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Music Discovery: Tracking the top artists at SXSW 2011

For the past 18 months, those of us who keep an eye on the intersection of music and technology have been extolling the coming wave of music-discovery engines. The smartest people in both music and tech are trying to write the app that will introduce you to your new favorite band -- which often means keeping track of the bands people are talking about online. But up until recently, most of the technology behind this stuff was inside baseball -- the kind of thngs passed around by developers at secluded hack days. No more: at SXSW 2011, you couldn't miss the music-discovery engines. Pepsi plastered one all over its homepage, and also all over the Fader Fort, one of the festival's premiere destinations. Meanwhile, the Guardian -- the UK's smartest news platform -- teamed up with Google to track the top bands at SXSW. And both of those bore close resemblance to MTV's Music Meter, a high-profile installation of a world-class API by Somerville-based MIT Media Lab geniuses the Echo Nest. Each of these is attempting to provide essentially the same service: to surface, publicly, a list of the most-talked-about artists at any given moment. How'd they do? Here's a quick overview:

Product: Pepsi Music Index
Powered by: Bluefin Labs

Displayed on big-screen TVs all over Austin, this ever-shifting, real-time visualization lists a top 100 "emerging artists," based on an evaluation of natural-language conversations (i.e., real people talking in real spaces). The bubbly, hyper-active chart looks like an homage to Hans Rosling, and the data does appear to change in real-time: on Saturday afternoon the board was showing LIL' B at the top of the board, which could have been a reflection of the buzz surrounding his performance later that night (Diddy showed up to introduce him), or could've been a bit of product placement. Not surprisingly, Fader faves and Fort performers like Diplo, Ellie Goulding, A-Trak, Odd Future, and James Blake have been regulars in the top 10. But once you've seen who's on the list, that's pretty much the end of the experiment: while the display lists a bunch of scientifc-sounding metrics -- including an overall popularity score and a plus-minus trend ranking -- you can't drill down any deeper to find out more about the artists. 

Product: Guardian SXSW Band Tracker
Powered by: MusicMetric, Last.fm, Soundcloud, Google

When Jemima Kiss, one of the Guardian's digital-media correspondents, figured out that her paper couldn't afford to send her to SXSW, she took matters into her own hands: she threw together a hack day to let developers compete for the best ways of displaying SXSW information in real-time, then got Google to bankroll the trip to make the hacks happen. One of the cooler implementations was this Band Tracker, which pulls its rankings from the social-media measurings of MusicMetric. It's limited in scope -- the score takes into account only Facebook likes, Twitter followers, Last.fm listeners, and . . . MySpace friends? But within that range, it shows quite graphically how a band's profile can be catapulted into the stratosphere with an appearance at SXSW: just take the UK screamo band Asking Alexandria, who won't show up on many critics' wrap-ups but beat are currently beating out the Strokes for the top spot on the BandTracker list. And the Guardian's implementation gets bonus points for usability -- if you clicked through during the festival, you'd see each band's showcases listed and mapped, plus a song sample pulled from Soundcloud and bio information provided by Last.fm. It's a really straightforward but smart leveraging of third-party data -- and it's the kind of information that will likely be standard for any newspaper or magazine's music coverage within the next year or so. 

Product: MTV Music Meter
Powered by: The Echo Nest

This wasn't launched specfically to track SXSW, though the above two products are clearly modeled on it. The Echo Nest  has been collecting an immense amount of data that is of great interest to record labels -- for instance, they can tell a publicist which writers they should be sending a band's press kit to, based on an analysis of that writer's reviews of other bands -- and now some of the biggest media companies are starting to pay attention. MTV's Music Meter is the highest-profile implementation of the Echo Nest's platform yet, and it functions as a leaderboard for who's being written about, talked about, Tweeted about, and shared. About half the acts in the Top 10 this week were at SXSW, including Phoenix faves the Naked and Famous, Wye Oak, Kurt Vile, and Toro Y Moi. Click through and you get a wealth of information on each act -- videos, photos, tweets, blog posts -- all sourced through the Echo Nest's freely-available API. Neither BlueFin or MusicMetric have that kind of firepower at their disposal, but SXSW 2011 clearly showed that the rest of the music industry is following the Echo Nest's lead. Meanwhile, they're already on to the next thing: some folks were already playing with an Echo Nest-powered unoffical SXSW smartphone app, which suggested bands you should see in Austin based on your listening habits, pulled directly from the phone. 

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