LinerNotes beta launch day 5 – ‘What is LinerNotes?’

Sorry for the hiatus; it was a busy weekend. I participated in the NYC Monthly Music Hackathon, continuing work on my project Videodrome (a HypeMachine/Exfm for music videos.) I’m aiming to release it publicly next month.

Much more importantly, I pressed the button on on Saturday night. The beta is now live, publicly accessible, and has gone four days without exploding.

There was a bunch of interesting process involved that I’d like to blog about, but I need to write something else first. I realized over the weekend that I obviously should have started this series by answering one simple crucial question…what the heck is LinerNotes, anyway?

Actually there’s more like three questions:

1)   What is LinerNotes right now?

2)    What will LinerNotes become?

3)    Why bother building something like this in the first place?

I’m going to answer in reverse order.


This deserves it’s own blog post and I’ll probably write one soon. But the short answer is very simple – because I’m a curious person. I genuinely love learning things. And right now, it’s too hard for me to learn about and find music (and a great many other things.)

Many people are satisfied with whatever pops out of Google or Wikipedia or Pandora. Well, I’m not. I want more. I want a lot more. If you don’t then LinerNotes is probably not for you. At least not today.

LinerNotes is hand-tailored to the way I want to listen to music. I want my experience to be fluid, effortless, and richly contextualized. I want an endless stream of music that really affects me emotionally, and I want to know how that music and the artists who make it fit into the broad and wonderful history of music. I want to spend my time listening and learning and ruminating, not seeking and scrounging and clicking. The more I know about my music, the more I like it. And as hanging out with my friends constantly reminds me, there’s an awful lot I don’t know.

What will LinerNotes become?

I want LinerNotes to bring all information about music together in one place. All of it. But I want to keep it organized enough that you can find any fact or song just by describing it, e.g. “bands from Liverpool in the 50’s.”

LinerNotes is going to become the Virgil to your musical Dante, guiding you from the hell of tired silence up into the golden light of musical rapture. LinerNotes is going to become the Mrs. Robinson to your musical Benjamin, guiding you from music novice to musical master and then going straight up crazy when you try to date our musical daughter.

LinerNotes will be there for you on every step of your music experience, from helping you learn about and remember what you already love to helping you find what you’re going to love next. LinerNotes isn’t loyal to any label or big corporation – we’re only loyal to you.

What is LinerNotes today? is a very early beta right now. It’s not the realization of my grand vision –  it’s just the first version I can show to people without cringing from embarrassment.

Right now, LinerNotes is basically just an overlay on top of Wikipedia, but with some really useful you-friendly enhancements: 

  • It’s condensed. Because we love the Beatles, but we don’t five-pages-of-unbroken-text love the Beatles.
  • We’ve got complete discographies for nearly every artist, including bootlegs and rarities. Plus pages for every song and album, often complete with credits.
  • Our dangerously-advanced search system lets you search using concepts like “people who play the ukulele” or “bands who’s hometown is Manchester”. Press the “hard mode” button on the homepage to give it a try.
  • You can browse genres and record labels to find new bands. Have you seen all the great acts on Jagjaguwar?
  • You can start listening immediately using Spotify or YouTube (click the “Videos” tab.)

We’ve got an extremely long list of additional features we’re going to add on top of all that, but we need your help to decide what to build first.

So welcome to LinerNotes. Please give it a try and leave feedback telling us what you like, what you don’t like, and what your musical experience today is missing.

“Broken Tools” — Live-blogging, Day 4

Equipment in action operates in an inconspicuous usefulness, doing its work without our noticing it. When the tool fails, its unobtrusive quality is ruined. There occurs a jarring of reference, so that the tool becomes visible as what it is:”—Graham Harman [1]

Last live-blog, I made a plan to launch. Just the day before, I talked about how often planning goes astray. And unsurprisingly, it’s only taken two days for my plan to get off track.

This plan is about broken tools. But more broadly it’s about being sucker punched by the unexpectable. Luckily I got off pretty easy this time, but the punches come hard and fast, and they will for as long as I’m in this business.

Why write about it now? Because a lot of stuff has broken in the last few days. I’ve had to spend so much time putting out fires that my self-imposed deadline of “pushing the button” by tomorrow is probably not going to happen.

Some of the breakage has been minor and some has been major. All of it has been completely typical.

Minor example: I got a letter (delayed in the mail) urgently requiring me to scan and email a document. My scanner broke that same day. So I had to waste 20 minutes on the phone with Lexmark’s absolutely dismal customer before tracking down a fax machine in a bodega.

Major: The virus I thought I beat last week has returned, leaving me feverish and mealy-minded. So I’ve been operating at 25% productivity today as I try to force my mind to think enough thoughts to figure out why ElasticSearch has abruptly stopped working.[2]

Both of these inconveniences were effectively unpredictable.  Both siphoned off real time. And like a running back’s shoe falling off mid-stride, they made themselves perilous to ignore and shattered the precious “flow” where technical productivity hides out.

As you saw on Tuesday, I tried to make conservative estimates for how long each step of preparation would take. But I’ve already handily blown through my margins. The problem is that the time a task requires is not normal distributed – it’s heteroskedastic. In other words, nine out of ten times it will take me 15 minutes to get to Union Square. But the tenth time the train will break and it will take an hour. So when I’m deciding how early to leave for a meeting, my only options are to leave an hour early (and spend hours each month alone in Starbucks, guarding my seat from 14 year old girls with their cinnamon spice lattes), or to accept that once in a while I’ll be offensively late.

Doing the former is the equivalent of buying so much health insurance that you can’t afford to eat. It’s just not practicable. On the other hand, the person you’re late for will really be offended: people tend to weight one negative interaction about as much as a dozen positive ones. I once heard noted VC Brad Feld say that he would not invest in a company unless every interaction was better than the previous one.

But think about the paradox there: the only teams that never fail are either much too conservative, absurdly lucky, or outright lying.

For me, lying is automatically off the table. And my luck is stubbornly resistant to dark magic. But I haven’t figured out another good solution. It pains me to miss my launch target, especially so soon after I’ve posted it publicly. But the alternatives (don’t be transparent, or power through and make myself sicker) seem even worse.

Entrepreneurs build with fragile tools. They’re all we can afford. But earning the confidence of employees and partners seems to require projecting a superhuman façade.

How do you reconcile that tension?

[1] I wanted to start this post off with a quote from philosopher Martin Heidegger, since I’m stealing his idea about tools. But I couldn’t find a direct quote that would require less than 500 words of jargon unpacking, so enjoy this secondary source.

[2] I skipped yesterday; these posts are taking about 75 minutes / per, so a rigid daily cadence is clearly not going to happen.

[3] Backward incompatible version upgrade, plus forgetting to update the cluster name in code upon spawning a new cluster.

LinerNotes live-blog day 3: “My planning process in action”

Last time, I said that detailed planning is mostly useless. This time, I’m going to make a detailed plan. Why? Two reasons: 1) I have a very clear and tangible goal – make LinerNotes publicly accessible, and 2) I have a long list of small, discrete tasks that need to happen first. So in this case “planning” isn’t as much about figuring out what to do as it is figuring out when to do it.

Technically, I could launch in one step. I’ve got a fully functional version of the site running on production servers, so all I have to do is change the A-Record on to a new I.P. address and you will be able to give it a whirl. But I want to make the best first impression possible, even though the main point of this beta is to test ideas and gather feedback.

Good impressions require polish. Polish is in the details. Keeping track of details means brain-strain. Plans help brain-strain. So let’s save my brain and make a plan.

When I’m in “loose planning” mode (i.e. most of the time when I’m working alone) the plan is a long list of tasks kept in Asana with a rough priority ordering kept in my head. To get more rigorous, I start mapping tasks onto discrete blocks of time. Asana has a lot of virtues, but my biggest frustration is that it doesn’t integrate well with a calendar.

I mostly use the built-in Mac apps (iMail because I have to many email accounts to use the Gmail website; iCal because I just haven’t found a good calendar app).  So this planning process is going to consist of making sure I have Asana tasks for everything I want to accomplish and then manually putting those tasks into iCal. (Someone please disrupt this process. Or recommend a better flow.)

Here’s a high-level list of what I need to get done:

Update the data and streamline the pipeline. LinerNotes starts life as about 10GB of .tar.gz files. It takes about 20 hours and too much manual supervision to bloom into final form.

Clean up the CSS. I’m working with a designer on a professional-looking redesign, but that won’t be ready for a few weeks.

Implement basic unit testing. TDD + constantly changing developments = a ton of time writing unused tests. I’ve decided to backload the pain.

Come up with a solid analytics / metrics plan. I’ve got Google Analytics and Datadog, but I want to make sure I learn as much as possible from early users.

A bunch of relationship management stuff (I’m probably not going to write much about individual people, but I may write about writing about individual people.)

Fix many minor bugs

Press the button.



Based on the plan I made while writing this, it looks like Friday will be the day

Here’s my calendar for the week:


Live-blogging the beta launch of, Day 2. “Planning, in abstract”

[Welcome back to the live-blog. You can find the previous entry here.] 

I’d like to share my detailed plan for the beta launch. But I can’t, because I don’t one. For the most part that’s intentional – I rarely make detailed plans. I always have clear high-level goals, and I do keep a very long to-do list (using Asana). But I’ve found that anything more exhaustive has normally been a waste.

In this post, I’m going to tell you why. And then in tomorrow’s post I’m going to actually work out a detailed plan. These aren’t normal times, after all. I hope you like whiplash.

I’ve always had an erratic relationship with planning. Some of that probably comes from my parents. My mother is a consummate planner – when she travels, she books the tickets five months in advance. My father would probably just buy plane tickets at the airport if that still worked[1]. Growing up, we would pile the family into the car and he’d drive us over the Rocky Mountains toward some vague destination. When he got tired of driving, we’d bounce from motel to motel until he found a vacancy.

When starting a company, it’s very easy to fall into either of those two extremes of planning. I’ve certainly done plenty of both, and neither really works.

Take, for example, the traditional business plan. A while back, I grudgingly wrote a complete one at the request of a potential investor. It took at least two full days of work, and it was full of specific milestones and spending projections and target completion dates. But as Helmuth von Moltke accurately warned, “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.” It only took about a month of actual building before my priorities had shifted enough to make the targets obsolete.

The less predictable the situation is, the more my father’s method appeals. He doesn’t need to predict how tired he’ll be after driving to Steamboat Springs, or how long my sister will tolerate Dinosaur National Monument. He can just show up and leave when we’re ready.

With LinerNotes, a huge part of the challenge has been just mapping the specific shape of the problem and iteratively sifting practical solutions out of a bunch of crazy ideas. Rigorous planning is expensive, and it’s a poor eureka moment that can be planned in advance. If I stay loose and flexible, I can just build one feature at a time, test how users react, and use that data to figure out what to build next. But being reactive also has dangers – last minute travel can be extortionately expensive, and there’s always the risk that the motels in town are 100% sold out (which happened to us more than once.) I decided just a couple of weeks ago to try to go to SXSW and the logistics of finding lodgings in Austin are giving me flashbacks.

I’m still working on finding the right balance. Tomorrow I’ll walk you through my current process. 

[1] I actually did that once, because there was a problem with the space shuttle. True story.

Live-blogging the beta launch of, “Day 1”

After a full year of work, my startup is finally just-about-ready to launch an open beta. The site is still short of my vision by a mile. But I’ve decided that I stand to gain more from real feedback than I risk by disappointing early adopters and totally embarrassing myself in front of my friends and various onlookers.

It’s been a long, long road getting here. I thought I’d be excited when I reached this point but more than anything I’m confused and mildly terrified. Entrepreneurship is always full of ambiguity, but now more than ever I have no idea what to expect. I can imagine a whole range of outcomes, and I definitely know which ones I hope for and which ones I fear. But I just don’t know how to assign probabilities to those possibilities, and of course I know how often the future makes a mockery of ability to imagine it.

So I’m doing this blog series. I figure that by writing openly and honestly about my launch process – about my expectations, my plans, my decision-making, and even a bit of my personal psychology – I’ll be able to impose at least a little structure on process. If nothing else, writing helps me think more clearly. I also hope that telling my story will make it easier for the people in my life to understand me, for early adopters to connect with me, and for the types of people I want to work with to find me. And I hope that someday this series will help another first-time entrepreneur through his or her first launch.

So here’s the plan: as often as reasonably possible over the next 2-3 weeks, I will write 200-500 words about some aspect of my launch process. Some days the posts may be topical (e.g. an overview of my technology stack, or a discussion of quantitative metrics) and some days they’ll just be diary entries about the events and challenges of the day. 

I have to admit I’m a bit nervous about putting this much information online. I’m a very private person by default and this series will be by far the most personal thing I’ve ever written for general consumption. I also have a tendency toward pathological honesty that’s in pretty stark contrast to the rampant puffery of traditional startup blogging. I’m concerned that writing about my uncertainties and constant failures is going to make it difficult for eventual investors or collaborators to believe in me the way they believe in more “reality distorting” entrepreneurs.

But one of my greatest goals in life is to work with people who have the same respect for reality that I do. And if writing authentically cuts the inbound interest in my inbox from zero down to zero, then so be it.

Welcome to the live-blog.