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EMI and Echo Nest create a 'sandbox' for app developers

November 2, 2011 |  9:01 pm

GorillazIt's tough to succeed in the music business, not just as a musician, but also as a company building products around musicians' work. The guy working the sound system at the club always gets paid, but for everyone else it's a crapshoot.

The lengthy roster of defunct online music companies illustrates this point. Liquid Audio, FullAudio, CenterSpan,, Echo Networks, Myplay, Music Buddha, Uplister, Musicbank, Streamwaves.... I could go on (and on and on), but you get the point. One problem for such innovators is the gantlet the major labels make them go through to obtain content or use it in new ways. It drives up costs, delays launches and adds uncertainty, making it hard for start-ups to raise badly needed capital.

That's a problem Echo Nest, which provides an online platform and music-analysis tools for application developers, is trying to solve. On Thursday the Massachusetts-based company and EMI Music are launching a digital "sandbox" designed to give developers a one-stop shop for building applications based on EMI content. It's not a guaranteed license -- EMI retains the right to approve the apps that would use its artists' songs, videos and related material. But it promises to simplify and speed the process of winning EMI's approval considerably.

Bertrand Bodson, EMI's head of digital marketing, said the company has lined up a number of artists who have recording and songwriting deals with EMI, including Gorillaz, Pet Shop Boys and Eliza Doolittle, to collaborate with app developers. It also put thousands of tracks in the sandbox from jazz label Blue Note and from some of its older pop artists, such as Culture Club and Simple Minds. Echo Nest, which is managing the platform, is providing a variety of music-related software tools, including song identification, playlist creation and remixing.

The initiative comes with preset licensing terms. According to Echo Nest Chief Executive Jim Lucchese, it's a 60-40 split, with developers keeping the smaller portion. That's roughly consistent with the deals that the major record companies offer online music retailers and subscription music services.  EMI will be responsible for clearing the rights to the tracks that developers use, and will lend its marketing muscle to the approved apps.

Bodson said the content in the sandbox is going to vary from artist to artist, but will include a mix of songs, videos, artwork, behind-the-scenes footage and metadata. "This is only step one," he said, adding that he expects more artists to join soon.

The sorts of projects likely to come out of the sandbox are augmented reality apps, music remixing apps, games and new types of content, Bodson said. "At many levels ... we don’t know. And that’s the point."

The goal is to do a better job of harnessing the energy unleashed by the smartphone revolution. According to Bodson, only 4.2% of the software available in Apple's App Store are music-related. "The industry is not innovating fast enough."

Echo Nest's platform powers more than 200 music apps, including KCRW's Music Mine and Clear Channel's I (Heart) Radio. It's ambition, though, is to provide a standard application platform for the entire music industry. So far it's signed up EMI and Island Def Jam, a division of Universal Music Group, which hasn't opened that sandbox yet. In other words, it has a long way to go.

Lucchese said the EMI sandbox isn't designed to provide a ready-made pathway to a music-on-demand application like Spotify. It's more suited for genre-specific games or apps built around a specific artist. But by supplying the content, preset licensing terms and some crucial pieces of code, he said, the sandbox should save developers time and money, and make it easier to replicate successful concepts.

"Eventually," Lucchese said, "all content owners are going to recognize this is just a way more efficient way to get content into licensed developers."

Echo Nest's goal is to attract more developers and applications to its platform, generating more usage data that it can sell to other companies. Said Lucchese, "The more developers we have, the more important we are to the ecosystem."


EMusic adds a little streaming to its MP3 store

Grooveshark: The other free music service

Napster: A brand buried by free music?

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division. Follow him @jcahealey

Credit: Gorillaz's note to app developers was supplied by EMI