If you’ve never heard of the mobile app, Shazam, here’s how a late-night TV ad might pitch it: How annoying is it when you hear a song you like but you don’t know the song title or artist? You ask friends, but they don’t have a clue. You try to remember the lyrics or melody so you can do trial-and-error searches on the Internet, but end up spending hours finding nothing and have to give up. As you look to the sky in frustration and bellow, “There’s got to be a better way!” a magical icon appears on the mobile phone that was in your hand the entire time. You click the app, push a button while the song plays and in less than 15 seconds you have the artist and song title. Suddenly every problem in your life is seemingly solved as you give the cheesiest smile of your life and say, “Thanks, Shazam!”
Or you can just watch this actual iPhone commercial from 2008:
Though the name of the app sounds like infomercial fodder, Shazam is one of those ideas that everyone wished they had thought of. For over 10 years, Shazam has been tagging songs using their search algorithm which captures a portion of the song and rapidly identifies what it is. While it took a while for the service to catch on, the rise of mobile phones has made the app incredibly popular, to the tune of nearly 150 million users worldwide today from only 25 million users at the beginning of 2009. And who can blame them — Shazam is fast, free (for basic service), easy to use, and is supported by every major mobile platform, including the iPad. Though it might seem like Shazam is a one-trick pony, a cool $32 million investment from three funding groups will enable London-based Shazam Entertainment Ltd to expand their music service and “listen” to yet another kind of media: television.
A Slate article in 2009 detailed how Shazam works its magic. First, the app creates “fingerprints” of the sample acquired by the mobile phone’s microphone (it needs a minimum of 5 seconds) and then matches them against fingerprints stored in a database. The fingerprints are not entire songs, as samples can come from any portion of a song. Fingerprints are selected from moments that have the highest intensity, which is another way of saying that it reduces the noise and provides distinguishing resolution in terms of frequency, amplitude, and time in order to reduce the amount of false positives. Once the fingerprints are produced, the service matches them rapidly, with database searches occurring in less than a second.
Because Shazam compares samples against what is stored in its database, it cannot identify live recordings accurately, unless the artists are incredibly precise in their timing (down to the millisecond) or they’re lip synching (oops). But the algorithm that produces the fingerprints can filter out foreground voices, match in noisy environments, resolve simultaneous tracks, or even identify the correct versions of cover songs.
While each platform is slightly different in terms of other services that are offered, the app offers some very cool features such as the ability to download songs from iTunes, listen to 30-second samples of related tracks, basic information about artists and a list of their releases. Recently, Shazam hooked up with Facebook to offer “Shazam Friends”, a feature that allows a user to send real-time song feeds to their friends on Facebook. The app also allows a user to post their song tags on Twitter. Most recently, Shazam LyricPlay lets users see lyrics synced with music, creating instant karaoke opportunities, if one is so inclined. And for those advertisers who want to take advantage of this worldwide audience, Shazam allows advertizing on the iPhone through the “Listening Screen Takeover” feature.
Along with all the information that Shazam provides with each identified song, this push into the social aspects of music foreshadows what can be expected from the app when it sets its sights on TV, which it has already started to do by working with NBC Universal and MTV. Both shows and commercials will have content in the Shazam database, providing users who activate the app more information or select deals, creating a tangential, interactive experience on their mobile devices.
Now Shazam doesn’t have a corner on listening to what you’re watching. The company IntoNow provides some very similar features, and just a few months after its release it was quickly purchased by Yahoo. Undoubtedly, other startups will ultimately try to move into this space, but by striking deals with TV networks, Shazam is establishing itself as a primary player much the way Netflix has.
With all these features, Shazam is quickly becoming more than just an app. That is what has made it magical and will continue to do so. Because it functions by responding to the environment, it allows users to interact with their surroundings, especially with its social functions. Shazam fits squarely within an emerging trend of apps that are location sensitive, such as the Shadow Cities app we recently featured.
In the bigger picture, Shazam’s “second screen” approach to music and TV is reminiscent of the new video game project that Nintendo researchers unveiled at E3 this year, currently dubbed Wii U. The new controller for the Wii U is basically a hybridized game controller and tablet that will allow players a second view into games, such as an alternative bird’s eye view, a close up targeting system, or even an avatar’s inventory. So both approaches involve providing secondary handheld windows into main screen entertainment. As a trend, this is exciting for users because it adds greater dimensionality to their experience, whether by bridging in more information or by connecting to more social functions. From a producer or developer point of view, creating content for two screens that integrates together and makes a richer experience will be challenging but the possibilities are limitless.
The future is bright for Shazam, which expects to have 250 million users in two years. By expanding into TV and adding rich features to enhance entertainment, Shazam has the potential to become a household name. But seeing is believing, so download the app and try it out. You may be able to finally figure out who is singing that song that’s driving you crazy.