Musiio uses AI to help the music industry curate tracks more efficiently

A former streaming industry exec and an AI specialist walk into a bar, they leave starting an AI company for the music industry.

That’s not exactly how Singapore-based startup Musiio was formed, but it’s close enough and the outcome is the same.

Co-founders Hazel Savage, formerly of Pandora and Shazam, and Swedish data scientist Aron Pettersson connected at Entrepreneur First in Singapore. The program began in London as a way to help likeminded tech connect with the potential to start projects, so it does mirror the serendipity of meeting new friends in a bar.

“We’d probably never have met each other if we hadn’t gone to EF,” Savage told TechCrunch in an interview.

Brit Savage was looking for new ideas after work brought her and her husband to Singapore, and after crunching through some problems that need fixing, the duo settled on an AI service that helps music platforms tackle content and curation.

Push for personalization

Personalization has been the big push for music streaming giants. The initial face of the streaming revolution was based on giving users instant access to millions of songs in a single place, removing the pain of downloads and paying per song. Now that streaming is established, the puck has moved to smarter solutions that help music streamers shift through those tens of millions of songs to find music they like, or better yet discover new tracks they’ll love.

Spotify has moved on this in a major way. Aside from consumer products such as Discovery Weekly, a playlist that pulls in a weekly selection of music tailored to a user, it has invested considerable resources in making its product smarter. That’s including acquisitions such as music intelligence company Echo Nest for $100 million, and smaller AI startup Niland which helps make recommendations and search results smarter. Spotify has also ramped up its internal hires, too.

While Spotify, which recently went public in an unconventional listing, might be the most visible company in need of smarts for music, it is not the only one by far. And we’re not even talking about direct rivals like Pandora, Apple Music, Google and co. Others involved in the less visible — but hugely lucrative — parts of the industry who also need help pouring through millions of tracks include labels, who filter through talent on a daily basis, and agencies that pick out music for brands, advertising, media, etc.

Musiio co-founders Hazel Savage and Aron Pettersson

Not just streaming smarts

That’s the focus for Musiio, which is aiming to use AI to help those without the spending power of Spotify to automate or partially-automate a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to scouring through music.

“Musiio won’t replace the need to have people listening to music,” Savage told TechCrunch. “But we can delete the inefficiencies.”

The AI uses a combination of deep learning and feature extraction, the latter of which Musiio said allows it to identify and understand patterns and features of a track. The training is focused on the audio itself, rather than stats and data from third-parties which some services use to categorize tracks. Pettersson runs the AI. For what it’s worth, he cut his teeth with an algorithm for the Swedish stock market that netted him a 28 percent annual return for eight years.

As an example of Musiio’s AI potential, Savage points to previous roles where she has observed music curators assigned piles of music as high as 1,300 tracks each day.

“That’s more than a day’s work!” she said. “It probably takes four days to tackle and then you are three days behind. Plus, the average person loses the ability to be efficient after about the first 20 tracks.”

Musiio wants to help take the burden by using AI to pick out the ‘best’ tracks, thus cutting the list of tracks to listen to down significantly.

“Our systems can listen to 1,000 tracks inside four hours, after which we can give a smaller selection. For labels, that can help them be more efficient, increase hit rate and spend more time with artists helping to develop them,” Savage said.

“Artists and repertoire (A&R) divisions have billion-dollar budgets, for every artist they spend maybe $2 million on development. We think we give them a better guarantee of success using AI, and [from early conversations with labels] they are very interested,” she added.

Free Music Archive

Musiio said it is developing solutions for a number of undisclosed clients, but one public name it is talking up is Free Music Archive (FMA), a Creative Commons-like free music site developed by independent U.S. radio station WFMU. The site offers up legal audio downloads that are particularly popular with filmmakers, non-profits, podcasters and remixers.

The site has over 120,000 tracks each of which is hand-selected, but with just one part-time developer the curation side is lacking. That’s where Musiio is hoping to help make a difference. The startup has begun working with FMA to develop AI-based playlists in a project that doesn’t generate revenue but is “a lovely example of what the tech can do,” so says Savage.

“Not only are we backfilling the Echo Nest partnership [after Spotify closed the service following its acquisition] but the lead track in the inaugural playlist (Kurt Vile, ‘I Wanted Everything’) had received 3,000 plays when we found it, after eight years in the database. Two days later after being playlisted by our AI, it had 6,000 plays. We are pretty excited that AI can have that kind of impact,” she explained.

The Vile track is now closing on 10,000 plays two weeks after the playlist was published.

For now, the playlists are created and held within Savage’s FMA account but Musiio confirmed that it is considering the potential to develop a dashboard that would allow listeners themselves to use the AI to develop playlists. That’s already part of what is building for other clients.

Funding-wise, Musiio has taken SG$75,000 ($57,000) as part of its involvement in Entrepreneur First. The startup will be part of the EF demo day in July, but Savage said it has already begun to have conversations with investors with a view to raising a seed round of funding.

Google changes its messaging strategy again: Goodbye to Allo, double down on RCS

Google’s long-and-winding road to figuring out messaging is taking yet another change of direction after the company called time on Allo, its newest chat app launch, in order to double down on its vision to enable an enhanced version of SMS.

The company told The Verge that it is “pausing” work on Allo, which was only launched as recently as September 2016, in order to put its resources into the adoption RCS (Rich Communication Services), a messaging standard that has the potential to tie together SMS and other chat apps. RCS isn’t new, and Google has been pushing it for some time, but now the company is rebranding it as “Chat” and putting all its efforts into getting operators on board.

The new strategy will see almost the entire Allo team switch to Android Messages, according to The Verge.

In case you didn’t hear about it before, RCS is essentially a technology that allows basic ‘SMS’ messaging to be standardized across devices. In the same way that iMessage lets Apple device owners chat for free using data instead of paid-for SMS, RCS could allow free chats across different networks on Android or other devices. RCS can be integrated into chat apps, which is something Google has already done with Android Messages, but the tipping point is working with others, and that means operators.

Unlike Apple, RCS is designed to work with carriers who can develop their own messaging apps that work with the protocol and connect to other apps, which could include chat apps. Essentially, it gives them a chance to take part in the messaging boom, rather than be cut out as WhatsApp, Messenger, iMessage and others take over. They don’t make money from consumers, but they do get to keep their brand and they can look to get revenue from business services.

But this approach requires operators themselves to implement the technology. That’s no easy thing since carriers don’t exactly trust tech companies — WhatsApp alone has massively eaten into its SMS and call revenues — and they don’t like working with each other, too.

Google said more than 55 operators worldwide have been recruited to support Chat, but it isn’t clear exactly when they might roll it out. Microsoft is among the OEM supporters, which raises the possibility it could bring support to Windows 10, but the company was non-committal when The Verge pressed it on that possibility.

Google has tried many things on messaging, but it has largely failed because it doesn’t have a ramp to users. WhatsApp benefitted from being a first mover — all the other early leaders in Western markets are nowhere to be seen today — and Facebook Messenger is built on top of the world’s most popular social network.

Both of those services have over one billion active users, Allo never got to 50 million. Google search doesn’t have that contact, and the company’s previous efforts didn’t capture market share. (Hangouts was promising but it has pivoted into a tool for enterprises.)

That left Google with two options, take on carriers directly with an iMessage-style service that’s built into Android, or work with them.

It chose the second option. It is far messier with so many different parties involved, but it is also apparently a principled approach.

“We can’t do it without these [carrier and OEM] partners. We don’t believe in taking the approach that Apple does. We are fundamentally an open ecosystem. We believe in working with partners. We believe in working with our OEMs to be able to deliver a great experience,” Anil Sabharwal, the Google executive leading Chat, told The Verge.

Sabharwal refused to be drawn on a timeframe for operators rolling out Chat apps.

“By the end of this year, we’ll be in a really great state, and by mid-next year, we’ll be in a place where a large percentage of users [will have] this experience,” he said, explaining that uptake could be quicker in Europe or Latin America than the U.S.. “This is not a three-to-five-year play. Our goal is to get this level of quality messaging to our users on Android within the next couple of years.”

We shall see. But at least there won’t be yet more Google messaging apps launching, so there’s that.

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Don’t just stir; Stircle

Although I do my best to minimize the trash produced by my lifestyle (blog posts notwithstanding), one I can’t really control, at least without carrying a spoon on my person at all times, is the necessity of using a disposable stick to stir my coffee. That could all change with the Stircle, a little platform that spins your drink around to mix it.

Now, of course this is ridiculous. And there are other things to worry about. But honestly, the scale of waste here is pretty amazing. Design house Amron Experimental says that 400 million stir sticks are used every day, and I have no reason to doubt that. My native Seattle probably accounts for a quarter of that.

So you need to get the sugar (or agave nectar) and cream (or almond milk) mixed in your iced americano. Instead of reaching for a stick and stirring vigorously for 10 or 15 seconds, you could instead place your cup in the Stircle (first noticed by New Atlas and a few other design blogs), which would presumably be built into the fixins table at your coffee shop.

Around and around and around she goes, where she stops, nobody… oh. There.

Once you put your cup on the Stircle, it starts spinning — first one way, then the other, and so on, agitating your drink and achieving the goal of an evenly mixed beverage without using a wood or plastic stirrer. It’s electric, but I can imagine one being powered by a lever or button that compresses a spring. That would make it even greener.

The video shows that it probably gets that sugar and other low-lying mixers up into the upper strata of the drink, so I think we’re set there. And it looks as though it will take a lot of different sizes, including reusable tumblers. It clearly needs a cup with a lid, since otherwise the circling liquid will fly out in every direction, which means you have to be taking your coffee to go. That leaves out pretty much every time I go out for coffee in my neighborhood, where it’s served (to stay) in a mug or tall glass.

But a solution doesn’t have to fix everything to be clever or useful. This would be great at an airport, for instance, where I imagine every order is to go. Maybe they’ll put it in a bar, too, for extra smooth stirring of martinis.

Actually, I know that people in labs use automatic magnetic stirrers to do their coffee. This would be a way to do that without appropriating lab property. Those things are pretty cool too, though.

You might remember Amron from one of their many previous clever designs; I happen to remember the Keybrid and Split Ring Key, both of which I used for a while. I’ll be honest, I don’t expect to see a Stircle in my neighborhood cafe any time soon, but I sure hope they show up in Starbucks stores around the world. We’re going to run out of those stirrer things sooner or later.