Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

In praise of Shazam

Why it’s thumbs up for the music ID service and its damn impressive algorithm

Thu, Mar 27, 2014, 09:41


It’s the closest thing to magic you’ll encounter on a daily basis. A song comes on the radio – or in the background in a cafe, shop, hotel lobby, club or other public space – and you like the cut of its jib. You don’t recognise the tune right away but you want to note what it is for the future. In the past, this would involve an often fruitkess search to find the person playing the music and asking them. Now, you whip out your phone, find the Shazam app and let it do its thing.

There have been some very good pieces in the past about how Shazam works – this is still pretty relevant and this is also a decent look at how the service created and honed its algorithm – but the best way to figure Shazam out is to simply use it. Truly simplicity itself, it does its job time and time again. Occasionally, it won’t be able to identify the tune, but the strike-rate is unusually high. I may have dozens of apps on my phone, but most don’t get used all that often – Shazam, though, is a hard-working beast.

While plenty of alternatives have popped up, Shazam remains the one which has captured the imagination and become a verb. The competition is to be expected because music tech is one of those areas which is full of me-too operators. I occasionally appear on Andrea Leonelli’s Digital Music Trends weekly podcast and you get to talk about these alt plays on a regular basis. Someone has a smart idea to do with how we listen to or consume or experience music and then, voila, a bunch of other people decide to raise some cash and pile in on the same pitch. We’ve seen it time and time again with streaming services so Shazam’s ability to ID a tune was always ripe for imitation, pastiche and duplication.

The trick for Shazam is to stay ahead of the pack and this means regular iterations. The company’s new Chief Product Officer Daniel Danker talked earlier this month about their plans in the TV and advertising spaces. The company used the occasion of Miami’s Winter Music Conference to announce a hook-up with Juno Records to bring its four million tracks (including, most importantly, 110,000 vinyl-only releases) into the Shazam mix. Staying ahead of the pack means more of this kind of thing.

Then, there’s the knock-on A&R effect. Steve Knopper wrote recently about Shazam’s ability to predict the next big hit and talked to music business folks about how Shazam’s charts often resemble the Billboard charts, albeit a month or so ahead of them. Naturally, the company are capitalising on this and got in on the sound-of-2014 game with their list of acts they expect to be big this year.

But for most of us, the beauty of Shazam remains the actual experience. There may be a lot of extra bells and whistles (the whole sharing experience, for instance), but the fact that you’ve a lengthy list of Shazam tags on your app shows the real power of the service. And, given that the company claim its 88 million active users are responsible for 10 per cent of global music sales, the knock-on effect of people going off to purchase what they’ve just Shazamed cannot be under-estimated.