A magical experience
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Shazam, it’s a mobile app that allows the user to find out the artist and name of any song they hear. Within just a few seconds, that nagging question of ‘oh, what is this song?’ can be answered with one click of a button. As CTO Jason Titus says, “Shazam is like a unique, magical experience.”
Released back in 2002, the service made steady progress within the marketplace and reached the one billion tags benchmark – the term the company uses when someone ‘Shazams’ a song – nine years on. However, the second billion arrived less than 12 months later. The product development, which big data has been a key enabler of, has also increased considerably since the start of the new decade, with technological advances leading most recently to the introduction of real time play-along lyrics, a halving of the time it takes the app to identify a song and the ability to connect the app with Facebook so that users are able to publish the songs they have tagged for their friends to see.
With over 1.5 million new people using the Shazam App every week across all of the major mobile phone operating systems, it’s fair to say that the company is hitting all the right notes among its user base. And with all that activity comes massive heaps of big data; data that Shazam analyses to make the product even better while also opening up entirely new revenue streams.
Born in the UK
Until he moved from California to work for the company a year ago, Titus, like most people, had no idea that Shazam is based in London. Despite the US being its biggest market and having a strong presence across Europe, the company is and always has been British, not American, as many assume.
“For us,” Titus says, “there’s a lot of pride that Shazam is London-based. The founders were originally from the States but there wasn’t that entrepreneurial environment for mobile development at that time. Whereas in London there were investors that could see the value of what Shazam was doing.”
It was certainly a decision which has brought reciprocal benefits. The company is based in Hammersmith, west London, away from the ‘Silicon Roundabout’ area in Old Street, east London, which represents the heart of the Tech City initiative. However, the company has become a flagship constituent of that growing tech scene nonetheless – a scene that is beginning to heap great praise and attention on the capital.
For the mathematically inclined
Thankfully, Titus begins by explaining Shazam’s technology in layman terms. “To simplify,” he says, “the app ‘listens’ to the frequency and amplitude of the music, finding interesting points within the music to create a unique signature and then sending that to the server to be compared to all the records of songs we have.”
“It’s highly optimised; we’ve spent a lot of time trying to make what is a computationally intensive thing very time efficient. We think we do the best job in the real world environment – we are resistant to noise or pitch shifts. People don’t realise that on the radio, for example, the music is three, four or even five per cent faster or slower. DJs will shift things to keep songs in sync or to fit enough songs in around commercials. We have had to build the ability to account for this into the core algorithm.”
Simple, no? It goes without saying that the technology that turns a catchy riff into a song you can watch on YouTube or download on iTunes – both of which you can now do with the Shazam product – is beyond the comprehension of many of us. There is, though, for the mathematically inclined among us, a white paper written by the company’s chief scientist which unravels the magic behind the user experience available online.
Ensuring a technological fit
So, in a company entirely dependent on perfectly suited technology, how does Titus ensure that the tools they choose are right for the company?
One technique Shazam uses is known as ‘Demo Day’. An initiative that Titus carried over from his days at Yahoo!, each of the developers is allowed to dedicate 15 per cent of their working week to explore new technology and experiment on their own projects. Then, once every couple of months, the developers present what they’ve created to the rest of the company. Whether it’s an improved user interface or an optimisation to the app’s backend, the initiative lets the creative juices flow and, in turn, the company gets a steady influx of new tools and ideas across the entire development team.
“Demo Day is something that’s been particularly successful and the developers seem to like it a lot,” Titus says. “I would say over the last year there have been a number of product improvements which have come out of it. They might not have been on our roadmap but from what they’ve done we have gone away and said ‘we should really look into doing that’.”
What’s hot, what’s not?
The big data that Shazam generates and now analyses is becoming of great importance, too. Why? Because Shazam’s song-tagging charts are an accurate precursor to what is going to be on the US Billboard charts a few weeks later. “There are a lot of people who want to know, wherever they may be, what the latest musical trends are,” explains Titus. “We do regular updates to record labels on what is being tagged and at the end of the year we do a report giving our predictions for the next year’s up and coming bands. These are commercial arrangements that we have instigated. For the partner it’s about seeing who has had a trajectory which would suggest they are going on to big things.”
Through the data they collect, namely the billions of geographic tags, Shazam can also identify what is popular in a specific area and can therefore analyse what particular subcultures are arising around the world. The third parties that Shazam partners with can then use this information to tailor their offerings. The company can also report back to advertisers, music promoters and other media producers on how successful their musical accompaniments have been. So if a band performs on a talk show, for instance, Shazam could report in near real time how many of its users tagged the song and feed this information back to the show, helping to define the audience and its inclinations.
“Also, if you register with Shazam,” Titus explains, “then we can tell you if a band you have tagged is playing in your area or if they have a new album coming out.”
Titus and his colleagues are now looking to expand the product into the advertising arena. Examples the CTO gives include a car advert or a movie trailer. If one was to ‘Shazam’ one of these adverts, the app would be able to identify what you were watching and provide the user with additional information, release dates and purchasing options for that product. The company has already covered 50 advertising campaigns in the US and Titus proudly states on numerous occasions throughout the interview that “the Superbowl is a massive event for Shazam” with over a third of all ads during ‘the greatest show on earth’ being ‘Shazamable’.
Clearly then, Shazam is building an increasing influence over the development of the music and other media industries, and its opportunities for expansion and monetisation within horizontal markets are vast. However, Titus is keen to stress that making a great user experience remains the company’s absolute priority. The predictive data that is collected inconsequentially is an added bonus which they are able to use analytical tools to exploit – to both Shazam and the music industry’s benefit.
Conducting an orchestra of harmonic technologies
The app itself is, of course, technologically rich. But beyond the wizardry that makes sounds ‘Shazamable’, the company is also harnessing progressive technologies, including cloud and big data, in a wealth of other ways. And this is stepping up.
“We are definitely a business in transition,” Titus expresses openly. “When Shazam was built, the overarching model at the time was to use your own big database with your own custom internal tools written for it. We now use a lot more open source tools, we’ve moved much more towards being able to build things in a way that are more along the lines of the LAMP stack.” LAMP stack, for those who thought this referred to a pile of lighting equipment, stands for Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP software and tools.
Shazam uses a plethora of cloud solutions for scalability purposes as well as for communication systems across their offices around the world – Shazam has developers based amid the vibrant tech scenes in London and California, advertising and marketing specialists plying their trade in New York and Chicago as well as teams working with the manufacturers in Seoul, South Korea. Only through clear business objectives and the right tools to support them can the company get such a range of people across the globe singing from the same song sheet in such perfect harmony.
Titus continues: “We also use capacity from Rackspace and Amazon as well as a range of other cloud providers and are starting to do some very interesting analysis with real time tools. Going forward we are evaluating which ones we will use – whether that’s Hadoop or a mix of other tools. In general our pace of development has improved dramatically over the last year, in part because we have started to leverage much more of the open source code that’s out there.”
For the six years previous to his hopping over the pond and joining Shazam in January 2010, Titus worked at Yahoo! on their Mail and Messenger products. He left last September after coordinating the development of the new unified Mail and Messenger experience across desktop and mobile as Vice President of Communications. Shazam’s popular Demo Day initiative is a remnant from Titus’ time at the US Internet giant, as is his ability to coordinate technological tasks so successfully.
“The first thing I did there,” he reflects, “was to introduce a mail search system for the company. At the time Yahoo! Mail was the number one mail service in the world, with 200 million users sending three or four billion messages a day; to build a search system that dynamically searched through all of these was a real challenge.
“Then,” he continues, “I took over running the front and back end of the mail system. We created the new Yahoo! Mail, which at that point was probably the most advanced web app around. It had really rich functionality but maybe it was a little ahead of its time. In the end it was fairly challenging to get it to perform well. In the last couple of years there I worked with the messenger team, was involved in product management and design, and brought in mobile.”
Though he speaks with a clear fondness of his time with Yahoo! and all that he achieved with the company, there is a notable excitement that enters his voice when talks about his new role at Shazam. When the opportunity arose for him to meet with Shazam’s CEO Andrew Fisher, Titus – already a fan of the product – grabbed it and never looked back.
“I was immediately very impressed with him [Fisher],” Titus says. “I have worked with a number of executives across many companies and he stood out as being down to earth and really appreciated what the business needed to do to be successful and what it takes to build a great team.”
Like many people functioning within London’s thriving ‘Tech City’, Titus clearly relishes the prospect of working within an innovative start-up compared with the bureaucracy of a restrictive corporate world. “I think that there’s no question that it’s been really enjoyable changing from a big, slow-moving company to a much faster paced, ‘hands on’ organisation, it’s nice to feel the wind in your hair. We have the ability to see opportunities and say ‘this is something that makes sense for the company, let’s do it’.”
Nevertheless, Titus still cites revolutionising Yahoo! Mail as he greatest career achievement to date, “for the sheer scale as much as anything”.
However, “My hope and belief,” he states, “is that after the next few months I will be able to say that it was to play a substantial part in the growth and development of Shazam.”
Plenty more to come
It’s of little surprise, therefore, that when he talks about his ambitions for the future he is not looking beyond his role within Shazam. “We’re at the beginning of some fundamental changes,” he says. “I’m excited to see where we can take the company. We’ve already released some pretty exciting things in the second half of last year and this year we’re going to do much more.”
Titus also offers a few words of wisdom for those attempting to follow in Shazam’s sizeable strides. “I think the most important thing is to understand your use case,” he is keen to stress. “One of the things for Shazam has been that its primary use case is so valuable to people and it has held true to it for so long – when people hear something and know what it is, we make that happen again and again and again and we don’t let anything get in the way of that.
“One of the most common mistakes start-ups make is that they try to do too many things feature-wise and they don’t nail their core use case. In an attempt to do 100 things well it can make it difficult to succeed at any of them. Shazam has a great sense of focus. .”
As is customary within Business Leadership Exchange interviews, Titus is asked what his favourite apps are, excluding Shazam of course. Titus is not overly impressed with the current trends in the app marketplace though. “I feel like we have reached a little bit of a plateau of innovative tech,” he says. “Some of the groundwork is being laid with newer versions of Android and iOS [iPhone Operating System] which will allow people to do amazing things – I expect that this year we might get another big wave of innovative apps but I’m not sure there’s been anything particularly innovative recently.”
While other apps may be failing to blow the socks of the seasoned pro, it becomes abundantly clear from our conversation that Titus is not resting on his laurels. He and the company are continuing to pursue improvements to the Shazam product as well expanding into pastures new. With the direction and focus of the company, as well as that sprinkling of magic that underpins the whole operation’s seemingly limitless success, it seems unlikely that Shazam will be hearing the dulcet tones of the fat lady singing any time soon.
Watch our video interview with Jason Titus: