Inside the Echo Nest's deal with Def Jam

A&R for apps
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  March 2, 2011

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ECHO NEST CEO Jim Lucchese says the Somerville company wants to connect indie artists with indie app developers.

A key player in the biggest music story of last week was from Greater Boston, and the news had nothing to do with Stephen Tyler falling off a stage.

At the Digital Music Forum in New York, representatives from Somerville's The Echo Nest announced a watershed partnership with Island Def Jam (IDJ), the behemoth imprint that's home to such mega acts as Ludacris and Justin Bieber. This marks the first official marriage of a major label and a leading music tech company like Echo Nest — an "intelligence platform" through which thousands of independent developers power kick-ass applications for smartphones, tablets, and computers.

"The concept of a more direct connection between content owners and application developers is something that we've been working on for a long time," says Echo Nest CEO Jim Lucchese. "Developers build a lot of great things, but too often they can't commercialize them. . . . That's where we come in — we sit between these developers and big music companies."

The Echo Nest has been in business with IDJ for roughly two years, during which time they've supplied key demographic insights by scraping information from social media and music sites to pinpoint how well acts trend and where. (Bieber, a favorite from coast to coast, has an especially hysterical fan base in North Dakota.) The Echo Nest has also crunched data on the song structure of 16 million tracks, and, according to Lucchese, knows "the preferences of nearly every music blogger on the Web." As a result, his company has earned some serious clout.

"There's been this reverse velvet-rope thing going on," says Lucchese. "Senior executives from big music companies have come to me to ask if I can get them into [Echo Nest events]. It's hilarious in a way, but it's also great because there's a clear recognition across all of the majors that what we're doing here makes plenty of sense."

With Echo Nest building a legally compliant technological bridge between developers and IDJ's catalogue, there's infinite product potential, from DMX alarm-clock apps to mobile LL Cool J karaoke. In the near future, there will be applications introduced for remixing songs, and for editing videos, in which users create their own unique AV experiences. Up next, Echo Nest will challenge developers to focus on specific brands within the IDJ catalogue. For example: a DJ device to mash classic Def Jam beats with new-school Rick Ross rhymes, or a Bon Jovi GPS app that alerts drivers when they're "halfway there." "In a sense," says Lucchese, "IDJ is looking at us as an A&R for the coolest developers who can be matched up with artists who have a similar vision."

Further down the line, Echo Nest plans to expand its services beyond the major-label realm. Emphasizing the role that he believes independents should play in the future of music, Lucchese recalls a time nearly two years ago, when indie rap icon El-P, after rocking an Echo Nest party at Johnny D's, returned to the company's offices to hang for some late-night activities that were uncharacteristic of hip-hop stars.

"It was four o'clock in the morning, and El-P and some guys from his band were hunched over a developer who was writing some sort of app," says Lucchese. "That's symbolic of the types of creative collaborations that we want to make happen. . . . Everything so far is going great, but we've only begun our work with this. The long-term goal is to make it easier for independent artists to collaborate with independent app developers."

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