Spotify And (Fixing) The Tyranny Of Choice

Tyranny of choice

Regular readers will be familiar with my concept of the ‘Tyranny of Choice’ namely that there is so much music choice now as to be counter productive. 30 million tracks (and counting) is a meaningless quantity of music. It would take three lifetimes to listen to every track once. There is so much choice that there is effectively no choice at all.

A host of music discovery services and apps tried to fix the problem a few years ago but most of them failed and went out of business. A new generation of music services such as Songza, Beats Music, MusicQubed and blinkbox Music are now all trying again with heavily curated approaches, delivering music fans the tracks that matter.

It looks like the Tyranny of Choice isn’t just an issue for the mainstream fan. Look at this quote from the Spotify Insights blog that discusses the rise of Mr Probz in the US:

“What’s clear is that the ‘lean back’ mechanism of curated playlists (as opposed to the ‘lean forward’ method of search which drove European streams) led to the early success of Mr Probz in the US”

Even in Spotify, the global home of the engaged music aficionado, curated lean-back experiences are coming to the fore. The access services are stealing some of the clothes of listen services. This is no bad thing but it does highlight the importance of this 4th phase of the digital music market, the ‘Curation Era’. Spotify gave consumers access to all the music in the world, now it – and others – is trying to help make sense of it all.

Google’s Acquisition Of Songza And ‘Fixing Discovery’

Google yesterday confirmed the much rumoured purchase of curated music service Songza for somewhere between $15 and $39 million. While it is not a vast investment for a company with the recent $3.2 billion acquisition of Nest as a benchmark, it is nonetheless a significant one for a company that already has a couple of streaming music services of its own. It is not a Beats sized deal but then if Google had wanted one of those it would have bought Spotify. So just why did Google splash the cash on Songza?

Access to all the music in thee world can be overwhelming, with so much choice that there is effectively no choice at all. This is the Tyranny of Choice. For all the efforts and intent of music services to ‘fix’ discovery no one has yet nailed it. Listen Services like Nokia Mix Radio, O2 Tracks and Pandora present one solution: effectively removing the burden of excessive choice by delivering a curated stream of music that requires little or no effort from the user. But this approach does not translate well to All You Can Eat (AYCE) services like Spotify and Googles’ Play Music All Access. These services are built on the foundations of giving access to everything, the exact opposite of what Listen Services are about. Which is why AYCE services are doubling down on enhancing their internal curation and recommendation capabilities. Spotify moved first with its acquisition of the EchoNest, Rdio followed by acquiring TastemakerX and now this move from Google. Beats Music took a different route entirely, building its service on the foundations of programming rather than superimposing it.

Google should be able to extract great value from Songza but as with all of these technologies it is just part of the solution. Human programming, as resource intensive as it might be, remains a pivotally important part of the equation, and though all the AYCE services have teams of curators, only Beats so far has done it at large scale.

First, Show People How To Find What They Have Already Found

And still the discovery problem is not fixed. Progress has been made in the last few years, but in many respects it is a case running before learning to walk. Recommendations, discovery and programming are just one part of the music consumption journey i.e. discovering new music. Arguably the most important aspect of the journey is the one that is most neglected: navigating the music people have already discovered. As counter intuitive as it may sound, people first of all need to be shown how to find what they have already found…their pre-existing music collections but also the music they have listened to in a service. Creating playlists and tags of songs is an often burdensome task that requires no small amount of discipline. Which means that newly discovered gems can all too quickly disappear back into bottomless pit of 30 million songs, rendering a discovery journey wasted.

Smart of use of data can provide the foundations for the solution, ensuring that people’s streaming ‘collections’ are dynamically created and programmed. But data alone is not enough. What is needed is an entire new paradigm in music navigation. For all the faults of CDs they were visual reference points. A consumer might not remember the name of an artist or an album but would know roughly where the CD was on a shelf or what colour the cover was. (I remember as a DJ often identifying a record I was about to play only by the colour of the label on the centre of the vinyl).

Digital music lacks such visual reference points. iTunes transformed our music collections into featureless spreadsheets, with playlists emerging as simply another means of sorting the data. New visually rich interfaces in music services help enhance the user experience but most often simply try to shoe horn in the old album art approach into a digital context. This new navigation paradigm must start with a blank sheet and think in terms of multimedia, interactive, dynamic experiences. It will need to leverage rich visuals, touch, dynamic context aware programming, sound, voice control and Shazam, to create an immersive whole that gives the consumer clear, immediate results in a way that engages multiple senses. Only once we have fixed this first step of the music consumption journey can we really start thinking about ‘fixing discovery’.

MusicQubed Puts the Rise of Listen Services Into Numbers

Back in October I wrote about the emergence of a new wave of music services: ‘Listen Services’. Namely music services that sit at the opposite end of the sophistication spectrum to ‘Access Services’ like Spotify and Deezer.  While the on-demand Access Services are focused on immersive discovery experiences for the engaged music aficionado, Listen Services are aimed at the mainstream music fan that does not have the time nor appetite for searching out what to play from a catalogue of 30 million tracks.  Listen Services, and their addressable audience, are a key priority for the music industry as it is becoming increasingly clear that Access Services, while fantastic at monetizing the top tier of fans, are not the right fit for the mainstream. To date the main focus for this segment has been ad supported personalized radio from the likes of Pandora and Slacker.  New entrants have started trying to drive digital spending from these consumers with cheap subscriptions, players like MusicQubed, Bloom.fm, Blinkbox Music and Nokia Mix Radio (interestingly there is a distinctly European company bias in this sector). MusicQubed has released some figures to illustrate how this emerging segment is developing.

To celebrate the first anniversary of its launch into market, MusicQubed last week released a combination of performance metrics for its services and some related statistics:

  • 85% of UK radio play comes from the top 120 tracks
  • The Forgotten Fan (above average listening but below average spend) accounts for 30% of consumers
  • Daily listening time of MusicQubed users = 30 minutes
  • 30% of all active users are subscribers
  • 1.5 million consumers have used MusicQubed services to date
  • O2 Tracks (O2’s UK music service powered by MusicQubed) has 60% female users and an average lifetime value of £33, while 20% buy at least one download a month after having discovered it in the service

While MusicQubed is a long way yet from challenging Spotify in terms of total users and paying subscribers, the numbers do hint at a validation of this too easily neglected consumer segment. Of course everything starts small and it is worth remembering that a year after launch (i.e. by end August 2009) Spotify only had in the region of 100,000 paying subscribers.

Will Listen Services Define the Next Phase of Digital Music?

The history of digital music has evolved in roughly 5 year chapters, each defined by a key service and the problem it solved:

  • Phase 1: Napster gave consumers frictionless access to all the music in the world
  • Phase 2: iTunes made the paid download make sense
  • Phase 3: Spotify fixed buffering and gave frictionless (legal) access to all the music in the world (well most of it anyway)
  • Phase 4: Beats, Blinkbox, Bloom.FM, MusicQubed are all candidates for defining the next phase. Spotify gave access to 25 million songs and now these services are each doing at least one of a) trying to make sense of that 25 million via curation and b) making music subscriptions affordable for the mainstream

4th phase

Once we have another 12 months or so of market activity we should be in a position to make a more definitive conclusion on which service, or services, will emerge as the defining reference point for the next era of digital music.

Listen Services, affordable subscriptions and curation-centred services are only just getting going, but they will be key to long term sustainability.  As subscriptions eat into the spending of the most valuable download buyers, it is clear that a ‘digital plan B’ is required.  This new generation of services are part of that plan.