The challenge

Having been a user of for a number of years, I often found it frustrating that my listening charts didn't accurately reflect my listening habits. The problem was that uses the "track" as the atomic unit of attention - and's listening charts are sorted based on how many tracks you have listened to by a particular artist.

This approach can throw up some problems. For instance, some artists tend to record shorter tracks than others. For instance, spending an hour listening to Arctic Monkeys will probably log twice as many tracks as the same time spent listening to Pink Floyd.

The solution

After grumbling at length in a blog post, I realised that in the age of open data it shouldn't be too much hassle to knock together a little app to apply the "normalisation" calculation I discussed. The resulting application does the following:

  1. Takes a username and grabs the XML list of top 50 artists/albums;
  2. Goes through those artists and grabs album and track data for them from the MusicBrainz web service;
  3. Calculates the median track duration for each artist, using it to estimate how much time spent listening to the artist;
  4. Sorts the artist list by estimated time.

The resulting table shows top artists ranked based on the estimated time spent listening to them.

The outcome

The first version of the Normaliser was launched in June 2007, and immediately got a bit of coverage on influential blogs, which brought it a decent amount of traffic. After two years of solid service, we rebuilt the application from scratch using open-source technologies and refreshed the design.

We are regularly adding new functionality, including graphical widgets allowing users to display their normalised charts on their own websites and blogs.

In November 2009, we started a small collaboration with the Music Technology Group at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Barcelona, Spain).

Technologies used

Python, Django, MySQL, RSS, XHTML 1.0 Strict, CSS, RSS, jQuery, Google Chart API. Ubuntu, Apache, WSGI, Nginx, Munin, Monit.

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