WWDC: Boosting Our Interaction with Music: Shazam

In this WWDC developer interview, TMO’s Hamilton sat down with Jason Titus of Shazam. They chatted about the all the things being done with Shazam, how it’s helping customers better interact with music and the technology behind this fabulous iOS app that’s still at the top of the charts.


Dave Hamilton: I’m here at WWDC with Jason Titus from Shazam. So you were not there at the beginning of Shazam. You’re new to the company.

Jason Titus: January first of last year I started. So a year and a half ago.

TMO: Of course one interesting thing about Shazam is that the first time a “public demo” of Shazam was here at WWDC at Stump the Experts several years ago and that basically took that whole element of guess the music out of Stump the Experts forever. So there was a lasting impression.

JT: There is a substantial user base of pub trivia quiz cheaters who unfortunately use our technology. We are happy that they are our users, we’re unhappy that they sometimes win through whatever means necessary. We much prefer when people are just out discovering music they like rather than secretly under the table Shazaming.

Jason Titus

TMO: But that’s what technology has done, right? I know sometimes in a group, or it can happen at home or out and about, you start having this discussion about “what was that?” and with Shazam, it’s “what’s that song that I heard?”

JT: Or “what is that show I’m watching?”

TMO: Or what is that little factoid and you have to consciously make the decision of do I want technology to enhance this or do I prefer that very organic conversation where you end it and not know whether you’re right or wrong.

JT: Yeah, although that’s a rare occurrence now that people choose to not know. For us, we feel like we can add a more enriching experience for a lot of content. We launched, just this last year, something called LyricPlay, so we’ll be in sync with lyrics as they’re playing. And we think that actually gives people an enhanced experience of hearing music.

TMO: Absolutely.

JT: It’s not just telling them what it is, it’s letting them interact with it more. And that’s definitely, on the TV front, a lot of what we do. We feel like usually people know what it is they’re watching. We’re not telling them something new. You’re watching the Grammys? You knew that.

But what we are saying is “here’s who’s playing,” “here’s links to go buy their stuff if you like it,” sometimes “here’s the performances.” Like on American Idol we were saying “here’s the song they were singing,” “that was originally done by this person,” “if you want to go buy the original, you can do that,” “here’s who’s been eliminated in these various rounds.” So we just let you just hop on and quickly find out more than you knew before.

TMO: In the case of television, you’re making television interactive without needing to change the backbone of television. Which needs to be changed, but you’re short-circuiting it for now.

JT: From our perspective, the world of TV is evolving. I don’t know if I can say it’s evolving quickly, but it is changing substantially. And how people consume media is changing. And from our perspective, what we offer is for our users who want to know more about it and interact with the content they’re hearing, whether it’s music or TV, we give them an easy way to do that.

It doesn’t matter to us how you’re hearing it and whether you’re getting it over your TIVO or direct over-the-air or a CD you have or whatever, it doesn’t matter to us. And it shouldn’t matter to you. That’s one of the premises of Shazam as a product, it’s fast, it’s easy, and we’ll just tell you more.

TMO: Let’s talk about that, because there are several competitors to Shazam, but from my experience it seems like the speed at which Shazam is able to deliver results is amazingly impressive. Now, clearly you’re doing, I would say the lion’s share of the work on the device, so that you’re not having to send out a big chunk of data?

Jason TitusJT: Over the last year, we rewrote our iPhone app, and we rewrote a fair amount of our core infrastructure, focusing on reliability, performance, and speed. Just saying that, we want our users to have a great experience. And we know a lot of times when you’re hearing something — and particularly for one of our new use cases, television ads, you have 15 second ads, you have 30 second ads — we know that people need to be able to pull out their phone, hit the app, and get the answer.

It can’t take 10 seconds for the app to start. It can’t take 20 seconds for us to recognize something. So we said, how do we go about doing that? And we looked at all the core Apple technology, we build things using Grand Central Dispatch, we optimized the startup process, the loading process, we did a huge amount of server work, we went all the way down to the network layer to look at how we can do things faster there.

Layer by layer by layer we went through and said how do we make this faster. And we still have things we can do. But I think across iPhone, and on Android, we have substantially improved the performance. And at the same time it has given us a base. Now that we have a new client, it’s easier for us to integrate with great new things that Apple launches. Being one of the first iPhone apps was great, but also meant we had legacy code from the first, pre-release version of the SDK. And so for us, it’s great to be able to say it’s all clean. We went ahead and said we’re going to rewrite it. We’re not porting code over, we’re rewriting code from scratch. It gave us a lot of benefits.

TMO: Obviously you had the benefit of an existing customer base and a revenue base that allowed you to start from the ground up and do it the right way. But hey, that’s how it goes. And that’s a beautiful thing.

JT: It was not something that was easy. And the company appreciated the importance of performance and having a great user experience. And so we were willing to make that investment. And I think that investment is paying off very well.

TMO: You’ve had the opportunity to work with some cool partners. Any one in particular stand out as kind of an interesting story, that you can share?

JT: Many interesting stories. At a high level, I can definitely say that at Shazam we find ourselves in a unique position of being actually friendly with a wide variety of partners, some of whom are not friendly with each other.

TMO: Makes sense. Sure.

JT: We work closely with Apple. We work closely with Google. We work with the networks. We work with the social network sites. We interact with everybody. We pride ourselves on being a good partner to each of them. We’ve now worked with almost all the major networks in the US.

And now in the UK, we just launched a major partnership with iTV, who I think is the largest commercial broadcaster there, with BBC being the non-commercial broadcaster. We had a lot of them come back and are now doing their second, third interactions with us. We’ve seen examples of success and examples of not success that came out of how well … advertisements for example, we found that really, if the products do a good job of doing a call to action and explaining to users “when you Shazam this you’ll get something good” like “Shazam to win something” or “Shazam for more information on this or that” and they make that clear, it actually really drives engagement. And they’ve been really amazed at how well that has worked.

TMO: What kind of response rates do you see? And listen, I’ve been in the online advertising business for 13 years, so I understand that creative makes a difference, everything makes a difference. But I’m just looking more from the standpoint of, here’s this Shazam thing that is being pushed out to everyone that’s watching the show, but clearly not everyone that’s watching the show even has a device capable of using Shazam and then of those they don’t all have Shazam on their devices, yet. I’m just curious.

Jason Titus

JT: I can get you some data that I can officially share, but we have definitely had a number of cases where we were substantially higher than what people see in interactive on online or elsewhere. It is a noticeable chunk of the folk who are actually watching. There is data from a provider that said that over a third of all iPhones have Shazam on it, in the US. Six months ago or so. We have a very substantial footprint. We’re over 200 million users. We’re adding a million-and-a-half new users a week and have been for a long time. So it actually ends up being that there’s a very large set of users.

Now when we did the Super Bowl, we had to scale up assuming that we could have a million requests a second come in. Because you have 120 million people watching, something like 40 percent of all folks in the US have smartphones, we’re like the 9th most popular iPhone app ever. Android hasn’t announced those numbers, but I know that right now we’re the 32nd most popular Android app. The top guys…there’s always a lot of games that roll through. So my bet is that whenever Android does their numbers, we’re probably in the top 15.

TMO: That’s a big deal.

JT: How many people will it take, Toyota was giving away two cars. And they ran multiple ads in the Super Bowl and so we said we gotta be ready for massive scale. And what we saw was during the Super Bowl, we had millions of interactions.

TMO: That’s awesome. And the service held up.

JT: Yeah. We had to build up for that. The great news is we now know how to handle the biggest events in the world. It’s kind of funny, you do the Super Bowl and then we talked about “what will be our next thing that beats this”? It’s hard to come up with things that actually have that level of mass, concurrent activity.

TMO: In today’s world where so many people use time shifting … and again it’s not the majority of people that use it, but a significant percentage use it … the Super Bowl is one of the few where that is not the case.

JT: You get shows that might have 20 million, 30 million viewers, things like that. You can have popular events that might have 40 million, but the Super Bowl is the Super Bowl of the Super Bowl of television shows. For us it’s been an interesting shift from a world where we had users discovering things evenly throughout the day, over the weekends, on the way to work, as they sit in a cafe, out at clubs at night — and now you move to something. We can tell just by watching what’s happening in the world. We know when big shows are happening. We can see the activity.

TMO: Fascinating.

JT: We’re a very global company. We have huge user bases in all of Western Europe. All over in Latin America, I can tell you we’re in the top 40 apps of almost every Latin American country. It now gives us a view into what people are discovering and what people are interacting with all over the world. And it also give a challenge to us to go out and get interesting and relevant content for them.

For example, I follow the Twitter feed of what everybody says about Shazam all the time and I see lots of great quotes, people saying “I showed it to my father and he still doesn’t believe it’s possible.” But every once in a while, I’ll see somebody say “why doesn’t Shazam have better coverage of Malaysian folk music” and it’s from a Malaysian folk musician in Malaysia. So we get on it. Have to figure out how to source that…

TMO: Where do you go to source that?

JT: We have partners, a music team that is the top there is. A lot of them are DJs. A lot of them are passionate about music. They’re always looking for unsigned acts and new content that’s coming. We have partnerships with folks around the world. We go to pretty great lengths to make sure that what we have is what people are looking for.

Jason Titus

TMO: When it started, I presumed anyway, that it was based on the music genome project, solely or no?

JT: No, it’s been building a library of music for 10 years. There have been partnerships. It is possible there was a partnership that I don’t know about, but in general…

TMO: It basically started with just one person, right?

JT: There were four founders. The guy that developed the algorithm, Avery Wang, is our chief scientist and is still with us and a lot of the big improvements we’ve had have come out of his great work. We definitely still have engagement of the guys who started it. But it’s evolved a huge amount over that time period.

For us now, as we move into doing television and advertising, it’s just sort of an expansion of needing to go out and figure out what are the events, what are the big partners who we can work with to get the content that our users want to discover.

TMO: It sounds like you have to constantly add content.

JT: We’ve gotten very good I think at tracking how well we’re doing and seeing what we know everywhere in the world. What our strengths are and where we need to get stronger. I think we’ve already seen that when we do better people notice.

TMO: Any new developments, before we wrap this up, that you want to talk about?

JT: We have some great things coming down the road. It won’t be long. And there will be even more things you can Shazam.

TMO: Thanks for taking the time with us today.


Interview by Dave Hamilton with his iPhone. Transcription by Julie Kuehl with the Scrivener Transcription Tool. Editing by John Martellaro.