Monday, March 28, 2011

Why I think Tomahawk is the future of music consumption...

If you follow me on Twitter then you know I have been very vocal lately about the new media player (nay, music player) called Tomahawk. Perhaps some of you hopped over to the site, looked at the screenshot and thought... "oh, yet another spreadsheet for music files". If you did, I urge you to look further as it is so much more.

Instead of me explaining the features (you can get better descriptions of those at, I'm going to talk about some of the value propositions that I hope to see Tomahawk deliver. Specifically, a day in which music fans can easily share their tastes across a range of music service providers. Today, if you subscribe to Rhapsody and I get my music from eMusic, we can't easily share our music. And no... I'm not talking about sharing your music files, I'm talking about your music taste and discoveries.

Today we live in a world of seemingly endless number of content silos, your playlists and taste data largely locked up within their walls with no easy way to get them out or share them. Twitter and Facebook have, in many ways, made this specific problem much worse. For example, let's say you post a link to your favorite new song. Unless I subscribe to the same service (or you have linked to a free source) then I have to click the link, see what the song was (maybe listen to a snippet), then go and search for it from whatever source/service/store I use. Not really the poster child for an easy user experience. The increasing fragmentation of the music provider market means that every day my Twitter stream is filled with virtual spam for music services I don't use (and that's saying something because I use many). I don't blame the people I follow, they just want to tell their followers about some great new discovery, but the link is largely noise as it provides no value to me - unless I establish a relationship with whatever source/service/store they use.  In my mind, this is one of the main contributors to YouTube (and MP3 links) becoming the defacto music sharing standard. Yes, they are free, but more importantly they "just play". (which I love), is the closest thing to a music taste translation layer we have today, but it doesn't solve the problem in the way Tomahawk has the potential to.  While I can get loads of great data around other peoples' (as well as my own) tastes, that data is not easily actionable.  I can visit their profile pages, or subscribe to an RSS feed of a friends' data, but then I'm stuck having to manually resolve that information against my music sources.  Why can't I subscribe to this information as a dynamically updated playlist in my media player, and have each of those tracks automatically resolved against all of the content I have the rights and ability to access?  

This brings me to my next pain point.  I have the rights, and ability, to access content from a large number of sources - yet no single interface that lets me easily do so.  Content from my home computer, my laptop, streaming tracks from my library, SoundCloud, Topspin widgets, band sites, label sites, music blogs.  The list is endless.... and unfortunately so are the required number of interfaces one has to use.  Not to mention that many of those web-interfaces provide (in my opinion) a suboptimal user experience.  

  • "What tab is that music coming from?!"  
  • "Bah, I accidentally navigated away from the page/closed by browser and interrupted playback.

Now imagine a world where we share music metadata, and the logic of how that audio gets rendered is determined by the consumer of the data, not the sharer.  Under the hood that user can can add plug-ins/content resolvers for all of the music sources that they have rights to (local machine, remote machine, subscription service, web sources, etc.).  Spotify users sharing with iTunes users sharing with Rhapsody users, sharing with Mog users.  Tastes and curation freely flowing. Music discovery propagates like never before.

OK, so now we are all able to speak the same raw musical language (metadata), but what about the context?  But wait... (as they say on bad TV commercials)... there is more!  Tomahawk has a web server, API (see the awesome Playdar for more info), and authentication mechanism built-in.  Now bloggers, writers, curators, reviewers and more can provide context around music without having a way to provide the files/streams too (or go through the legal/licensing gauntlet required to do so).  Instead of providing links to a half dozen music providers, or a bunch of MP3 links, or embedded YouTube videos - these curators can rely on you to bring your (accessible) content to their context.  They can just provide metadata that Tomahawk can see, and use, to go out and automatically fetch the streams in background and play back to you (through their websites).   

Not only does this benefit the consumers and the curators, but also the music subscription providers.  Why should they be incuring the royalty obligations to stream me a song that I already own?  As I have worked 3 music subscription services myself, I can - without hesitation - tell you that every penny saved is another penny closer to a having a sustainable business model.  With Tomahawk's cascading content resolving framework, if you already have a copy of the song it will play that one instead of unnecessarily streaming it.  When it comes to the next song in queue, it independently finds the best source for that one and seamlessly, and invisibly, handles the transition between the two.  As a consumer, you no longer have to know or care where the music is - you get to just focus on what you want to listen to.  For those that have heard me on this soapbox before, they know that I like to call this "taking the work out of play".

There are a lot of previously impossible user experiences that this content resolution approach enables.  I have tried to touch on some of them, and hopefully I haven't confused the hell out of you.  As with many innovative technologies it is sometimes hard to convey the value until you try it yourself.   But, in the meantime maybe these screencasts can help:

The good news is that Tomahawk is totally free and open-source.  So not only can you use it, you can directly participate in the realization of the value the platform can deliver.  I hope you enjoy it, I know I sure am.

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Unknown said...

How about terrestrial radio? Can I get that on Tomahawk?

Christopher Sutton said...

Great overview post! I'd been wondering how/if Tomahawk tied in with Playdar and what all the fuss is about - thanks for writing up a nice clear explanation of its advantages.

jherskowitz said...

Glad it helped. It also helps sharing tastes globally... since today there are very few services that are available in more than one country. One of my biggest frustrations is all the Spotify links I get from my friends in the UK - and they feel the same about all the Rdio links that us Americans post.

Gregg Plummer said...

After reading your overview, I decided to give it a try. Most of my collection is local. I have all my CDs ripped to a media server on my network. A lot of my collection is ripped to WMA lossless, but in the last year, I switched to FLAC. Tomahawk locks up on half of the tracks I've tried playing. All play fine with foobar2000. j. river media center and Windows Media Player. J.River Media Center has a much more sophisticated autoplaylist feature. So from what I can tell Tomahowk has a long way to go, but is pretty promising.

jherskowitz said...

Gregg -

Thanks for giving it a try. One of the major next tasks for the project will be moving over to using Phonon as the audio rendering engine and this will fix a large number of problems. Hope you give it a try again then.

Katelyn Friedson said...

Very interesting problem you address regarding the fragmentation of music services, and inability for users to share music like they are able to share content/other media: seamlessly, across all networks (even competing ones) and all channels

I've experienced this problem myself in a different use case: I wanted to login to my Grooveshark account to play my music, and a friend beside me, who keeps her "favorites" on Rdio wanted to use Rdio. If we were using the same service, I could easily login to one account, search for her username, and play her list of favorites at the same time.

I've had a few thoughts recently, due to FB Music's announcement with its Spotify partnership and integration with other services as well.

1.I don't regard Spotify as the "end all, be all" of music services. I do think that for a product as young as it is with the p2p streaming technology platform it has and its Open API, playlist collaboration and sharing, integration with and Facebook, makes it a contender.

2.Layer Echonest on top of this, and you have a very passive, premium way to discover songs or users with similar tastes. Additionally, from my experience talking to music consumers, most said they to discover new music from people they don't know on the Internet, rather than from their close circle of friends.

3Playdar is an added bonus for sure- is this the technology that the founder of created a while ago that never seemed to be marketable? I'd like to see it finally launch

4Back to Spotify/FB- I think the integration of the two platforms is like peanut butter and jelly. Music is not only social on steroids now, but its viral, it reaches 1/2 a billion users, not just 10 million, it rests on an echosysten of 3rd party application developers who will only enhance what you can do with the service, and Facebook provides an optimal discussion platform--a place where songs can be discussed in real-time while playing, they can be reviewed, etc..

5Finally, although it's somewhat mysterious right now, Facebook clearly put time and energy into its platform for independent bands and musicians. Who knows what value this can add.

All that aside, though
I really interested in hearing your opinion about where you see things going, given your experience and closeness to this industry.

It seems unimaginable to me that Facebook could compete against apple in music- with its native handsets/ipods and mac integration

While Facebook/Spotify's music app may have more distribution channels on handsets, couldn't Android and Apple iPhone partner with- and bundle-its music service with carrier billing?

Byron Hicks said...

Layout is not bad. Yeah, I'm still into though I'm still having trouble navigating pages. This looks like iTunes, though a little bit more compact. I'm thinking how volume is doing here, iTunes is still loud though arranged in a lower volume level.

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