Peer-to-peer technology (P2P) makes it easy to share music both legally and illegally. But P2P doesn't address the more fundamental issue of what music to look for. How do you learn about new music?
Unfortunately, people's tastes are shaped by a mass media besotted with the trivial details of celebritydom. In an age with enough free MP3's for a lifetime of listening, Clearchannel radio stations obsess over the same 10 or 20 bands, and the national TV networks cover the music scene by reporting on spectacles like the Madonna-Spears kiss.
It's hard even to take the music critics seriously anymore. With the exception of the gods of music, critics for print publications ignore web-only musicians (such as Simulacra) in favor of musicians whose CD's cost more than most of us can afford. It is only a matter of time before weblogs or music recommendation sites fill in the void and provide unbiased information about what's cool and great in the music world.
New Zealander Anthony Jones has created a new bit of software that helps solve the problem of finding unlabeled music. It is called "iRATE Radio"; it is a kind of mp3 scraping program that downloads mp3's continuously onto your hard drive and plays them for you like a radio station. As you rate the tracks, the program uses collaborative filtering
to feed you additional mp3's to suit your tastes. This java-based client is available on Linux, Windows, and Mac platforms. iRATE Radio doesn't actually
feed MP3s to the client but feeds URL's which the client will then download. The program is still a work in
progress; its file manager and configuration options are rudimentary at best, the player doesn't even have a time
counter, and there are bugs to work out. But the radio application does one thing extremely well: it maintains a steady flow
of LEGAL mp3's and exposes the user to hundreds (if not thousands) of songs that one would never hear about in Rolling
Stone or on MTV or Amazon.com. When I first tried, it, most of the songs I listened to were awful, but once I started rating
more songs, the programs deleted songs with low ratings and eventually delivered a higher ratio of good songs (or at least
songs that match my taste more accurately. (As an aside, let me say that hearing the bad songs is part of the fun; I could
easily make the world's worst mix tape with it). . Up until last week, a single server (a 350 MHz AMD K6 based Debian
machine) ran the entire iRATE network, but with kuro5hin's recent publication of Michael Crawford's Links to Tens of Thousands of Legal Music Downloads (which
spotlighted iRATE Radio and caused a quadrupling of his listening base), Jones shifted over to a faster machine. In this
interview, Anthony Jones explains why he started iRATE Radio and what he hopes to do with it.
1. Your server contains metadata to more than 46,000 songs. Where are you getting the metadata for each
song? Are sites like IUMA giving you the metadata directly? Or are you manually inputting
the data yourself?
I write code on a site by site basis to process the site. It usually
takes me about 4 hours to write code for a specific site so I tend to stick
to the bigger ones such as IUMA. I also get a lot of smaller sites sent to me
by users. I tried to process mp3.com, but the
website forces you to subscribe before permitting download access. I could code
my way around that, but I haven't bothered. If artists want to make it difficult
for people to download their music then it's their loss.
2. Have sites like mp3.com or IUMA ever accused you of not having the
rights to redistribute their free MP3s? Does that possibility worry you?
I don't distribute them. They do. My server only provides a link to their site. If a site told me that they
didn't want to be listed, then I would just remove them from my database, with or without a legal threat. I think that
iRATE radio is in the best interests of the artists, and the artists are usually the copyright holders anyway.
One of the major points of iRATE is that I'm not redistributing anything. I'm just providing a
service, not unlike a search engine. I am planning to reprocess the IUMA site and add www links so that people can easily
click to the IUMA site. Hopefully IUMA can use this mechanism in some way to derive advertising income. Accessing large sites
like IUMA might not be sustainable in the long run. However the point of the exercise for me is to show the world what can be
done. I'm not hellbent on controlling it.
A suggestion was made for iRATE to use P2P technology so that people could get legal files from each other. The
idea was dismissed because that would be redistributing the files. I'm not really concerned with the business model of
music. That's for business people. I'm trying to leave it up to the artists to figure out amongst themselves how
they want to make money out of this. iRATE puts the ball squarely in their court. It gives them a chance to give away
whatever music they want just like radio. In the current system the artists have every right to decide what happens to their
copyrighted work, just like I do for my software. I'm not saying that I agree with that system. I think that both
copyright and patents give too much power to the holder. A shorter duration would be a good start. Patents are just plain
3. This is obviously a work in progress. What features are on the top of your list of things to add sooner
rather than later?
The ability to adjust the volume on a track by track basis is top on the list. Some tracks are recorded quieter
than others. I'm also trying to get iRATE compiled for iPAQ linux (which would require the ability to set the maximum
amount of disk usage). There's a lot to be done on the server side in terms of making it scalable and trying to improve
the selections. I will be concentrating on the server side in the coming weeks.
4. The world is waiting for someone to invent a MP3 client with a built method for tipping the artist.
Have you ever considered adding a menu option that links to musiclink.com or something
Tipping is an American custom which people from New Zealand and Australia find somewhat offensive. Gifting money
to people is very unusual in our culture. If I added direct support for tipping into iRATE, I would risk offending a lot of
people. Having said that, I will be adding a feature which allows people to open the band's web site in a browser. If
the band wants to ask for tips on their site or sell T-shirts or CD's directly, they're welcome to do so. Tipping
might work in the US. It just wouldn't work outside the US. I'm not going to build it into iRATE because
it's not really necessary.
This is also not to say I wouldn't accept money if someone sent it to me. I just wouldn't accept it
personally. Someone sent me US$25 through PayPal which I didn't really know what to do with. I opened a PayPal account
to accept the money. I intend to use the money for project-related expenses, such as domain name registration.
5. What plans do you have for dealing with the problem of scalability? A centralized server approach has
the obvious advantage of letting you control what mp3's get added (and allows you to make sure that everything is
legal). In your opinion, can a distributed approach have sufficient security to ensure that the network is not
"infected" with illegal or unauthorized files?
At the moment the plan is to scale up to a larger number of servers which are all under centralised control. The
two problems with a distributed system are duplication and legality. You don't want several copies of the same track. I
also think that it's very important to allow only music published with the artist's consent. For the system to
change we need to bring the artists along with us rather than alienating them, which is what "file sharing"
6. For now, iRATE Radio mainly includes English-only tracks. What can you do to ensure that your song
repository contains tracks from singers all over the world?
There are a lot of tracks in English but that's just the music I've found. I particularly like a non
english track called Caja de metal by
Khafra. I don't know if iRATE will need to deal with language
in any special way. At the moment I'm mainly relying on users for that kind of input. If someone points me to a site
then I'm happy to process it regardless of the language.
7. How do you store user ratings on your server? Wouldn't that information be extremely useful to
music companies? Have any music companies or radio stations approached you about this data or the application itself?
I store every user's ratings on my computer. I'm not going to give or sell the information to anyone
else because that would be a breech of people's trust. It would probably be a breech of the Privacy Act in Australia,
although I'm not a Lawyer.
8. For now, this project is a labor of love, and you have released it under GPL. Have you given any
thought about how to make money off this project? Would it bother you if commercial sites use your code to create a client
for subscribers to share their site's exclusive content?
I could make money off iRATE, but that's not what is most important to me. Changing the world is my goal.
That's hard enough by itself without getting distracted by trying to make money at the same time. If a commercial site
wanted to use iRATE, that would be fine by me. As long as they are reasonable about it. Hopefully if it does happen,
it'll be someone with enough money to offer me (or the whole team) a job working on iRATE full time. I don't care
how the job gets done, I just want to listen to better music without copyright being a problem.
9. The net allows people to pursue their exotic tastes to the nth degree, perhaps at the expense of random
spontaneous discoveries. Do you worry that too much collaborative filtering will blind people to new and different kinds of
music? Have you seriously thought about incorporating an element of randomness into your application's algorithms? Or
are user ratings divergent enough to ensure that this will never be a problem?
There is an element of random in iRATE. That's the way unheard tracks get into the correlation system. Even
now it's a magnitude better than a radio station. That's my benchmark at the moment.
10. What inspired/motivated you to do iRATE Radio?
When I used Napster and Gnutella I noticed that if someone had one track that I liked then they usually had
several. Often I would download other tracks a user had even if I hadn't heard them. I discovered good bands this way.
Also most "file sharing" systems have a search facility, but they're useless for introducing you to new
music. My original idea was to use iRATE and peer-to-peer technology together. However I thought I'd test it with legal
music first. I found so much good music freely available that I've never looked back. There are a lot of advantages to
co-operating with musicians who want to see change than trying to get music from those who are entrenched in the current
11. Given your current architecture, how large of a user base is iRATE radio capable of supporting?
I think things will start falling apart when I get more than 10,000 users but that's only a guess. I'm
just going to play it by ear. The good thing about iRATE is that even if the server goes down you can still listen to music.
12. The default player doesn't really tell you much (volume, time etc) and doesn't allow you
to create playlists. How difficult would it be for iRATE to incorporate a mp3 player with typical features like this?
Most of that is reinventing the wheel. I'm focussing on core functionality. People will still use it if
it's not flash as long as it does the job it's intended to do. Hopefully someone who cares about such things will
join the project and do it for me, otherwise it will get done when the more pressing issues are out of the way.
13. Most of the people using iRATE radio don't know anything about New Zealand music. Can you
recommend a few representative singers?
Some New Zealand bands that I like are HLAH, Pacifier, Fur Patrol, Tadpole, the Headless Chickens and Salmonella Dub. They play almost no local music on the radio in Perth
(where I live). I'm from Wellington and the radio stations that I listended to there play a very high proportion of
local music. (Interviewer's Note: None of these groups mentioned offer free legal mp3 downloads).
Robert Nagle (aka idiotprogrammer) writes the sharethemusic weblog and is organizing sharethemusicday.com He lives in Houston, Texas.