10/30/13: TuneIn achieves new milestones

Brad Hill
October 30, 2013 - 12:10pm

Aggregation platform TuneIn announced today that its portfolio of streaming radio stations has reached 100,000 -- “the most radio stations ever in one place,” according to the press release.

TuneIn is taking the long-tail approach to radio stations, adding broadcasts of German soccer leagues and a wide spectrum of international broadcasters. The service is not afraid of innovative programming, recently getting attention for setting up a 24-hour This American Life stream, featuring a non-interactive flow from that public radio show’s 18-year archive.

TuneIn currently reports a user base of 40-million active listeners, and distributes its brand to 50 automobile models for in-car listening. It might not be natural to think of TuneIn as fitting into the streaming music competition, but for all the talk about Apples’ 20-million listeners, and Pandora’s 73-million actives, TuneIn’s high-profile position as a radio and progamming aggregator is grabbing share and reach.

Brad Hill
October 30, 2013 - 12:10pm

It is a busy month for Rhapsody, the godparent of music services. During October the Internet jukebox launched new “radio” features that enabled artist-centric listening (trailing some other services by a few years, but still), closed an important partnership with international telecom giant Telefonica, and started giving free service to CD buyers at Best Buy.

September wasn’t so buoyant. First came rumors of a leadership shakeup, then came the actual shakeup, accompanied by a broad swath of layoffs.

Back to October. Rhapsody continues its strong month by giving its Android app users an updated experience that adds these key features:

  • EQ 
  • A sleep timer 
  • Enhanced programming 
  • WiFi-only downloads
  • Log of recent searches
  • Backskipping in Stations mode 

The on-board equalizer (EQ) is welcome, especially in mobile listening through earphones of varying quality. Most bargain earbuds don’t have the sonic capacity to bring EQ’ing fully to life (we’re looking at you, Apple), but for those very deficits it helps to punch the highs and lows. And with the advent of WiFi speakers in the home, massaging the sound in the app is a forward-looking feature.

As it happens, Rhapsody is looking backward and forward. The computer desktop app (yes, there is one, and while it’s no Spotify in most regards, it is a robust and reliable piece of software) has had a lovely pop-out EQ widget for over two years -- and it’s better than the new Android EQ. The desktop EQ has twice as many frequency bands: ten instead of five for mobile. And wow, does it sound better in side-by-side listening over the same speaker system.

We were hoping that the Android EQ would flip into a ten-band equalizer when in landscape mode, which would have inspired us to inaugurate a Cool Feature of the Month award. We twirled the phone around like a cheerleader’s baton, but sadly, no frequency-band enhancement was forthcoming.

The selection of EQ presets is reduced in the Android version, too, compared to the desktop. This seems like an unnecessary deprivation, especially when our favorite (“Presence Lift”) has been cruelly struck from the menu. We shouldn’t believe that Rhapsody is targeting our sensibilities particularly, but the evidence tempts our paranoid instincts.

A new sleep timer is nicely functional, and a welcome convenience to anyone who drifts off to music. (Provided they think ahead.) It shows up in the menu only when you’re in the Now Playing screen, and offers shut-off times of 15, 30, 56, 60, and 120 minutes.

Rhapsody is stepping into the “360 programming” trend with exclusive articles and videos. they are loaded into the Featured section, where new items are collected as Posts, as in a blog. That’s attractive packaging -- it seems up-to-date and timely. Band spotlights comprise the most interesting items. New house-built playlists are promoted there, too. Lou Reed-inspired tracks were all over the place during our testing, and some historical surveys (e.g. The Velvet Underground’s Legacy, and Hits You Never Heard Of, part 11).

It seems as if Rhapsody is allowing its editors to indulge their idiosyncratic passions. One article compared two recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, with audio samples -- our Baroque brains loved it, but we’re the first to admit that this particular feature lives way down on the long tail.

Finally, there is the introduction of backskipping in Radio mode. You can go backward to revisit a track that already played. With this feature, Rhapsody dishes out a major piece of interactive candy, and waves goodbye to Spotify in the rear-view mirror. Rdio is back there in the dust, too, along with iTunes Radio. Backskipping is not a unique innovation -- the arduously named Google Play Music All Access has it, too, with a beautiful graphic interface. But competing skip-to-skip with a big-media service is a perfect way for Rhapsody to start overcoming its arthritic image as the streaming grandparent.

All in all, an ambitious, even gleeful update during a tumultuous autumn for Rhapsody. And it appears that Android users are getting the juiciest bits first these days.

Brad Hill
October 30, 2013 - 12:10pm

We can hope to see more pictures of artists and bands in music services that use music intelligence data from The Echo Nest. (See part 1 and part 2 of RAIN’s interview with CEO Jim Lucchese.) The music data company has partnered with Getty Images to make it easy for music platforms to enrich their listening experiences with pictures.

Today, for the most part, track playback is accompanied by a single image, usually album art. The Echo Nest, which powers the radio-style playlists across hundreds of music services, is bundling Getty Images photos into its intelligence layer. Using The Echo Nest’s API (application programming interface -- the on-ramp to The Echo Nest’s music intelligence database), clients can build new features that automatically bring appropriate photos into the listener’s view. 

The partnership is an interesting extension of The Echo Nest’s core product, which is music analysis and contextual understanding. It fits into the company’s Dynamic Music Data program, which supplements the musical brain with artist information and social tools.

Brad Hill
October 30, 2013 - 12:10pm

While Pandora’s “active listener” metric hovers around 73-million (72.7M reported in September), and iTunes Radio brags of attracting 20-million unique users in its first month, SoundCloud is quietly rolling up an impressive user base. TechCrunch reports from its Disrupt Europe conference that the audio-upload site now hosts 250-million “monthly active listeners.”

SoundCloud was founded in 2008 as a storage service and collaboration platform for music producers. In early days, the founders compared SoundCloud to Flickr, the photo-sharing site. Today, it makes sense to compare SoundCloud to YouTube. As Google reportedly prepares a formalized YouTube music service, it is interesting to see SoundCloud’s user-generated content approach as an audio-only parallel to YouTube.

Soundcloud has long offered subscription plans, but geared to creators who upload audio, not to listeners. All listening and organizing of music on SoundCloud is free, unlimited, and without advertising. Revenue comes entirely from subscriptions. Paid accounts are for creators, who pay for additional space for uploading and enhanced statistics. In this way SoundCloud historically has been focused on delivering premium value to the creator side of its user base.

Last December SoundCloud launched a redesigned site with listener-friendly features and a clear intent to build up the listener side. The site’s content is far-reaching (again, like YouTube), ranging from the rawest of amateur uploads to well-known artists sharing clips, full releases, outtakes, and live audio. It all adds up to a fascinating and engaging landscape for the inquisitive, lean-in user. Some lean-back functionality was added in the redesign, too, keeping the music flowing radio-style.

The repositioning of SoundCloud as a music listening service seems to be working from the vantage of growing audience, which has grown from 200-million to 250-million since July.

Brad Hill
October 30, 2013 - 12:10pm

The music business has been pivoting around new digital realities for about 15 years. All layers of production are affected -- composing, performing, recording, manufacturing, distributing, and ownership of copyright.

Streaming music, RAIN’s core focus, is the just the most recent expression of technology disrupting business models in music. Unauthorized files sharing and song-by-song download stores set the stage for streaming’s paradigm of replacing ownership with access. But the surge of streaming services is a radical twist on the digitization of music. As mainstream audiences migrate to listening platforms as a major form of music consumption, musicians are offended by granular royalty payments from those services -- sometimes filtered through label contracts created before streaming was on the musician’s radar screen.

Is music being destroyed by the Internet? That alarmist view finds voice through David Byrne (“...the Internet will suck the creative content out of the whole world until nothing is left”) and others. It is safe to say that music is being disrupted, as the creative arts have been many times in the past.

This week a panel event called Virgin Disruptors hit the topic straight on: “Has tech killed the music industry?” (Watch the archive here.) The conversation featured musicians Zoe Keating, will.i.am, Amanda Palmer, and Imogen Heap, and from the tech side, reps from Spotify, Vevo, and Songkick. The conversation seeks alignment of the artists’ business needs with business models on the tech side.

A more formal exploration of tech/music disruption is in the works: a documentary called Unsound: How Musicians and Creators Survive in the Age of Free. A nine-minute extended trailer is showing on Vimeo. The trailer, movie title, and key quotes tell a preliminary story of gloom, and appear to advocate for plights of musicians: 

  • “UNSOUND reveals the story behind the dramatic collapse of the music business.” 
  • “As the world becomes increasingly digital, creators are now at risk.”
  • “The future of all creators is at stake.”
  • “The digital delivery of IP is our generation's nuclear power.”

Interviewees featured in the trailer include Jim Griffin (thought leader in the digital media space), David Lowery (activist musician who writes about streaming royalties), Chris Vrenna (Nine Inch Nails), and others.

Brad Hill
October 30, 2013 - 12:10pm

If you need some space wedged into the middle of your week, SpacesFM (www.spacesfm.com) provides sonic vistas. Defined as “Redefining Classical radio,” the stream is more about electronica than formal classical music. That said, we have heard a couple of orchestral works today, and the station clearly loves acoustic piano.

The default Play button sounds good to us today. Supplementing the live stream are several on-demand curations, including Cinematic Pianos, a couple of indie label features, an artist stream (Sophie Kazandjian), and many others.

We don’t think of SpacesFM as a musically challenging station, but it’s not straight chillstep comfort, either. The mix is distinctive and intriguing.

A pop-out web player makes the stream easy to control while multitasking.