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Music, Critics, And Crowds


Like most music obsessives, Joey Anuff is not particularly democratic when it comes to matters of taste. He extrapolated from this when he came up with Critical Metrics, a nascent music-recommendations engine. The idea animating Critical Metrics is one that contorts en vogue notions about the smarts of crowds and social networks, as well as the algorithmic under-pinnings of much of the Web: Rather than harnessing the collective preferences of an audience, Critical Metrics aggregates current and past critical opinion for, as of this writing, more than 23,000 songs on its beta site, play.criticalmetrics.com. "The way Joey looks at it is very ideological," says Yahoo! Music General Manager Ian Rogers, because he assumes "the wisdom of the crowds is not necessarily what you want."

As befitting the vision of someone whose wide-ranging tastes skew connoisseurish (among Anuff's historical faves: jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman and Teutonic synth ensemble Kraftwerk), Critical Metrics scans opinions from mainstream pubs like Rolling Stone down to single proprietor music-geek blogs like fluxblog. Such catholic sourcing, at least in theory, aggregates critical consensus and cancels out individual prejudices. Rolling Stone may worship the new Springsteen album, but some Critical Metrics-scanned blogs will find it emetic. Some venues focus on big hits while others obsess over the "deep cuts" that never get played on the radio. One CM recommendation for the Beach Boys: "Vega-Tables," a rather amazing, if obscure, track from the legendary "lost" album Smile. By keeping the focus on the song and the publication, both listed with each recommendation, CM differs from online opinion aggregator Metacritic.com, best known for assigning scores to collective critical opinion. CM's recent Top 10 lists are significantly more diverse than the ones amassed from users of music social-network sites like Last.fm.

ONE LONG-TERM PLAY FOR CM is to be part of a major online music destination's interface—one that can quickly get music fans from recommendation to purchase and thus get CM a cut of transactions. (Links to Yahoo's music videos are prominent on CM now, but Rogers declined to discuss whether a deal is pending.) As with anything online, there is also ad revenue potential. But for now, CM remains another interesting Web idea with no major partners or functional business model (albeit one with potentially major implications). For this, the 36-year-old Anuff (full disclosure: we're friendly acquaintances) put on hold a promising career in TV producing and moved back in with his Mom in Miami.

Current CM competition, like iLike and Last.fm, are dominated by what Anuff terms "social metrics": They mostly point out what other music the fans of your favorite band dig. "I don't think they're garbage," says Anuff, but "I don't believe [social metrics] have the same level of authority" as critics' opinions. For this reason, he says, they do a poor job of solving "the programming problem every single purveyor has: How do you turn anyone on to new music?"

This presupposes, though, that a lot of people feel they have a problem finding enough new music. The undemocratic music geek in me is compelled to cite the huge numbers of people—let's just call them "the mainstream"—who do not worry about this, who like what they like and/or hear enough new stuff through happenstance. Anuff is counting on the music-obsessed to help CM take off. "I am sure there are at least 5 million music heads in this country who consider music a food group," he says. He may be sweetly deluded. Or he may be on to something scalable, something that, like Metacritic, can be broadened to other media areas—movies, video games, and books. CM charts a new path toward a very old notion: that what experts have to say is worth hearing. In this arena, as a card-carrying member of the my-musical-taste-can-beat-up-your-musical-taste club, I agree. Now all Anuff needs is the other 4,999,998 of us. If they're there.

For Jon Fine's blog on media and advertising, go to www.businessweek.com/innovate/FineOnMedia

By Jon Fine


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