In Digital Era, Music Spotters Feed a Machine

By JENNA WORTHAM ? NY Times 2/14/11

SAN FRANCISCO — Sure, Shazam, the popular music-spotting cellphone application, can identify that Rihanna track. But what about the new song from the Sandwitches, a Bay Area folk-rock band?

That is where Charles Slomovitz comes in.

Mr. Slomovitz was roaming the aisles of a record store here recently when he spotted a flame-haired clerk. It was Grace Cooper, one-third of the Sandwitches, which had just put out a single that was getting attention on music blogs.

“She’s got that sound that’s getting to be big,” he said as she handed him a copy of the song, “so I’ve got to have it.”

Mr. Slomovitz, a music industry veteran, spends his days tracking down hot new artists — but not for a big record label. Instead, he works for Shazam, maker of the application of the same name that can figure out what song is playing in a bar, a clothing boutique or a TV commercial.

“It’s like a scavenger hunt in real time,” said Mr. Slomovitz, 42. “It never stops.”

Mr. Slomovitz’s job is one of the more unusual in the new digital music era, as he and the dozen or so other “music sourcers” at Shazam try to ensure that any songs the app’s users might want to identify are ready and waiting in the company’s database.

As the major record labels shrink, Shazam and other start-ups are thriving by offering people new ways to discover and listen to music. That is creating new kinds of jobs in the music business, from foragers like Mr. Slomovitz to the developers building software that recommends the perfect song for a particular listener.

“We used to have D.J.’s, record store clerks and A.& R. types” — the music industry’s talent scouts — to help discover music, said Paul Lamere, director of the developer community at Echo Nest, which builds music search services. “But now, because so much music is available, the challenge is surfacing relevant music to listeners.”

He added: “We’re living in a world where technologists and programmers are becoming the new gatekeepers for new music.”

If the programmers are going to create a useful music site or service, they need data, and in some cases, that involves hiring humans to gather it. Pandora, the popular music streaming service, has so-called musicologists, who analyze songs based on a long list of characteristics, like the complexity of the rhythm or whether it sounds Hawaiian.

At Shazam, the music sourcers’ challenge goes beyond just getting a copy of the latest single from Kanye West. Shazam also wants the latest club tracks, Internet mix tapes and whatever is playing on college radio, anything that might inspire curious listeners to pull out their phones and fire up the app.

“When people use a service like Shazam, they expect it to work all the time,” said Andrew Fisher, Shazam’s chief executive.

At stake, Mr. Fisher said, is the loyalty of the service’s audience, whose members use it three million times a day. If Shazam cannot recognize a song, a user may simply turn to another app that can.

Shazam, which says it has 100 million users, has the biggest share of the market for applications that identify music. But competitors, most notably SoundHound, have moved into similar territory. SoundHound has been adding features that Shazam has yet to match, including allowing people to identify a song by humming a few bars of it into their phones.

Shazam’s music sourcers feed songs into the company’s system so it can give each one a unique “fingerprint” that can be matched with the sound captured by its mobile app. Some of the songs come directly from record labels, which view Shazam as a useful partner.

“It’s another avenue through which our musicians can be discovered, which is always a good thing,” said Seth Hubbard, a manager at Polyvinyl Records in San Francisco, which works with Shazam to put its songs into the database even before they are released.

But a good portion of the music-gathering requires more work.

“If we don’t have a song that is being played in nightclubs because it is only on vinyl that isn’t signed to a label, or was created on a computer,” Mr. Fisher said, “hundreds of people could be tagging that song and getting a nil result.” He declined to disclose the service’s failure rate.

The hunt keeps Mr. Slomovitz on his toes. Every morning, he skims dozens of music blogs, checking for new releases he might have missed, as well as the iTunes, Amazon.com and Billboard charts, and blog aggregators like the Hype Machine.

Most weeks he also goes to local record stores to see if there is something in stock he has not heard of, or if older albums are being remastered or reissued. And he listens to local radio stations, especially near universities.

“If all the college radio stations are playing something new that’s coming out of a school in Connecticut, that should be in there,” he said.

On a recent visit to the Polyvinyl offices, Mr. Slomovitz got down on his knees to scan a shelf of freshly pressed records. He excitedly pulled one out and held it up.

“Found it,” he yelped, pushing a hand through his scruffy head of hair. “It’s the new Matt Pond PA. Their song ‘Snow Day’ is going to be featured in a Starbucks commercial, so we’ve got to have that.”

New music has infiltrated many popular television shows, like “Gossip Girl” and children’s shows like “Yo Gabba Gabba!” Mr. Slomovitz says he pays close attention to which bands and songs are playing on those shows and a handful of others.

When he finds a song he wants to add to the database, he contacts the artist or label to get a copy of the track.

Shazam executives say their mission is to catalog every song in the world. But it would be impossible to feed the machine with each and every song released by a tiny label or a bedroom studio.

Instead, Mr. Slomovitz has to try to think like a music tastemaker, guessing which songs might get attention and potentially stump Shazam’s servers.

“They’re our A.& R. to find anything that might be played,” said David Jones, a vice president at Shazam.

Because Shazam, which is based in London, is available in more than 200 countries, the company has a lot of ground to cover. “We have people in London, Japan, China, Indonesia,” Mr. Jones said.

Mr. Slomovitz and his fellow sourcers are an important part of the company’s strategy. He describes himself as a “freak about music” and has spent most of his career in the music business. He spent several years at Virgin Records, handling promotion and marketing for artists like Lenny Kravitz and the Smashing Pumpkins. But he said years in the daily grind of the industry wore him out.

“I found that the higher I got on the food chain, it was less about the music and more about sales numbers,” he said. He was a few years into running a tiny record label when the listing for the Shazam job sailed into his in-box. It was a perfect fit, he said.

“I get to do what I love, listen to new music and find new artists,” he said “I get to go to town.”

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