Muxtape Vs. iTunes Genius: Can Machines Replace A Good Mixtape?
On September 25, Muxtape founder Justin Ouellette announced that he'll be relaunching the streaming playlist site as a alternative to MySpace Music, using the simple flash player he created for Muxtape 1.0. But we now know Muxtape will never go back to giving people a dead-simple way to create playlists online and share them with friends, a bummer for a surprising number of people. According to Rollingstone.com, the site had 100,000 users within its first month.
Ouellette wrote about how his college radio show inspired Muxtape: "At the time, mixtapes were already well into their twilight, but long after my show ended I couldn't stop thinking about how the playlist page served a similar purpose, and in many ways served it better. Like a mixtape, each playlist was a curated group that was greater than the sum of its parts." The guiding idea was a friendly curator, someone who knew your likes and dislikes, and could make you a playlist that not only fit your tastes, but predicted them based on something other than metrics and purchase habits.
A week or so after Muxtape's initial, RIAA-driven shutdown, Apple added "Genius" to iTunes, a feature that lets Apple store information about your music, including tracks you bought from iTunes or, (oops) "obtained from other sources." Then you pick just one track as the basis of your playlist—iTunes picks the rest. If you choose to do this locally, with the tired shit you already own, iTunes promises to "reacquaint" you with the music you have, based on things like genre, BPM, and playcounts. But the real genius of Genius is its connection to the iTunes store. There, Apple compares your tastes with info it gathers from other users and their purchases and presents to you "songs from the iTunes Store that go great with" your original choice.
How well does it work? Depends on what you think makes a playlist "greater than the sum of its parts." I tried pitting Genius against Voice writer Christopher R. Weingarten, who seemed just as eager as the small, proton-less Genius button on my iTunes to tell me what I should be listening to. My choice: Harvey Milk's "Decades." After a minute he spit back a list: Melvins' "Boris," Big Business' "Just As The Day Was Dawning," Big Bear's "Track #2," Torche's "Mentor." Genius said I should buy Nachtmystium, Qui, Snowman, Pissed Jeans and Made Out Of Babies, indie-metal and metal-indie that logically went with Harvey Milk. Weingarten's reasoning was different; he guessed that what I liked about Harvey Milk "was that it's weird, off-kilter sludge with a very melodic element," and, based on my other tastes, he picked tracks along that line. "I know things about you that a computer never could," he assured, or warned, me. Mostly he knows what qualities I look for in a song, regardless of genre.
But my computer also knows things about me that Chris doesn't. Genius knows I secretly love Beyoncé too, or that I bought Harry and the Potters tracks and can't get into Will Oldham at all. Certainly, the sum of Genius' parts is impressive (there are 65 million iTunes accounts out there, 65 million potential listeners to compare with)— it even tells you what songs you're missing from the album your pick came from. But it's a staunchly consumer-based—rather than curatorial—oneupsmanship, an "Oh, you don't know about this?" followed with a buy link, not a laugh. The illusion of personal recommendations (while ignoring personality) is seductive; clearly it's good marketing. But it's a poor replacement for good taste. —Jessica Suarez