SongCards – an untapped app

I saw this interesting video from IDEO for c60 – an RFID-based interface that ‘reintroduces physicality to music, something lost with digitization and the move to the cloud.’

This video got me excited, because it is the hardware piece of an idea that my friend Steve Green and I  had called ‘SongCards’ while working at Sun Labs a few years ago.  We pitched SongCards to Sun’s management (Sun was big into RFID at the time so it seemed like a good fit), but Sun didn’t bite – they decided to go buy MySql instead.  And so this concept has been gathering digital dust in a text file on my laptop.  The c60 video has inspired me to dust it off and post i here.   I think there are some good ideas embedded in the concept. Perhaps the folks at IDEO will incorporate some into the c60, or maybe Eliot will add this idea to his Untapped Apps portfolio on

Here’s the concept in all its glory:


  • Many people have a physical connection with their music.  These people like to organize, display and interact with their music via the containers (album covers, cd cases).
  • Music is a highly social medium.  People enjoy sharing music with others.  People learn about new music from others in their social circle.
  • The location where music is stored will likely switch from devices managed by the listener to devices managed by a music service.  In the future, a music purchaser will purchase the right to listen to a particular song, while the actual music data will remain managed by the music service.
  • Digital music lacks much of the interesting metadata that previous generations of music listeners enjoyed – lyrics, photos of the performers, song credits.  The experience of reading the liner notes while listening to a new album has been lost in this new generation of digital music.Music is collectable. People take pride in amassing large collections of music and like to be able to exhibit their collection to others.

The Problem

The digital music revolution and the inevitable move of our music from our CD racks, iPods and computers, to the back room at Yahoo, Apple, or Google will make it convenient for people to listen to music in all sorts of new ways, however at the same time it will eliminate many of the interactions people have had with the music.  People can’t interact with the albums, read the liner notes, display their collection. They can’t trade songs with their friends. There is no way to show off a music collection beyond saying “I have 2,025 songs on my iPod”. Album art is a dying art.

weMusic collecting is not just about the music, it also is about the things that surround the music. Digital music has stripped away all of the packaging, and at the same time has stripped away a big part of the music collecting experience.  We want to change that.

The Idea

Imagine if you could buy music like you buy collectable trading cards such as Magic the Gathering, or Pokemon cards.  One could buy a pack of cards at the local 7-11 for a few dollars.  The cards could be organized by genre.  You could buy a pack of ‘boy-band’, ‘alternative-grunge’, ‘brit-pop’, ‘British invasion ‘, ‘drum and bass’ etc.  Each pack would contain 5 or 10 cards draw from the genre of the pack. Each card would have all of the traditional liner note metadata: lyrics, album art, artist bios.  Also associated with each card would be a unique ID that can be read by an electronic reader that would identify the unique instance of the card and the song/performance that the card represents.  The new owner of the card would add the song to their personal collection by just presenting it to any of the owner’s music players (presumably they are connected to the music server run by the music service provider). Once this is done, the user can access and play the song at any time on any of their music devices.

A package of music cards can be packaged in the same way as other trading cards are packaged. Typically in each pack there are one or two ‘special’ cards that are highly desirable. For music cards these would be the highly desirable ‘hit cards’.  The bulk of the cards in a deck could be made up of lesser known, or less popular bands.   For instance a ‘British invasion’ card set may contain ‘hey jude’ as the special card, and a few lesser known Beatles songs, and few songs by “the who” and perhaps some by “the monkees” and other songs by bands of that era.  This method of packing music would allow for serendipitous discovery of music since you would never know what songs you would get in the pack.  It would also encourage music trading, since you could trade your duplicate songs with other music collectors.

Trading – since the cards represent a song by a digital id, trading a song is as simple as giving the card to someone. As soon as the new owner of the card puts the card into one of their music players the transfer of ownership would occur, the song would be added to the collection of the new owner and removed from the collection of the old owner.  There would be no limit to how often a song could be traded.

Some interesting properties of music cards:

  • Your music collection once again has a physical presence. You can touch it, you can browse through it, you can stack it, you can show it off.
  • You can easily and legally trade or sell music with your friends (or on eBay for that matter).  Supply and demand economics can take hold in the music card after market (just as we’ve seen with Beanie Babies and Magic cards).Cards can be grouped in packages for sale using a number of criteria such as genre, popularity, geography, appeal to a certain demographic.
  • You can make playlists by ordering your cards.
  • You can make a random playlist by shuffling your cards.
  • At a social gathering, cards from many people can be combined into a single uber-playlist.
  • You will be potentially exposed to new music every time you buy a new pack of cards.
  • You will not need to carry your cards with you when you want to listen to music (the music service knows what music you own).
  • Since the music service ‘knows’ what music you own it can monitor trades and music popularity to track trend setters within a social group and target appropriate marketing at the trend setters.
  • Song cards can’t be ‘ripped’ in the traditional sense, giving music companies much more control over their intellectual property.

Some interesting variations:

  • The artwork on the back of a card could be one section of the album art for a whole album.  You could tack the cards up on the wall to form the album art when you have the whole album.
  • Some of the cards could be power cards that act as modifiers:
    • ‘More Like This‘ when inserted into a playlist, plays a similar song to the previously played card. The similar song is drawn from the entire music service collection not just the songs owned by the collector.
    • Genre Wild card’ – plays a random song from the genre.  The similar song is drawn from the entire music service collection not just the songs owned by the collector.
    • Musical Journey‘ – make a musical journey between the surrounding cards.  The songs on the journey are drawn from the entire music service collection not just the songs owned by the collector.
    • ‘Album Card’ – it’s not just a song, it’s a whole album.

Note that I don’t think that SongCards would replace all digital music sales. It would still be possible to purchase and download a song from iTunes as one can do today.  I think that SongCards would appeal to the ‘Music Collector’, while the traditional download would appeal to the ‘Music Listener’.

That’s it – SongCards – Just imagine what the world would be like if Sun had invested $800 million on SongCards instead of that open source database.

, ,

  1. #1 by Rob on December 20, 2010 - 6:57 am

    So… how exactly would these cards go about _removing_ music files from the collections of their previous owners?

    If the answer is DRM, nobody will want these cards. They’d be competing with perfectly convenient non-DRMed music from iTunes and Amazon, and it would be obvious to potential collectors that the cards would eventually lose all their value (when the service shuts down or simply becomes incompatible with new devices).

    • #2 by Paul on December 20, 2010 - 7:20 am

      Rob – in the world of SongCards, the music is in the cloud, and the cloud knows what cards you have. So yes, like spotify, mog or any other music streaming service, there’s some DRM there.

  2. #3 by Rob on December 20, 2010 - 4:41 pm

    When you share playlists on Spotify, you don’t lose the ability to play those same songs yourself. When you lend a CD to a friend, you don’t lose the tracks you’ve ripped in your music collection. Any form of shrinking someone’s collection sounds like a non-starter these days.

    And I’m pretty sure most people would not consider themselves as “owning” music that won’t play without an Internet connection — even if you manage to make portable music players and phones work with it, you can’t listen to it in the subway, in a car, etc.

%d bloggers like this: