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Songza CEO/Mets fan lectures at Fan Cave U event

NEW YORK -- I've got the At Bat, At the Ballpark, Beat the Streak presented by Dunkin' Donuts, and Home Run Derby apps all prominently positioned on the home screen of my iPhone. In my world, they are the Fab Four, the top of the mobile order as a way of life.

On Thursday night at the MLB Fan Cave, I showed my iPhone to Elias Roman, a Mets fan born and raised in Queens, who was there as guest lecturer for a monthly MLB Fan Cave University event. As CEO and co-founder of the popular Songza free music concierge service, Roman was pleased to see the blue icon with its familiar monster logo and letter "S" for Songza -- the fifth app in my order.

"The future of music is not about content, it's about context," Roman said. "People use music to make whatever they are doing better -- make waking up better, working out better, entertaining better. Songza directly answers the question: 'What soundtrack makes right now better?' We believe that's the future of music."

On this baseball night, the six uber "moods" Songza's Concierge was displaying for me "right now" were Bedtime, Unwinding, Brand New Music, A Sweet Dance Party, Working Out, Love & Romance. As Songza users know, each mood then has a subset of diverse playlists that address that mood. "Shouldn't there be a Watching Baseball mood?" I asked him. A light bulb went on and Roman said:

"We're showing a user the three playlists based on their preference. So we'd make 10, and then show just the best three. I think we'd probably do Classic Americana, we'd sort of do like Stadium Anthem Rock, a couple others like that that are good for watching sports like baseball."

Songza is based in Queens, and Roman said there is a definite baseball flavor in the office. "Two of my co-founders are from D.C.," he said, "so we have a little bit of a conflict. But it's a real treat to be able to build this business in the backyard of the Mets."

Those two-co-founders are Elliott Breece and Peter Asbill, and the fourth co-founder is Eric Davich. Roman and his friends started while studying at Brown, where he graduated magna cum laude. They sold it to Amazon and "doubled down" to grow Songza, and Amazon is among its backers. Roman said when he and his co-founders flew to Seattle and met with Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, there were two main takeaways:

"First, he told us that we reminded him of himself when he was getting started," Roman said. "Second, he told us we need to make big changes to our business model."

It was exactly what they needed to hear. Based largely on what followed that meeting, Roman gives this answer when asked if he has one tip for entrepreneurs:

"The single most important thing for a young entrepreneur is to fall in love with your problem, not with your solution. We've had so many different iterations of Songza over the years as we've collected datapoints, but we've been able to iterate successfully because we were in love with solving a problem. Problems don't change, solutions change. So even though it's very much your baby when building a company, you have to adapt to whatever new information you have that will help you solve that problem you set out to solve, better."

Asked about Songza's exit strategy, Roman said: "I think we hope it will be even bigger. But we were really excited about bringing this new approach to music. Too often people have to decide for themselves what music to put on. And it's a pain point. If you talk to someone about how they use other services, they acknowledge they have to do mental math to figure out which artist makes sense for their barbecue or their workout. So we came into this feeling that there's a real problem that we're going to be able to solve for people, and it will be really popular as a result."

Roman said the hottest Songza playlists right now might be American Primitivism (guitar) and Epic Film Scores.

"American Primitivism is really soothing when you're trying to concentrate and you don't want musical lyrics. Same with Epic Film Scores," he said. "If you're doing data entry to 'The Last of the Mohicans' soundtrack, it's awesome. It's context. We're thinking about people at work, we all need to feel more soothing at times, and that's sort of motivating but not distracting."

Most people want to know who decides Songza's playlists and how the songs originate. But the bigger question is, how does Songza know what I want to listen to?

"We have 50 music experts," Roman said. "These are ethnomusicologists, DJs, musicians, music critics, who spend all day thinking about the things that our users are doing. And what soundtracks, whether it's music the user has ever heard of before, will make it better. And then we have a layer of optimization, algorithms that decide for a given person based on the day of the week, time of day, the device, IP address, all of their preferences we have observed over time, which thing it is that we want to show them that our experts have curated.

"So it's a real hybrid, a sort of happy meeting of expert manual curation and algorithmic optimization. That's how we figure out what people need at any given moment."

Can baseball playlists be far behind? Right now, you can find your favorite players' walk-up music via the At the Ballpark app, and then click the song for an easy download at iTunes.

"Absolutely," Roman said. "One of the things I'd love to start doing with baseball players is to create playlists -- curated by them, of the music they listen to to get pumped up, music they listen to to get through training. For their fans, when they are working out, too, it would be really cool to sort of listen to their iPod."

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of Read and join other baseball fans on his community blog.