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Exclusive SiliconExit interview with digital music pioneer Michael Robertson on 6 Seconds, disruption and the free market

"Michael Robertson, 2006". Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

While reviewing the 6 Seconds app for this week’s edition, I recalled a time, 15 years ago, when I invited the founder, Michael Robertson’s previous company, MP3.com to meet with my now-defunct division at BMG Entertainment.  While he was not in attendance, his executives explained how the company was preparing for a day when we streamed all of our music over our phones.

He was right about streaming music, just as he was right about desktop Linux, online app stores, and voice over IP.  Michael Robertson is perpetually heading into the horizon rather than looking in the rear view, and I wanted to know what makes him tick.  I was delighted that he agreed to help us kick off our Silicon Exit interview series.

Thank you, Michael, for taking the time to speak with Silicon Exit about your new project, 6 Seconds.

JR: 6 Seconds is really clever.  It really gives the listener an unprecedented level of control over what they hear, and it does so on the back of an old fashioned online media — namely online radio.  Was this in the cards when you built RadioSearchEngine.com, or did the data open your eyes and lead you to a realization that there’s this “dust cloud” of hit songs that are playing in constant rotation out of the over 100,000 radio stations that you index?

MR:It was an evolving idea. Initially we built a DVR for radio at DAR.fm. (DAR – get it?) To do this we had to go through the laborious task of cataloging online stations and broadcast schedules of talk stations. With this foundation it seemed like a natural extension to write the spiders which would track music stations as well.

JR: Unlike services, such as Pandora, which limit the number of skips and really limit discovery, you allow the listener to hop between stations with reckless abandon to hear what they want, when they want.  This is unprecedented for a free service.  Is 6 seconds caching songs on the user’s device (or “pausing a stream”)?  While 200 stations might be playing “Uptown Funk” at any given time, if I don’t swipe to skip a song, the flow is still very good.  It feels like an on-demand service.

MR: We have created a new music experience category called near-demand. 6 Seconds doesn’t have every song at anytime like Spotify’s $10/month on-demand service. But 6 Seconds lets you select a starting song and has unlimited skips which is much more control than a lean back service like Pandora.

JR: What I find even more exciting is the discovery that a little bit of randomness brings to the table.  One of my major beefs with Spotify and Beats is that while the catalogs are pretty deep, the curation for radio is a bit of a black box.

MR: Every time a 6 Seconds listener swipes to find a new song, they’re tapping into the collective wisdom of radio DJs. We track every song played on every station so we identify relationships between songs as determined by the music choices of human managed stations. Music is a fuzzy domain. Songs may cross domains or have unexpected relationships to other songs that are not just acoustic and our system captures this relationship. It allows for more serendipity with music. It’s unlikely you’ll get the same 20-30 songs over and over as happens with existing services.

JR:  Some songs are featured due to paid promotions, which would actually be frowned upon in terrestrial radio under the FCC’s payola rules. Do you think that services like Pandora or Spotify should disclose when a song is being promoted?

MR: When the government gave monopolies to certain companies (in the form of exclusive use of a frequency in an area), it made sense for the government to oversee what is broadcast. On the net nobody has a monopoly so government oversight makes no sense. Users can tune into stations they enjoy and skip those they don’t. The free market will shape what people want.

JR: Two of my favorite bands, Prefab Sprout and The Trash Can Sinatras, are not exactly in heavy rotation — anywhere. Nevertheless, I ran a search for them on 6 Seconds and did come up with a few stations playing their songs at any given time.  While the experience was not “on demand,” the result was just as enjoyable.

MR:  In the FM radio world transmitting towers, licenses and operating costs are expensive requiring operators to appeal to a broad audience segment to cover their costs. The radically different economics of internet delivered radio means niche audiences are economically practical so there’s a much more diverse collection of audio. There are stations that play nothing but Mario Bros theme songs or non-stop radio jingles if you can believe it!

JR:  I can believe it. To the point, when reviewing Six Seconds, I realized that the kind of stations that play my favorite bands are likely to play other music that appeals to me. In fact, I’d say that while I agree that the idea of stations is going away (something else you’ve written about), the value of honest curation and discovery is as important as it ever was.

MR: Totally agree. 6 Seconds users can favorite stations and quickly jump directly to those. They just click the star next to the station name.

JR:  In one of your Michael’s Minute columns, you wrote that radio stations still know very little about who is listening — even online, when this really shouldn’t be the case with the kind of data available.  Is this willful ignorance?

MR: I think radio simply lags behind other media sectors in their digital migration. When I started with online radio 4 years ago many people told me “radio is dead, why are you bothering?” They couldn’t imagine the world I see where radio becomes much more consumer friendly using modern technology.

JR:  I was really enamored with your “Beam-It” application and MP3.com’s sideloading.  Back then, most people were on dialup and uploading songs was an excruciating process.  Beam-It took a hash of your CD (if I recall, your executives explained that it could even discern whether it was a duplicate or not) and the album appeared in your locker instantly.  I created a music locker for all of my CDs at home so that I could listen to them at work.   It was magical.  Almost 15 years before services like iTunes Match. MP3.com legally acquired some 80,000 CDs and added them to the service.

MR: It’s a shame the music industry didn’t embrace BeamIt because it was great for the industry by making the CD relevant in the digital age. Retailers that supported it saw a 20-40% immediate sales boost. At the same time consumers loved it because it gave them immediate musical gratification in a world of pokey modems where downloading a single song could take 20 minutes.  I remain proud of this invention. I don’t think it could save the CD but it could have extended it’s life for many years.

JR: My favorite podcast listening application is Overcast by Marco Arment.  Its dynamic playback speed is really in a class of its own.  It makes Audible and Apple’s own Podcast app acceleration sound like garbage.  When he first released the application, I asked if he would add a paid feature to allow crowdsourcing to skip advertisements, or at least automatically accelerate them.

He responded, “I thought about that crowdsourced-skipping thing (much like Kindle Popular Highlights), but ultimately, it would just hurt podcasts: everyone would auto-skip over the sponsor reads and the entire economic model of podcasts would be dramatically undermined. Not worth it.”

What would you say to radio stations who might fear that by decoupling the music from the station — and its advertisements, that services like 6 Seconds might harm their model?  It seems to me that a model that can be hurt by a line of code is extremely vulnerable to begin with.  It’s like network security.  Eventually, somebody is going enter that unlocked door. And, as an advertiser, if people were skipping my ads, I’d want to know that.

MR: Online radio is losing billions of listeners because it gets no search traffic. Meanwhile Pandora and Spotify are growing. Something must change or net radio stations will fade to irrelevance.

And yes, Overcast and Marco Arment are great! I tried to get him to support our DVR for radio service but haven’t succeeded yet.

JR: Should a disruptor worry about how much disruption they cause and how quickly they cause it?  One of the things that struck me about MP3.com was that it really and truly reached out a hand to the record labels at a time when the other popular music service, Napster.com was based almost entirely on pirated content.  In contrast, MP3.com appeared, to me, to always remain above-board.  You were sued by BMG, where I worked, and Bertelsmann (BMG’s parent company) offered a loan to Napster… Hey! What’s the moral of the story here?

MR: People credit or blame me for the change that MP3 brought to the industry. Perhaps I accelerated its adoption by galvanizing the nascent industry, encouraging indie artists to post legal free tracks at MP3.com and selling the first MP3 player in the world, but I also think the future is inevitable.

For example can we pass laws trying to halt genomic manipulation, but it’s futile since anyone with a couple thousand dollars and access to Google can do gene manipulation in their house.

JR: Millenials might not realize this, but when they were still in training pants, you created one of the first  (if not, the first) “user friendly” versions of desktop Linux, Linspire, complete with its own app store (Click & Run).  Eventually, even Microsoft caught on and created an app store.  Better late than never, right?

MR: After BeamIt, the Click-N-Run desktop app store is my favorite invention. It was the original graphical app store long before Apple’s iTunes or Google’s Play.

It’s scary to let go of one vine and grab onto another. Too early and you fall to your death. Too late and you’ll lack the speed to make the transition.

JR: Before then, for any real software, you had to walk to the computer store and carry a big “cereal box” back to the office. Are radio stations and TV stations like the old software cereal boxes?

MR: It’s scary to let go of one vine and grab onto another. Too early and you fall to your death. Too late and you’ll lack the speed to make the transition. I won’t pretend to tell these experienced operators when they should make the jump but they must at some point.

JR:  Before the iPhone was released, I was using a linux-based Nokia N800 tablet.  It was amazing at the time, but looks antiquated compared to the tablets and mobile devices we have today.  Once again, you were a strong presence on that device.  Gizmo Project/Gizmo5 was one of my favorite and most used applications.  Unlike Skype, Gizmo5 was based on open standards.  I linked it to Google Voice, and I even bought an SPA2102 and enjoyed a free incoming business phone line for a period of time with your service.  After Google bought Gizmo5, it was eventually shut down.  Do you know if any of that project lives on within Google Talk or Google Voice?

MR: I don’t know if Gizmo5 technology lives on at Google, but after the acquisition my team relocated from San Diego to Mountain View and remain key players in Google’s real time communication efforts.

JR: I’d like to return to a few more questions about 6 Seconds.  Where did you get the name — is it based on the regular polling of internet radio stations?

MR: Our goal for most popular songs is to begin playing a song within the first 6 seconds of its beginning.

JR: The new SlingTV service, like 6 Seconds, focuses on content over stations.  It’s refreshing, yet I really liked Aereo.com, which the Supreme Court ruled was violating broadcasters’ copyrights.  I believe that they could have just as easily ruled that Aereo was merely renting out antennas. The court seemed to take a black box approach to how Aereo obtained their signal, saying that the end result was what mattered, not how they got there.

MR: This was very disconcerting.

My favorite philosopher is a guy named Thomas Sowell. I’ve adopted one of his quotes as my own: There are no solutions, only trade-offs.

JR:  I agree wholeheartedly. Even when a case is without merit, special interest groups, lobbies and entertainment companies aren’t afraid to mire a start up in distracting and expensive lawsuits.  What would you say to somebody who has a great idea that could shake up an established industry but fears coming under attack?

MR: My favorite philosopher is a guy named Thomas Sowell. I’ve adopted one of his quotes as my own: There are no solutions, only trade-offs.

JR: There are so many problems that we can solve by fractionalizing them.  I think that an application like Waze, which allows users to report hazards, is one compelling example.  Is user data from 6 Seconds helping to make your Radio Search Engine better?

For example, if a station sets the wrong metadata, you might play the wrong song.  If a station’s data is a mess, you might be less likely to recommend it.

MR: Today users help add and maintain our station list at DAR.fm/suggest.php

Our plan is to offer a feedback link on the player page of 6 Seconds where users can give us information. Maybe the meta-data is incorrect or the image URL is broken or the audio fidelity is poor. The plan is absolutely to use that data to refine our radio search capabilities.

JR: How do you count 6 Seconds listens in your database?  Does the station gain a listener?

MR: Since users are connecting directly to a station’s audio stream without us in the middle in anyway, they’ll see this as a listener in their own web logs.

JR: Do you foresee a time when the kind of disruption that you’ve brought to media will come to government?

MR: Yes, it’s inevitable but many people profit from unaccountability in the government so they will resist it mightily.

JR: Truer words were never spoken.  Thank you, Michael Robertson, for speaking with Silicon Exit.


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