Why Zane Lowe Could Do More For Discovery At Apple Than Echonest’s $25.6 Million Does For Spotify

BBC Radio One DJ Zane Lowe just announced a shock move to Apple. For the non-Brits and non-Anglophiles Zane Lowe is arguably the most influential radio DJ in the UK and is renowned for being a tastemaker with an eclectic pallet. His left of centre focus and his commitment to supporting and breaking new acts has allowed Radio One the freedom to be unashamedly mainstream in much of its other output. So why does this all matter for Apple? While it is not yet clear what sort of role Lowe will assume at Cupertino it is a move bristling with significance and a clear statement of intent from Apple.

Fixing the Tryanny Of Choice

The Tyranny of Choice remains one of the biggest challenges for streaming services, namely how to make sense of 35 million songs. It has been challenge enough for the Aficionados at the vanguard of the first wave of subscription service adoption. It is a problem of far greater proportions for the next wave of subscribers, the later adopters who do not have the expertise nor intent to invest great effort into discovering new music. It is not as simple as ‘lean forward’ versus ‘lean back’. But instead gradations between the two. Beyond Apple’s inevitable Spotify-subscriber win back efforts, these early followers will be at the core of Apple’s streaming strategy.

The 6th Of March: Man Versus Machine

Spotify showed its own music discovery statement of intent when it acquired the Echo Nest on the 6th of March 2014. Zane Lowe’s final Radio One show will broadcast on the 5th of March 2015, leaving him free to join Apple on the 6th of March 2015, yes, 1 year to the day after the Echo Nest. Coincidence? Perhaps. Either way, the symmetry of Spotify making its bet on algorithmic curation and Apple making its bet on human curation is unavoidable. It is man versus machine, with Apple for once coming down on the side of flesh and blood over technology.

However expensive Lowe’s salary might be, it will be far short of the millions Spotify paid for the Echo Nest, which had burned through $25.6 million of investment to get to that point. Yet there is every chance that Lowe, used properly, could deliver more value to Apple’s music discovery than the Echo Nest can to Spotify. Don’t get me wrong, the Echo Nest is a fantastic outfit with some of the smartest music analytics people going. Along with Pandora’s Music Genome Project the Echo Nest is as good as it gets for music discovery algorithms. In fact when it comes to implementation and cool data driven projects, the Echo Nest leads the way. But there is a limit to how far algorithms can fix the problems posed by the Tyranny of Choice.

Filter Bubbles

As Eli Pariser identified in his excellent Ted Talk ‘Beware Of Filter Bubbles’ there is a risk that recommendation algorithms actually narrow our choice and limit discovery. That by continually refining recommendations based on previous taste and choice they make our world views increasingly narrow and ultimately boring. Music discovery is not simply about finding music that sounds like other music we already like. It is also about serendipitous moments of wonder when something comes at us from the left field and leaves us breathless. That is the antithesis of ‘here are three other bands like this you might like’.

Of course it would be unfair to suggest that the Echo Nest is not sophisticated enough to engineer serendipity and surprise into its discovery system. (And Spotify is beginning to double down on human curation too). But the ability of a stack of code to perform this task versus an expert tastemaker is significantly less. And, another ‘of course’, it is impossible to definitively prove this one way or the other because ultimately the results are subjective and not properly measureable. Because one person’s awesome discovery is another’s sonic tripe. But that is entirely the point of the whole debate.

People Don’t Want Discovery, Well They Don’t Think They Do

There is a fundamental problem with algorithmic discovery: people don’t want it. In numerous consumer surveys I have fielded for numerous clients, respondents show little or no interest in discovery or recommendation features. Yet in the same surveys the vast majority of them state that they regularly listen to music radio, which is of course recommendation and discovery. The big difference is that it doesn’t feel like it. Instead it is an inherent part of the DNA radio. It is not an awkward artificial appendage that most people just don’t get.

Earned Trust

During his Monday – Thursday 2 hour show Lowe will play 20 to 30 or so tracks. Listeners know and understand that these are the tiny tip of the iceberg he has sifted through that week, that these are the songs he has decided are the ones that need to be heard. And when he announces his ‘hottest record in the world’ they know it is probably going to be something pretty special, even if they might not actually like it. His audience appreciates him that way because he earned their trust over weeks, months and years. That is the asset Apple are buying. Even if he has to earn that trust all over again with a new audience, that is the model.

If Lowe was simply to push 20 to 30 songs a day to Apple users (whether that be on a radio show on iTunes Radio, as an iTunes podcast or as an iTunes playlist, or all of the above) the odds are in favour of some or most of those resonating with a large swathe of the target audience. Even if just one track blows away just a quarter of the audience each day, the impact of one fantastic discovery will have more impact than a torrent of ‘sounds a bit like’ recommendations.

30% Not 80%

An Amazon Prime executive recently said that when commissioning shows he didn’t want hits that 80% of his audience quite liked, he wanted shows that 30% of his audience loved. That is what discovery is all about. Not being content most of the time, but being blown away some of the time.   Zane Lowe is not going to solve Apple’s discovery problem all by himself, but the hire shows that Apple is putting its money on moments of human magic being the nitrous oxide in its music discovery engine.

14 thoughts on “Why Zane Lowe Could Do More For Discovery At Apple Than Echonest’s $25.6 Million Does For Spotify

  1. Another great article, Mark. I think you’re dead right about the second wave of adopters that aren’t interested in creating personalized playlists, sorting through recommendations, etc. Using curators like Zane Lowe is smart, but will it have any real impact with this target demographic? My observations of these later adopters is they tend to go for the auto-generated stations around genres or moods (rap or “chillin’ out”) and less for some of the celebrity-currated playlists. There’s obviously an interested in smartly currated content (just look at Pitchfork’s lists), but is Apple going to get a good ROI with guys like Zane?

  2. Schonne – you make a really good point, namely that Zane Lowe may be better suited to early adopters than early followers

  3. Without a strong connection with earlier adopters there can’t be any early followers and the least adventurous will just keep listening to the stuff they already know, stuck forever in the filter bubble.

    Even early adopters have to start somewhere. Only the most dedicated folks are trolling bars, clubs, bandcamp and soundcloud or the newest thing, unless they have some very special extra incentive to do so (e.g., a music blogger, non-comm DJ or program director).

    Historically, terrestrial radio has done a good job of focusing attention and demand on a filtered slate of new releases. But if the power of terrestrial radio is declining, how does the industry replicate the most valuable music discovery (and music marketing) aspects of terrestrial radio (the DNA of the experience that you talked about in this piece)? For terrestrial radio isn’t just a discovery tool in the way that Pandora is. It’s also a marketing tool in a way that services like Pandora are not (although the recent Pandora/Merlin Pandola plan seems to be an effort to create more marketing opportunities).

    Some of that is the DNA and personality of terrestrial radio that you talk about in your piece. It’s the thing that builds personal connection and trust. Somehow, the industry needs to find a way to transmute these things into a different realm/platform and make it even sexier.

    Cultural theorists like Fredric Jameson have argued that curation is the highest art form of our postmodern age. So viewed through a certain prism, somebody like Zane Lowe may well be more worthy of star status than the artists he is discovering.

    Perhaps Apple is the sort of player who recognizes this and can elevate a curator like Lowe to the point where the masses come to appreciate that he is actually a more important star than most of the musicians who he discovers. To the extent that services like Spotify, and Apple/Beats are becoming the equivalent of BBC 1 for the globe, maybe the time is ripe for Jon Peel like tastemaker/curator at Apple.

    Think about it. Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon and David Letterman are curators of sorts. They are immensely popular and powerful when it comes to exposing people to music, to the point where their power and stature far outstrips all but a few musicians. A different musical guest plays on those shows just about every night. But only a rare music guest is asked to sit down for an interview.

    That said, at this point, Conan is perhaps in a slightly different place than Fallon and Letterman. He’s big, but his audience is perhaps closer to the sort of early adopter cohort that Schonne is talking about. I can imagine that depending on the artist and the promotional phase of the release, one would rather be playing on Conan’s show than on Fallon or Letterman, because the performance is more likely to touch “right people” at the right time.

    If Apple is able to give somebody like Zane Lowe that sort of profile and platform, even if it’s just with the early adopter crowed (i.e., like Conan), I think its ROI will be looking fine for Apple, because the early adopters are the most fertile soil for disseminating the new and helping it to diffuse. If you can get those people on board, you’ve significantly increased your odds of getting more people on board for the artist in question, even if it takes a while.

    That doesn’t mean you’ve won at the point. Many artists never cross the early adopter chasm into the larger mainstream market. But if you can’t grow the project with the early adopters, your chances of growing it with anyone else is diminished.

    And as a company, if Apple can demonstrate to music companies that curators like Zane Lowe have the ability to focus listener attention on specific releases, that’s a huge feather in its cap and a good argument for why its streaming service is a better platform for breaking artists than its more algorithmically focused competitors. So perhaps that leads to more exclusives for Apple.

    Moreover, if listeners also find this sort of curation to be more valuable than the algorithmic filter bubble, well, then Apple wins on that front as well, because more people will subscribe.

    But the challenge will be keeping human-curated playlists fresh and dynamic enough, for this too is an important part of the terrestrial radio’s DNA. There is a fair amount of stability in a mainstream radio playlist, but even the constricted formats still have a dynamic contour. They aren’t the same over and over again. They gradually shift from day to day. It’s this blend of repetition and variety that is at the heart of terrestrial radio’s appeal. And in my opinion, this is the element that streaming services have struggled the most with, regardless of their means of curation.

    Beats had some nice playlists. But they were still static. So you only get the singular expression of the curator’s art. Each time you select it, you don’t get the opportunity to experience it evolving over time the way you do when you listen to a good non-comm station like KEXP. Too often, algorithmic services fall into this trap as well. They don’t manage repeats well. If you listen to the same algorithmic station for few days in a row or a number of hours, it starts to feel more and more like a static playlist.

    Somehow, the adjacent possible of the algorithmic playlist never seems to shift in the way that a human DJ’s would, because the algorithm is still not smart enough to adjust in that way.

    But who knows what the future brings. I’m sure that will improve as time goes by.

  4. J-Jon – great feedback. I agree about the growing role of the curator across all, well most, media types. With the excess of supply the role of the tastemaker is more important than ever. And with more consumption occurring outside of linear broadcast how are we to know anymore what is meant for primetime and what is not? I suspect an atomised broadcast model will evolve in which a number of audience ‘clusters’ are identified and programmed around in a non-linear way.

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