I’m a jazz guy, and although I spend a fair amount of time in the vaults of Verve, Riverside, Columbia, and many others, my first love is Blue Note. The relationship started when I heard Stanley Turrentine’s Up at Minton’s in the early 90s. Stanley himself is impressive, but Up at Minton’s turned me on to the reason that I picked up the guitar – Stanley’s sideman on the recording, Grant Green. Green was a session player on Stanley’s record, and after seeing his name on the back cover of the record, I dove down deep into his catalog, which turned me onto a wealth of other players, like “Baby Face” Willette, Big John Patton, Hank Mobley, Lou Donaldson and many more. It all started with Stanley, but the collaborative nature of jazz, coupled with the sideman information on the back of all the records, enabled me to dig in deep to a catalog that rarely disappoints.
Back in the day, this discovery process was mostly a physical endeavor. I would take the Red Line to Harvard Square, and make a loop through all the areas record stores, starting at Mystery Train, then onto Second Coming, over to Looney Tunes, Tower, and finishing up at Newbury Comics. Excellent way to spend a Sunday.
Of course, physical retail has constricted since then, and while there are a lot of positive attributes associated with the convenience of digital music, one thing that has not been replicated particularly well online has been the discovery process. I have trusted sources and curators that help, but there are few online options that replicate the experience of walking into a store like Mystery Train, finding an amazing record with a little known sideman, and heading down the path of discovery for a brand new artist. This is the fundamental reason I like the Blue Note Spotify app so much. It is the best option for replicating this discovery process that I loved so much back in the day.
Walter Gross is the Senior Director of Digital Marketing at EMI, as well as a 1993 Berklee Grad in Jazz Composition. Walter spearheaded the development and execution of the Blue Note app on Spotify, and I spoke to him a couple weeks back about the creation process, what he was trying to accomplish with the app, and the opportunities that Spotify’s API offers technologists.
Mike King: What did you want to accomplish with the Blue Note Spotify app?
Walter Gross: There was a small group at EMI that wanted to give this app a try, including myself. I’m a Blue Note freak, and I remember being in a Berklee course with Jackie Beard [Professor in the Woodwinds dept] in 1994, and listening to a Joe Henderson Blue Note record, and having the classroom asking questions like: who is this player? When the record was recorded? Who else is playing on this record? Experiences like that really played into the main reason we developed this app. I was reminded of that moment, and I wanted to try and replicate something close to thumbing through a record collection, or the bins at a record store, with this app. When we started talking about creating the Blue Note app, I immediately thought of what I loved about discovery in the past, and how I could structure the data in a similar way to replicate this process. There are a lot of improvements that can be made to the online discovery process, overall. If you look for John Coltrane’s catalog online, for example, it’s a mess. Nothing tells a story or takes you on a journey. It’s like a jungle out there, totally convoluted.
MK: Can you talk more specifically about the process of building the app?
WG: Well, the idea really was in how to tell a story with finely tuned and structured data. I started talking to developers, and found a company that we really liked in the U.K. called Retrofuzz. They had done some apps that I was impressed with, and we decided to move ahead with them. I had heard a lot of stories about how meticulous Spotify was from a development standpoint, and I wanted to use a developer that had been through the process already. It was important for me to move through the development process as smoothly as possible. I went to Retrofuzz with a problem set covering 73 years of music, and I laid out all the data points I wanted to cover: artists, instrumentation, recording dates, and the ability to tag releases by simple genres. It was important to me that we kept it all simple, as I didn’t want too many jumping off points, and I didn’t want to pigeon hole artists.
The other thing I asked Retrofuzz to do was to override some of the incorrect cover art in Spotify. With old recordings, where records have been re-licensed, many times the album cover is not the right, or original, one. I wanted the experience in the app to be as authentic as possible, so we created a way to override any incorrect album covers in Spotify, and replace them with the original vintage covers.
With this app, the whole thing really is a very specific look at the artist’s output on the Blue Note label. Of course with the merger of EMI and Universal, it’s possible to include the Verve and Impulse catalogs into the app, but we wanted this to be just about Blue Note. We wanted this to be accurate for purists, which there are many of in this genre. For example, Cannonball Adderley has only one record on Blue Note, but many on Capitol. Our label-focused approach gives us the ability to put a long tail look at this thing, too. We can tell the Pacific Jazz and Capitol Jazz story at some point, for example. Michael Cuscuna was also a big inspiration. Michael is one of the foremost experts on the Blue Note catalog, and we wanted the type of detail that he would think was appreciate. We actually used his discography as a resource for plugging in a lot of the data.
MK: As a discovery vehicle, the app is outrageous. I’m a big fan of the label, and I’m surprised with how much I didn’t know about the catalog. I’m constantly going down a different rabbit hole around some of the sidemen on these records, and being turned onto releases I had no idea existed. It must have been a serious process getting all this information into the app. What was that like?
WG: It was definitely a time consuming process to create that experience. When Retrofuzz finished building the CMS, I spent a full month plugging all the appropriate information in, all by hand. Our team had to set up the full artist info, like the first and final recording dates, sideman info, and so on. During this process, I had my wife yelling at me for spending so much time on it, and I had to say, “Trust me, this will be really cool!” I ended up bringing in some pf the rest of my EMI Digital Marketing team to input the data at one point. The problem there was that because I knew the info topically, I could blast through setting everything up quickly using Michael Cuscuna’s book to see correct sideman and instruments, but for the folks I brought in who were not particularly familiar with jazz and the catalog, it was a slow and painful process. Should this be a this groove or tradition release? Is that an alto or tenor sax on this record? This was the sort of thing I knew intuitively, but for the folks I brought in, it was really tough. I actually used All Music and Wikipedia in the background as resources to double check everything, and in fact, all the bios are pulled from All Music.
MK: Is the entire Blue Note catalog available in the Spotify app?
WG: No, not all of the records are up on Spotify, and a lot of that is because of licensing issues. For example, some records are not available from a licensing standpoint in U.S., and for us, we need to look at the ones that can be cleared quickly going forward. There are a couple of inconsistencies that we have to work on, too. Some records simply never became fully finalized in the US, even though we have a worldwide clearance. It could have been a simple issue of the person setting up the licensing left the company, or forgot. There are some glaring omissions that we need to focus on, like Joe Lovano and John Scofield.
MK: Are you approaching this app as a potential revenue generating opportunity, or is this simply about awareness of the catalog?
WG: There is no one looking at this app saying “well, here’s comes the money!” right now, but I can say that this could change with the scale. The analytics associated with engagement and usage far exceed our expectations. We just launched the app, and right now we are getting around 16,000 visits a day, and the average use time is over three hours. That’s amazing engagement. I think that as this adoption grows, the app could drive revenue. Right now it’s definitely an awareness tool, and a great opportunity to put the Blue Note brand and catalog back into the forefront. There are some really good things happening with the label right now. Don Was is now involved as the President of the label, and he is driving A&R. He came in last fall, and he brings great energy to what we are doing.
MK: Are you leveraging the work that Retrofuzz did for the CMS in other ways?
WG: We are. Retrofuzz built a really amazing database, and we are actually in the process of refining the Blue Note web site to be driven by this data base. The Spotify app will inform the Blue Note web site and we’re planning using the same CMS to power Bluenote.com.
MK: What’s your favorite part of the app?
WG: I’m a fan of the Blue Break Beats section. This is the area where we pull in content illustrating who sampled what in the Blue Note catalog. When we were conceptualizing the app, I had an epiphany: there has to be data out there that shows every sample from a Blue Note record, and where that sample occurs. There’s a great site out there called “Who Sampled,” and I ended up connecting with them and letting them know what I was looking for. They came back with hundreds of Blue Note samples, and we integrated all of this into the data structure. Everyone from Jay Z, to Madonna, to 90s hip-hop artists have sampled the catalog, and we structured the Blue Break Beats area to align the original recording and the sample side by side. For me, it’s simply another great discovery tool, and I think the usage in the app is so high because there are so many ways to discover music within this app. It really illustrated the possibilities of how music discovery can be in an online environment.
You know, Spotify loves the app, too. They recognize that this steps the bar up, and they expect folks to improve upon this concept to offer more opportunities for deep music discovery. For me, it’s nice to be part of a game changing development. I’ve done a lot in my professional career, but nothing has gotten the press or accolades that this app has gotten. It’s a pretty neat thing to be involved with.