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.

 

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Spotify Artist Apps and the Road to Relevance

Spotify yesterday announced the launch of Artist apps for four artists, namely Quincy Jones, Tiësto, Rancid and Disturbed.  This is another important step in Spotify’s music strategy, and one that is more important than may first appear.

Spotify’s App and API strategy (of which I have gone on record as being something of a fan of) may not have had anywhere near as much momentum as hoped, but it is making solid progress and the artist apps will give it a much needed boost.  The artist apps though are part of a bigger bid for relevance and mass market appeal.

When there is So Much Choice that there is No Choice At All

One major problem with streaming music services lies in the fact they provide unlimited access to all the music in the world: there is so much choice that there is no choice at all.  Though Spotify has started work on improving its discovery story – much of it through 3rd party apps – discovery remains problematic.  Another problem in streaming services the artist’s brand is inherently subjugated to the service’s brand: consumers pay for access to all the music, not for an artist or two.  In the analogue era the artist brand dominated with singles and artist albums.  In the age of the playlist, a la carte cherry picking and unlimited on-demand access, the artist brand often struggles for voice in a sea of discovery noise and clutter. Artist apps though kill the two proverbial birds with the same stone: simultaneously enhancing the artist brand and music discovery.

The Need for the Tangible

A key dynamic of the ownership-to-access transition has been the difficulty of communicating a sense of permanence and tangibility in music service experiences. Playlists may be one of the early defining characteristics of the consumption-era and may deliver great user benefits, but the very fact that they are so easy to create and to delete contributes both to a sense of transience and of having little monetary value.  Thus playlists do not effectively communicate enough tangible value over the CD, which is an illustration of why the majority of digital consumers still buy CDs.  For streaming services – and indeed digital as a whole – to come of age and to appeal to the mass market, they need to develop features that go beyond the excel spreadsheet-music-service approach.  This doesn’t mean a need to deliver ownership but instead to meet some of the fundamental consumer needs and tangibility that physical music experiences deliver.

Spotify Artist Apps Are A Great First Step On a

Artist Apps are a Solid First Step

Spotify artist apps are a step in this direction, delivering an audio visual and curated artist experience.  It is fair to say that the current iteration of artist apps are far from the finished article, the first step on the journey, but at least that journey has been started.  The digital music marketplace more broadly needs to rise to the challenge of ensuring that artist specific experiences like these become a standard feature of digital music experiences.  Spotify artist apps , when set alongside the theoretical music product prototype I sketched out in my ‘Music Format Bill of Rights’ report (see figure) and viewed in the context of the longer term music product and format evolution, are a glimpse into the future.  Spotify needs to kick on from here with full integration of multimedia assets such as video and games, and of course it needs many many more artists, long before which it will also need to have hit upon an elegant means of filing and navigating the apps.  But for now, Spotify artist apps are welcome early step on the road to mass market relevance and digital music product tangibility.

Music Start-Up Strategy 2.0

The music industry needs innovation more than most industries and yet the last two years has seen a slowdown in the number of new licensed music services coming to market and greater consolidation around the Triple A of Apple, Android and Amazon.  In this brave new world music start-ups need an entirely new modus operandi.

There are many reasons for the slowdown in new licensed music services, but a key one is the establishment of the license-advance business model in which record labels issue licenses only upon payment of sizeable, non-repayable advances in anticipation of forecasted income.  Depending on the scale of the risk to the labels presented by the licensed service these payments can range from relatively modest to downright gargantuan (Beyond Oblivion went to the wall owing $100m to Sony and Warner Music even though not a single consumer ever saw the service).  With so few services managing to make a dent on Apple’s market share investors have grown wary of investing in music start-ups that require licenses, some have effectively stopped investing in them all together.  The labels’ focus on partners with scale (and effectively using advances as means of sorting the financially robust wheat from the chaff) may deliver near-term security for the labels but it increases their long term risk by slowing music service innovation.  Hungry young start-ups are often more likely to create transformational innovation than heavily resourced R&D divisions of billion dollar companies.  Thinking ‘out of the box’ is always a lot easier when you’re not actually in the box in the first place.

Music Start-Up Strategy 2.0 Requires A New Set of Relationships

The status quo is a lose-lose for all parties, each of whom find themselves stuck in a Catch 22: labels need new services but also the safety net of advances, services need licenses but can’t pay for the advances and investors want to invest in music services but won’t do so when advances are required.  It is time to change the model, for this cycle of insufficient innovation and market contraction to be broken.

So just how can this circle be squared? The starting point is accepting the position of each of the three constituencies and then building from there:

  • Labels want market innovation but with their market contracting they need to mitigate risk
  • Services want to innovate but can’t afford to have advances as their core early stage expense
  • Investors want to invest in music innovation but want to put as much as possible of that investment in technology and people

Music start-up strategy 2.0 requires each party to think and behave differently, to accept the fundamentals of the new digital music economy.  And this requires a willingness to both embrace some new ideas and to help forge a few others:

Record labels – become investment partners: Record labels – majors and independents alike – deserve great credit for transforming their business in the last few years, but they cannot change the market alone.  Labels need to harness open innovation, leveraging the developer ecosystem.  OpenEMI is an early model of best practice but to fulfil its massive potential the approach needs underpinning with a more equitable alignment of label-developer relationships.  Start-ups are going to help solve record labels’ problem and labels need to not just tap that expertise but accelerate it.  To do that record labels need to apply A&R rules to technology start-ups. On the artist front labels already behave like Venture Capital firms, now they need to translate this appetite for risk to their commercial strategy.  To take the same sort of risks on start-ups as they do on artists. This of course means that labels will routinely require equity stakes – and sizeable ones, but instead of just being a licensing requirement, these will be in return for a new relationship in which labels establish nurturing partnerships with young start-ups, just like those they have with artists.

When a start-up is at pre-launch stage it is probably going to be more appropriate to take a good chunk of equity for licenses than it is an advance that the start-up can ill afford.  Of course it will still be appropriate for advances to be part of the mix in some circumstances – sometimes even the majority of the mix – but the balance of the relationship should be investing to become a business partner.  This means becoming active stakeholders, sitting on boards, working with the entrepreneurs to help make them successes.  In short, the relationship should change from licensee-licensor to investment partners with shared vision and motives for success.

Start-ups – understand what labels need: Though record labels are becoming increasingly confident of their own innovation capabilities, no media company is an innovation agency while technology start-ups have innovation imperatives at their core.  Unfortunately they often get the conversations with labels wrong.  Instead of going to labels with the “we’re going to save your industry” pitch, start-ups should better understand what label priorities are and then propose working with them to help them achieve those objectives, as partners. (This is something that Spotify did incredibly well right from the start).  Just as it is best practice to engage with an investor long before they actually need money, start-ups should apply the same approach to record labels.

However this change of relationship is probably going to take some time to realize, so in the more immediate term start-ups should look at ways to deliver their experiences without licenses.  No I’m not advocating the Groove Shark approach, but instead leveraging the content licenses of digital music services that are pursuing ambitious API strategies.  Music start-ups should think hard about whether they really need to own music licenses themselves to deliver a great user experience, or at least whether they need to right away.  Building, for example, a product within the Spotify ecosystem is a great way to deliver a real-world proof-of-concept, test consumer receptivity and have immediate access to millions of potential customers.  License conversations are a lot easier with proven consumer demand on the table.  (Though start-ups need to be careful with music API strategy, indeed they should treat music service APIs like mobile OS.  Don’t put all of your eggs in one API basket.)

Investors – work with labels as partners and embrace the API economy. Investors might have some reservations about working with record labels at start-up board level but they shouldn’t fear losing influence.  The odds are investors will still make the same scale of Seed and Series A investments, it is just that their money will be working smarter, helping build great technology and hiring better people at those crucial early stages of a company’s life.  Investors and labels often find themselves on opposite sides of the argument.  There is no inherent reason the relationship should be adversarial.

Investors should also think about how well their investment strategy harnesses the capabilities of the API Economy. Of course it is always preferable to invest in a business that owns all of the fuel that powers its engine.  But in the era of integrated music API’s it is no longer crucial for a music service to have its own licenses.  An investor wouldn’t expect a mobile app developer to own Android, iOS or Windows Mobile so they need not expect a music service to own music licenses.

Laying the Groundwork for Transformational Innovation

Some of these changes are already beginning to happen, others are a long way off from being realized.  But this change is needed to enable to next wave of transformational innovation that the music industry so desperately needs.  Freeing up precious and scarce early stage resources leaves start-ups able to focus on developing great, innovative technology.  Which in turn will mean better products, better user experiences and more revenue for everyone.

I first discussed some of the themes covered in this blog post in the Giga Om Pro report ‘Monetizing Music in the Post-Scarcity Age’ which can be found here