simple opoinion for this particular moment in will change I am sure.

June 11 | Unregistered CommenterMilton

I think I need to explain a little more;

Music discovery is a problem in general. Saturation is a problem that is at the root of the "Music Discovery" problem.

Not just music saturation but technology and social network saturation too.

Too many networks with too many artists is a problem.

Too few labels with too few artists used to be a problem.

I would dare say that your average music consumer is not even aware of exactly how many choices they have...and adding even more choices to the musical stew will not allow any one ingredient to rise above will only make a thicker stew. It will make it even harder to pick out the parts you like or dont like...and some people will just stop eating it altogether (meaning that "Pop" will remain king via visual media coverage like E! TV, MTV, VH1 and assorted other painfully inaccurate judges of musical worth) because that's what the average person needs: Easy, spoonfed.

This is where the "Celestial Funnel" might find value to newer artists with little to no money or scandal to promote them. If it works like Bruce suggests then we could see the average consumer stumbling upon some talent they would never have heard about through the current promotional systems.

Unless of course I have misunderstood the whole concept.

Of course the audiophiles will hunt down the obscure and odd sounds that tickle only their fancy...that will never change no matter what systems are in place.

I think what we need to address here is the average listener...not the collector, or the eclectic...we all know that these types (people like you and me) will continue to scrounge all areas for that elusive noise...conforming to non-conformity, hipness and in the "know"...but what will poor Joe Blow do about finding a good song?

I think Joe Blow needs the "Celestial Funnel" and not seventeen million different networks to sift through.

Again, just my simple opinion.

June 11 | Unregistered CommenterMilton

Wow, some serious mind-bending ideas and dialogue...this site freaking ROCKS!! much does the average (let's use casual to be nice; read masses), listener ACTUALLY search for music? Don't they pretty much listen to what is put in front of them, flipping to something else that's put in front of them until they find what they like (or just listen because others are , until they do like it)? If this is true, and an artist wants to reach a broad audience (which not all care about, naturally),then it still seems vital to create ways for the CASUAL listener to discover music that are EASY TO ACCESS - or just, well...put in front of them. Now back to absorbing...Dg.

June 12 | Unregistered CommenterDg.

You're right, Bruce - I don't understand Same Song Science nearly enough. Honestly, the first and last words of that particular trinity literally repulse me. I don't want same and I sure as hell don't want science.

But my point about music discovery is misconstrued. I don't think iTunes is a great way to discover music. I think the hundreds of thousands of streams, the recommendation engines of and Pandora, the advice of friends, the opinion leaders on the blogs, and magazines I read, the thoughts of people like Gilles Peterson (Radio 1) and Rich Crowson (my local record shop), my colleagues at work who are forever playing and recommending things to each other and (in my case) all of the record labels who send me CDs for review mean that I'm so completely overwhelmed with choice that I hardly know where to start.

Now, perhaps I'm an exception (which I'll readily admit), but the point is not that people aren't being exposed to new music, but that they don't perceive that lack of exposure (if it exists) as a problem.

Who is going online every night, trawling through MySpace, and eMusic going 'Oh, if only there was some new music out there for me!'? Honestly?

Right now, I'm listening to Steely Dan. I happen to like Steely Dan.

I don't want something like Steely Dan, and nor do I want it to be a bit more Steely and a bit less Dan. I'm not always in discovery mode and I can enjoy passively consuming music I've always loved just as much as I can enjoy seeking out the new, next great thing.

I'm with Dg. 15-page menus at restaurants are amazingly cool. But sometimes we just want our mothers to put a plate of food in front of us and tell us to eat it.


Oh - and to follow up Bruce's point about us being friends... this is what he and I do for fun.

In fact, this is kind of indicative of how I relate generally.

One of my closest friends here in Birmingham is the Professor I work with. He head-hunted me for his research project in online music 4 years ago because we met at a conference in Wisconsin - and enjoyed disagreeing with each other so much, I moved my family from New Zealand to the UK.

June 12 | Registered CommenterAndrew Dubber

Great post Bruce! Spot on. The labels of the future are the ones that get the fact that they have to become D2C companies cutting out a lot of the middle men/women in the digital value chain. This necessitates being involved in more user friendly UI development from a label perspective. The reason despite massive increases in digital sales across both online and mobile have not made up for the smaller fall in physical sales is that their are too many middle men/women in the digital music value chain demanding unreasonable cuts of the End User Price.

The effect, labels earn less and the same goes for artists.

An interesting post I wrote late last year reinforces this:

Knowing your customers and having the ability to use D2C as an effective channel to market helps to drive down the reliance of these digital retailers and the associated middle companies required to access their storefronts.

Labels need to know their customers better and have strategies that provide them with end user data that current digital retailers deny them.

However, a first important step from the label's perspective is to put their own houses in order in relation to digital sales reporting transparency to their signed artists - especially before they start suing their own customers. What business sues its own customer?

Keep an eye on it. My prediction is that once EMI has sorted its re-structuring out it will be the leader in a world of label sheep.


June 12 | Unregistered CommenterJakomi

EXCELLENT (if not *best*) vision I red about a possible future! .. something like this is about to become reality - it may be completely *different* but it will be like this!!.. I still hope we'll also have vinyl then .. it just *feels* better ...

Lord Litter

PS .. I guess the *average* music consumer does'nt have the slightest idea what we're talking about here ...

June 13 | Unregistered CommenterLord Litter

Wow! Quite a conversation you guys are having here!

Bruce--I like your vision, even if it might be considered "geeky" by some.

Music discovery will continue to evolve with technology, but will it really let people experience or immerse themselves in music?

As a musician interested in the music experience angle, how about more bands doing what radiohead did ( and release their stems to be remixed?

June 16 | Unregistered CommenterGavroche

There's one thing I will agree with, Bruce: it's now much better business to get your song into Guitar Hero (securing appropriate royalties, of course ;) ) than to release it on CD. It's probably even better business to license it as elevator music - you might even get better exposure, especially if the license is for all the hotels in the Sheraton chain. Now there's a music experience and it's even placed before the listener on a plate. :D

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