CrowdJuke Wins Best Music Hack: Meet Its Creator

Posted October 28

Have you been biting your nails, wondering which hack was going to hack it? Well, worry your fingers no more: CrowdJuke has scored the prize for Best Music Hack.

To celebrate CrowdJuke’s win, we enlisted Eliot Van Buskirk of Evolver.fm to interview hacker Matt Kelly about his award-winning invention, which creates playlists based partygoers. Take it away, Eliot…

Kelly created CrowdJuke as a side project from his day job as Facebook partner-engineer, and says it will be ready for the public soon. Meaning that soon, venues will be able to play energetic music that reflects the Facebook social graphs of people who checked in there, and later, what they have played on Spotify, MOG, Rhapsody, Rdio, and other services.

Here’s what Kelly had to say (edited for clarity and brevity) about CrowdJuke, built at SF Music Hack Day (next stop: Boston).

Eliot Van Buskirk, Evolver.fm: At most clubs and parties, the idea is that the DJ tries to vibe off of the crowd in order to pick songs, or that’s what the good ones do, anyway. So how did this idea come about to use the crowd as the DJ?

Matt Kelly: I thought it would be cool if you’re at a party or venue and you could text-message songs and they would just get added to a playlist. I started building that idea out at the hackday, but as I worked on it, of course, like any idea, I started getting a bunch of other ideas.

What I built at SF Music Hack Day was the ability to text message a song or artist, and then it’s snowballed over the last six months, with a web app. You can open up Safari on your iPhone, and there’s a full interface with the current song playing, the full queue of music, and you can actually vote songs up or down and add songs straight from your phone.

I go to parties all the time, and generally how it works is that there’s a computer hooked up to the TV. It’s kind of a pain, especially if you’re trying to talk to people or drink or whatever, to go on the computer and add your song.

Evolver.fm: Yeah, the computer’s not a natural party interface.

So, CrowdJuke uses APIs (Application Programming Interfaces, which let developers build apps on other technologies, among other things). I’ve been to Music Hack Days myself, and that’s how those work. They seem to be a big part of the coolest parts of how the web and the Internet are working right now. It’s, like, computers talking to computers to help humans.

Kelly: Totally. One of the reasons I chose to build this hack was Rdio released a platform the day of the hack day. I said, ‘This is awesome, there’s never been a music platform.’ Spotify kind of has one, but it’s impossible to work with. I thought that was a genius move on Rdio’s end. There were some platforms like Echo Nest — I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it –

Evolver.fm: They’re actually the publisher of Evolver.fm.

Kelly: They’re a very cool company. You can get a lot of rich data on music, but you can’t play music, you can’t interact with it in that way. With Rdio, you can build apps that play music, which is huge from a music perspective — to get an idea bootstrapped and get something prototyped, you can just use Rdio. You don’t have to be worried about [licensing] the labels and all that stuff. I’ll be curious how that evolves over time.

And it’s not just music, but any digital media. [Data] platforms are massive, especially when it’s just a guy in a garage. What I built uses four platforms. It probably condensed a 10-man team building this thing over a couple of years, to giving me the ability to build something fully-fledged in about five months.

Evolver.fm: That’s amazing. And the early version was working after 24 hours. Can you rattle off which APIs you used, in addition to Rdio and The Echo Nest?

Kelly: Rdio handles the playing the music, the album art, and the search. I’m using Facebook’s platform too. Another cool piece of this is before you even have a party, you can just go to CrowdJuke.com — it’s not up yet, but I’ll probably make it public some time in the near future. You can choose an upcoming Facebook event, and it will pull all the attendees for that event and automatically create a playlist based off of the attendees’ favorite music.

Evolver.fm: So is it just their Facebook Likes, or is it the playback stuff too on MOG, Spotify, Rdio and so on?

Kelly: Right now it just uses Likes, but at some point it will use all the listening data too. It also uses Twilio, a voice and SMS platform, and I use that for capturing text messages.

Evolver.fm: That’s for if you think of something you want to hear while you’re at the party, right?

Kelly: Yeah. And if you don’t have a smartphone, which I built the mobile web app for, you can just text message a song or artist you want to hear. And when you try to add a song, I ping The Echo Nest to see if it’s danceable enough. If it’s not, then it rejects your song.

Evolver.fm: I like that, because whenever you open things up to the crowd, as I’ve seen from crowdsourcing things I’ve done, results can vary.

Kelly: It’s funny — I did a couple of test runs, and nobody rickrolled. I’ve been using it as we’ve been touring Europe talking to developers about our latest stuff at Facebook, and we’ve been using it at some of the conferences. But then at the last one, we got rickrolled like four times, in Germany. And at F8, about 2,000 songs were added and voted on within a couple of hours, so it’s definitely been tested at a large event. Hopefully in the next month or two I can open it up to the public so people can start using it.

Evolver.fm: That’s good, because I think a lot more people are going to find out about it now that it has won an MTV O Music Award. What do you envision happening when CrowdJuke rolls out into the world?

Kelly: Step one is getting it built in a scalable way. There’s a lot of interest around it, but I don’t really have any launch plans. I just want to launch it, see what people think of it, and take it from there.

Evolver.fm: Did you keep the feature in the first version where you can use Facebook Credits to boost your song to the top of the list?

Kelly: Probably, at launch, it will all be free. I’ll figure out the best way to monetize it down the road. But you can imagine that if this was used in a club or a bar, using credits would be a good way to get your song to the top, because the problem with bars and jukeboxes is that once you put in your song, you have to wait who knows how long — sometimes two hours — to hear it.

Evolver.fm: That’s similar to something I’ve seen in a lot of Internet jukebox stuff, going way back. I used to work at CNET, and I think I reviewed the world’s first Internet jukebox at Kennedy’s of all places, in San Francisco’s North Beach area. I think this was like 2000 (in a since-deleted column). It was kind of neat, but it basically just mimicked the old-school jukebox, just with the Internet attached.

It’s amazing that we’ve had to wait this long for the forces to emerge that enabled you to put something together that takes it further. I guess the social aspect is a big part of that.

Kelly: The jukebox is something people love to use, but the user experience is a bit broken. It’s expensive, and everyone has a phone in their pocket, so why can’t you control it with a phone? Why can’t it be social? You’re in a social space, so why can’t you vote things up and down?

What I’ve actually found [in testing] is that people would add music and get their friends to vote it up the queue. What was interesting was it shows their face and name so people were meeting each other. They saw other people voting their music down or up and went to meet them, so it was pretty social, whereas a jukebox doesn’t really have the atmosphere.

Evolver.fm: I’m not going to put it in competition, but in a sense I guess CrowdJuke goes one better than Turntable.fm, because you’re not just an avatar.

Kelly: I actually love Turntable, and I use it all the time. It came out a couple of months after this. I guess it’s a similar mechanic, but online. It’s also quite a bit different too.

Evolver.fm: I think one reason CrowdJuke is so neat is that some people think of digital music as music fans sitting alone with headphones or staring at a screen by themselves. I like how CrowdJuke integrates digital music into where people are hanging out anyway and being social.

Kelly: Exactly.

Evolver.fm Editor Eliot Van Buskirk has covered and occasionally anticipated music and technology intersections for under 15 years for CNET, Wired.com, McGraw-Hill, and The Echo Nest.

Image courtesy of Flickr, goldberg