Thanks a Lot, Genius

Apple’s new feature, Genius, has been getting some “it works pretty good” responses from musically inclined computer users. I don’t share that assessment.

A couple of months ago, I went looking for something like Genius. I had just gotten tuned into Pandora and I wanted something like that for my own music. I downloaded The Filter but never really made use of it–there was too much involved in setup and some kind of survey or something. Anyway, it never really went anywhere for me, especially due to a lack of iPod/iPhone support. The feature I was looking for was to choose a song (or, in a stretch, an artist) and have a playlist created of related music. Both Pandora and Last.fm do this, but both of their services involve streaming their music and limit your ability to skip songs. They both have something that Genius lacks, however–but more on that in a minute.

Genius’s first problem is one of scope, I think. Due to the massive amount of users and listeners, Genius can’t specialize all that much. Think of it in this way: how many genres are listed on the iTunes Music Store? (Answer: less than 2 dozen) For most users, “Alternative” constitutes maybe 5 or 6 songs, but for some of us it constitutes tens of thousands of songs. The same goes with Rock or Folk or Hip-Hop/Rap. Genius doesn’t have the “musical genome sequences” or networks and tags like Last.fm or Pandora. It’s just got (as far as I can tell) buying patterns from the iTMS.

Cue the Gripe

Last week, as I was driving home, “NY Excuse” by Soulwax popped up on shuffle. This seemed like good music for driving home on a Friday afternoon, so I decided to test out genius and see if it could grab some of the other good blog house/electroclash/tech-pop on my iPhone to make my afternoon commute more enjoyable. Here’s the first few songs I got:

So-called Genius

So-called Genius

Out of the first six songs it chose, maybe two have a really close relation. Over & Over is definitely in the same category, so that works. The Lykke Li remix by Loving Hand (aka Tim Goldsworthy of DFA) also fit nicely with that Soulwax track. The rest of the links are tenuous at best. Sure those songs from Cajun Dance Party, Foals, Caribou and TVOTR fit together with each other. They all have a strong beat and angular guitars. But there is a ton of more relevant stuff on my iPhone. Where was Justice or Daft Punk or Cut Copy or the Presets or Midnight Juggernaut or LCD Soundsystem when Genius created this playlist? (The playlist got worse as it went on, too. It eventually included the soothing acoustic lilt of Bon Iver. I like his music, but it definitely has little in common with an electroclash-y rave up.)

What Genius is Missing

In Pandora, you can “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” a song playing from a playlist, and Pandora will modify that playlist accordingly. Say you’re listening to the Justice related artists playlist and Portishead comes up. Nothing against Portishead, but sometimes you want destructive French electro-house beats and not depressive percussion with lilting sadness. So you thumbs-down Portishead and Pandora scrubs some of the more dark trip-hop off your playlist and remembers your preference in relation to Portishead.

Genius lacks any method to teach the software. If a Genius playlist has a band or song on it that I don’t think fits, my only solution is to re-roll by clicking refresh–completely scrapping the playlist. And, when re-rolled, the playlist is just as likely to include other songs you don’t think fit. Part of the problem lies in music that fit into multiple classifications, but the ability to teach Genius by deleting songs from the playlist would educate it about what you see in a song. iTunes could even integrate this back into the system, teaching Genius as a cloud about music links and preferences. But until such a feature is implemented, I think that Genius just doesn’t have the skills to be your personal iPod DJ.