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.

 

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.