A couple weeks back, a new iPhone app called Music Archive was released on the iTunes App Store that streams concert recordings from the Live Music Archive. I was pretty excited to see this at that time, and I know that many of our readers will also be interested in this app if they haven’t already heard about it.
I’ve not yet posted about it because I decided that I wanted to dig a bit deeper into its development. One of the things that struck me was that the developers are offering it as a paid app, but what they’re tapping into is a database of non-commercial content offered by a non-profit organization (archive.org). Not only that, when I first checked it out, I noticed that they hadn’t directly addressed the issue on their website or in the iTunes store. As such, I not only wanted to get a bit more background on how the project came together, but I also wanted to explore some of the underlying issues related to using the LMA’s non-commercial content for a more commercial enterprise like an iTunes app.
Since reaching out the developers — Josh Bergen and Brett Erpel — they not only answered some of my questions but they also gave me a free demo copy of the app. I’ve had a few days to give it a test-run. Although it isn’t perfect, it nicely taps into the LMA’s database of available MP3s and puts them at your fingertips with a slick interface. It’s pretty damn cool to have so many concert recordings at your fingertips. I’m sure they’ll continue to make useful tweaks and nicely improve the app in future versions.
Of course, we also had a nice interview-style exchange about the Music Archive app, which I’ve included it below:
Whit: How’d the Music Archive project start? How long has it been in the making?
Brett: Ever since getting a MacBook Pro I’ve wanted to make an iPhone application. I just never had a good idea that I could be passionate about. That all changed when I flew to Philly for a road trip with my brother to see Phish at Jones Beach in New York. We started talking about iPhone applications and he asked me what audio applications were in the app store. As I was checking he ask if there was one that could stream shows from archive.org. There wasn’t! My brother said he could see the light switch flip in my head. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of the idea especially since half the space on my phone was devoted to Brothers Past, STS9 and The New Deal shows I had downloaded from the LMA.
Once I returned to Florida I knew I needed someone to help me out with the heavier programming and that person was Josh. It didn’t hurt that he also had a Mac and is a closet hippy. We started working on Music Archive around July of ’09.
Whit: I believe you guys said you did NOT work directly with anyone at the LMA. If that’s the case, how’d you get started?
Brett: Correct, we have not worked directly with anyone at the LMA. I did submit a question to the forum asking if there was a way in the advanced search to return a list of bands that had mp3 available shows (there isn’t that we know of). This was our first time writing Objective-C so a lot of the process was test and go, test and go until we got it right. It was definitely a learning experience.
Whit: Can you describe the technology behind the Music Archive? How does it work? RSS/XML?
Josh: Version 1.0/1 of Music Archive was built by parsing the xml/html directly from Archive.org’s site. 1.0/1 are using a dom style xml parser. It has proven slow and cumbersome. 2.0 will most likely be consuming JSON using a streaming sax parser.
MW: What has been the biggest hurdle in developing Music Archive?
Josh: The lack of an API for archive.org and the amount of data available. The iPhone and even worse the iTouch has a hard time parsing this much data. We’ve done a lot to try to alleviate the problems associated with this. In 2.0 we are going even further to make the user experience awesome.
Brett: For me personally it was getting use to an Object Oriented Programming language again. And all the intricacies of the syntax.
Whit: What do you have planned for future versions or additional features?
Josh: We have TONS of ideas! We are focusing on the features that people have directly requested: better searching/filter, pagination, faster results, viewing reviews and more.
Brett: And maybe some fun things like shake your iPhone for a random band, show or song!
Whit: What kind of reaction have you seen thus far? All positive? Any negative?
Brett: The reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. Apparently a lot of people have been waiting for an application like this. The LMA is, after all, a huge untapped resource.
Nothing has been too negative. I have seen a few forum posts where people have said we are going to get shut down. And on the app store we’ve got five 1 star ratings from people having issues with the initial load which was due to having a poor network connection. One user, mikedeezenuteez, suggested that people spend their two dollars on a “heady veggie burrito instead”. This issue has been since been fixed and I hope mikedeezenuteez has gotten Music Archive to work.
Whit: I’m sure you’re aware that the LMA is a non-profit entity and all of the audio hosted there is trade-friendly specifically because it is non-commercial. While it’s understandable that you’d have to cover the costs of developing and launching the app, do you see any ethical issues offering a paid app that taps into non-commercial audio?
Brett: I can see how people could perceive there being ethical issues, but the way I see it is people are paying for a user interface that is easy to navigate and easy to find what you want. We stress that all the LMA’s content is available through any browser for streaming (including Safari on the iPhone) and that all content can be downloaded and synced to the iPhone for free.
Whit: Do you plan to address this at all on the app’s website or iTunes page?
Brett: We’ve updated our disclaimer on our website to better define what the user is actually purchasing when they buy Music Archive.
Whit: Do you think fans or bands might react negatively because of this?
Brett: The general feeling I’ve gotten from fans is that two dollars is well worth it to have this much music easily available. I really can’t speak from a bands perspective but I think Music Archive will actually help them in the long run. Having all this music instantly available to me where ever and whenever has helped me branch out and start searching for more bands I might like. And I hope other fans will feel this way giving more exposure to all bands on Archive.org.
Whit: Anything else you’d like to tell us about the Music Archive app?
Brett: Just that we’re thankful to everyone who has purchase our application. Josh and I both feel terrible when someone feels like they haven’t gotten their money’s worth. We are going to keep updating Music Archive until it is perfect. So, please keep sending in your questions, comments and ideas.
Go see live music!
First of all, a big thank-you to Brett and Josh for taking the time to answer all of our questions (and, of course, for the free app!). If you’re already sold on the Music Archive app, you can go and grab it from the iTunes App Store for $1.99.
Although it was exciting to hear about the launch of this app and even more exciting to think about the potential for future developments similar to it, I’m still a bit torn on the ethical side of offering this up as a paid iPhone app. If you’ve been reading this site for a while, you’ll know my background is on the geekier side of the tape-trading scene (hell, I wrote a friggin’ Master’s Thesis on the topic). Non-commercial tapers and file-traders/downloaders have always been allowed to openly trade and share music, specifically because it was/is a non-commercial enterprise. From the early days of the Grateful Dead taping trees to today’s sites like the Internet Archive and etree.org, the mission has always been about helping spread the music to other potential fans.
I do not doubt Brett and Josh’s intentions on this, as they seem like really solid guys who love live music and strongly support the Live Music Archive. In a sense, their argument regarding what it is you’re actually “buying” when you grab this app is pretty solid. These guys are offering a technology service and they need to cover their development and operational costs. It’s not cheap to develop this kind of technology or to deal with the cumbersome requirements and approvals process for Apple’s app store. In another sense, they could make the argument that building this app on top of the Live Music Archive is kind of like a community service. So, depending on their approach and the way they treat any future revenue, it might be considered an extension of the original tape-trader ethos.
But I’m not sure all bands, band managers, tapers, and tape-traders will agree. Despite the positive feedback the developers have received and their explanations above, it’s ultimately the bands and the tapers that get the final say on this. In fact, I specifically talked to a friend involved with one of the larger artists whose concert recordings are hosted on the LMA. He was ardently opposed to any commercial activity being associated with his artist’s presence there, yet he strongly supports the LMA in its current form. For now, he’s taking a wait-and-see approach, but he seemed firm that this kind of thing should not be allowed.
Overall, I feel like the ethics of this are still wide open for discussion. and if you dig deeper, it’s not all that difficult to come up with a number of unanswered questions:
- Are applications like this legal? Do they even comply with the LMA’s terms of service?
- What if one band wants to allow their music to be available on the Archive but NOT for the iPhone app?
- What kinds of services or apps are allowed to utilize the LMA’s content to make money?
- Aside from the legal questions, is it even ethical to make even one cent from the LMA?
I don’t think the answers from fans, bands, managers, or even tapers would be at all consistent across the board on this issue. And I don’t think Josh or Brett really need to be the ones to delve into this detail. Plus, if this app doesn’t lead to any significant downloads, it may never even become an issue.
While I may seem to be harping on this topic a bit, I’m actually less concerned with this specific application and more interested about the general idea of building apps and services on top of the Internet Archive. I actually thought of this same idea almost a year ago (albeit from a slightly different perspective). I say that not to boast, but just to acknowledge that there are likely to be plenty of other music geeks thinking about applications and extensions of the Live Music Archive.
The most important question to me is what happens if more developers continue to build off the LMA? Will the folks at the Archive need to clarify what can/can’t be done with the content that is hosted there? If it’s a totally open playing field, than there are all sorts of potential developments that might come out of it. But without getting any consent or direction from someone at Archive.org, it’s still hanging out there as an unknown. We’ll definitely keep an eye out to see how this one develops, but let us know what you think in the comments section.