Screen Shot 2013-08-20 at 4.57.35 PMLike any good startup, music and video database company Gracenote likes to experiment. It gives some developers early access to products just to see what they do with them, and it allows its own developer team to spend time on exploratory projects that don’t have a determined launch date.

Gracenote’s latest experiment involved creating an API for hackers to use in a one-off hackathon geared towards improving the music festival experience. Gracenote’s MusicID Live recognition API allows an iPhone to identify a song playing live, like Shazam does for recorded songs. It’s a pretty cool product, and Gracenote’s research manager Ching-Wei Chen spent a month putting it together.

So why devote a month of time to a product just for a hackathon?

“We wanted to look at the business opportunities, and see if it’s possible for us to do something in this space,” Gracenote co-founder Ty Roberts says. “What can we offer to the table to push the envelope of improving the fans’ and artists’ experience?”

Roberts has wanted Gracenote to innovate in the live music arena for awhile now. “Music festivals have been offline, primarily because the bandwidth was so bad,” Roberts says. “Now with better WiFi and bandwidth, the festival can come online. And if it’s going to come online, what are the services and information people would want to have to build apps around a music festival?” Roberts sees a big market opportunity there, in a space that traditionally hasn’t had much innovation.

Outside Lands in SF was a great chance for Gracenote to experiment in its own backyard, so when Roberts heard about the hackathon that would be happening to develop Outside Lands apps, he got Gracenote on board as a sponsor. The hackathon would serve as a testing ground for Gracenote to see how developers would use its technology to improve festival goers’ experiences.

Part of the deal was that Gracenote would use its music fingerprinting technology to create live song recognition API for the hackers to build on. “We did this partially as an experiment to see a. if we could do it and b. if it would work. It’s not a product yet…but we want to scale it,” Roberts says.

Gracenote’s expectations were exceeded when a group at the hackathon led by 19-year-old Chris Gervang decided to use Gracenote’s API.

“I had the idea awhile ago to do an app that would tell you what song was playing on each stage at a festival,” Gervang says. “And I went into the hackathon thinking maybe groupies could crowdsource that information, entering in what song was playing.” But Gervang knew that such an app would require a lot of maintenance and manual input, and he almost scrapped the idea.

pandoWatson2Then, when Gracenote got on stage at the hackathon and presented its API, Gervang realized his app idea might have a shot. He collected a group of six friends and spent the next 24 hours hacking, eventually creating Wat’son. Wat’son is a web app that would show Outside Lands attendees what song was playing on any stage at a given point. It would pull artist, song and album information, allowing users to buy that song through the app. After the festival, Wat’son would host a complete set list of what every band played, in the order it played them.

“I really liked what they did,” Gracenote’s Chen says. “They took our building blocks in the SDK and put their imagination behind it and built something beyond.”

Wat’son didn’t end up winning the hackathon, and its creator Gervang is too busy to work on it in the future. But Roberts says Gracenote will stay in touch with the Wat’son team regardless. “The point of our developer program is to reach out to young promising developers to get them familiar with the functionality that Gracenote has,” Roberts says. “These guys were a perfect example of the programmers we want to form relationships with.”

As for Gracenote’s MusicID Live recognition API? “Several companies have contacted us and showed interest in the new technology,” Roberts says. Gracenote plans to develop it, although it’s not on the fast track yet.