Quick Take: Crowdmix Bites The Dust

6a00d83451b36c69e201bb087c7c61970d-600wiCrowdmix was one of those start ups that promised to change the world. It was going to be a social network focused around music that would transform how people discover music and how audiences and influencers interact. Now it is going into administration. Crowdmix suffered from many things, not least a confused value proposition that no-one outside of Crowdmix seemed to be able to explain properly (so it failed the elevator pitch test). But more importantly Crowdmix failed because it played the venture game too faithfully. In the current venture environment, you need to be a ‘game changer’ to unlock significant scale investment. Which is fine, except that only a tiny handful of companies are ever genuine game changers. So what happens is that too many companies try to live up to inflated promises rather than focusing on building viable products and business models. Every company has to be the ‘Uber or Snapchat of [insert industry]’.

Crowdmix convinced itself it could build an entire new social network around music. It couldn’t because of 3 reasons:

  1. Music is fundamentally not important enough to enough people to build any sort of scale of social network around it
  2. As Google learned the hard way, there is only room for one major scale social network
  3. Social networks are yesterday’s technology. They are how Digital Immigrants and older Millennials interact digitally. Messaging apps have replaced social networks for Gen Z and younger millennials

The average life span of a digital music start up is 5.8 years with an average investment of $79.7 million (though those numbers are skewed up by Spotify’s $1.6bn). Crowdmix made it to 3 years and through $18 million, so below average on both counts. It was a nice enough – if slightly confused – idea that made the simple mistake of believing it could change the world.

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Consumer Spending On Digital Music Actually Fell In 2014 (Yes You Read That Right)

The following are excerpts from recent MIDiA Research blog posts.  If you’re not already signed up to the newsletter type your email address in the box on the blog home page and you’ll get analysis and data on the digital content economy straight to your inbox every Monday.

consumer spending on digital music fell in 2015 midia

Spending money on recorded music has become a lifestyle choice, an honesty box for the conscientious consumer.  No one really needs to pay for music anymore.  That much is familiar to most, but what is new is that it is now manifesting itself in a new worrying way.  In 2014 consumers actually spent less on digital music than they did in 2013. Though the drop was small – 1% – it was still nonetheless a drop at a period when digital spending should be booming.  In some key markets the consumer spending decline was significantly larger, such as a 3% fall in the UK.  Of course, overall digital music revenue grew globally in 2014 but all of that growth came from the 37% increase in digital music B2B revenues, such as advertising income and telco bundles.  In short, the music industry is getting better at selling to businesses and worse at selling to consumers in the digital arena.

With B2B digital revenues 6 times smaller than consumer digital revenues the music industry is not about to suddenly become a B2B2C business.  But the direction of travel indicates that there is a problem.

Read the original post in full here.

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The music industry has long been viewed as a canary in the mine for how media industries transition into the digital era.  In many respects that role has now been outlived.  Book publishers quickly realised that after a few short years they had moved beyond where the labels had got to in 10.  Meanwhile games publishers (mobile, console and PC) have learned how to monetize their super fans in a way the music industry could only dream of.  But it is the video sector that provides the starkest contrast.

39% of consumers regularly stream music for free, nearly four times the rate that pay for music subscriptions.  While free tiers of paid services play a clearly defined subscriber acquisition role, the purpose of standalone free services is becoming less clear-cut:

  • Old favourites trump new gems: Half of free streamers say they use these services mainly to listen to music they already know. While it would be unrealistic to expect anything other than the most on-trend of super fan to be spending all their time sampling new tunes, these trends illustrate that free on demand streaming services are most used as consumption destinations.
  • The end goal has changed: Just under a third of free streamers go onto buy the music of artists they discover on these service while 37% simply stream newly discovered artists more. Both use cases will coexist for some time, but with with music purchasing fading phenomenon, the latter will dominate.

Read the original post in full here.

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The TV business is of course a vastly bigger one than music but it is, in years spent terms at least, at far earlier stage of its streaming subscription transition.  And yet already there are more than twice as many online video subscribers as there are music subscribers and the nascent online video subscription market is already bigger than the entire recorded music business.

Even discounting the relative scales of each business, the comparisons illustrate the contrast between what can be achieved with a niche product aimed at largely male, high spending super fans (music) and the reach a lower priced, more broadly targeted product can do (even with the hindrance of limited catalogues).

 

The days of other media industries learning from the music industry are gone. Now it is time for the music industry to heed its lessons from its peers.

Read the original post in full here.

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’.

Why Spotify’s Acquisition of the Echo Nest is a Test Case for the Age of the API

Spotify’s acquisition of music data and recommendation company the Echo Nest is a clear statement from a pre-IPO Spotify to the market that it takes the challenge of the Tyranny of Choice seriously.  In doing so it has established ideological fault lines between it and rival Beats Music. While Beats has put its faith in human curation Spotify has bet big on algorithms. It’s men against machines.  But the most important implication is neither this nor even the fact that Spotify now powers the discovery tools of many of its competitors, but instead the shockwaves that Spotify could send throughout the entire tech start up ecosystem if its screws up how it deals with the Echo Nest’s API.  This is the first major text case for the Age of the API.

Over the last half decade open APIs have become a central component of the technology space with countless start ups opening up their code and data for other start ups to riff off.  It has been a win-win for start ups on both sides of the equation: the givers more quickly permeate throughout their target marketplaces while the takers get to short cut to functionality that might be otherwise unobtainable.  Consequently we now have countless companies that are built upon a patchwork of interconnected APIs and a richer seam of products and services.

This is the exact strategy the Echo Nest pursued, aggressively pushing their API out into the digital music market place with very liberal usage terms and putting themselves at the heart of the Music Hackday movement.  (Few Hackday entrants worth their salt will be found without the Echo Nets API coursing through their virtual veins.)  Only Soundcloud can lay claim to having been more successful in the music API game.

But now that the Echo Nest is deeply embedded in the digital music marketplace what happens if it turns off or dials back its API? Currently it is making all the right noises, that its API will remain both “free and open”.  But there is a big difference between the aspirations of a newly acquired company and the actual behavior of the buyer 12 months or so down the line.  Indeed, a highly plausible scenario is that Spotify will eventually wind down the Echo Nest as a distinct entity, bringing all of its functionality behind the walls.  After all, if you break down what motivated Spotify’s acquisition, other than the prime motive of sending the right message to the street, the core assets are not the data itself – Spotify has plenty enough of that – but instead the expertise and the technology.  Data is worthless if you cannot interpret it properly.  Why let competitors benefit from that?

So right now the technology sector as a whole should be paying close attention to what Spotify does with the Echo Nest’s API.  If it does indeed eventually turn off the tap then it will rightly make investors and start ups alike question the strategic integrity of building businesses on the foundations of third party APIs.  Spotify needs to get this one right because the implications are far bigger than Spotify’s IPO, or indeed even the broader digital music market.  Instead this is the future of the entire technology start up marketplace.

 

The Death of the Long Tail

Long Tail CoverToday MIDiA Consulting is proud to announce the publication of an important new report: The Death of the Long Tail: The Superstar Music Economy.  The report is available free of charge to Music Industry Blog subscribers.  (If you are not yet a subscriber to this blog simply enter your email address in the box on the right hand column of the home page.)

The 21st century decline in recorded music revenues continues to send shockwaves throughout the music industry and although there are encouraging signs of digital-driven growth, the impact on artists is less straightforward.  Total global artist income from recorded music in 2013 was $2.8 billion, down from $3.8 billion in 2000 but up slightly on 2012.  Meanwhile artists’ share of total income grew from 14% in 2000 to 17% in 2013.  But the story is far from uniform across the artist community.

The Superstar Artist Economy

The music industry is a Superstar economy, that is to say a very small share of the total artists and works account for a disproportionately large share of all revenues.  This is not a Pareto’s Law type 80/20 distribution but something much more dramatic: the top 1% account for 77% of all artist recorded music income (see figure).

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The concept of the long tail seemed like a useful way of understanding how consumers interact with content in digital contexts, and for a while looked like the roadmap for an exciting era of digital content.  Intuitively the democratization of access to music – both on the supply and demand sides – coupled with vastness of digital music catalogues should have translated into a dilution of the Superstar economy effect.  Instead the marketplace has shown us that humans are just as much wandering sheep in need of herding online as they are offline.

In fact digital music services have actually intensified the Superstar concentration, not lessened it (see figure).  The top 1% account for 75% of CD revenues but 79% of subscription revenue.  This counter intuitive trend is driven by two key factors: a) smaller amount of ‘front end’ display for digital services – especially on mobile devices – and b) by consumers being overwhelmed by a Tyranny of Choice in which excessive choice actual hinders discovery.

fig5

Ultimately it is the relatively niche group of engaged music aficionados that have most interest in discovering as diverse a range of music as possible.  Most mainstream consumers want leading by the hand to the very top slither of music catalogue.  This is why radio has held its own for so long and why curated and programmed music services are so important for engaging the masses with digital.

Music has always been a Superstar economy and there will always be winners and losers in music sales, with the big winners winning really big.  Over time the improved discovery and programming in digital music services should push the needle for the remainder artist tier but a) it will not happen over night and b) it will still have a finite amount of impact.

The Catalogue Size Arms Race

Matters are worsened by the music services’ catalogue arms race which has become entirely detrimental to consumers’ digital music experiences.  Action needs taking urgently to make sense of 25 million songs, not just through discovery and editorial, but also by taking the brave decision to keep certain types of content, such as sound-alikes, outside of music services’ main functionality.

Until labels, distributors and artists come to together to fix the issue of digital catalogue pollution – sound alikes and karaoke especially – the Tyranny of Choice will reign supreme, hiding 99% of artists under a pervasive shroud of obscurity and giving the Superstars another free lap of the track.

Music Industry Predictions and Aspirations for 2014

2013 was a year of digital music milestones: 15 years since the arrival of Napster, 10 years since the launch of the iTunes Store and 5 years since the birth of Spotify.  Which begs the question, what will we looking back at in 5 years as the success stories of the ‘class of 2013’?   There have been some interesting arrivals with promise, such as WholeWorldBand, Soundwave, O2 Tracks, Bloom.fm, Google Play Music All Access (ahem)…. As is the nature of start ups many of the dozens that started in 2013 simply won’t go the distance.  Indeed many of Spotify’s ‘class of ‘08’ have fallen by the wayside: MXP4, MusiqueMax, Beyond Oblivion, Songbird etc.   If the ‘class of ‘13’ want to emulate collective success then it is the ‘class of ‘07’ they should look at: a bumper crop of success stories that included Songkick, Topspin, Deezer, Songza and Soundcloud (though Spiral Frog and Comes With Music were notable flops).

So what can the ‘class of ‘13’ and the rest of the music industry expect in 2014?  Well here are a few of my predictions and aspirations:

  • Label services will grow and grow (prediction): following the lead of the likes of Cooking Vinyl and Kobalt every label and his dog appears to be getting in on the act.  Which is no bad thing.  The choice used to be binary: DIY or label.  Now labels are borrowing some of the clothes of DIY and in turn transforming the artist relationship from one of employee to client.  Expect many established frontline artists coming to the end of their label deals in 2014 being persuaded to opt for a label services deal with their label rather than jumping ship.
  • Downloads will be flat globally (prediction): the download is still the dominant digital product globally but in the markets where streaming has got a strong foothold it is eating into downloads.  A key reason is that the majority of paid subscribers are also download buyers and their behavior is transitioning.  But in most of the big markets, and in most of the non-Northern European markets, downloads are the mainstay of digital and will grow further in 2014, cancelling out declines in the US and elsewhere.
  • Latin America and Africa will both grow in importance (prediction): these are two regions with hugely diverse national economies but both also contain a number of markets that are ripe for digital lift off, particularly in Latin America.  However the standard solutions for the western markets will only have limited success.  Expect innovative newcomers to do well here.
  • The streaming debate will NOT resolve (prediction): expect strong continued growth in streaming.  Spotify should hit 10 million paying subscribers soon – the free mobile offering may even push it to 100 million users.  Deezer should clock up another milestone soon too.  And Beats Music could get really serious scale if it does indeed bundle with headphone sales.  But the nature of the debate means the bigger streaming gets the more artists will perceive they are being short changed, because individual artists will feel the impact of scale more slowly than the market.  Expect things to really hot up if Spotify goes public, does well and the majors do not distribute meaningful portions of their earnings to artists.
  • Spotify, Deezer and Beats Music have a good year (aspiration): to be clear, this isn’t me breaking with years of tradition and suddenly jettisoning impartiality and objectivity.  Instead the reason for the inclusion is that the future of investment in digital music will be shaped by how well this streaming trio fare.  Between them they accounted for 70% of the music invested in music services between 2011 and 2013.  These big bets may not be leaving a lot of oxygen for other start ups, but if they do not succeed expect digital music service funding to get a whole lot more difficult than it is now.
  • Subscription pricing innovation accelerates (aspiration): regular readers will know that I have long advocated experimentation with pricing so that portable subscriptions can break out of the 9.99 niche.  In addition to more being done with cheaply priced subscriptions we need to see the introduction of Pay As You Go subscription pricing in 2014.  Pre-paid is what the mobile industry needed to kick start mobile subscriptions, now is the time for the music industry to follow suit.
  • More innovation around multimedia music products (aspiration): one of the most exciting things about Beyonce’s album last week was the fact it put video at its heart.  Since I wrote the Music Product Manifesto in 2009 depressingly little has happened with music product strategy.  Of course not every artist can afford to make an album’s worth of flashy videos, but hey, they don’t need to all be flashy.   Here’s hoping that a few more labels follow Sony’s lead and start really pushing the envelope for what music products should look like in the digital era.  Here’s a clue: it is not a static audio file.

P.S. If you’re wondering why I am so harsh on Google Play Music All Access it is because they can and should do so much better.  The market needs innovation from Google, not a ‘me too’ strategy.  Come on Google, up your game in 2014.

Why Full Albums Need to Go from YouTube Right Away

YouTube has long been the digital music anomaly: hugely successful, almost free of criticism but with a pitifully small pay-per-stream rate (below half that of Spotify, who does get criticism, and some).  YouTube is now on the verge of launching a subscription product and this will hopefully go some way of addressing the fact it has made the marketing journey the consumption destination.  But the music industry should keep its aspirations in check, not just about the potential impact of the service, but also – and perhaps most importantly – because of YouTube’s intent.

Google is a rights frenemy.  Rights frenemies strike a careful balance between maintaining good relations with rights holders on one side of their business but testing the limits on the other side. They pursue a do first, ask forgiveness later strategy.  Thus all the while Google is launching two music subscription services (Google Play Music All Access and the forthcoming YouTube offering) it is also lobbying for copyright reform and posting a link to chillingeffects.org for every successful copyright takedown.  In other words Google talks the talk but only reluctantly so and it does the absolute minimum of walking the walk.

Nowhere is this approach more apparent in YouTube and the presence of user uploaded ‘full albums’.   A coherent argument can be made that 383 million views of Miley Cyrus’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ Vevo video delivered clear benefits to the artist and her team (both though direct Vevo advertising and the vast exposure).  Full length albums ripped into YouTube by users have no such benefit.  In fact labels in the main do what they can to remove them using YouTube’s takedown process.  If Google was a rights ally rather than a rights frenemy it wouldn’t solely wait to be told to take stuff down, at least for the really obvious and high profile stuff, but it doesn’t.

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Take a look at these top search results for Adele, U2, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Beatles (see figure 1).  The full album results are high lighted in red, many of which have hundreds of thousands of views each, in the case of Adele’s ‘21’ it is more than 1 million, and some have been live for more than a year.  In the case of the Beatles all of the top results are full albums.  I doubt that the Beatles spent the best part of a decade not licensing to iTunes in order to suddenly throw it all straight up on YouTube.

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There are also endless ripped live DVDs and recorded TV broadcasts of live concerts (see figure 2). It’s pretty hard to see why somebody would want to buy a live DVD of a U2 show when they can get the entire show in 1080p HD on YouTube.  And of course because it is a continual 2 hours and 22 minutes of video the viewing experience will be virtually ad free, save for a 30 second pre-roll and the odd pop up which can easily be clicked off.  The only winner here in business terms is YouTube.

Not all the blame can be laid at Google’s feet though: these examples were found immediately, with no effort, so it is inconceivable that someone somewhere in each of the respective labels doesn’t also know about this.  Thus someone has taken the decision in some of these instances to take the benefit of the ‘exposure’ in return for cannibalizing sales of the exact same music the exposure is supposed to drive sales of.  It is this conflicted view of YouTube (i.e. ‘we couldn’t sell as much music without it even though we lose sales because of it) that needs to be fixed.  Google can hardly be blamed for having a schizophrenic approach to the music industry if the industry does exactly the same back.

But relationship issues notwithstanding, full albums need to disappear from YouTube right now. They need to do so if for no other reason than to level the playing field for those music services that pay back at higher rates to rights owners and that actually try to get consumers to pay for music.  Labels and Google, bang your respective heads together!

The Complexity Coefficient: ‘Listen Services’ and the Tyranny of Choice

Despite commendable progress the digital music market is still way behind where it should be.  It is an easy mistake to view the global music market through the Anglo-American lens but if you strip out the UK and US from the statistics the result is that three quarters of global ‘rest of world’ music sales are physical.  Thus ten years since the launch of the iTunes Store digital is still only a quarter of non-US and UK revenues.  The role of Apple is, as ever, key: Apple knew how to make an elegantly simple user experience that just worked.  Thus where Apple was strongest (US and UK) digital music sales prospered.  But most consumers do not have Apple devices so the music industry needs more music services to be as elegantly simple as iTunes if it is going to push the needle on that 25%.  The problem is that most of the services on which industry hopes are being pinned are anything but.

Innovating for the Elite?

Streaming subscription services are undoubtedly at the leading edge of music technology sophistication and recent innovations from Spotify in particular are setting the bar high for immersive digital music experiences.  But paradoxically this is part of the problem.  At the end of 2012 subscription and ad supported services accounted for just one fifth of global digital music revenues.  Though that number will grow markedly in 2013 – and already over indexes in the digital sophisticate Nordic and Dutch markets – it will not overtake downloads anytime soon.  There are of course many factors, including the key issue of pricing – 9.99 is not a mass market price point, but there is a more fundamental one: streaming subscription services are just too sophisticated for mainstream users.

The reality is that mainstream music consumers are not heavily engaged with music and like programmed, curated music experiences.  For all the music industry turmoil of the last decade radio listening has remained relatively steady, even growing in many markets, and it also remains the number one music discovery source – still far ahead of YouTube.  Radio’s enduring popularity stems from its simplicity.  A common product strategy error is the assumption that more features = better quality product.  But more often than not, less = more.  The extra discovery features in subscription services are fantastic tools for the niche audience of engaged music aficionados that use these services but they also make them less accessible for mainstream users.  This is what I term the Complexity Coefficient. 

The Complexity Coefficient is a simple way of understanding a complex problem and can be calculated as follows:

Feature Benefits – Feature Sophistication = Complexity Coefficient

In short, the more sophisticated the features of a service, the less the benefits will be felt by the user.  When this is applied to less sophisticated users a multiplier needs to be applied: a heavily featured sophisticated music service will already have barriers to use for an aficionado but will be entirely inaccessible for a mainstream user.  The Complexity Coefficient manifests itself in another way also: the more complex a service, the longer the music journey is.  For music aficionados that can be a good thing, but for radio-centric mainstream users it is a barrier rather than a benefit.

The COmplexity Coeffecient

The Tyranny of Choice

When we apply this thinking to the digital music landscape something really interesting emerges (see graphic).  The on demand subscriptions that monetize access – ‘Access Services’ – sit at the top right, highly sophisticated, but therefore also complex, with the longest music journey.  These services provide access to a vast, vast catalogue of music.  A catalogue that is growing rapidly every single day.  Last week 7Digital’s Ben Drury reported that his company now has 27 million tracks in its catalogue and is growing at a rate of 100,000 a week.

Choice is fantastic but too much begets choice paralysis.  There becomes so much choice that there is effectively no choice at all.  This is the Tyranny of Choice. 27 million tracks is an unwieldy vastness of music that would take 205 years to listen to.  What matters about music catalogue is the music that truly matters not the total size.  Of those 27 million perhaps 3 to 6 million are ‘core’ catalogue.  Of those how many really matter to any given listener? Perhaps 10,000 at the most?  Even that would be 2 months of listening for someone who listens 10 hours a week and doesn’t listen to the same song more than once.

With the growth in catalogue each ‘Access Service’ must get 100,000 tracks worth of being better at its discovery job just to stay as good as it was last week.  And despite the vast progress that is being made, few would argue that there is a long way to go yet before we can come close to arguing that the discovery problem has been fixed.  So the odds are against a worsening status quo not an improving one.

The ‘Listen’ Services

But at the opposite end of the Complexity Coefficient scale a very different picture emerges. Here we have services like Pandora, MusicQubed’s O2 Tracks and Nokia’s Mix Radio delivering highly programmed, lean-back music experiences for the mainstream users, where the music journey is shortest.  Whereas Access services give the user access to all the music in the world, Listen service take the user straight to the music that matters.  One leads the user up the garden path, the other just opens the front door.

But there is an overriding monetization issue at the lower end of the Complexity Coefficient: most of these services predominately generate revenue via advertising.  The majority of Nokia Mix Radio’s and Pandora’s users are on free tiers.  O2 Tracks is the exception, with users paying for all tiers of access (other than a free trial).

In many ways the Access services are taking a TV broadcaster approach to discovery: they are trying to encourage users to discover as much new content as possible, to send the user on a rich journey of serendipitous discovery.  The Listen services however are focused squarely on delivering a smaller selection of music the user is most likely to like, and keeping firmly within those parameters. To an aficionado the Listen service approach may feel restrictive and limited, but to a mainstream music consumer it fits their exact needs.  But what is clear is that music services at the lower end of the Complexity Coefficient scale are going to be crucial for pushing digital music towards the mainstream.  Welcome to the age of the ‘Listen’ service?

Just How Much is Curation Actually Worth?

Dance music powerhouse Ministry of Sound have commenced legal action against Spotify for breach of copyright with regards to user generated Spotify playlists replicating Ministry compilations and sometimes including Ministry labeling.  The case obviously raises some important legal issues, but more significantly it raises the question of just how much is curation worth?

All of the big streaming services have been falling over themselves to state that curation is at the core of what they are and of what makes them different.  Unfortunately the term curation means nothing to most consumers other than conjuring up images of fusty old librarians.  But leaving that small inconvenience aside, the value of curation to the industry side of the equation is clear…or is it? The problem with 22 million songs is that the consumer is paralyzed by the tyranny of choice.  There is so much choice that there is effectively no choice at all.  Curation, editorial, programming, whatever you want to call it, is crucial.  People are sheep, they need leading.  Some need leading a little, some need leading a lot, but all of them – or at the very least the vast majority of them – need leading.

In the analogue era when media companies controlled the distribution channels most audiences relied upon professional ‘curators’ to show them what to consume.  These curators were radio DJs, newspaper and magazine editors, TV show hosts etc.  They were trusted voices whose influence status was validated by dint of the fact that they were paid to shape the tastes of millions. One of the founding ideologies of the internet was that these curators would be brushed aside in a groundswell of democratization of consumer choice.  These curators suddenly became labeled gatekeepers and became a symbol of the old control-era. The problem is that not only have those gatekeepers been replaced by the algorithms of technology companies, but the algorithms that have replaced them inherently lack the years of human experience and expertise the old curators brought.  Initiatives such as the Music Genome Project and the Echonest are standout examples of technology-driven recommendation best practice, but few would question that the human touch also plays a crucial role in curation, whether that be personal recommendations from friends or family, or playlists selected by Pitchfork. But wherever you stand on the human vs robot debate, the value of curated discovery in a boarder sense is universally recognized.

Which brings us to the Ministry of Sound situation.  Ministry have spent years building the expertise of knowing how to put together a dance compilation and as a result building a brand as a trusted curator of taste.  It is all too easy to dismiss the role of compilations as superficial and irrelevant in the age of the playlist, but there is a reason that some compilations, such as the ubiquitous Now series, do so well and others do not.  As a former DJ I know only too well the depth of thought and preparation that goes into building a set, into identifying which songs mixes well into the next, ensuring that one track does not play out of key with another when it is pitch shifted into the next, of how build a progression of sound that ebbs and flows, that balances consistency with variation.  There is a reason that Spotify users have been recreating Ministry of Sound playlists rather than creating their own dance music playlists.

As the Ministry court case progresses there will be a stern test of whether the copyright of a selection of songs holds legal water in the digital arena in the way that sound copyright does.  Whether it does or not though is almost not the issue.  The core question here is just how much do streaming services like Spotify truly value curation? Do they value it in terms of ‘yes it’s a nice little extra to have’ or do they view it as ‘it is a crucial part of our users’ experience and therefore of our future success and we thus value it at x’?  If it is the latter it is time for them to put the money where their proverbial mouth is.  If it is not then it is time for streaming services to stop talking about the value of curation.

Note: I am indebted to Eli Pariser’s ‘Filter Bubble’ TED speech for some of the ideas in this blog post