Where Are My Smart Agents?

So say you want to buy music online. Why not? It’s convenient and well… convenient. Particularly if you already know what you want.

Nothing beats a properly organized, well-stocked record store for finding new music. If you walk in and find music you like, then look at the albums nearby and have a high chance of finding something else you’ll like as well. The more categories a store has (and to have categories more granular than “Rock/Pop,” “Rap,” and “Soundtracks” requires a certain knowledge and passion for music), the easier it will be. Call it “infolocation.”

Physical packaging is also important – maybe you’ve observed that all the albums of any genre you don’t like have very similar covers. Well, guess what? All the albums of any genre you love have common elements on the cover as well. And that’s a good thing. Occasionally, purchasing an album because the cover looks appealing in some way works out.

Record stores have a musical taste of their own as well. Even if they strive to carry every album ever released (impossible), they will favor some subset. Larger stores will tend to cater to the same broadest demographic as Top 40 radio. But smaller stores are born out of the proprietor’s passion for a particular kind of music. And if that overlaps with your own taste at all, you’ll discover all kinds of music.

There’s also the advantage of getting uncompressed music, which is difficult (or impossible) to do with downloadable music. But that’s another rant.

The internet is great because it can contain all known information. At least, any information that someone else thought to add to a web page. But there is so much information on the internet that you have to know what you’re looking for to find it. Which makes finding new things of interest very difficult. The internet is not generally organized in a infolocated manner.

Virtual infolocation should be possible. There are some predictive tools built into devices and websites. How many times have you heard people claim their TiVo is psychic? Netflix has a pretty impressive movie suggestion engine. Pandora is fantastic at suggesting new songs based on user input. Apple has a “genius” feature in iTunes and they are rumored to have purchased Lala which has a good suggestion engine as well.

While some of these are online retail tools, and others are affiliated with online retail stores. But that ties you in to that one online retail site. This is the internet, and the internet is made up of more than one web site.

Granted, there are two major online music retailers – iTunes and Amazon. They carry a staggering array of music to purchase and download. And they feature passable suggestion engines.

But there are other legal ways to download music. Particularly if you don’t want compressed files. Or you want to directly support artists.

One of the best ways to get downloadable music is directly from the artists. A few mainstream artists have been experimenting with this (Nine Inch Nails, Paul McCartney, Robert Fripp, Radiohead, David Byrne, etc.) but it’s mostly independent artists. Which limits the selection somewhat, and requires going to lots of different websites directly.

This is maybe one of those “Where’s my flying car?” thing, but I remember 15 years ago reading about “Smart Agents” that would scour the internet (or intranet) and find things that you might be interested in so that you don’t miss them. Where are my Smart Agents? Google Alerts is sort of like a smart agent, but it only searches new blog posts. And it’s highly literal.

What I want is an intelligent smart agent system that knows what I like and scours the internet as a whole and searches out similar items that might be of interest. Results could be rated (like TiVo or Pandora) to weed out false positives and provide it the raw data to find trends and connections that I may not even know about or be able to express. Much of the connective data could be mined from blogs (if a blog that mentions Jonathan Coulton also mentions Brad Sucks, then that might be a good result), but ideally results would be culled from all types of web sites.

I’m sure there are all kinds of reasons why this hasn’t been done. Much of the internet is now frittered away in databases, and these are not easily searchable. Sites like iMDB and AllMusic consider their data to be proprietary information, part of their competitive advantage. But surely, the data is there, waiting for someone to figure out how to mine it.

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If you do want to download music from sites which have a broad selection, but are a little more directly connected to artists, try out these:

CASH Music is a non-profit that supports some of its artists, including Kirsten Hersh. They feature a pay-what-you-want donation scheme and have plenty of cheap and free music in MP3 and FLAC formats.

The Collective Family is an amazing site featuring hundreds of artists who give away their music for free. There are nearly a thousand recordings just waiting to be downloaded. Mostly MP3 format, but it’s hard to complain when it’s free and in many cases, this is the only release venue for some of these artists.

And if you want a really huge collection of free music, check out The Internet Archive. They host over 70,000 live shows (not all Phish!) and nearly a half million other recordings – all available for download free. Many of the recordings are MP3, though some are available in FLAC format as well.

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