David Porter, founder of 8tracks, on music curation

8tracks rectangle 200w David Porter founded 8tracks in 2007 and launched it the next year (on 8/8/08) with a loan against his 401k. The business took its first institutional funding round in October, 2011.

david porter 02 250w8tracks is a unique crowdsourced platform whose users create “mixes” from an available catalog that includes YouTube and SoundCloud. Mixes can be tagged with moods and activities, a discovery model whose variations have become popular popular in other services as well, notably Songza, Slacker, iHeartRadio, and Beats Music.

8tracks has about 6.5-million active listeners per month, and about one percent of them (6,000 users) also create mixes for anyone to hear.

We asked David Porter to talk about music curation.

RAIN: With the launch of Beats Music and its emphasis on hand-crafted playlists, music curation is the buzzword of the month. What is your view of curation?

DP: I think about it as levels. With Pandora there’s a human involvement, but I wouldn’t call it curation. What they’re doing is supposed to be an objective checklist of music attributes. If someone else came in and rated the music a seocnd time, the results would be the same as the first person. It’s like achieving through a human process what other companies try to achieve through machine learning.

The next level up is closer to curation — collaborative filtering, like what Netflix does. You’re looking at data points of preference, baskets of preferences and recommendations. It’s close to curation, because it’s keyed off objective preferences around music.

The next level is what Spotify allows, which is an opportunity to create a playlist. It’s for personal consumption, and not necessarily an intent to curate something for an audience. This level is especially pronounced in Spotify, because there is no library system. If you pull out three albums, you have to put them in a playlist because there’s no other way to save them.

The next step up is what Songza does. In that case, the theme of the curation is something intrinsic to the listener, not intrinsic to the music. Instead of being genre-base, or format-based, like traditional radio, it’s based on what the user is doing or feeling. That’s not how people have thought about music historically.

RAIN: How did that sort of cataloguing get started in 8tracks?

DP: It bubbled up organically on 8tracks because people started tagging [their mixes] with weird activities.

RAIN: So your music-exploration model came from the bottom up, from 8tracks users creating and tagging mixes.

DP: Exactly. When we were thinking about 8tracks, we wanted to allow DJs to apply free-form descriptors. Some people call the “folksonomy.” It’s a tagging system where the tags can be anything. There’s no limit.

The idea was around capturing new genres that were emerging. You don’t want to keep track of that in a top-down way, but to let it bubble up from the people who know it well. Many of the original tags have proven to be the most popular over the last five years.

Another good thing about our model is that is scales well. We don’t have to do any of the heavy lifting.

Brad Hill