Friday, September 26, 2008

A Few Thoughts On Apple's "Genius"

The most recent release of iTunes contains a new feature that Apple has dubbed "Genius". Essentially what it is is a music recommendation engine: iTunes scans your collection, sends it to home base anonymously, and then compares it to thousands of other collections. You can then tell Genius to create a playlist from one of your songs, and it will use the collective data to pick the songs in your collection that best suit the song you picked. You then have a Genius playlist.

We here at HAD (and we're sure probably plenty of you as well) are pretty picky about what we listen to, and how we listen to it. A lot of the time we just deal in full albums, but even mixes and playlists are usually pretty specific to our tastes. The idea that Apple would have an algorithm to mimic personal taste seemed a bit far fetched, so we decided to give it a try. The short verdict? While it's not for us, we're surprisingly impressed.

Genius essentially deals you out a playlist of similar artists in the same genre that you selected. At first this seemed like a no-brainer: Selecting "The Hexx" by Pavement dealt out a playlist of Malkmus, Pavement, Silver Jews, and Yo La Tengo. "Mr. Brown" by Bob Marley produced a well rounded selection of downtempo reggae. "Take On Me" by Ah-Ha created a playlist that would be perfect for an 80's dance party. Obvious playlists, right? We decided to delve deeper.

It's easy to genre grab, but what we were curious about was if Genius could master the finer subtleties of an artists output: did it actually matter which song you picked, or was this just an artist recommendation engine? We decided to start with the ultimate genre-bender: David Bowie. A selection of "The Heart's Filthy Lesson" from 1996's 1.Outside revealed a playlist of pretty dark post-punk rock: Nine Inch Nails, Joy Division, Underworld and the like. Frankly, perfect. By stark contrast, a selection of "Young Americans" (perhaps Bowie's poppiest moment) revealed a selection of accessible, 70's rock: The Cars, Elton John, Boz Scaggs. Not bad at all.

We decided to push the engine again with another genre bender: Ryan Adams. Selecting Adams' acoustic rocker "New York, New York" yielded a super-accessible list of modern alt country: Wilco, Counting Crows, Damien Rice, Whiskeytown. By contrast, selecting the rocker "This Is It" yielded a far edgier playlist: Broken Social Scene, British Sea Power, Guided By Voices, and The Libertines. It seems that Genius is pretty damned well equipped to pick out songs in a dynamic and accurate way. But is that a good thing?

Apple is attempting to push people's music collection in a new direction with Genius: to abstract the idea of musical preference into a collective web. That being said, there are aspects of it that bother us: The death of the album, for one. Genius definitely falls into the iTunes "single song" mentality, and that's always a bit disheartening. Moreover, Genius removes the requirement to think about what you're listening to: it turns listeners into passive observers, rather than active explorers. With so many new tunes to discover, and new ways to hear them, that style of listening just isn't what we're looking for. In the end, Genius certainly does work. If you want a dynamic playlist for your next party, or just to have a radio station that doesn't suck, then it's perfect. That being said, it's important to question if it's what we really want out of our listening experience: a centralized computer brain making our music decisions for us? If that's the future, get me a turntable.