In 2000, a Stanford Ph.D. named Avery Wang co-founded, with a couple of business-school graduates, a tech start-up called Shazam. Their idea was to develop a service that could identify any song within a few seconds, using only a cellphone, even in a crowded bar or coffee shop.
At first, Wang, who had studied audio analysis and was responsible for building the software, feared it might be an impossible task. No technology existed that could distinguish music from background noise, and cataloging songs note for note would require authorization from the labels. But then he made a breakthrough: rather than trying to capture whole songs, he built an algorithm that would create a unique acoustic fingerprint for each track. The trick, he discovered, was to turn a song into a piece of data.
Shazam became available in 2002. (In the days before smartphones, users would dial a number, play the song through their phones, and then wait for Shazam to send a text with the title and artist.) Since then, it has been downloaded more than 500 million times and used to identify some 30 million songs, making it one of the most popular apps in the world. It has also helped set off a revolution in the recording industry. While most users think of Shazam as a handy tool for identifying unfamiliar songs, it offers music executives something far more valuable: an early-detection system for hits.
By studying 20 million searches every day, Shazam can identify which songs are catching on, and where, before just about anybody else. “Sometimes we can see when a song is going to break out months before most people have even heard of it,” Jason Titus, Shazam’s former chief technologist, told me. (Titus is now a senior director at Google.) Last year, Shazam released an interactive map overlaid with its search data, allowing users to zoom in on cities around the world and look up the most Shazam’d songs in São Paulo, Mumbai, or New York. The map amounts to a real-time seismograph of the world’s most popular new music, helping scouts discover unsigned artists just as they’re starting to set off tremors. (The company has a team of people who update its vast music library with the newest recorded music—including self-produced songs—from all over the world, and artists can submit their work to Shazam.)