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The Awl Music's Eric Spiegelman on streaming music: 'Algorithms don't take risks'

The Awl Music's Eric Spiegelman on streaming music: 'Algorithms don't take risks'


Eric Spiegalman talks to The Verge about the new Awl Music iPad app, algorithms' failure to suggest great new music, and the classic era of music videos.

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Trying to recapture the spirit of MTV's golden era of music videos, Eric Spiegelman recently launched the Awl Music App for iPad, a companion app for The Awl's Awl Music Tumblr site. It's a simple idea: what if your favorite writers and editors had a way to play the role of online VJ, picking the best music and videos available on the web? Eric took a few minutes to talk about the advantages of Tumblr, the failure of algorithms to create great recommendations, and his favorite music videos. Follow him on Tumblr at BUS YOUR OWN TRAY.

Where are you?

Los Angeles, California. Silver Lake, specifically.

What are you doing right now?

Trying really hard to answer these questions well. :)

What's the best thing you've seen on the internet this month?

I just discovered the GIFSound subreddit this morning and I love it. I'm also weirdly excited about this new streaming Twitter embed thing, which I think is going to play a role in the platform I'm building.

What was the most formative music video for you?

Ever? Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer." I was 9 when that came out, and it was the first time I remember being conscious of technology being used in visual arts. That video is all stop motion and time lapse photography, and I'm still drawn to videos like that today.

This year, my two favorites are Justice's "On'N'On," which is a pitch-perfect simulation of late-70s and early-80s rock visuals, and Father John Misty's "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings" which has a performance by Aubrey Plaza that just kills me.

Who came up with the idea for Awl Music to start? And why Tumblr?

Awl Music didn't really pop up in a flash of inspiration. It's based on everything I've learned about Internet video the past few years. I've come to believe that online publishers have a natural advantage in video because they already have an audience, and that they have this audience because their editorial voice is one that resonates with people. If there's an idea behind Awl Music, it's this: what if these editors became television programmers?

"What if these editors became television programmers?"

I happen to be part of The Awl's audience; I've been a big fan of Alex and Choire ever since they were at Gawker. They've given the site a voice that's reflected by its writers. Many of these writers are quite knowledgable about music and write about it on the The Awl. So I approached Alex and Choire with the idea for an Awl version of MTV last November, and they liked it, and then I asked a few of their contributors to act as VJs. The result is The Awl's editorial voice expressed through a selection of music videos.

Tumblr happens to be a great CMS for video. One of the fundamental roles of a television programmer is to build audience, and all the basic functions of Tumblr — following, reblogging, and how these work with the dashboard — are really conducive to this.

The other functions of Tumblr work together quite well for our needs. Most of our VJs already have Tumblr accounts so it was easy to add them to a group blog. They post videos into a common queue, and Tumblr has this delightful drag-and-drop system for organizing that queue. This means the VJs never have to worry about scheduling their posts. We set the queue to publish twice a day for the sake of consistency, another important tenet of programming. All this creates a single feed of video embeds, which we then send to the iPad app. It's an elegant, lightweight system.

Who had the idea to make an app out of the site? Run into any big challenges during development?

The iOS app was actually the third iteration of Awl Music. The first was a Tumblr theme built by VHX, which works great, but it's Flash based, meaning you can't get it on the iPad or Apple TV. You can, however, watch it on Google TV, and it looks beautiful there. But so few people own a Google TV.

The second iteration was an HTML5-based web app that would have worked on the iPad — except there are a number essential things I wanted to do that can't be done in HTML5. For example, you can't autoplay a video in HTML5 in iOS, which means you can't create playlists, which means you can't sit back and just let Awl Music roll through videos the way MTV used to. So ultimately we had to go the native iOS route.

Got any favorite music video "internet VJs" you follow outside of The Awl crew (note: check out Max Abelson if you haven't yet)?

I do, in fact. I follow a number of them on Tumblr, including Max Abelson. One I like a lot is Disco Naïveté. Another is Simon Decreuze, who I think is French. I can't understand any of his captions, but he posts great videos.

You mentioned that Awl Music is "a reaction against the trend of algorithm-based discovery engines." There's definitely something lacking with things like Pandora, YouTube recommendations, or Songza. Why do they fall flat?

"The algorithms don't actually like the music they recommend."

Because there's a connection missing. The algorithms don't actually like the music they recommend. They can't, because they're machines, and they don't have emotions. When a friend emails you a link and says, "OMG you have to check this out," there's a subtext of "this moved me somehow and I care about you so I'm sending it to you because I think it might move you as well." No algorithm can share an experience.

Also, a lot of these algorithms are programmed to think that the next thing you want to listen to is something musically similar to what you just listened to, which is true only part of the time. I knew that Awl Music would have a lot of hip hop and a lot of indie rock, and I have yet to see an algorithm put Danny Brown and Sharon Van Etten on the same playlist. Algorithms don't take risks. They don't know how to judge eclectic taste, and most everyone I know who loves music has an eclectic taste.

Are you bringing Awl Music to the iPhone or Android devices eventually?

As soon as possible. I plan to build out the underlying platform so it reaches every tablet and connected television.

What’s most exciting to you about technology these days?

I'm constantly caught off guard by how dramatic change always feels so imminent, yet it always takes a really long time to actually get here. Apple TV has been the embodiment of this for me for the past couple years.

Read more 5 minutes on The Verge.