TCS Daily

The Human-Digital Touch

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - November 23, 2004 12:00 AM

Last year at about this time, I mourned the demise of, which had for several years been my chief source of new and interesting music. As a musician myself, I used their hosting services, and made a bit of money off of the download fees they paid. I resurrected (for a small fee) my MP3 site (well, one of them) over at, so people can still hear my stuff. But that wasn't the biggest deal.

Mark Rushton, in fact, emailed me when I noted this on my blog the other day:

"When you can get 2 gigs of web space at a reputable and established hosting company and 100 gigs of throughput for $9.95 a month, why would anybody need Garageband or Soundclick?

"Anybody wishing to spend money on premium services (higher bit-rate MP3s, etc) could probably do just as well with a proper domain and a warehouse-size amount of space for a 'label.'

"I miss, but that model has simply passed with the times."

Where hosting is concerned, he's right. I have my own server, and it's capable of pumping out audio (and video) at far higher rates than I'm likely to use, except perhaps on election nights. But that's not the biggest deal. Putting music on the Internet is easy; connecting music with the people who want to hear it is harder. That's what excelled at, through its genre charts, cross-band "favorite" links, "Radio stations," and so on. And that's what I miss most about it. Other sites have tried to emulate this, with limited success, because one thing that had going for it was its massive traffic, which led to all sorts of scope-and-scale efficiencies.

Now there's a new effort to achieve the same kind of success. I interviewed Ali Partovi, the CEO of, the other day and he told me that they're doing something new about the kinds of things I'm talking about.'s big advantage, he notes, was the "firehose of traffic" that it got by virtue of its domain name.

GarageBand doesn't have such a wonderfully generic domain name, but it does have a new partnership with Microsoft, which ought to be worth something. And it's using its own system of musician- and peer-ranking to choose top tunes, in a model reminiscent of the kind of collaborative filtering that Amazon has become famous for. As Partovi notes, the difference between this approach and the self-hosting approach is the difference between having a shop selling custom-made shoes, and putting your shoes on the shelves at Nordstrom's. Both have their places, but one has a lot more upside potential. The goal is to have "a continuous flow of new and undiscovered artists" to the public.

How well is it working? You can hear the first batch online now and make up your own mind -- I like it, though so far it's all hip-hop and pop/rock -- no techno. But the whole idea of collaborative filtering as a way to find new things seems awfully important to me. I've mentioned before that as technology for producing and distributing creative work gets better, more and more people are getting into the game. That's terrific, of course. But it only makes the problem of finding which stuff you like harder.

Amazon has addressed that through collaborative filtering -- when you look at a book, you see other books that people who bought that book liked, and your buying patterns generate new recommendations based on the same kinds of things. That increases the odds that you'll like those other books. (Of course, I've noticed lately that when I link to a book from my blog, the recommended books shown along with them are mostly other books I've linked from my blog, because people followed those links and bought them, too. Then again, people who read my blog probably have a lot of tastes in common, so the recommendations are probably right. . . .)

The blog-and-Amazon relationship makes me think that the future will probably involve a mixture of people and robots. The collaborative-filtering software is pretty cool, but the added human touch is kind of nice, too. I suspect that there's a lot of money to be made in refining these approaches.


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