I caught a news story over Times Online about a new venture by none other than Peter Gabriel called TheFilter.com (It should be noted that Peter is the most consistently talented, brilliant and visionary artist alive today. Especially when you look at the incredible longevity of his career. Seriously. It’s unfair really to all the other artists out there that Mr. Gabriel has laid claim to so much of the artistic energy out there all for himself. This is not my opinion. It’s a fact).
I’ve always liked the idea of a solid recommendation engine ever since the first one I ever played with called Firefly. In the world of e-commerce a bullet-proof recommendation is the holy grail of personalized selling online. The smartest, most patient, and valuable sales person in the universe!
Anyway, as I was reading about this ambitious sounding project I was really excited to find out if someone had finally created a music recommendation engine that would solve two problems I have. When I see one of these music recommendation engines, I always try it with a few real world tests.
1) I really, really like non-vocal jazz that features vibes and/or flute. But I don’t know squat about the who’s-who of that sub-genre and I’m too lazy to dig into it. I’ve tried to, but not knowing anyone that knows anything about it I don’t know who to ask or where to start. When I’ve tried stuff like Pandora and Last.fm I’ve gotten no where. It never gives me more than one song in a row that does not have vocals, or features flute or vibes. Weak.
2) The next area I want to get more good recommendations for is Soul (funny enough the reason for this is because I love DJ Shadow and he scratches a lot of old R&B and Soul, and because I’m currently totally digging Gnarls Barkley which sound like some kind of time-bending mix of old Soul and modern electronica). Once again, all of the other recommendation engines out there have failed miserably at recommending music in these genres that I like. Maybe I’m just too picky or my taste band is too narrow. I don’t know.
All I know is that when I hear certain songs in these genres I love them. Then when I hear other songs in these genres I hate them. But I don’t know enough about the genre or the artists to really deconstruct why I love or hate them.
To me, that’s where these engines should be focusing on! I want something that will take my direct input on stuff that I like and use some kind of deep, dark, electronic voodoo and figure out why I like what I like and match that up with other stuff that has the same mystical qualities that I should like.
But other than Netflix for movies (on occasion), nothing that I’ve tried for music has even come close. Most just seem to work as a way to reinforce the user’s tastes and at best add a few more bands/movies/books that they might have stumbled across anyway.
That said, I really wanted TheFilter.com to be the kick-ass solution I was looking for. Sadly, it’s not. At least not yet.
Problems with TheFilter.com:
The initial rating process is really flawed. And it seems to me that if the process that is intended to create the seed is this messed up, I don’t see how the recommendations can be any good.
There needs to be an option to indicate that you have no idea who the band/artist is so that they stop showing it to you over, and over, and over again. I don’t want to have to listen to some clips of some band called New Found Glory only to determine that I think they are horrible when I have literally thousands of other bands that I do know that I can tell you about.
Also, why is it when I press the more artists button it doesn’t actually shuffle the artists that are presented unless I’ve rated them?! Point #1 above about being able to create something like a NULL rating might fix this.
Also, it’s totally not random… I went through the signup process several times and it always offered the same bands initially and offered them over and over if I didn’t rank them. Like Sum-41, Blink-182, etc. I felt like the system was trying to lead me too much.
Next, the level of ranking granularity is way to course. It asks you to rank an artist. Huh? How can you accurately rank at the global artist level? Here’s some examples or artists that it offered me:
What Sting are you talking about? Early Sting when he was still pretty good, perhaps feeling a new-found artistic freedom to do what he wanted without The Police, or later/recent Sting that’s doing stuff that makes Sarah McLaughlin (who I like) sound like a heavy metal act?
What songs by Sting? Some are great, some are horrible (note, since I’m talking about art here, all value judgments are totally subjective and represent my feelings and opinions. Which should be the whole point of this thing! It’s suppose to figure out all the random, sometimes mutually contradicting data points and project what I should like)
Again, what U2? I love early U2. After Joshua Tree they fell off for me until their album How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb which I really like, but for completly different reasons than why I like early U2!
If the recommendation engine can not capture those kinds of nuances, then how can it offer recommendations that are better then me just randomly picking something from the same genre?
What I’d like to see:
I’d much rather have a way to tell the system what music I have/know about and why I like it or don’t like it.
I’d like to be able to choose (from a list) an artist, album, or even a song and then deconstruct what I like about it.
I want to rank it on multiple axis like style, tempo, lyrics, mood, feel, technical musical virtuosity (for instance on this one… I’m a drummer/percussionist so I like drums and I like some bands that have really, really talented drummers. But just because I like or admire the drummer’s ability does not mean that I like the music they play or the band they play in. I love Neil Peart and I love Rush. I also love and respect Mike Portnoy as a drummer, but I can’t stand to listen to more than like 4 bars of Dream Theater (which may be odd because I like a lot of other progressive metalish bands like Marillion (early Marillion back when Fish was still with them and they sounded like an angry Genesis))
It seems to me that to really get a recommendation engine to do what I want it to do it would need to offer me a way to feed it this level of understanding. I want a system that acts like the ultimate, non-judgemental, musical genius friend that looks at my iTunes collection and knows me really well and says, “Dude, you like Marillion and Genesis?” and I say, “Yea, but only early Genesis and I don’t like the stuff that Marillion did after their singer Fish left and for some reason I don’t like what Fish did on his own either for some reason. So I have no idea why I like Marillion so much, but I do!” And then my friend goes, “Oh well in that case you really need to listen to ___” and when I do it’s the best thing I’ve ever heard. [For some reason you could substitute a lot of pairs in the above sentence like Van Halen/David Lee Roth, The Police/Sting, Pink Floyd/Rodger Waters. To loop back to Mr Gabriel, he's about the only person that was in a band that I loved that went off on his own and was still amazing (while Genesis floundered in my opinion after he left, which again is really odd as Phil Collins seemed to have been pretty cool and a really rocking drummer when he was in Genesis but then went totally poofy on his own and as the frontman for later Genesis... Except for Trick of the Tail which is a pretty darn good album and Phil is just nuts on the drums in that album... No idea what happened to him after that though...)
I want a system that does that.
TheFilter.com is nowhere near being able to do that. At least not yet. It's in beta apparently so perhaps there's still hope.
[note that I didn't really get into other stuff that seemed pretty weak about the site like navigation, errors, bad layouts, etc... Although it seems like with close to $8MM in funding they could be doing a lot better job...]
[EDIT: Hmmm... I wonder what's up. All of the emails to the addresses listed on their contact page bounce... Hello... Hello... Is this thing on?]