But while Whitman and Jehan had ideas that could significantly impact listening habits the world over, they still hadn't figured out how to use their Musical Brain to make money. "It was a pretty classic example of two scientists running a business," says Whitman.
Luckily for them, the right people noticed Echo Nest relatively early on. They attracted investors like Barry Vercoe, a music-programming icon and a co-founder of the Media Lab, and Don Rose, who co-founded the New England–based imprint Rykodisc.
"They didn't have any paying clients, and they didn't have any products, but I immediately liked them," says Rose. "Before I did anything with them, though, I wanted to see if they could make it work. So I had them sniff my iPod to make recommendations, and lo and behold, what Pandora did manually over time, they were able to do in less than a day."
Rose's son, Scotty, who now works at the Echo Nest, was in a band with Lucchese. After Lucchese learned about the company, he left New York to join the Somerville operation full-time and help write a business plan. He was familiar with the music-licensing gauntlet from working with platinum artists at the mega-firm Greenberg Traurig, and had the perfect tough-but-friendly attitude to navigate the industry for them.
With Lucchese on board, in 2007 the company was awarded more than $500,000 in grant money by the National Science Foundation, and that year also attracted the attention of the Boston-based Kelso Management Company investment fund. From there, the Echo Nest launched its developer API at the DEMO conference in Palm Desert, California, in September 2008.
At the time, it was becoming ever more clear that music search-and-discovery tech was of paramount importance to the industry. The leader in that arena was Pandora, which had just launched a mobile version of its software.
People tapped Pandora to direct them toward music based on the songs they already liked. But Pandora's patented Music Genome Project employs actual humans to manually index tracks according to audio criteria. Decisions as to what songs fit which parameters are subjective, made by a person. The Echo Nest's approach, alternatively, couldn't be any more different. It is entirely algorithmic. The Musical Brain makes those judgment calls better than any teams of humans could, Jehan and Whitman say — and much, much faster.
Still, despite the Echo Nest's booming popularity in tech circles, it would take a calculated sales pitch to entice big labels and media companies.
"Everybody had already seen a lot of PhDs give them the bullshit line about having the science to understand music," says Lucchese, "so we had to separate ourselves from the scores of ill-conceived companies that were doomed to fail from the jump."
API IS THE NEW MP3
On a now-storied fall weekend in late 2009, about 200 techies gathered at Microsoft's New England Research and Development Center on Memorial Drive in East Cambridge for the first stateside Music Hack Day, which, according to Lucchese, is "essentially a jam session" for music-tech visionaries. For two straight days — some participants stayed awake on Red Bull and coffee the whole time — hackers, programmers, and developers tapped the Echo Nest API (and those of other participating companies) in order to build apps that change the way people find and digest music.