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The Coolness Index

Some artists just are not cool – your mom likes ABBA, so there’s no way you are going to listen to them, even if you think Mamma Mia is rather catchy.  Likewise  you may think High School Musical’s ‘Bop to the top’ is mucho gusto, but you don’t want anyone to know it.  Coolness is hard to quantify, ephemeral and transient (and of course, very subjective); some artists like Miles Davis and the Velvet Underground will always be totally cool – while some fade in and out of coolness (Elvis, Stevie Wonder,  Neil Diamond, Sting), and some artists – well, it is hard to tell if they were ever cool (Miley Cyrus, Creed, and Nickeback come to mind).

Imagine if there was an objective measure for coolness  – a number that could be attached to each artist that indicated how ‘cool’ the artist was.   We’d be able to do all sorts of interesting things with such a ‘coolness index’.  We could make a ‘music makeover’ playlist that would take you from Miley to Miles in 12 songs  (consider it a 12-step  taste recovery program) or we could create a music rehab playlist that takes you  from Amy Winehouse to Kate Nash.  But of course, the concept of cool  is too hard to nail down.  Is Johnny Cash cool? Michael Jackson? Prince?  Context, demographics, locale  all play a role.

It may be too hard to tell whether an artist is cool, but we have all sorts of ways to tell that an artist is definitely not cool.  For instance, if lots of listeners  really don’t want people to know that they are listening to a particular artist, then that artist is probably not too cool. Luckily, there’s an interesting source for just this kind of data.   Recently, the researchers at published a list of the ‘most unwanted scrobbles‘.  This is a list of  tracks that were most frequently deleted by the community from their scrobbles in the last month. These are the tracks that listeners didn’t want people to know that the listened to.  Here’s the first page of the most unwanted scrobbles:

notcoolKudos to for publishing this data. It’s a great source for the uncool.  Collecting all the artists from the pages we can build a list of artists that have frequently had their scrobbles deleted:

Lady GaGa
Britney Spears
Katy Perry
Taylor Swift
Avril Lavigne
Marc Seales, composer. New Stories. Ernie Watts, saxophone
Alexander Rybak
Black Eyed Peas
Kings of Leon
My Chemical Romance
Linkin Park
Miley Cyrus
Jason Mraz
Metro Station
Leona Lewis
Green Day
Amy Whinehouse
Nelly Furtado

This list rings true as set of ‘uncool’ artists (with the exception Marc Seales, who happens to have a  piece of  music, called ‘Highway Blues’,  that can be found in most ‘Sample Music’ folders on most Windows XP computers, and is likely  frequently scrobbled because of this).  Ideally this list should be normalized for popularity – naturally artists that have more listeners will be scrobbled more and consequently be deleted more too. but there’s not enough data in this list to normalize properly so we’ll make do with an unnormalize list.  I find it  interesting how many female acts are on the list. Is it not cool to listen to female artists?

Another approach to find the uncool  is to look for artists that have been tagged as ‘guilty pleasure’ on sites like  For these artists,  by applying the ‘guilty pleasure’ tag people are identifying artists that they are embarrassed to be listening to.  Here’s a list of the top 100 popular artists that have been frequently tagged with ‘guilty pleasure’ – for this list I’m normalizing the data so popularity doesn’t factor into the list order:

Katy Perry
Ashlee Simpson
Spice Girls
Lindsay Lohan
Mandy Moore
Jessica Simpson
Backstreet Boys
Hilary Duff
Metro Station
Britney Spears
Justin Timberlake
Taylor Swift
The Pussycat Dolls
Kelly Clarkson
Christina Aguilera
Fall Out Boy
Take That
Avril Lavigne
Ricky Martin
Girls Aloud
Neil Diamond
The Veronicas
Ace of Base
Cline Dion
Chris Brown
All Time Low
Kanye West
Gwen Stefani
Good Charlotte
R. Kelly
Nelly Furtado
The Get Up Kids
New Found Glory
Natasha Bedingfield
Robbie Williams
The Wallflowers
Michelle Branch
Taking Back Sunday
Savage Garden
The All-American Rejects
Simple Plan
Shania Twain
Tegan and Sara
The Starting Line
Brand New
Destiny’s Child
Cyndi Lauper
Mariah Carey
Maroon 5
Melanie C
Jennifer Lopez
Michael Jackson
Tears for Fears
Alkaline Trio
Dashboard Confessional
Vanessa Carlton
Lily Allen
Bowling for Soup
50 Cent
Eve 6
Sean Paul
Kylie Minogue
Howie Day
Sophie Ellis-Bextor
My Chemical Romance
Third Eye Blind
Saves the Day
Bryan Adams
John Mellencamp
Simply Red
Whitney Houston
The Corrs
The Calling
Motion City Soundtrack

There’s overlap between the two lists:  Avril, Britney, Katy, Nelly, Taylor, Rihanna, along with the Disney crowd. Again, there seems to be an anti-female coolness bias on the list. It is hard to be cool and female.

The ‘most unwanted scrobbles’ and the ‘guilty+pleasure’ approach to the coolness index only get us so far. They can help us identify music that people are embarrassed to admit that they enjoy.  But they only give us one end of the coolness spectrum.  We can find what is not cool, but we can’t find out what is cool.  We have in effect an ‘Uncoolness Index’.  Still, knowing which artists are uncool can be helpful for all sorts of things.   If we are building a playlist for that party, we can turn on the uncool filter to make sure that Ricky Martin or Robbie Williams won’t sneak into the mix.  Likewise, if we are building a recommender, we can use the Uncoolness index to decide how cool the user is and recommend music that’s slightly less uncool than what they are used to listening to.

Next steps are to figure out how to learn not just what is uncool, but also what is cool, so we can build the true ‘coolness index’ and be able to tell how cool any artist is.  I think that is going to be a harder problem, but I have some ideas …

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The end of an era at

RJ just announced that he, along with the other two founders of are leaving Details in this post:   Message from the founders, Felix, RJ and Martin.  This is a big deal.  RJ, Felix and Martin laid out the roadmap that just about every music 2.0 company would follow.   They continuously  brought new innovations to music discovery that are now standard for music sites, innovations like  scrobbling of music taste,   web services to allow access to all of their music data, social tagging of music,  recommendation radio, to name just a few.

I hope that the folks remaining at will keep the vision of Felix, RJ and Martin alive, and I wish Felix, RJ and Martin the very best in their next venture(s).  (I guess it is time to pay really close attention to playdar).

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3 Comments’s new player pushed out a new web-based music player that has some nifty new features including an artist slideshow, multi-tag radio and multi-artist radio.  It is pretty nice.


I like the new artist slide show (it is very Snapp Radio like), but they seem to run out of unique artist images rather quickly – and what’s with the grid?  It looks like I am  looking at the artists through a screen window.

I really like the multi-tag radio, but it is not 100% clear to me whether it is finding music that has been tagged with all the tags or whether it just alternates between the tags.  Hopefully it is the former. Update: It is the former.


It is nice to see Multi-tag radio come out of the playground and into the main player.  It is a great way to get a much more fined-tuned listening experience.  I do worry that is de-emphasizing tags though.  They only show a couple of tags in the player and it is hard to tell whether these are artist, album or track tags.’s biggest treasure trove is their tag data, so  they should be very careful to avoid any interface tweaks that may reduce the number of tags they collect.

5 Comments – what’s the point? is essentially an open source clone of’s audioscrobbler.  With you can scrobble  your music play behavior to a central server, where your data is aggregated with all of the other scrobbles and can be used to create charts, recommendations, playlists – all the sorts of things we see at As the name implies, everything about is free. All the code is released under the GNU AGPL.  You can run your own server.  You own your own data.

The Libre project is just getting underway.  Not only is paint is not dry, they’ve only just put down the drop cloth, got the brushes ready and  opened the can.  Right now there’s a minimal scrobbler server (called GNUkebox) that will take anyone’s scrobbles and adds them to a postgres database.  This server is compatible with’s so nearly all scrobbling clients will scrobble to  (Note that to get many clients to work you actually have to modify your /etc/hosts file to redirect outgoing connections that would normally go to so that they go to the scrobbling machine.  It is  a clever way to get instant support for by lots of clients, but I must admit I feel a bit dirty lying to my computer about where to send the scrobbles.)

Another component of is the web front end (called nixtape) that shows what people are playing, what is popular, artist charts and clouds.  (Imagine what looked like in 2005).  Here’s my page:

libreThere is already quite a lot of functionality on the web front end – there are (at least minimal) user, artist, album and track pages. However,  there are some critical  missing bits – perhaps most significant of these is the lack of a recommender.   The only discovery tool so far at is the clickable ‘Explore popular artist’ cloud:

libre2 has only been live for a few week – but it is already closing in on its millionth scrobble.  As I write this, about 340K tracks have been scrobbled by 2011 users with a total of 920052 plays. (Note that since lets you import your listening history,  many of these plays have been previously scrobbled at

When you compare these numbers to’s,’s numbers are very small – but if you consider the very short time that it has been live, these numbers start to look pretty good.  What is even more important is that has already  built a core team of over two dozen developers.   Two dozen developers can write a crazy amount of code in a short time – so I’m expecting to see the gaps in functionality to be filled rather quickly. And as the gaps in functionality are eliminated,  more users will come (especially those users who’ve recently abandoned when started to charge users that don’t live in the U.S., U.K. or Germany).

I remember way back in 1985 reading this article in Byte magazine about this seemingly crazy guy named Richard Stallman who was creating his own operating system called GNU.  I couldn’t understand why he was doing it.  We already had MS-DOS and Unix (I was using DEC’s Ultrix at the time which was a mighty fine OS). I didn’t think we needed anything else.   But Stallman was on a mission – that mission was to create free software. Software that you were free to run, free to modify, free to distribute.  I was wrong about Stallman.  His set of tools became key parts of Linux and his ideas about ‘CopyLeft’ enabled the  open source movement.

When I first heard about, my reaction was very similar to my reaction back in 1985 to Stallman  – what’s the point? already provides all these services and much more. lets you get access to your data via their web services. already has billions of scrobbles from millions of users.  Why do we need another  But this time I’m prepared to be wrong.  Perhaps we don’t really want our data held by one company. Perhaps a community of passionate developers can take the core concept of the audioscrobbler to somewhere new.  Just as Stallman’s crazy idea has changed the way we think about developing software, perhaps is the begining of the next revolution in music discovery.

Update – I asked mattl, founder of, what his  motivation for creating is. He says there are two prime motivations:

  1. Artistic – “I wants to support libre musicians.  To give them a platform where they are the ruling class.”
  2. freedom – “give everyone access to their data, so even if they don’t like what we’re  doing with libre music, the software is still free (to them and us)”

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Roundtrip tagging

Over the last 5 years, has built an incredible database of social tags around music.  They have collected millions of short text descriptions of artists, albums and tracks.  These tags are a great way to explore for new music, and exploits these tags on their site to great effect.  But what if you want to use the tags to help you play music from your own collection?  Until now you were out of luck – you had to resort to the iTunes style of exploring your personal music collection – resulting in lots of playlists from artists in proper alphabetical order but with no musical cohesiveness.  Now, has just released a prototype, called Boffin  that allows you to use the great body of social tags to play music in your own collection.  The program is called Boffin – I took it for  a quick spin and I really like it.

When you run Boffin for the first time, it enrolls your music collection.  For me, with  about 10K tracks, this took less than 5 minutes. During this time, Boffin is ‘phoning home’ to to get the tags that have been applied to your artists and tracks.  I call this Round Trip Tagging – we give some tags to when we tag music, and they give lots of tags back to us to let us label our own collection.  Once enrolled, Boffin gives you a tag cloud interface to your music collection. Select a few tags, hit the play button and you are listening to your own music.  Here’s what my Boffin tag cloud looks like:


Of course, the listening experience is going to be good, because I’m listening to my own music and, presumably, I like that music already.

For a prototype application, Boffin is really well polished (at least the mac version is).  While enrolling my music collection, Boffin shows images of all the artists in my collection that it is finding.  I was rather amazed at how fast they were able to enroll my collection (I guess Boffin isn’t subject to the rate limits that users of the developer API are subjected to).  I did find a few times that I thought Boffin had hung up, because I couldn’t select tags anymore, but it turns out that Boffin disables tag selection when it is actually playing music. Once I hit the stop button, I could select tags with no worries.  Boffin will even make it easy to generate the popular wordle tag cloud of my personal collection:


Good job to the folks at, Boffin is pretty neat!

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3 Comments and the iPhone

Here’s a nifty iPhone commercial that highlights that  has been running in the UK. Cool stuff, nicely done Toby!

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In which I am ridiculed for my music tastes …

I was giving a talk last week about music recommendation at a local college. I was explaining how some of the various online music recommenders work when I noticed that some of the students were chuckling and laughing.   I had checked my fly right before I started talking so I knew it wasn’t that.  Then some wise guy in the front row made it all clear: “Do you really like to listen to Hilary Duff?”.  After a moment of confusion, I realized that I was showing my Pandora radio stations that included the second most infamous Hilary.

My Pandora Radio stations

My Pandora Radio stations

I tried to explain that I sometimes listen to my Pandora radio with my 13 year-old daughter.  I’m not sure that they really believed that.

This evening, my daughter and I were having dinner and talking about music.  She’s past the Hilary Duff and Hannah Montana phase. She’s moved onto the Veronicas  (check out her latest review) – so we listend to a bit of Veronicas’ radio on – which has now been faithfully scrobbled  as part of my listening history forever:


I do like listening to music with my daughter.  She knows all of the artists, and (seemingly more important), all the back stories, interconnections, failures and gossip about the artists.  That seemed to be as important as the music itself.   And although it is fun to listen to with my daughter, the music is not really to my taste.  I do want to make it clear to anyone, whether it is a class at the local college or a potential future employer  that I’m not really that into bubblegum pop.

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