SXSW: Streaming Panel Sees Reps From Beats, Pandora, Rdio Weigh in on 'Man vs. Machine'

Jeff Miller

Curation experts ponder 'Man vs. Machine' in brave new world of accessing infinite music libraries.

If you ever needed proof that competitors can be unlikely bedfellows -- and that all of the streaming services are, er, paddling their way through the same stream -- you'd have gotten it at Wednesday's "Man vs Machine: The Curation Dilemma" panel at SXSW, which found representatives from Beats Music, Pandora, Rdio, Google Play and Tastemaker X having a very friendly conversation about the song-selection process for each of their services -- often agreeing with each other about everything from best practices to how users listen to music.

That doesn't mean the panel was dull, though: moderator Stephen White of Gracenote kept things going at a clip, following up with the more interesting topics while letting no-brainer answers die quick deaths. (He asked the panelists at one point whether their services would ever be able to keep up with FM radio in cars. It's no surprise every one of them answered, "Yes.")

The most interesting discrepancies were between Eric Bieschke, Pandora's chief scientist, and other panelists when it came down to a discussion about curated playlists: Does a playlist need to play like an album, with a beginning, middle and end? Bieschke said, No -- not at all. "We don't think of playlists having an end," he said. Google Play's Tim Quirk suggested that playlists must, by definition, be put together by an individual: "We want you coming back and listening tomorrow and the day after. It gets people listening for years upon years."

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Those differing views were indicative of the overall theme of the discussion -- that none of the panelists (with Bieschke being the possible exception) is quite ready to admit defeat to machines. Panelists discussed the experience of having a record-store clerk or older brother be their music-discovery guide in their formative years -- and their hope that their services would provide that sort of source for current users.

"People turn people on to music," said Mark Ruxin, the CEO and founder of TastemakerX."I don't think it matters whether it's a DJ at XMU or David Fricke at Rolling Stone."

He continued by saying he thought the future was matching a listener with someone who shares their tastes -- and then comparing their catalogs for music the other one may not have heard. "[A service should exist to say], 'You should check out Tim. You have unbelievably similar listening histories.' "

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Chris Becherer, vp product at Rdio, agrees -- kind of. "It's not man or machine," he said. "It's a blend." He went on to describe two different listeners who may use his service in different ways: a guy who wants to go deep into a certain kind of music, versus someone who doesn't know quite what they want to listen to, with the hope that the service can provide for both of them.

That said, Ian Rogers of Beats Music, which has made a splash thanks in large part to celeb-curated playlists, perhaps summed it up best. "I haven't seen anything yet to replicate that human experience," he said. If you mess up that listening experience, he warns, "once the trust goes away, you can't get it back."