Spotify's Eliot Van Buskirk tells TechRepublic about using data to tell stories about music and, more importantly, about music fans.
In 1981, $1500 could buy a lot of electronics.
At the time, seven-year-old Eliot Van Buskirk, a Manhattan resident and son of a music teacher and concert pianist, was doing the math — he'd been talking to his upstairs neighbor who told him that's how much he'd made in The Magic Flute, at the Metropolitan Opera.
For a kid with a serious science bent who spent a lot of time at Sasio Electronics on 109th and Broadway, this sounded like a solid opportunity. So, he convinced his parents to let him audition for the New York City Children's Choir.
"I got to do solo lines on that stage when I was seven years old, which was amazing. You don't have any fear at that age performing," he said.
It was a great opportunity — he even got to tour Italy twice before he was even a teenager. And that first batch of cash went toward an Atari 2600 and plenty of games, like Pong, Space Invaders, and Pacman.
When he describes his life, Van Buskirk seems to have landed at plenty of moments where he saw a chance to do something a little different, and took it.
The ability to see those moments — it's not a bad quality for someone who runs a blog called Insights. Insights is part of the music streaming service Spotify. Van Buskirk takes Spotify's anonymous data generated from users, and finds interesting stories that say something about the way people listen to music these days. For example, which genre has the most loyal fans based on repeat plays of core artists? Metal.
This isn't the first time music and tech have intersected for Van Buskirk. After college, he moved out to San Francisco with a girlfriend, and ended up answering a posting on an internet bulletin board for the band Spiritualized, for a bassist to play in a Spiritualized-inspired band.
Neither the girlfriend nor the band went anywhere long term, but one of Van Buskirk's bandmates worked at CNET Networks, and got him an interview for a job (he vouched for Van Buskirk by saying he always showed up to rehearsal on time). Van Buskirk had some other gigs, like a job at Pacific Bell, a paralegal in New York, and was published in his favorite magazine, Dave Eggers' Might Magazine. And in the late summer of 1997, he went to work cataloging shareware for Download.com.
Working at CNET was a different vibe from what he was used to. It meant working with a lot of other young people.
"It was so much different from the law firm where anybody who's not a partner, basically, doesn't get to have much of an opinion. And the associates are above the paralegals— we were just almost inhuman people. The difference in that made such an impression on me," he said.
About a year in, another moment presented itself when a friend showed him ICQ, the first instant messenger, which AOL eventually bought.
Van Buskirk convinced the creators to put a Download.com button on their developer website, and when ICQ exploded, along with CNET's traffic, his boss essentially gave him the opportunity to pick whatever he wanted to do.
Up next: writing, specifically about cell phones.
A year later, he was at CNET watching a guy unplug a device from his computer, plug headphones into it, and walk away from his computer. His first reaction was "No way."
He went back to his boss to tell him he wanted to be CNET's MP3 player guy.
That led to a long-running column called MP3 Insider, and to a job as editor when CNET bought MP3.com, coincidentally, on his birthday.
In 2005, he left and decided to move back to New York. He didn't have a plan, but on his last day at CNET, he ran into the editor of Wired.com in a bar and essentially walked out with a new gig running Wired's digital music blog, Listening Post.
Four years in, Van Buskirk was interviewing the CEO of The Echo Nest, an audio fingerprinting service. The CEO offered to let him start a publication with complete editorial control since he was a journalist who actually understood what the company was doing. So, Van Buskirk founded Evolver.fm to cover music apps.
He started poking around data a bit, but when Spotify bought The Echo Nest, and Spotify Insights was born, that became the focus of his storytelling.
"People have been obsessed with music data forever, but it was sheet music charts in the beginning and radio charts, or CD sales, but it's always just this one linear list," he said.
If someone buys a CD, there's no way to know if that CD is sitting on a shelf or getting worn out in someone's car.
The stories Van Buskirk finds run the gamut from at what age musical tastes tend to mature, to what music DJs tend to play disproportionately in comparison to what they listen to in their personal lives.
Insights also looked at listening habits at universities. Brigham Young, for example, tends to stop listening to music earlier in the evening. It turns out, they have a curfew.
He's learned to look for what's distinctive.
"If your school has tons of tropical crunk listening— that was one of the genres— relative to everywhere else, that's super interesting," he said.
A rundown of the most popular artist in each state turns up a whole lot of Drake, but looking at the most popular and most distinctive artists for each state says something different. As of February 2014, Wisconsin was really into Hawaiian singer Jack Johnson, Jersey was unsurprisingly into the Boss, and Alan Jackson was holding strong in New Mexico.
"I think it's also holding up a mirror to music fans and artists, and everyone in the whole music scene... and it's really something that's never been possible before," he said.
The way he finds those stories differs. Sometimes, he gets tips from folks at Spotify. In November, someone tweeted at Spotify, asking whether they could look into the frequency with which Aerosmith's "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" gets played during space events like comet landings. (It's a prominently-played song from the 1998 movie Armageddon).
"Sure enough, there's a big spike on 'I Don't Want to Miss a Thing' on that day," Van Buskirk said. Not only that, but he went back and found that every time there's something like a comet in the news, there's a spike.
Accessing all this data isn't always easy.
He's had to learn how to do SQL queries and a bit of Python. And while he said his abilities are pretty rudimentary, even compared to a junior programmer, he's come a long way.
"I am, at least, impressed with my found ability to grapple with the data on a raw level and be able to tell stories end to end," he said.
It's been a bit of an adjustment not being in the typical break-neck pace of journalism, but Van Buskirk still applies his approaches from years of tech journalism to his data storytelling.
"It's arguably very much like journalism except I have an exclusive every time and full access to all of the facts for as much as I want to look at them," he said.
In his own words...
How do you unplug?
"I commute by folding bicycle and train, twice a week. I'm in a pretty rural area on a bike path on that folding bike. First of all, I recommend everyone commute by folding bike and train. It's great. You can work in the train. That's one way, to just build it into your routine. I have a two-year-old and a four-year-old... and a full time job, so my trick is to build unplug time into the routine. I'm also a pretty avid tennis player... I play tennis with my brother. That's pretty much the only thing that exists, that tennis ball. My form of unplugging is either biking or focusing on something that really occupies your attention. It's a great way to not think about anything else."
If you could try out another profession, what would it be?
"I would be a ramen chef. I've made it a couple times. I became obsessed with it — I hate to be one of these 'I was here first' people, but I've been obsessed with ramen for a really long time. I think that it's now such a popular thing because there's so many more ramen places to go to, but I think the idea of cooking this broth on high heat for 30 hours and just making the best possible broth, the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of a bowl of ramen noodles, I'd like to really go deep into that, but pretty unlikely."
What kind of music do you listen to?
"I have to mention my brother's band Javelin, and my cousin. I actually do listen to them a lot. So, that's my brother and my cousin. Then, my best answer is probably The Fall. I wrote an article for NPR called I flew 12,000 miles to meet my hero. But I just love The Fall. The thing that I told the lead singer when I was pretty fortunate to meet him one time at a music festival in England was "Thank you for putting literature in rock 'n' roll," so if that tells you what they're like. They're a tough sell for people, they're a tough listen, but if you give it a shot, for some of us, you turn this corner and you realize you have to hear all of it."