Music

Usually a thing has to happen three times before we call it a trend. But when two human-driven music curation startups get snatched up in as many days, I think we can make an exception and say something’s in the air.

One day after I reported that the subscription music streaming site Rdio had acquired the human-based curation startup TastemakerX, Google has now snagged New York startup darling Songza, a “concierge” service that provides playlist recommendations from human experts like DJs, rock critics, and ethnomusicologists. The suggestions are based on a combination of user preferences and contextual information, like day of the week and time of day — On this fine Tuesday evening the service has recommendations for working out or unwinding to.

Songza will soldier on as a standalone service, but Google said some of its features will likely appear in the music products it owns or operates, including Google Play Music and YouTube’s upcoming subscription streaming service. Terms of the deal have not been disclosed, but last month a source told the New York Post that Google had offered “around $15 million.”

Having raised $6.7 million in funding, the fact that Songza sold for potentially over twice that amount and gets to keep its service alive is a win — particularly considering that the road to this exit hasn’t been easy, as detailed by ex-Pando reporter Erin Griffith. Meanwhile, Google gets an injection of both credibility, thanks to Songza’s crack team of music experts, and engineering talent, depending of course on how many Songza employees stay on.

But perhaps the biggest winners of the deal, as well as yesterday’s TastemakerX acquisition, are humans. The two most entrenched streaming services, Pandora and Spotify, rely largely on algorithmic curation. Algorithms that predict your favorite music are a neat bit of technology, and certainly Pandora’s popularity has proven their value. But music is more than 0s and 1s, and our individual tastes are shaped by a host of human factors including, let’s be honest, the desire to be cool and accepted. We sneak into our big siblings’ rooms as children and steal their punk albums. We rally around music that represents the values of the communities we inhabit. Unless you’re a strict music theorist whose love of music is rooted solely in scales and intervals, then context makes a huge difference — which is something Songza understands better than most.

The equation works both ways too: Some of us may recall the satisfaction of making a mixtape for a love interest full of cool, unknown bands, and the satisfaction that comes when the recipient enjoys it as much as you had hoped. Robots can’t understand any of this, at least not yet.

Of course one potential loser of this deal, assuming Songza’s technology helps YouTube’s streaming service rise to the top of the heap, are the indie artists that YouTube is allegedly bullying into agreeing to below-market terms. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to root against Google in the streaming music wars, so from this perspective I’m a little sad that Songza, a service I enjoy, is now playing for their team.

In any case, while algorithms may still rule over certain corners of the Internet, and are continually threatening to expand their reach, I’m happy to see that, in the streaming music space at least, humans aren’t obsolete yet.

[Image via Shutterstock]