There’s a lot of same old same old music technology. And then there’s Playdar.
An obscure sharable playlist file format called XSPF (pronouned “spiff”) has led to the development of Playdar, a “music content resolver service” with implications for everything from how much Pandora and Spotify have to pay record labels and how fans share music with each other.
A group of programmers and digital music heavy hitters including Ian Rogers of Grand Royal, Yahoo, and TopSpin Media fame, Robert Kaye of the MusicBrainz community music metadata site, and Lucas Gonze, who told us about the project, created XSPF (XML Shareable Playlist Format) in 2004 to let people share playlists with each other without worrying about keeping directory paths intact. E-mail one to a friend, the thinking was, and the playlist — containing only information about the artist, album and song — would automatically re-populate with as much of the music in the playlist as it can find on the recipient’s home network. However, XSPF languished on the vine, after iTunes, Winamp, and Windows Media Player failed to support it.
Playdar — currently available as a functional software program, which we’ve tested, and can verify that it works, although it’s not quite ready for the average user — is a new, more potent spin on the shareable playlist concept. At it’s core, Playdar is an open-source software platform that knows the location of all the music on your computer and home network. This doesn’t sound impressive on its own, but Playdar grows in power when combined with services and plug-ins through its open architecture, enabling music services to save money and increase their revenue, among other things.
Take the on-demand, freemium streaming service Spotify, for example. If Spotify — which already runs on 95 percent open-source software according to co-founder Daniel Ek — were to include Playdar as part of its installer, Playdar developer Richard Jones told Wired.com, it could detect when someone is streaming a song they have on their local computer and home network, and play it from there instead. This would reduce the licensing fees owed by Spotify to the labels.
The same goes for interactive radio services like Pandora, Slacker, or anything else that streams music to a computer. Since people generally set up Pandora stations around the same artists they have in their music collections, they usually have local copies of some small percentage of the music Pandora streams to them. Why should Pandora pay the labels to stream you a song that you already own? Playdar technology can enable interactive radio services to shrink their licensing and bandwidth costs. And in a slim-margin business like online music, every bit (in both senses of the word) counts.
The hAudio demonstration of Playdar searches for the above songs in your local music collection. I only had Weezer’s “The Sweater Song” in the directory at which I pointed Playdar’s command-line music scanner.
[Duplicate paragraph deleted, thanks to a tip from Martin].
“When I first started thinking about this, I was still working at Last.fm, and obviously, someone like Pandora, or Last.fm, or Spotify, or whoever, actually, could ship Playdar to their users, and then rather than stream the songs from their servers,” said Jones. “Why not just stream it locally? It’s a seamless way to mix and match content that you have access to and content that you can provide from another source.”
Playdar can also work with music blogs and any other websites that link to music. By encouraging or forcing users to install Playdar, any entity that streams music can save on bandwidth and licensing costs the same way Pandora and Spotify can, by defaulting to a local copy on the user’s home network (or possibly on other peoples’ networks — we’ll get to that soon). The Playdar architecture includes links that can be embedded on a web page and programmed only to show up if a user is running Playdar, and a Greasemoney browser plug-in can be adapted to any website to provide the links.
“There are obviously tons of websites and blogs that talk about music, and a lot of the time you might have the album or the songs locally, and I wanted a way to bridge those two things,” explained Jones, who added that Playdar could be used to create a legal version of Muxtape that only plays songs if you have them on your network.
Record labels aren’t likely to be too upset about slightly diminished licensing payments from streaming services, but Playdar’s open plug-in architecture allows Playdar to resolve content by finding it on someone else’s machine and streaming it from there. A plug-in already exists that can link your library up with computers outside of your local network. If it finds the song there, great; if not, the search can continue on the computers to which your friend is connected, and so on.
Jones says he designed the plug-in to access his own music from the office, and as such it appears to have a “substantial non-infringing use” which would help with legal scrutiny. It’s also worth noting that the plug-in does not come with the standard install, and must be downloaded and configured manually. If it’s illegal to create a platform that can be modified in order to share files, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs would have been locked up a long time ago.
Other commercial applications for Playdar’s plug-in platform would be to set it up to resolve to, say, the Rhapsody service, rather than a user’s home network (a plug-in already exists to do this with Magnatune’s catalog). While running Playdar with a Rhapsody resolver plug-in, Rhapsody subscribers would be able to click any Playdar-encoded link and have it play on that service. Jones is currently in the process of rewriting Playdar in the Erlang programming language, which he says will make the program run more efficiently and facilitate such plug-ins.
However, he and the other Playdar developers currently have no plans to make money from the service.
“My main motivation with this right now is just to advance the state of the art — we really think it needs to be done,” explained Jones. “It’s criminal that companies like Last.fm, Pandora, Spotify, and Rhapsody are paying to stream content to people when they already have that song locally. That’s why it’s an open source project, and anyone can download it for free.”