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The past of music

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 07, 2003

Wired News is running an article this morning on a revolutionary Internet radio station that uses collaborative filtering to tailor streams for individual users. That revolution has already happened…launch.com was there in 1999:

You can grab songs for your playlist from real-life radio station playlists, from other LaunchCAST DJs, or by rating the songs as they are played. As you rate songs or choose DJs & radio stations that you “trust”, the player learns from that and starts pushing you music that you are likely to enjoy.

Launch.com’s product is still available at Yahoo!

Reader comments

steJul 07, 2003 at 9:46AM

I must admit that I, too, was confused by their calling Last.fm revolutionary when Launch has been doing the same thing for quite some time now. The concept of collaborative filtering certainly has vast potential, but it’s hardly new - what I’d like to see is software that would apply collaborative filtering and rating across weblogs (or websites in general), something like “If you like this site, check these out…” Is this something Google/Pyra might soon be poised to do? :)

JasonJul 07, 2003 at 9:47AM

Thank you for pointing this out, Jason. As a program manager for Yahoo!, it’s often strange how often one of our services (that could be or was a site unto itself) is forgotten in the “whole” experience that is Yahoo!.

BenJul 07, 2003 at 10:36AM

Jason, maybe you can answer this… there used to be a collaborative filtering streaming program where you could make your own station, other people could join in, and all the people would be listening to the same song at the same time and could vote whether to keep playing or skip the song. Was that a previous version of Launch? Or was that echo (before it died and its name used for another venture)? Or beta (beta was some little upstart that has some really interesting technology)?

SimonJul 07, 2003 at 10:46AM

The guy who runs Audiscrobbler is joining Last.fm. Audioscrobbler is one of those things that promises great things, and will probably deliver them as it can’t go bust (hurrah for Open Source.)

jkottkeJul 07, 2003 at 10:52AM

Ben, I don’t really remember that specific bit of functionality. I do remember Echo, but I don’t recall if there was collaborative voting on the same song at the same time. Anyone?

Steven GarrityJul 07, 2003 at 11:15AM

The idea behind this is fantastic. As I remember, you can choose other people who’s playlists you’d like to affect yours, and you can even have real traditional radiostations affect your playlist. That said, I’ve never ended up listening for more than a few days.

BenJul 07, 2003 at 12:53PM

Sorry Jason, I meant that reply for Jason, the product manager at Yahoo! (Not the yahoo who… ah forget it.)

JasonJul 07, 2003 at 3:01PM

Was that a previous version of Launch? Well, sort of. Upgrading to the LAUNCHcast Plus version, you would find the ability to subscribe to “influencers.” Influencers can influence what plays on your station (if a friend likes something, you might like it too, e.g.), but you can’t “vote” directly on what others play. This is at least using what Launch has in place today; maybe what you spoke of was pre-me or out of my knowledge range ;). HTH.

BenJul 07, 2003 at 3:11PM

Yeah, I knew about the influencers (it used to be part of the free version, no?) but the radio station/voting system was such an excellent idea… it was perfect for a workplace setting: you could invite all your co-workers to join in, and the music would get filtered to what was deemed listenable as a group. (In the administration portion, you had the ability to change how/when a song would be skipped… like if you wanted it to be skippable if 1 person, or 50%, or only if all of the listeners hit ‘skip’ would it go to the next song… and I think that voting would also be remembered in the collaborative filtering mechanism.) Anyone know which app this was?

BKJul 07, 2003 at 6:01PM

Ben, I think you might be referring to Echo? The Echo service allowed the user to create a station that would play a custom stream of music to one or multiple listeners. The songs that were heard were determined by combining the listeners’ highly-rated material and the station’s genre filters.

And, there was the skip/don’t skip voting functionality as well. The station creator could set the tolerance of the skipping just as you described. Version 2 of the product incorporated IM and other community and collaborative filtering features. It was kinda neat!

(full disclosure: I worked there)

BenJul 07, 2003 at 11:06PM

Wow, you worked there? I loved (loved) Echo, and was sad to see it get bastardized for whatever the hell it is now. What happened to the company? Does the player or its technologies (or its patents) live on in something else? Can I buy it?

alex_teaJul 08, 2003 at 8:12AM

Wired themselves don’t say that Last.fm is revolutionary, it’s a quote. In fact not only do they mention Yahoo’s Launch service but also others.

“Last.fm is not the first project to apply collaborative filtering to music. In the late 1990s, about half a dozen companies, including the high-profile Firefly, tried to build music-recommendation systems based on lists of users’ preferred songs or bands.



Like Last.fm, some streaming radio stations — such as Yahoo’s Launchcast streaming radio service — have used collaborative filtering to match streams to individual listeners’ tastes.”

BenJul 08, 2003 at 11:02AM

It’s a quote by Clay, yet not even in direct reference to this product or article (“Shirky could not be reached for comment for this article.”), yet it is being kinda used to back up the point of the article, that somehow this radio station and its collaborative filtering system is unique… which in fact it really isn’t that much, considering the only difference I see is that it rates a song for you if you don’t touch anything (which could be as — or more — erroneous for the collaborative filtering than not rating a song automatically, if you ask me… what if I go to lunch and it plays 10 songs I really hate?) So, what the hell is this article for? It seems more and more like a paid shill as I keep re-reading it. (For example, its labelled as a “new online radio station” yet its been around for 8 months?)

daveatronJul 08, 2003 at 3:39PM

Launch.com (at yahoo) has thrown up a page with around 160 form elements to fill in before I can listen to anything. It also streams adverts:

Not what I’d call approachable or user friendly.

I think watching for user intervention in the playstream is a much clearer interface, and far less intrusive. Maybe that’s where the value is with this service, not so much collaborative filtering.

BKJul 08, 2003 at 7:00PM

Wow, you worked there? […] What happened to the company? Does the player or its technologies (or its patents) live on in something else?

Well, according to Echo’s web site, they’re relaunching in partnership with brick-and-mortar music retail stores (Best Buy, Tower, Virgin Megastore, etc) to create online music services. Anything aside from that, I can’t really say.

Daveatron: Usability issues aside, Launch has to make money somehow, hence the advertising. Would a monthly subscription be a better option?

RickySilkJul 08, 2003 at 9:12PM

daveatron, launch plays ads on the free version but you can listen advert free (and get additional features) if you pay for launch plus. It’s a pretty basic business model. The thing that kinda bugs me is that it doesn’t work with mozilla.

daveatronJul 09, 2003 at 5:36AM

ah, missed the ad-free version… the form there blinded me :)

BK: payment questions are always difficult. Taking a very orthagonal step, I wonder what this would be like if a collab-filter system was hooked to something like (rip)Napster? Your initial profile was filled in from the mp3s sat on your hard disk. The system could then stream data from other user’s systems sharing your tastes. You wouldn’t be able to download whole albums as it’s not file-sharing, so that’s one excuse the RIAA wouldn’t have.

BenJul 10, 2003 at 5:16AM

“Since then, a lot of companies in the digital music business –- from jukebox publishers to streaming radio stations — have experimented in one way or another with collaboratively filtered music.

Most have offered lists of recommendations to users based on their stated preferences. None of the services, however, proved very popular, largely because they required so much work from their users. ”

I’d counter that statement with the example of eMusic which has over 250,000 tracks and over 70,000 paying subscribers ($10/month) and a recommendation system for albums and artists that is ENTIRELY built on data mining the user’s browsing actions and albums stashes. All this with NO active rating required.

And the reference to Clay’s article is quite indirect given the crux of Clay’s article is towards A&R not more distribution of Britney and Madonna. A better example of “collaborative filtering” (in quotes cause its well overused) is EmergentMusic which is using a more advanced “collaborative filtering” / slashdot style system to identify emerging artists. In fact, Clay even referenced this system in a subsequent mailout as a good example.

Taking a user profile and matching it to another user profile is not rocket science (hell, even I have a patent in it) and using it in the music space has many problems (e.g. “the old amazon you like bach you’ll like eminem” to mention one).

A customised radio station that uses simple vector math to generate the next track is not at all revolutionary and reading the article again it sounds like a press release regurgitated.



felix millerJul 12, 2003 at 7:47AM

hey guys I really wonder what you are all so excited about. Does the existence of McDonald’s mean that nobody should open a burger joint anymore?

yeah launchcast you were first, but what about firefly then, for that matter? since when is it a question of who is first over what is better? not saying the last.fm is. anyway, seems you are moaning cause the wired didn’t write about launchcast in a while. and if you ask me there is nothing revolutionary about having yahoo adverts and linkin park on the first page.

anyway, one thing is for sure, we don’t wanna be bought by a corporate dinosaur anytime soon… revolution is not cash for us!

staying on the subject, we didn’t pay for that write up, can’t even buy a pair of new socks for myself. so let’s be fair again, and support upcoming projects like in the old days before everybody sold to a fat company to avoid the pitfalls of blown up investments (nasdaq anyone?).

peace, and let’s do something good for the music scene. it’s about time, not specifically talking about sony here … .

will this post stay in here mr. editor?

ozeanJul 12, 2003 at 7:57AM

so what does launchcast do with their o so much more inteligent technology? well they are delivering mainly major labels, mainstream. what’s the use of collaborative filtering if, in the end u get the content which is marketed throughout the whole world anyway?? so in the end people are back in the old categories and genres of music and i ask myselve why are they using colaborative filtering if they don’t have the guts to push it through on the content level?

lets face it, launchcast was a nice bit of technolgy that yahoo bought. nevertheless, their internal policy is rendering it useless. last.fm is fresh and the boys give a shit about technology. they are connecting the technology with the small labels and deliver specialised content to people via colaborative filtering. so it is not about the technology and who was first, it is about what u make out of it.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.