This post is by Alison McCarthy (@aliiimac). She's an intern at Hypebot.
Recently I spoke with Charles Smith, Founder and COO of exfm, a new music discovery service that works as a browser extension for Chrome, turning the entire web into your personal music library. As you browse any website that hosts MP3s, exfm automatically catalogues every free MP3 you come across, building a virtual library that can be listened to at any time, shared with friends, and organized to your liking.
In this interview, I talk to Charles about exfm's new features, and the way social media, music blogs, and APIs are changing the way we listen to music.
In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about the role of the MP3 blogger as the new gatekeeper for new music and emerging artists, comparable to what a radio DJ once was – where do you see this trend headed?
I think this trend will continue. It is so much easier to put a band together today and make a quality recording so I think we'll continue to see an explosion in great new music. That will require a lot of curation and that is where blogs will continue to play a large role in sifting through all of that music and recommending songs for their audiences.
It's an interesting way of thinking: new technology leads to more new music, which leads to a need for more curators, which leads to more new technology such as exfm to better our listening experience. Expanding on this, exfm features a new music blog each day in your Site of the Day archive. In what other ways do you see exfm adding value to the music blog community?
We want to work very closely with bloggers going forward and start recommending blogs beyond the sites of the day for people to read as well as potentially offering products for bloggers to make their blogs better so they can attract and retain larger audiences.
Is there anything you can tell us about what these products for bloggers would entail yet?
We have some ideas, but we need to spend some time with as many bloggers as possible to determine what their largest needs are.
The blogs you feature seem to be pretty widespread, from individual Tumblr accounts to sites like Pitchfork or Spinner. How do you choose what blogs you feature? What do you think makes a great music blog?
We try to feature a wide range of genres and are looking for a few consistent things: regular posting; a layout that makes it easy to identify the tracks and the information about the track, and respect for the artist. I think a great music blog is one that shows a love of music with a consistent point of view, regardless of genre. I also love blogs that provide context for the tracks they post.
In a general sense, how do you think music blogs could improve to better listener experiences?
I think the biggest opportunity is to improve how they are listened to via mobile phones, as well as finding more ways to interact with their audiences.
I saw that exfm recently integrated with Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr – this takes the personalization of music even further, since music is being recommended by our own peers as opposed to bloggers. Do you see this as something that might surpass the role of the blogger in the future?
I think this adds the next level of curation to what the blogs are doing. We all have a friend that reads tons of music blogs and picks out what he or she likes and passes that on to us. We're trying to make that practice even easier so that music flows easier and faster from artist to mainstream listener.
As far as socialization goes, I see a great potential here for exfm in sharing custom made playlists with friends – does exfm have anything similar to this in the works?
Definitely in the longer term. Nothing along these lines right away.
Music blogging and social recommendation has obviously become a huge phenomenon in recent years, but some believe that it has watered down music criticism – in essence, a democracy might not be the best way to filter music to the masses. How would you respond to this?
More voices are better for musicians and listeners. As a musician, more outlets for criticism increase the likelihood that your song will get a fair chance at being heard and written about. As a consumer, more voices give you a much better opportunity to find an ear that mirrors your ear and drives more music that you like to you. Decreasing the friction between you and hearing a great song is our number one goal at exfm.
Because music blogs and social recommendation are often genre specific or inclined toward new music, some believe that these tools might to limit listeners to specific genres – in essence, they might get "stuck in a bubble." What's your opinion on this?
It can definitely happen. Certain trends get blow up very quickly and then disappear just as quickly. One thing we'd like to build into our blogger product is a way to identify "unique" blogs without a regard to genre.
With all this access, we now have to streaming unlimited MP3s, do you think we could ever reach a point where we have "too much music?"
Not with the right editing and curation tools built around them.
This is where you could say exfm comes in. In a recent essay on Music Think Tank, Kyle Bylin (Hypebot editor) explores the hypothesis that the less effort it takes to build a music collection, the less we might value it. It could be said that exfm decreases effort on the listener's part – what are your thoughts on the relationships between effort, value, and music?
Building a collection is one thing, but only a percentage of people who love music actually build massive collections of music. Plenty more are excited by simple tune-in or push play experiences that give them a great playlist that they can repeat or save or change in whatever way they want. The effort will be less on building a collection and more about manipulating what is presented to them however they want.
Now that we have greater control over how we can experience music, do you think we're relating to music in new ways?
Definitely. I think listeners will continue to look for new ways to interact with the music they love – fan videos, remixes, mashups, etc. I think these will all become more prevalent ways for fans to express their love for music publically.
On the developer side of things, how have you been working with companies such as the Echo Nest and Last.fm to expand exfm's offerings?
APIs offer great opportunities for companies of any size to utilize data in ways that are compelling to their users. We launched our labs department to experiment with APIs across the web in ways we think will benefit our users. Our Super awesome music blog finder thingy was our first effort and was built on the APIs provided by the Echo Nest and Last.fm.
Can you tell us about how the "Super awesome music blog finder thingy" works?
No. Just kidding. We combine the data from a user's Last.fm history and then compare the top artists against recent blog posts using the EchoNest API. That API gives us a list of blogs to recommend.
Knowing the perhaps limited number of potential users that Chrome attracts, what was your reasoning to choose to design exfm for Chrome as opposed to Firefox?
Chrome is the fastest growing browser and the extension building process is just like building a website, so it was a great place to start. Our song and profile pages are our first products available on any browser (including mobile browsers) and we will build a Firefox extension in the near future.
Both you and Dan Kantor both have backgrounds at other successful startup companies. What role do you see new music startups such as exfm and the Echo Nest, as well as independent API developers playing in the shaping music consumption and listening habits in the long term?
Technology will continue to shape the way music is discovered and consumed and make it easier for all of us to find great music. APIs are a great way to leverage as much data as necessary to power great music experiences.
Exfm doesn't host MP3 files, so the legality of it shouldn't be a problem – but the music industry can be tricky in who they go after – how do you think major record labels would react to exfm? What would you tell to them alleviate any typical concerns?
We are pro-artist at every turn. Our goal is to make it simple to find great new music you like and in the long run to provide ways for artists to build relationships with the fans that discover their music via exfm.