EMI’s future may be up in the air as its owner Citigroup decides whether to break up and sell the business, but the company is still innovating. It has just announced a partnership with The Echo Nest to create a sandbox for developers to make apps based on its content and artists.
It’s one of the first examples of a major label launching an API, although the idea is commonplace in the technology industry. It’s part of what EMI is calling an OpenEMI initiative, aiming to open up its catalogue to external developers and knock down as many of the traditional licensing barriers as possible.
Here’s how the Echo Nest partnership will work: The Echo Nest will host a ‘sandbox’ for app developers, which will include specific briefs to create apps for artists including Gorillaz, Pet Shop Boys, Tinie Tempah, Professor Green, Eliza Doolittle, Chiddy Bang and the Japanese Popstars.
It also includes catalogue material from the Blue Note Records jazz label, and the archives of artists including Culture Club, Simple Minds, Shirley Bassey and The Verve. And no, if you’re wondering, there’s no Coldplay. At least, not yet.
The aim: developers will register for an API key and then submit their app concepts to EMI and The Echo Nest for approval. These can be free or paid apps for iPhone, Android, iPad, the web and other platforms. EMI will be the publisher of any apps that result, and will take responsibility for licensing and clearances, while also marketing them.
The developers will retain the underlying intellectual property though. They will also be able to draw on The Echo Nest’s own databases, including dynamic playlist APIs, its Echoprint open source audio fingerprinting, and remix software.
The developer sandbox also includes access to The Echo Nest’s massive repository of music information, including over five billion data points about music, and one-of-a-kind developer tools including dynamic playlist APIs, open source audio fingerprinting, audio analysis, and remix software. EMI and The Echo Nest are holding an event in Cambridge, Massachusetts on 5-6 November to talk more about the sandbox to developers.
Music Ally talked to EMI’s SVP of global digital marketing Bertrand Bodson and VP of digital projects Neil Tinegate, as well as The Echo Nest’s CEO Jim Lucchese, to find out more.
Bodson told us that the initiative sprang from this year’s Midem conference in Cannes, and specifically the Midem Music Hack Day event. EMI has spent the months since then talking to developers, startups and venture capitalists about what Bodson terms the “pain points” of dealing with rightsholders and launching successful music apps.
“The first one is no big secret: the ability to clear rights and find a way through the labels,” he says. “Second, especially for smaller companies, is the lack of ability or time to dedicate to marketing and the legal framework around these apps.”
One key point about this initiative is that artists and managers are on board. Bodson said that the artists mentioned above have all explicitly signed up to participate in the sandbox, although he admitted that “it took a bit of work: we needed to explain the concept”. The hope is that if innovative apps are released based on the initial tranche of artists, more will join in.
Lucchese said that the partnership is an example of a major label tapping into the rich seam of creativity among developers of music apps. “We’ve got Boston Music Hack Day, where around 350 developers are working on music apps,” he said.
“Based on what you’d pay a typical app developer here in Boston, that’s a million dollars of engineering all thinking about music apps. This deal is a great way to start harnessing that activity and get it into the commercial music fold. Before, those developers have been locked out due to the many complexities involved in licensing and collaboration.”
Tinegate said that EMI plans to be pro-active with artist briefs around specific campaigns – for example when a new album is on the way. However, some catalogues – Blue Note for example – will be made available for a longer time with the aim of attracting innovative ideas.
Lucchese thinks it’s important that developers will own the IP from their apps. “It’s an area the EMI guys were very thoughtful about,” he says.
“There are a lot of reasons why it makes sense for EMI to be the publisher for these apps, but they’re making it clear to app developers that they retain ownership of their IP. We’re targeting passionate, commercially-minded developers who want to make a living and build successful businesses. The IP issue is crucial.”
Lucchese also said that EMI’s promise to handle rights clearance on the publishing side is also a big deal here, although Bodson was careful to stress that the label is not guaranteeing that it has all the rights sewn up already: “It depends on the use case for the apps, with remixes and streaming etc. But we will involve a team in EMI Publishing very early in the process.”
One question we had was around the demand for music apps, particularly on mobile. Music Ally has written about hundreds of new music apps in 2011 alone, but many seem to sink without trace once released on the app stores. Is supply exceeding demand?
Lucchese answered by suggesting that partnerships like this new deal are what’s needed to create better and more popular music apps. “This is far more than a wrapper for the audio – it’s an opportunity to become part of the overall music experience,” he said, predicting that “active collaboration” between artists, labels and app developers will yield great things.
“Our business is premised on app developers being the architects of how we experience music going forward,” he said. “But currently, if a developer has an absolutely brilliant concept for a music experience, it’s unfortunate that they may need a crack well-networked legal team to even have the conversation with labels. That’s what we want to change.”
Bodson added that EMI would like “to see the other labels jump on this as well”, enabling developers working with the new sandbox to tap into music from a wider range of labels and artists. “This is only step one, and hopefully just the first step among many.”
One final point: we have been here before. In February 2011, The Echo Nest announced a partnership with UMG subsidiary Island Def Jam Music Group. That too involved the label making its music available for developers to create commercial apps, and it was described as a ‘sandbox’ as well.
We haven’t heard much about that US-only partnership since, so after our conversation with EMI and The Echo Nest, we followed up with the latter company to ask how the EMI deal differs from the IDJ deal earlier in the year.
The company responded by highlighting some “unique features” of the EMI partnership. They include the fact that there will be multiple developer sandboxes at launch, including one with 2,000 tracks for which EMI controls both master and publishing rights; pre-defined revenue share splits with developers; and marketing resources from EMI to promote all apps released as a result of the initiative.
We think this deal has huge potential, and EMI and The Echo Nest seem to have put a lot of thought into its structure and terms. What’s key now is to attract a bunch of talented developers – a task greatly helped by The Echo Nest’s involvement in the Music Hack Days around the world – get some great apps made, and just as importantly, put some marketing welly behind them.
In other words, the partnership is just the first step in the process. We’re looking forward to the results in the months ahead. More information about the partnership can be found on The Echo Nest’s developer website.