Spotify’s Bold New Transition from Streaming Music Service to Music Platform

Spotify today gave an update on the year to date and announced a host of new features.

5 Million Paying Subscribers

As expected Spotify has managed to hit the 5 million paying subscriber mark which is a fantastic achievement, as is the 1 million US paying subs also announced.  That translates to 1 million new paying subscribers in just 3 months.  Back in May I predicted that Spotify would hit 8 million paying subscriber in May 2013.  It looks like that prediction is going to be in the right ball park.  Spotify’s official active user count is now 20 million, which interestingly is much closer to the Facebook reported 24 million – those numbers have been very far apart for the last 9 months or so.  Which indicates that Spotify’s marketing funnel has got bigger as its profile in the US has grown.  i.e. more people are trying out the free service. (See the graphic at the bottom of the page for a summary of Spotify’s numbers).

Spotify also announced it has paid out $500 million to rights owners, which is impressive, but to keep a sense of perspective is about 2% of all digital music service money paid to record labels globally since 2009 when Spotify burst onto the scene.

A Bold New User Experience

But of more interest, to me at least, was a slew of new features that collectively transform the Spotify experience.  Spotify has made a bold UI transformation from a list-based approach to a rich visual experience with modules of music content (which visually looks like a cross between Rdio and Pinterest).  These include music, artwork, bio information, reviews from Pitchfork, Songkick gig information, recommendations based on your behaviour.  In doing this, Spotify has made a subtle but powerful transition from streaming music player to immersive music platform.

Spotify Thinks the Discovery Question Does Need Answering

Spotify also announced, as TechCrunch had correctly predicted, a new social discovery tool called Follow, whereby users can follow people’s whose music tastes they want to keep up with. People can follow friends or music influencers such as artists, music bloggers, music journos etc. pretty much in the way they would on Twitter, but here they get sent playlists of music to listen to instantly rather than 140 characters of static text.

Spotify are trying to answer the big discovery question which has so far gone largely unanswered, despite plenty of well-intentioned efforts to come up with a solution.   Discovery has been the centre of some pretty heated debate of late – as this and this post show – but whether or not it gets fixed in the wider music industry it is a huge issue for streaming music services.  What is the point of having all the music in the world at your fingertips if a search bar is all you have to find your way around.

Good music discovery happens in two main ways:

  1. Someone who’s reputation we trust (DJ, cool friend, family) makes a recommendation
  2. We serendipitously fall upon a piece of music that we love

Why Discovery Matters So Much to Streaming Services

Unlimited music services face the paradox of their being so much choice that there is in effect no choice at all.  People need a way to navigate through immensity of the music world. Spotify’s Follow function is a way of addressing this issue. It’s a smart way to do it, because good music discovery isn’t ‘we’ve seen you like this song, so we think you’ll like these three songs too’.  It’s much subtler than that.  Following people who have great music taste can be exactly that sort of subtle discovery.  But this isn’t a new idea.  Beyond Oblivion had built their entire service around the concept of following influencers (and they had a pretty cool atom-like visual navigation to let you get from influencer to influencer too).  Of course Beyond never got to market, but Spotify have picked up the idea and run with it. Rdio also have the feature.  In fact if I were Rdio I’d be feeling a little as if some of my clothes had been stolen.

Spotify’s Follow feature gets really interesting in an artist context.  If an artist posts a music playlist to his followers it gets delivered straight into their music collections.  A great way to launch a new album direct to your fans.  Though it does raise some interesting questions about whether this will increase or decrease album sales?  Does getting your favourite artists’ latest album delivered straight into your Spotify player sate your appetite straight away or simply whet it?

Spotify’s Follow feature is not the answer to the discovery question, but it is certainly one important step in the right direction.  In fact there won’t be a single answer to discovery, because we all like to discover music in different ways.  Some of us want to dive in and have an immersive experience, others want something music less. Some of us want both, but at different times.  And Spotify recognize that by offering multiple other new ways of recommending music, ranging from recommendations based upon user behaviour, collaborative thinking and context such as the age of the user.

Spotify is Now A Music Platform

This set of new features is the most important change in Spotify’s user experience, period.  It transforms Spotify from an excel spread-sheet streaming app into an immersive, multimedia, context rich music experience platform and app ecosystem.  Back in November 2011 I suggested that with the launch of its API platform that Spotify was taking the first step towards making music the API, and towards transforming Spotify into a music platform.  Now just over one year on we can see the fruits of that labour.

Much of what Spotify has done isn’t unique, but they have executed it in a manner akin to Apple in its digital music prime.  Execution is everything.  Spotify has just set the digital music experience standard for other music services to aspire to.

Spotify infographic dec 2012

Spotify Play Button: Digital Music’ Largest Marketing Funnel Just Got Bigger

A quick one….

Spotify today announced its new ‘Spotify Play Button’ feature.  As Giga Om Pro’s David Card Tweeted, it is ‘Spotify’s 1st baby step towards 2-way platform syndication’.  In a nutshell the feature enables publishers to post embedded song stream links on their sites, thus adding music context to their stories.  Publishers at launch include Vogue, GQ, The Guardian and NME.  Crucially the Play Button is not an audio embed but instead a link that will play music from Spotify’s servers, via a user’s Spotify app via the site.  Which means that if you don’t have Spotify you don’t get to listen to the music.

10 Million Users Translates to a Small Share of a Publisher’s Readership

As much as a success story as Spotify is, its 10 million users (or 17.5 million depending on which source you choose) are significant in digital music terms but tiny in Internet user terms. Which matters a lot to mainstream publishers such as Vogue and GQ who appeal to broad demographics.  Only a small share of their readers will actually have Spotify accounts, so the majority of their readers will, as I told the BBC, encounter user experience ‘speed bumps’.  Readers will either not be able to listen to music or instead will have to register for Spotify…assuming of course that they are Facebook users, otherwise they will have to register for Facebook first, and then Spotify.

So non-music specialist publishers (i.e. those whose readers will not in the main have Spotify) will likely get as much reader push back as they will positive feedback.  For Spotify though it is all win-win.  This is a smart customer acquisition tool.  Combined with the Facebook integration Spotify now arguably has the largest marketing funnel of any digital music service (YouTube, and by extension Vevo, excepted).  And this is what it is all about, as the following quote from the Spotify press release attests:

Anyone new to Spotify will be set up with the Spotify desktop app, which powers the button in the background, as soon as they start playing the music.

Another Step in Spotify’s ‘Music API’ Strategy

As I’ve argued before, Spotify want to become the API for Music.  This is part of that strategy.  Soundcloud should probably be concerned – though they are more than smart enough to find out a way to make their universal accessibility a highly visible differentiation point.  YouTube and Vevo though won’t be losing sleep.  The majority of user generated music links will continue to be YouTube embeds, as will the majority of publisher music links.  The web is becoming an ever more video-rich experience and music is no exception.

So, a small but smart move from Spotify that will do wonders for their user acquisition and ‘Music API’ strategies.  The case for publishers though is less clear cut.

Facebook Timeline for Artists (When Platforms Forget Their Responsibilities)

Regular readers will know I’m a big advocate of content platforms and ecosystems.  Indeed device based ecosystems such as iTunes, Kindle and xBox are the success stories of paid content. More recently these platforms have been complemented by a new wave of ecosystems by the likes of Facebook and Spotify, that depend upon software and user data for walls instead of hardware.  Both sets of ecosystems depend upon 3rd party developer and / publisher platforms for success.  A thriving platform is one which is defined as much by 3rd parties as it is the host company.  But just as a blossoming garden requires careful tending so does an ecosystem.  The host has a responsibility to ensure that developers and publishers have the support, processes and transparency necessary to instill the confidence necessary for them to invest their time and resources into the platform.  It is a responsibility that does not always come cheaply to the hosts and isn’t always respected to the full, as we have seen with the impact of Facebook’s Timeline on a number of artist app developers.

Artist Timelines are Throttling Artist Apps

Facebook’s Timeline feature is looking like a great innovation from the social networking behemoth and there are many examples of artists, music services and music publications using the feature to great effect.  (Take a look at Spotify’s Facebook Timeline for a super cool implementation).  However the way in which Timeline was implemented on artist pages has had a dramatic cooling effect on what was beginning to shape up to be a vibrant community of Facebook artist app developers.  Latest data from and reported on Digital Music News shows that Band Page (formerly Root Music), Reverb Nation and FanRX (formerly BandRX) all saw a steady decline in usage in the lead in to the Timeline switchover date and then a ‘falling off a cliff’ drop on the date itself.  All three apps have remained stuck at their decimated levels.

The key reason for the collapse in user numbers is that as part of the Timeline feature Facebook prevented these apps being able to act as the landing page for artist profiles.  There is very well thought out reasoning for this move: Facebook remembers only too well the anarchic chaos of MySpace artist pages, indeed the pared-down minimalism of Facebook’s UI was an intentional antidote to MySpace messiness.  But none of this detracts from the fact that Facebook has failed to fulfil its duties as platform host.  It should have done more to accommodate the concerns of artist app developers and would be well advised to work with them now to improve their lot.  Although it would be stretching credulity to claim these apps were responsible for artists switching from MySpace to Facebook, they certainly played an important role in easing the transition for many.

Being a Platform Means Looking Out for the Small Guys Too

If Facebook is serious about becoming a platform for music, it needs to ensure that it doesn’t just lay out the red carpet for Swedish streaming services.  The value of Facebook as a music platform will come from the functionality, utility and experience delivered by 3rd party apps that help artists differentiate the way they engage with fans.  Apps such as Band Page, Reverb Nation, Fan RX and Bopler Games.  Ensuring that strategic priorities can be implemented without destroying the livelihoods of developers is a key responsibility of platform hosts.  Of course sometimes hosts patently ignore the responsibility and use app developers as free R&D – just think about the number of times Apple has killed off app companies by integrating their functionality directly into iOS.  But even Apple knows you can only do that so many times before you risk killing the proverbial golden goose.

I continue to maintain that Facebook’s platform strategy is subtly brilliant, and in the bigger scheme of things the artist app Timeline debacle is pretty small fry.  But if Facebook is to establish itself as a genuine music platform it must learn from the lessons Band Page et al are painfully teaching.

Ecosystems In The Age Of The API

Walled gardens, Ecosystems, Platforms, call them what you will, but the mechanisms through which our digital content experiences are managed have evolved much over the last 15 years.

In the early days of the web, ISPs tried to control our entire online lives by building proprietary walls around users.  These so-called Walled Gardens were exemplified by  AOL.  But as Internet users got savvy  they banged away at those walls until they crumbled under the weight of inevitability in much the same manner as the Berlin Wall did.  Mobile carriers briefly brought Walled Gardens back from the dead (and there’s still an extended death rattle in some parts), but these days we expect our Internet journeys to be broadly free.  I say ‘broadly free’ because of course many of the destinations on our digital journeys are not open, and some of them are harder to get in and out of than others.  In fact the journey of the digital consumer is analogous to that of a traveller in Medieval Europe.  The highways are sometimes wild and unpredictable, while the coveted destinations are walled cities and heavily fortified castles.

Ecosystems are the success stories of paid content

The reasons the walls exist in the digital realm are not entirely different from that of Medieval Europe’s mercantile cities.   Walls protect their inhabitants from unwanted external intrusion, but most importantly they guarantee those inhabitants a quality of existence that could not happen externally.  This is why ecosystems are the success stories of paid content.  The xBox, Kindle and iTunes ecosystems have all succeeded in converting portions of their users into paid content buyers at rates unachievable elsewhere.

Walls alone though aren’t enough

As many a newspaper will tell you, simply throwing a pay wall up around your content doesn’t magically create a loyal paying audience.  The reason that iTunes et al work is because the priority of their walls is to create and guarantee a quality and consistency of experience within them.   Protecting against external intrusion is of secondary concern.  Once you have created a high quality experience within those walls, then you can start thinking about leveraging revenue.  Just in the same way a successful Medieval city state that could guarantee prosperous trade and commerce within its walls could also demand greater taxes from its subjects than one that could not.

Take the example of xBox Live, the networked gaming component of xBox.  When the service was first launched it was a gimmicky extra.  But when, years after launch, Microsoft turned off access to Live to xBox users who had pirated games on their consoles there was a massive outcry from jilted (pirate) users who claimed that their xBox experience was useless without Live.  What Microsoft had done was use the confines of their ecosystem to create a unique experience that could not exist externally and of which users quickly realized the emotional and monetary value.

A new generation of ecosystems

But as successful as closed, device-based ecosystems are, things are changing, quickly.  We are seeing the emergence of a new breed of ecosystem that doesn’t have the straightforward mechanism of a device operating system to define its boundaries.  Instead this new generation of ecosystem almost paradoxically uses openness to create its closedness.  These ecosystems use software developer APIs to create vibrant platforms in which a quality of experiences exist.  Nobody exemplifies this approach better than Facebook with their Socially Optimized Web Strategy. 

The net result is that we now have three key types of Content Ecosystem Models co-existing (see chart).

  • Closed Door Ecosystems: these have the most impermeable walls, typically defined by the operating system of a family of devices.  Apple’s iTunes is the best of breed example.  User experiences and all externally developed experiences (typically Apps) can only exist within the ecosystem of supported devices. 
  • One Way Ecosystems: these leverage software applications to define boundaries, but unlike Closed Door Ecosystems they do not have the benefit of proprietary hardware so rely upon the quality of the experience delivered by the software.  To help achieve this, One Way Ecosystems leverage developer communities via APIs.  This enables bite sized chunks of the  ecosystem’s experience to be delivered externally, though almost always with a view to ultimately encouraging users in, or back in, to the centre. Control is exercised by ensuring that a core level of experience, and Apps, can only be experienced internally.  A contemporary example is Spotify, who already support some externalization, but last week announced the creation of an internal, closed wall API platform.  Thus Spotify aims to benefit from the external reach of the API era while simultaneously reaping the rewards of the Closed Door model.
  • Revolving Door Ecosystems: these are the true child of the API era.  Typically they exist without an OS or other proprietary software to define their boundaries.  Instead they leverage APIs to deliver a subtler but highly effective ecosystem that fully supports inward and outward flows of externally developed experiences and Apps.   What protects these ecosystems from disintegrating under this laissez-faire approach is tightly policing the flow of data, so that the ecosystem’s data and context is depended upon entirely to deliver the value of Apps and other experiences.  Facebook isn’t the only example of this approach but is simply leagues ahead of anyone else.

The value of uniqueness

The secret ingredient of success of any ecosystem is uniqueness,   a monopoly on control of uniqueness.  A uniqueness that consumers know they cannot experience anywhere else.  However uniqueness isn’t just valuable for the technology companies building ecosystems, it is a crucial commodity for media companies in the digital age.  Piracy and the wider Internet swept away media companies’ monopoly on supply, so now uniqueness is the most important tool they have left to create new senses of monetary value among audiences.  Only when uniqueness has been achieved, can other important assets such as context, convenience and curation be fully brought to bear.

It is easy to fear ecosystems (indeed there is much to give cause for concern) and there are growing issues about how competing  ecosystems will co-exist (if at all).  But they are also the key to successfully monetizing content in the digital age, and they will continue to evolve.  Devices transformed Walled Gardens into Ecosystems, and APIs have transformed Ecosystems into Platforms.  Change will inevitably continue at a bewildering pace, but  the challenge which media companies must rise to, is to become active participants in, nay, catalysts for that change, not shell-shocked observers.