The Shazam Effect: Is It Bad for Music?

Do you Shazam? Whenever I need to know the name of a song, I whip out the iPhone, fire up Shazam and let it “listen” to the track. Within seconds, it gives me the name of the song, the artist an opportunity to buy a digital version. It’s pretty magical stuff.

Or is it? The Atlantic takes a look at what it calls “the Shazam effect.”

In 2000, a Stanford Ph.D. named Avery Wang co-founded, with a couple of business-school graduates, a tech start-up called Shazam. Their idea was to develop a service that could identify any song within a few seconds, using only a cellphone, even in a crowded bar or coffee shop.

At first, Wang, who had studied audio analysis and was responsible for building the software, feared it might be an impossible task. No technology existed that could distinguish music from background noise, and cataloging songs note for note would require authorization from the labels. But then he made a breakthrough: rather than trying to capture whole songs, he built an algorithm that would create a unique acoustic fingerprint for each track. The trick, he discovered, was to turn a song into a piece of data.

Shazam became available in 2002. (In the days before smartphones, users would dial a number, play the song through their phones, and then wait for Shazam to send a text with the title and artist.) Since then, it has been downloaded more than 500 million times and used to identify some 30 million songs, making it one of the most popular apps in the world. It has also helped set off a revolution in the recording industry. While most users think of Shazam as a handy tool for identifying unfamiliar songs, it offers music executives something far more valuable: an early-detection system for hits.

Aha! This is where it may get weird. Keep reading.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

One thought on “The Shazam Effect: Is It Bad for Music?

  • November 20, 2014 at 4:43 pm
    Permalink

    I believe the numbers are backwards. Shaman has been downloaded 30 million times and identified 500 million songs.

    Reply

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