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We Are Hunted's Stephen Phillips On The Limits Of Music Discovery [INTERVIEW]

We-are-hunted-logoBy freelance writer Tyler Hayes of (@thealbumproject).

Is 2013 the year when Music Discovery breaks into the mainstream? It seems like services are finally realizing they need a good discovery aspect to their music offering. Is that your sense or have you been seeing something else?

I am not sure what music discovery ‘going mainstream’ would look like. If it means people start using a dedicated app to find new music, separate from their music player, maybe that will happen. It would have to be a very special app!

People who care about music enough to consider discovery a real problem, are a very small niche. Maybe 10M fans worldwide. They are a small segment of a larger group of people, you could consider serious music fans. People who use products like Spotify. People who attend live shows. People who care enough about music to have particular tastes, or demand choice in what they listen to. The truth is that the great majority of music listeners simply do not care. They listen to what they are told to listen to.

This may be Spotify’s big problem. They might become the player of choice for serious music fans, and still be many millions of customers short of what they need to justify their valuation. Their current redesign might be seen as a pivot to become a broader social network. I sure they have a grand plan in play. You have to be impressed by their team, who continue to ship great products. It is my favorite music service right now.

Consider the three biggest music services in the world right now, YouTube, iTunes and Pandora. They are so big, nothing else really matters. Their discovery is driven by editorial. Youtube might look algorithmic, but I suspect Vevo editorial has a big say on what people listen to next. And there is nothing wrong with that at all. People need someone to point the way forward. Music journalism has always been one of the coolest things in the business. People with great taste in music, and the passion to express themselves, are becoming more and more important.

Does music discovery have to have a human component to be really good or can raw data provide the same level of recommendation?

Music discovery is all about harvesting human taste. Software cannot analyze a song and accurately predict whether you will like it. That type of sophistication is many generations into the future. Music taste is too subtle and intangible. We work on simpler problems than that.

Consider a music discovery service, that can provide every customer with 24/7 access to a real live music expert. This person knows exactly what type of music you like. She has the job of keeping up with all the cool new music, and providing perfect, personalized recommendations to you, on demand. How would you build such as a service?

To me the answer to this problem, is not an algorithm or smart AI that simulates a music expert. The solution is more achievable than that. How do I write software that scours the web to find music experts? How do I classify their tastes? How do I scale their recommendations? How do I match these experts to customers?

These are problems that are solvable with today’s tech. And there are a lot of different approaches. Pandora’s genome is one way. Napster had a cool friend feature that people loved. Rdio is building social elements into their service. At We Are Hunted, we think we have discovered a unique way of doing things. A method that is especially good at doing one particular type of recommendation, that happens to be the most valuable.

I think it’s cool that no one really knows what we do at We Are Hunted. We have been criticized for not being transparent, but I don’t care. We change and adapt our approach so often, that any explanation would be wrong very quickly. Some people think we are simply a group of music nerds who read all the blogs and pick our favorite tunes each day. Others think we have some magical math that can predict the future. The truth is that we combine both technology and editorial, in a simple, practical way.

We have a lone music editor, who works with artists, to make sure we are representing them correctly. He also provides a common sense check on our data. At it’s core, We Are Hunted is a software company. Every day we work to improve the software that powers our service. Every day we strive to improve the recommendations we make.

What voices online are shaping your musical opinions?

The Lefsetz Letter is really cool. I am a big fan. I had the pleasure of an email engage with him when we launched a few years ago, but he would not remember that. I really enjoy reading his perspective on music and tech. To me, he speaks for a whole generation of traditional music fans and industry insiders, adjusting to the new way of doing business. The industry they know and love has changed forever. He seems to appreciate that this is nothing new. Music is reborn through revolution and reinvention. Everyone I know is working hard to help the industry grow and prosper, to be a place where creativity is honored, and talent is justly rewarded.

What are your feelings on piracy? Has it been talked to death and over exaggerated?

I think the issue gets much more air time that it deserves. Extreme points of view on both sides make it difficult. It doesn’t seem right for someone to profit from the talents of others, without contributing some significant value themselves. Yet it also doesn’t seem right to punish music fans for doing what we all want them to do; share the music they love. I am no expert at all on piracy, but it feels like we are moving in the right direction. Give the fans great music and easy to use services at a reasonable price. If we make it easy to consume, people will buy it. Convenience will win the day.

What’s coming up for We Are Hunted? Any peek into the next big thing the company is up to? Anything you can share?

2013 will be a huge year for Hunted. We will either become one of the world’s most important music services, or we will disappear as a footnote in the long history of music startups. We are working on the next version of Hunted right now, and we are swinging for the fences. I think we are doing things no one has ever done. I see the data we are collecting, and I know we are going to give fans a view of music world no one has ever seen before. We really hope people love it.

We Are Hunted