Keeping Tracks at Gracenote CDDB

By David Watts Barton, The Sacramento Bee, March 20, 2006

What would you do without Gracenote?

Well, for one, you’d be typing into your computer the name of every artist and every song on every CD you pop into iTunes or other music management program you use on your computer.

Do you feel grateful yet?

Gracenote’s employees don’t expect you to to feel grateful. The Emeryville-based music experts are used to operating just out of sight.

The only sign they even exist comes for a brief moment when you pop a commercial CD into your computer. “Accessing Gracenote CDDB” might briefly pop up on your screen before the song titles magically appear and you move on to happily managing your music files.

But behind the scenes, Gracenote is planning to be nothing less than the go-to source for music information online. And more.

It turns out that naming those tunes is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Gracenote and its ambitions. Most of what Gracenote does isn’t even in use yet. And even when it is, it will be hard to spot it.

“The average person will see very little of what we’re doing here,” says Q Williams, manager of content and data services at Gracenote.

Williams, 34, heads the team responsible for entering all that information for you. And an afternoon spent in one of their “genre meetings” reveals a passionate give-and-take that would make any music nerd jealous.

“Those meetings remind me of when I was in high school, sitting in the car listening to music and talking about it,” says Harry Sumrall, a member of Williams’ “content team.”

“Arguing about minute aspects of progressive rock?” Sumrall muses. “What kind of a paying gig is that?”

Sumrall, a former pop music critic for the Washington Post and the San Jose Mercury News, is one of Williams’ three team members. The others are Wendy Smith, a former employee of Berkeley travel publisher Lonely Planet, and E. Blake Davis, a musician who once was co-leader of Sacramento’s beloved Papa’s Culture.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Williams and his team of three experts are talking music in Gracenote’s elegantly appointed conference room above Emeryville’s marina. Still, a quick summation of what Gracenote is trying to do is elusive, even for its employees. But Williams says Gracenote “is trying to help people manage, enjoy, identify and discover new music. And we want to do that for everybody, for the whole world.”

Parts of that world are quite a bit ahead of the United States when it comes to using Gracenote’s products, including what is perhaps its most impressive innovation now in use: Gracenote Mobile MusicID.

Mobile MusicID allows cell phone users to hold their phone up to a speaker playing music they don’t recognize, and matches that sample with the more than 8 million “waveform fingerprints” in Gracenote’s database. Then Gracenote sends a text message back to the cell phone telling the listener the name of the song and the artist.

So far, Mobile MusicID is a reality only in Japan, South Korea, the Netherlands, Portugal and Brazil.

Other products Gracenote is developing will help people retrieve information about specific albums or prompt their computers to set up playlists based on “seed” songs. Another will search the Internet for non-musical information related to what they’re playing.

Gracenote is laying the groundwork to become no less than the information clearinghouse for the digital music future. And Williams’ team of three (along with 30 other “contract editors” scattered strategically around the world) are the people gathering and organizing that information. They are deciding who’s “progressive rock,” and who’s “neo-progressive rock,” how Amon Duul II is spelled (keep the umlaut or lose it?), and creating the myriad connections between artists in about 1500 “microgenres.”

If ever there was someone who could take on such an ambitious project, it would seem to be Williams. A lapsed Ph.D. candidate in history who spent much of his 20s traveling the world performing as a mime and juggler, Williams is a physical and intellectual dynamo.

Wiry and ever-so-slightly hyper, he talks with ease about the most obscure musical subgenres, from progressive rock to Brazilian balle funk to Algerian rai.

In their weekly genre meeting, the four colleagues scan a PowerPoint projection listing hundreds of prog rock bands, indulging in much passionate hair-splitting and definition-tweaking. After a half-hour, the already-obscure sub-genre RIO (Rock in Opposition) is subsumed in the even more obscure sub-genre Canterbury, named for the English town.

“That’s how easy it is to change a genre,” says Williams. “A couple of people raise their voices and wave their hands, and an entire genre of music disappears!”

Davis concedes there is some subjectivity involved – and no scientific research – in these debates. But consensus develops that helps the end user.Ah, the end user. That’s you. And what’s weird about what the Gracenote content team’s work is that they don’t really know how their work is going to end up serving you. That’s because Gracenote’s products are used by other licensees – a whopping 6,000 of them, from WinAmp to iTunes to car stereo makers to mobile phone carriers – and it is they who control how much of Gracenote’s information you see.

“We’re still at the start of a very big process,” says Sumrall. “There’s a lot of stuff in there that the end user’s technology still has to catch up to. We’re on the ground floor of the digital world still, trying to design something that’s what they call ‘forward compatible,’ which means it can be used 50 years from now, whatever the technology is then.”

Thus, all the dividing of acts into subgenres is only establishing a framework to hang all sorts of further, deeper information on. Because, as many have noticed, the more digital our music becomes, the less ancillary information is attached to it – for instance, who wrote the song, who plays bass, who produced. And it’s tough to keep up. Gracenote gets about 2,500 new CDs a week to work on – not all of those are completely new, but for four people, even with the help of editors around the world, that’s a lot of songs. And album titles. And artists.

And the information travels both ways. When someone’s computer contacts Gracenote via the Internet, it lets Gracenote see what people are “looking up,” that is, playing. And that information gives a deep insight into the listening habits of people all over the world.

For example, there were 6 billion “look-ups” on Gracenote’s computers in 2005, a couple of which Williams notes. The most “looked up” artist in Swaziland in early March was Toto; Somalia recently went big for Basement Jaxx; and lowrider funk band War was the favorite of the Vatican City.

“I doubt it’s anyone in the College of Cardinals,” muses Williams. “I’m thinking it’s the Swiss Guard.”

So, how will the information on 4.5 million albums in its database, and a staggering 55 million tracks, get to the average person?

“For the most part, the products that utilize the fruit of our labor are in advanced development, in the beta stages,” he says. “They’re being tested by companies all over the world right now.”

But very few products are actually using those products. So Gracenote’s anonymity will last a while longer.

“The majority of what we do on the content team is future- directed work,” says Williams. But it is a future in which the difference between progressive rock and neo-progressive rock will be a lot clearer than if Gracenote didn’t exist.

“There’s quite a lot that’s being used out there,” says Williams, “But there’s so much more waiting. It’s just a question of waiting for that one client who will say, ‘Give me everything,’ so the end user can actually see everything that we’re doing.”

Until then, the music nuts at Gracenote will continue to argue and categorize and organize a world of music for the future – a future that even they can’t quite see.