Kuvo: What Is It, How Does It Work, and Is It a Good Idea? (a.k.a. an XLR8R Interview with Pioneer About Its Newest Product) - XLR8R

Kuvo: What Is It, How Does It Work, and Is It a Good Idea? (a.k.a. an XLR8R Interview with Pioneer About Its Newest Product)

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A few weeks ago, Pioneer DJ took advantage of the sprawling Amsterdam Dance Event to announce the launch of Kuvo, a new, cloud-based social platform and app that enables DJs to automatically broadcast a tracklist of what they're playing in the club. (The system also allows users to log in to Kuvo and follow along in real time, or to check out a particular DJ's playlist after the fact.) Although Pioneer primarily framed the product as a new sharing tool and even claimed that Kuvo could be utilized to help artists get paid royalties when their music is played in the club—check the launch video for a more complete rundown about what the system is supposedly designed for and capable of—many people (ourselves included) were left wondering about exactly how Kuvo would work, what its impact on the club environment (and the larger music industry) would be, and what Pioneer's motives were in introducing this product. In search of answers, we headed down to the company's pop-up space at ADE and spoke with Rik Parkinson from the product development team. His answers may not have satisfied all of our concerns about Kuvo, but they did shed a bit more light on what motivated its creation and how Pioneer hopes to implement it, both now and in the future.

XLR8R: For anyone that's not familiar with it, can you describe what Kuvo is?
Rik Parkinson: So Kuvo is a play on words. "Kumo," in Japanese, and we're a Japanese company, means "cloud." So we played on the word there, and basically all Kuvo is, is connecting all of Pioneer's decks that are in clubs across the world together. And why can't we share that information with the club and the clubber via an application? So it's just a cloud-based system connecting to our decks and sharing the track information back to the end user.

And Pioneer has already struck agreements with several clubs around the world to have a Kuvo system in it?
Yeah, so for the past year, we've been in a beater stage so we could populate the system. We didn't want to launch today, for example, and have nobody signed up, because what's going to be the fucking point? So we've got—some clubs off the top of my head: Ministry of Sound London, Pacha Ibiza, Space Ibiza, some clubs in the States like Marquee New York, Las Vegas Marquee, Surfcomber Miami. So 276 venues signed up, and we've got a nice global spread starting to happen. The majority of the installs have been in Europe, and we've got about maybe 30 or so in the States and about 40 or so in other areas of the world, Japan, Asia, and such.

So, the way that it works is a DJ is playing, and Kuvo reads the metadata…
Yup.

Do they have to be using Pioneer decks?
At the moment, the system is limited to using just a Pioneer DJ. A DJ has to make a Kuvo profile, where they put their picture in, their bio, their SoundCloud links, whatever. They link it into their Rekordbox, which is Pioneer's piece of software for exporting music, and then when they export their music next time, it will also take this little Kuvo profile as well. So when that USB key goes into the Ministry of Sound London, who signed up [for the system], that pings up to the internet, and it can match it, and then you can come back down into the system as well.

What about people that are using Serato or Traktor or…
We hate them and they can't be anything to do with us. [laughs]

Or vinyl?
RP: Yeah, interesting. We understand the importance of opening it up to non-Pioneer DJs, and we are working on solutions that will be available at the end of December for non-Pioneer DJs. The last thing we want is Laidback Luke using the system, all Pioneer, everyone's getting all this track information, then Luciano comes on who's Allen & Heath and Traktor, and the system goes down. So we want everybody to be a part of this, not just a Pioneer fan or a Pioneer user.

What about for DJs that don't keep neat metadata?
So if you're buying a track—let's say, for example, on Beatport—then hopefully the metadata will be a good match. But yes, good question. If a DJ does mess all the metadata up, it's going to be difficult for the system to identify what tracks are being played. Having said that, a system we did adopt to try and overcome this is our CDJs will now read the ISRC code, which not many DJs can edit via metadata unless they've got an advanced ID3 tag editor and they're digging deep into the tag. So that is maybe one solution and we do understand the issues behind that, and hopefully stores such as Beatport, iTunes, etc. could come up with an intelligent file format that locks this all out. But yeah, there are variables in the chain there and we are aware, and we hope that—why [would] DJs want to trick the system if they want to give something back into the system? So hopefully people can be more transparent.

A lot of DJs get promos, or might make a demo and it's labeled poorly, and they're not going to take the time to then go into Rekordbox or go into iTunes or Serato or whatever it is…
And learn what album it is…

Yeah and change it. Because some files are labeled like, "_WAV_premaster726."
So what you could do with that track is you could actually mark it secret. We understand that not all DJs want to share all of their tracks, so you can mark it secret. So it will go "track track track track," and then all of a sudden it will go "secret." That might be a solution around it. But yeah, poorly labeled tags at the minute, we don't have a solution for.

Is Kuvo recording anything besides the metadata? Is it actually recording the music?
No, it's just data.

Is there any kind of analysis of the waveforms, kind of like a Shazam system to identify music?
Not at the minute, no. Our system purely is based on ID3 tags and the information that's visible on the CDJ. That's kind of the strong point of the project, I think. If you're in a club with Shazam and it's gloomy and there are bad acoustics and the DJ has pitched it down 10 percent, Shazam kind of struggles a little bit. But this is completely, 100 percent accurate, because it's reading it from the source. So in a club environment, which is where Pioneer is from—you know, the DJ booth—we think we've got a good advantage there.

What's the major impetus to make something like this?
RP: Well, it's 20 years of Pioneer this year, and we've been very successful the past 20 years, releasing lots of products, and why can't we connect all of our DJ booths together? It was a concept created about three years ago, and it's taken us three years to get here. We just want to give something back to the industry. We've taken a lot of [criticism]—we're expensive, all that type of shit, the bad press, you know. We want to give something back and why can't we share that? We're not profiting from this, we're not selling this. This is an added value for the customer. So we just want to enrich the experience for a user.

Don't the clubs have to pay for a Kuvo box?
No, it's free. We want no barrier to entry to this system, we want to populate this system. So if I start charging the Ministry 500 euros a box, they're going to say, "What the fuck?" So it's free. Free boxes.

Has there been any kind of collaboration in designing this with the royalty collection organizations that exist around the world?
No. So initially, the performing rights side of the project was a byproduct of this product. And it wasn't until maybe a year ago, a year and a half ago, that we sat down and went, "Okay, so we're going to connect all these DJ booths, why the fuck aren't we talking to [the performance rights organizations]?" So it's kind of been a bit of a byproduct. But of course, as the hardware develops, we're of course going to look at new ways to report data.

How is Richie Hawtin involved in the project?
We worked with Richie Hawtin to understand his RADR technology, and we're possibly going to work with Richie in building the application that connects non-Pioneer DJ users. So that's where that's come from. And we also wanted to work with Richie because he's a great spokesperson, and I think it's even better because he doesn't use Pioneer equipment. Because this isn't all about Pioneer DJ. Hawtin uses X1s, F1s, LME-92, and [Ableton] Push and stuff. What a great ambassador to talk about this project, [someone] that isn't a Pioneer user, who wants to ensure that artists are getting paid. So that's why we work with Richie.

What about DJs that don't want to share any of their music?
Don't sign up. Don't make a Kuvo profile and it won't be broadcast. Or just make your tracks secret.

This is theoretical, but do you think some clubs might make it mandatory for DJs to use the system for, say, performing rights purposes?
From my point of view, I'd love it if that was the case… It'd be great to see that. It'd be great to see the performing rights agencies make it mandatory installation, when you get your license for the year.

How much of the development of Kuvo has to do with trying to monetize things as much as possible? Maybe not for Pioneer, but for the industry.
We have no agenda here to monetize. I mean, we don't even know what this project is going to be at the minute. That's not saying in 10 years time if there's 5000 clubs around the world using it, we might have something special and powerful there, but we don't have any agenda with this at the moment. We don't have any quantities to sell, it hasn't got an SRP price, it isn't shipping next week. We see this as a marketing project, and not a sales project.

Part of the Kuvo experience is that there's an app that users can put on their phone, correct?
Yes.

What sort of information will they be able to access with that app?
So let's say I'm stood on the dancefloor at the Ministry of Sound and Solomun's playing. I really like that track he's playing. I can pull it out on my phone and basically see the track. I could be walking through the streets in Amsterdam and see which clubs are live on Kuvo, and go to them and see what music is even being played. But, we also understand that not all venues want people to have their phones out. So, this is all retrospective as well. You could go and dig into the archives of your night when you were back at home, and see what happened, so you don't ruin the vibe and take your phone out of your pocket.

Don't you think having something like this encourages people to have their phone out at the club, which most DJs…
Hate. Uh, yeah it probably does encourage people to do that. But that's why we've got another solution there, which is where you can check it out retrospectively. And let's be honest, [phones] aren't going away. We just have to deal with it and make a better solution. And when wearable [technology] is more popular, you know, it's going be stuck on your wrist anyway.

Is making more information available about every song a DJ is playing necessarily a positive thing?
From a clubber's point of view, or from a DJ's point of view?

In general.
I think from a clubber's point of view, of course [it 's a positive thing]. How many times have you stood on that dancefloor going, "What the fuck is that record he's playing?" You want to know. You don't have to get your phone out, you can check it out later. If the DJ wants to push new music and monetize—you know, there's nothing more powerful than being on the dancefloor, and that point of pleasure where you're buzzing and the track's been played and you're like, "Oh shit, I'll star that, and get that track later."

People can theoretically buy music through Kuvo, yes?
Yes.

Will Pioneer be taking a percentage of any of those profits?
No kickback.

And right now you guys have partnerships with Juno…
Just Juno, yeah.

Are there any plans to expand that?
Yeah, we are in discussions with other people at the moment, so hopefully later on in the year we'll have a bigger catalog of music available.

Do you think a system like this takes something away from the idea of the artistry of being a DJ?
Sure, yeah. Some artists are very protective about their set, but I just think it's a bit of a hurdle in the industry that we've got to go through. Do you remember when BE-AT.TV started sticking cameras in decks and stuff? People hated that. But it's part of it now. They've got to monetize, they've got to market themselves. We're just giving tools here to help people communicate better. So get in and get off. If you don't want to use it, don't use it!

Do you guys worry about the responsibility of creating something like this, and just putting it out there, and then seeing what happens with it? It seems like having a hands-off approach leaves the music industry people to use it to push commercial stuff, instead of maybe what's best for the atmosphere of a club.
We're not hands off with this at all, I think we're quite connected to what's going on. I think we've just got to be careful over the next year and monitor what happens with this. And if we do see things go in a way that we don't necessarily enjoy, then maybe we can start to review it.

In a way, a system like this is kind of removing a barrier between what the DJ is doing and what the clubber is hearing, so to speak. And sometimes when those barriers get taken down, there's a notion that says, "Oh, people can have access to everything and make more choices and there's more freedom." But then what ends up happening is [different]. Let's say a track is charting really highly on Kuvo, because you're going be able to track stuff like that. Do you think there's going to be more pressure [along the lines of], "This track is charting really well on Kuvo, so we should play it," or, "This a DJ has more likes on Kuvo, so they got to get booked." It just seems to me like most of the applications are very commercially oriented.
Uh…

Imagine getting a press release about a DJ that's…
Rated number one on Kuvo, right?

Exactly.
Well, from a Pioneer point of view, that would be unbelievable if that happened.

From a music fan point of view, do you think that's unbelievable?
Well, why not? There's nothing more accurate than what's actually happened. This isn't Beatport top 10 here, we don't know how that track's going to the top 10 on Beatport. This is actually undisputable fact that's happened. These tracks have been played this many times by these DJs, and yeah, like I said, if you don't wanna use this, you don't have to use it.