An ode to universal music locators (let me take my playlists with me!)

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I’m polymusical.  Not only do I have various music talents, but — more relevant to this post — I’ve “dated” quite a few music services in my time, and not all of them purely sequentially.  Heck, I even served as a volunteer community leader for one and a nicely-compensated community-UX designer for another.

PressPlay, Yahoo! Music Unlimited, Napster (the legal version), Real Music, Virgin Digital Music, MusicMatch, Mog, Rdio, Spotify and others I’ve likely forgotten for better or worse.  I’ve tried ‘em all.  And I’m not even counting the music lockers, the music purchasing sites, the music radio sites…

In some cases, I’ve fallen in love, or at least deep like.  But then comes the inevitable breakups; they keep my money, they keep my subscription tracks, and well, that’s fine… that’s the deal.  We had our good times, honest!

You know what just kills me, though?  They also keep my playlists.  They don’t let me have custody of that library of artists and albums and songs I so lovingly put together and oft-categorized over the last months or even years.  All my ratings?  POOF!  Not even a CSV dump, dear old flames?  No, apparently not.

This doesn’t just make me sad about my prior “relationship,” it makes me more wary of getting into new ones.  Put more plainly, I believe the lack of portability of our playlists and related personal music data is hurting adoption of music subscriptions.

But wait, Adam, do you really think the plethora of non-geeks in the world are worried about this? Aren’t they flocking to Spotify, at least not yet worried about what happens when they want to move their library and playlists to another service?

Frankly, most folks probably aren’t worried.  But the online music community — of bloggers, API developers and users, etc. — most likely is significantly discouraged.

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Let’s look at a couple of specific examples of how the lack of music portability hurts music online for everyone:

  1. I want to curate a “best of a cappella” blog, legally showcasing great tracks to encourage discovery and purchases (with money going to the artist!).
  • To do this, I have to link to or — better yet — embed the tracks.  Let’s say I used imeem embed codes back before imeem went to that great big jukebox in the sky (and I’m not talking about cloud services).  Today, not only would all those links/embeds be broken, there’d be no easy way for me to switch them to working links on another service; it’s not like Blogger (or most blogging systems) offer grep, and there aren’t any consistent music identifiers anyway letting me link a song on one service to a song on another service.
  • Maybe I’d be luckier and choose to point links to Spotify, a fine service that’s still alive and kicking.  But hey… not everyone has the Spotify app installed.  Worse, the Spotify service isn’t even available in most countries in the world! :-(  So for that majority of people, the links would be practically useless (and certainly frustrating).
  • I subscribe to an online music service, but it goes out of business.  I’ve spent countless hours creating playlists — perhaps even collaboratively with others! — and now those lists are inaccessible.  I can’t download them, and even if I could, it’s unlikely I could then “import” these lists effectively into a new service (Spotify-supporting third parties offer some of this functionality, but I’ve found it to work spotily at best).  Again, this is likely because there are no universally consistent music locator codes per track, album, and artist.
  • *  *  *
    I think two things would greatly help make this overall situation much, much less painful.
    1. Unique music locator codes, at least per track.  Imagine if music://owtgia42 or music://moxy-fruvous-king-of-spain7 linked to a unique track globally… and clicking on that would open up a web-based or client-side music service of the user’s choice!
    • Bloggers wouldn’t have to worry about link-rot.  
    • Users would be empowered to listen to music via services they like (and that are supported in their region!)
  • Changes in global intellectual property laws to enable track snippet-streaming (e.g., 30 seconds) of songs even in the absence of artist/label permissions.  It’s difficult to imagine how this could possibly harm music sales (“Gee, I don’t need to buy that song anymore; I’ve got the first 30 seconds of it!”), and opening this up would enable not-for-profit organizations to set up servers for supplying music samples.  WikiMusica? :)  This’d likely help existing commercial music services, too, freeing them from having to negotiate permissions and payment structures for simply streaming song samples. Not to mention it’d allow bloggers to select and post their own 30 second track samples without worrying about legal ramifications.
  • *  *  *
    Sure, there’d be some pretty major challenges!  Looking at the unique music locator codes…
    • What would happen if the person clicking on the link had no installed web or client resources to play the song?  Or if they lived in a region in which they were not allowed to access and play that particular track? (that situation in itself seems silly to me — the whole balkanized rights stuff — but I digress, and that’s certainly a hefty fish to fry)
    • How could artists — concerned about how others experience their music — be ensured that listeners’ experiences would be positive ones? (e.g., high quality, authentic tracks)
    • What would be the reaction from artists and the music industry when people chose to have music:// on their system be parsed by P2P services, garnering them perfectly matched but not-paid-for tunes?
    • What different things would have to support a music:// option?  Probably browsers, operating systems, others?
    • Would the music services even embrace this?  One might cynically argue that they have an economic incentive to perpetuate lock-in vs. supporting portability, particularly when their competitors are not offering portability.  But I’d argue that universally setting playlists and libraries free would jump-start citizen-music-sharing and in the end, greatly swell the numbers of people paying for online subscription services.
    And for the changes in global intellectual property… well, that’d be such a gargantuan task, certainly, that I’m not sure it’s even something to attempt tackling in my lifetime.  While “30 second snippets are good for listeners, musicians, and the entire music ecosystem” sounds sensible to me, “sensible” does not always take precedence in the world of law.  Believe me, as someone with a law degree, I know this more painfully than most ;-).
    *  *  *
    So is at least the music locator code idea doable?  Are there any organizations making substantial, promising headway on it?   There’s Gracenote, but I don’t believe their database is available for free.  A buddy told me about Echo Nest, but I’m still getting my head around their API and am unsure whether it really accomplishes what I’m yearning for.

    *  *  *
    I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!  Please sound off (ha!) in the comments :-)

    8 comments… add one

    • ThatAdamGuy Oct 19, 2011

      Oh, and a quick important disclaimer!  I work for Google, but don’t work on the Google Music Beta project.  My comments are in no way intended to reflect the views of those fine team members or of Google on the whole.  Our awesome lawyers don’t make me say all that; rather, I just cringe each time I see others’ posts start with “As Googler Adam Lasnik wrote…” gah! :o  These are my personal rantings, mine mine mine! :D

    • Brian Ussery Oct 19, 2011

      As Googler Adam Lasnik wrote…  

      he..he…he just kidding :)

      Come on, today nobody really “owns” music, we’re all just renters!  Back in the glorious days of 8-tracks, vinyl, cassette tapes and cds you could do as you pleased and take your mix tape with you. :)  Today it just doesn’t seem that easy.  You’re right something needs to be done.

      As far as a unique code for songs, in order to sell on iTunes I’m pretty sure you’re required to have a unique UPC for albums and unique ISRC for each song.  Since UPC are on everything and independent of apple (I think), it seems like this data would be available to the masses but maybe not.

      Either way, awesome post!

    • ThatAdamGuy Oct 21, 2011

      re: renting not owning… not just music, but increasingly other creative expressions:  movies, books, etc.  There are many things to be grateful in the increased access we have to entertainment and art globally, but the fact that this access can be modified or removed at any time worries and disappoints me.

      re: unique UPC code for albums… okay, that I knew.  But I wasn’t aware of an ISRC code per song.  Interesting.  I could probably Google this, but I wonder what the process is for getting an ISRC code assigned, who manages it, whether it’s accessible/inexpensive for independent artists to get these codes for their tracks, etc.

      Anyway, thanks for for the compliment and the thoughtful comment overall!

    • ThatAdamGuy Oct 21, 2011

      Hey righini, you know you can subscribe to my blog via RSS, right?  ;)

      re: separate streams… interesting idea about having reviews available separately!  And I agree with you that it’s so important that distribution and communication between artists and the current and future fans is critically important!  We all need choices…

      re: last.fm… are you talking about scrobbling?  I’ve actually used that feature/functionality before, but it’s unclear to me how they’re identifying tracks, and whether this is a last.fm-specific thing or something accessible for others.

      Oh, and all the best for your upcoming choir audition!!!

    • righini Oct 22, 2011

      rss: yep! that’s how i read your post!

      separate streams: glad you like it, probably is not easy to set up thus.

      last.fm: yep, they have some kind of “standardization” method. recently they also added a monetizing option for independent artists, did you check it out?

      audition: it’s a starting choir, we’ll see what we can push out! (one of the main objectives is to sing someting of american gospel tradition!)

    • ThatAdamGuy Oct 24, 2011

      Amit, what a great way to phrase it:  ”URLs for music.”  Thanks!

      And yes, I agree with how you’ve framed this, though admittedly I’ve never thought of it framed in that way.  However, I have sadly recognized and agree with your summary take:  universal referencing is good for society, but isn’t in the interest of any individual app maker.  

      Is this, perhaps in a way, a form of the Prisoner’s Dilemma… whereby the ecosystem as a whole — and the individual apps that are part of it — would benefit by universal referencing and portability, but the temptation to “betray” (or in this case, maintain silos) is a more tempting immediate path?

    • amitp Oct 26, 2011

      Yes, I think that’s true until “most” people are using the universal referencing system, and then anyone who “betrays” it will be at a disadvantage by not participating in the ecosystem.

      I suspect the coordination to build the ecosystem can either come from a new open area (e.g. the web) or from large companies either up or down the production chain. Apple for example is in a reasonable position to get all the music companies to use a universal identifier system, but I suspect they’re not interested in opening that up…

    • The_Dog_Treat_Guy Oct 31, 2011

      Having matured (gotten Old) a miss cassettes, vinyl and the like. I got tired of converting all of my CD;s to apples proprietary system, and having to use an ipod. With digital radio and youtube, as well as internet radio stations, I am finding less need to worry about creating play lists and listening to the same old again. Yes I am getting old, but I am getting new stuff into my musical diet all of the time, via the net, for free and by guides that i have begun to trust.

    What do you think?