In Post-CD Era, Gracenote Makes a Big Business of Content Recognition

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train the systems, and to annotate things machines don’t know. (White says it’s very important, for example, to have unique fingerprints in the system for the “clean” and “explicit” versions of pop songs; software has a hard time telling the difference.)

It’s partly because of this human element, by the way, that White doubts there will ever be a single standard for the metadata describing songs and videos, the way the EXIF data embedded in a digital photo can tell you things like where it was taken and at what exposure. He says the idea of a universal identifier is both a holy grail and a red herring for the media industry, in part because of cultural differences.

“For example, what we call ‘world music’ in the U.S. is not world music anywhere else,” he says. “You need a flexible way to represent metadata based on the geography and the use case.”

Beyond identifying albums and tracks from ripped CDs, Gracenote’s databases power newer services like Apple’s iTunes Match and Amazon’s Cloud Player. These programs scan your computer to see what songs you’ve got on your hard drive (no matter where you obtained them) and give you access to cloud versions of the same tunes, playable from anywhere. Both services cost $25 per year, and White says they give music publishers the ability to earn back some of the money they’ve lost to free download sites like The Pirate Bay and

“The reality is the music industry has recognized that there are pirated version of content out there,” hey says. “There’s not much they can do about that, and they would rather participate in the revenue of unlocking those items in the cloud.”

A big part of Gracenote’s revenue—35 percent, according to White—comes from another industry that’s struggling to adapt to consumers’ new media consumption habits, namely automakers.

Gracenote’s history in the automotive business stretches back to the early 2000s, when co-founder and chief technology officer Ty Roberts was summoned to Japan by Pioneer, the giant home and car electronics company. Pioneer was working on a system that would allow car owners to rip CDs to the hard drives inside their GPS devices. It wanted Gracenote to supply software to both identify the songs—a challenge, given that cars had no network connectivity in those days—and let drivers use voice commands to play specific songs.

“As Ty is apt to do, he said ‘We’ll figure this out, give me a couple of weeks,’” White says. “He came back here and told the team ‘All we have to do is take our database and find a way to put it in a car.’ They thought he was crazy. But six months later we shipped the first code.”

White calls the project with Pioneer “the birth of the digital media experience in the car,” and it blossomed into big current-day contracts like one with Ford to supply the music recognition and interaction components of the Ford Sync entertainment system. Gracenote’s most important contribution to Ford Sync, says White, was a vocabulary of phonetic strings adapted to the world of music.

“A normal text-to-speech engine doesn’t handle music very well,” White says. “There are so many nicknames and non-standard pronunciations, like Sade, AC/DC, 311, and that’s compounded when you go international—-50 Cent in French is not ‘Cinquante Cents,’ and Elvis, in Mandarin, is not Elvis, he’s ‘The Cool Cat.’ We did the artist names and nicknames and variations in 30 languages to enable these engines to work properly.”

Gracenote's MoodGrid interface

Gracenote's MoodGrid interface for in-dash infotainment systems.

But with in-dash infotainment systems getting more sophisticated, drivers and passengers aren’t limited to interacting with their music by voice. At the CES show in both 2012 and 2013, Gracenote showed off a touchscreen system it calls MoodGrid, which lets listeners pick something peppy or poky, depending on what kind of stimulus they need. The grid’s x axis runs from “calm” to “energetic,” and the y axis runs from “dark” to “positive.”

The system—which taps into music on a car owner’s iPod or smartphone, and can also connect with streaming systems like Spotify or Rhapsody—is already showing up in hardware from manufacturers like Garmin. “The auto guys love this, because they can create simple touch interfaces that sit on top of large collections of music,” White says. The same technology behind MoodGrid is available to smartphone owners in the form the Habu Music app, developed by the Gracenote-owned app studio Gravity Mobile.

Helping consumers navigate huge media collections is also a challenge for smart TV makers, which is why Gracenote’s third major business revolves around video. Manufacturers know consumers are tired of … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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