10/8/13: Pandora’s mobile app used by nearly half of smartphone owners

Brad Hill
October 8, 2013 - 7:10am

As noted in Audio4cast, Pandora landed in 8th place in comScore’s measurement of top smartphone app usage for August. This metrics category is different from smartphone audience via the phone’s browser. Some top-15 media properties (like Gmail) might have their app ranking cannibalized by browser use, and others (like Twitter) by a multiplicity of popular apps that are lower on the list.

But Pandora’s ranking is fairly pure, as the service doesn't work in a mobile browser, and there are no alternatives to the official Pandora app. On comScore's browser-plus-app usage list, which is invaded by web-based behemoths like Yahoo!, Amazon, and AOL, Pandora holds its own in 9th place.

P’s reach is measured at 43.3 percent of the app audience, which is a remarkable testimony not only to Pandora’s footprint, but to Internet radio generally, if you consider Pandora as a proxy for the medium and the consumer model it represents. If you took away ecosystem-branded apps that enjoy a built-in smartphone advantage (Google Search, for example), Pandora would rise to third, after Facebook (75.7%) and YouTube (52.8%).

Social, video, and music are the chief app-based pureplays -- with each wedging into the others’ territories to some extent.

Brad Hill
October 8, 2013 - 7:10am

Rhapsody, one of the oldest listening platforms, a subscription-only pureplay, and lately a beleaguered business wracked with internal changes, has brought new features to its Radio product. “Radio” in this context means playlists. Until now, Rhapsody has offered a suite of house-curated genre stations, but no artist-seeded or song-seeded stations in the Spotify and Pandora style.

Customized radio is increasingly desired by users who like to lean in a bit, by choosing a band or single track, then lean back and enjoy a stream of songs related to the band or track. Selections are refined by whatever the service knows about the user’s taste. That interactive model usually includes thumbs-up and thumbs-down arrows, the ability to skip forward, and an option to add any track to a collection of favorites.

It’s a good model, satisfying to use, accommodating of different listening postures, and conducive to music discovery. Rhapsody is late to the game, inasmuch as Pandora, iTunes Radio, Spotify, Rdio, and Google All Access feature the same “radio”-style feature set. This week’s enhancement comes one year after Rhapsody partnered with The Echo Nest, a leading provider of music recommendation technology to listening platforms.

Rhapsody’s new product includes a feature increasingly seen in “radio” setting: a Variety slider that determines how far afield the artist station is allowed to venture from the artist characteristics. iTunes Radio has something similar. It is a calibrating feature that reflects how adventurous the user is feeling.

In our listening tests of Rhapsody’s new Radio, using an account with extensive Rhapsody history, throwing the slider to the far right (more variety) widened the scope of listening noticeably, but not radically. In a blues-rock station fashioned after Eric Gales, the greatest variety setting brought in a harder rock edge. One terrific aspect of the Variety slider is the list of five upcoming tracks. You can jump ahead to any one of them. Moving the slider refreshes the list in real time, giving you an idea of what’s in store at any variety level.

While Rhapsody's new package is a valuable service enhancement, there is a depressing degree of conformity solidifying in this space like drying cement. Artist-based, dynamically created, radio-style playlists all seem to operate in the same way, distinguished only by small usability details. Product development is lacking innovation. Rdio recently launched its “Stations” utility, achieving product parity with Spotify. Slacker introduced “My Vibe” stations, nearly cloning Songza’s “Life Moment” listening scheme. iTunes Radio launched in an overt imitation of Pandora’s successful Internet radio model.

Everybody is reaching parity with everyone else. User choice is based on either interface design, music selection quality, or habit. Pandora is one service with a unique back end, the result of years of R&D into the characteristics of music and the signifiers of music taste. In all cases, including Pandora, quality of music selection is improved by sticking with one system and building up a history of liking, skipping, and saving tracks. In a field marked by elusive profitability, the homogeneity of interactive listening sets the stage for future consolidation.

For now, the venerable Rhapsody, which started in 2000, has joined the pack with a standard feature set for artist-based stations -- it is well implemented for the most part, and sounds good.

Brad Hill
October 8, 2013 - 7:10am

Does Internet radio solve piracy? Let’s be clear about the question.

By “Internet radio” we mean all forms of interactive listening that reflect the consumer trend to access as a new form of ownership. In other words, reaching for the celestial jukebox instead of hoarding song files in local storage, whether or not those files are obtained illicitly.

By “piracy” we mean any music consumption unauthorized by music owners, regardless of whether that behavior displaces legal downloading or listening. (Displacement has been a much-argued question for 15 years.)

Now that we’ve clarified the terms, let’s admit that the answer is unknowable. There is logic to the idea that streaming music, and music subscriptions, offer an easier, safer, and more satisfying path to soundtracking one’s life than unauthorized methods. If Spotify had existed in 1998, during Napster’s heyday, it is possible that the novel delights of file-sharing would have been substantially undermined.

Enough speculation. Here are some numbers. Google reports receiving 21.5-million copyright removal requests in the past month, and nearly 6-million in the past week. The accelerating pace of those requests is breathtaking (see the graphic), and likely due to increased surveillance as much as it is due to supply or demand for unauthorized music.

What is a copyright removal request to a search engine? Google is not a peer-to-peer file-sharing network, but it does serve as a directory that points to file-sharing platforms. As such, it must respond to DMCA-compliant takedown requests. These requests emanate in the greatest volume from industry groups like the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) and its British counterpart, the BPI (British Phonographic Industry). Those two alone are responsible for about 10-million takedown requests in the last month, nearly half the total. Another top-three request source is Degban, a technology provider that uncovers unauthorized services. Microsoft gets into the act, too.

All these groups, and others, want search results removed from Google. Google complies with 97 percent of requests.

The meaning of all this is debatable. It is wrong to imagine that 21.5-million new file-sharing networks popped up in a one-month period. Most takedown links point to individual files on a P2P platform. There could be a million requests related to one underground service. As to actual use, Google’s disclosure does not hint at clickthrough, or offer any measurement of how popular unauthorized file-sharing is. The ongoing request-and-removal process has become systematized through technology, and functions as a tamping-down method of keeping illegitimate music distribution partly hidden.

Music streaming and music piracy live side-by-side. We’ll take streaming any day.

Brad Hill
October 8, 2013 - 7:10am

Classical music listening online is an uneven experience, and now has a new champion in Deezer, the 2006-founded, French-based listening platform with 30-million users and 4-million subscribers.

Deezer has launched an app in cooperation with major classical labels Deutsche Grammophon, Decca, Philips, L’Oiseau Lyre, and Accord. Those labels are placing their entire discographies into the Deezer catalog. Deezer reportedly surveyed its users about interest in classical, and 92 percent replied they would listen to classical if there were a better discovery environment. Surveys are all about how you ask the question, but you can’t blame Deezer for taking the bait.

In the larger market, classical is among the nichiest of the niche. Nielsen’s 2012 report of genre album sales shows classical (7.5-million physical albums) lower than every other category except for New Age, down 20 percent from 2011. On the digital side, 2.6-million albums were purchased, a gain of 14 percent. So, more reason for Deezer's optimism -- and the Nielsen numbers do not account for streaming.

The overall point is that classical music serves a marginal audience. A secondary point is that streaming platforms serve it poorly.

It wasn’t always the case. Rhapsody got its start in 2000 as a classical-only online jukebox, presenting exactly one label: Naxos, the adventurous purveyor of unusual repertoire across the centuries. It was an unexpected slice of heaven for classical lovers (those who were aware of it).

Rhapsody and the other services include classical, but typically in ways that are screwy to users who value classical listening the most. Streaming classical is confused by song-based conventions of the other genres, and by metadata that does not convey proper information. Symphonies are good examples. A single symphony is actually multiple pieces, strung together in so-called movements. Universally, classical streams rip apart multi-movement pieces illogically and irreverently, as if the movements were album songs.

Labeling is also a problem, even in Rhapsody, whose legacy should make it the best in this regard. In classical, the composer is as important (or more so, for many fans) than the performer. In song-based genres it's the opposite -- the composer (songwriter) is unimportant as a search term. The frequent result in classical is that you can’t tell exactly what is streaming, or what is included on an album that pops up in a search result.

If Deezer solves these presentation problems, it will perform a cultural service. Whether it will make any money doing so remains to be seen. (Deezer is not distributed in the U.S., and is unavailable to RAIN for review.)