11/06/13: Rdio personalizes music recommendations

Brad Hill
November 6, 2013 - 12:15pm

In the conforming world of subscription music services, many of which share the same broad features, it is easy to assume that they exist in parity, competing on the basis of design rather than function. But then one of those services will update one of its products, and it becomes apparent that it has lacked an important feature that might have existed on competing platforms for years. That was the case when Rhapsody recently introduced genre stations -- basic, belated, and nicely implemented.

In that context, a new update to Rdio’s Apple app is surprising, but welcome. Rdio now refines its playlist suggestions on the basis of the user’s listening history and social following. This refinement is crucial in any listening service which hopes to retain its users. When the service gets smarter about your taste over time, it plays better music and gains in value. Without that increasing stickiness, retention is more difficult.

Along with the underlying intelligence layer, the iOS app now makes a three-fold display of songs in the playlist. The current album art is surrounded by previous and next selections, enabling the user to swipe ahead to the next track, as illustrated in the screenshot. (You cannot swipe backward, alas.)

Brad Hill
November 6, 2013 - 12:15pm

Can streaming music help album sales?

Last week’s SoundScan charted the lowest number of single-week album sales since 1991, when that measurement started informing Billboard charts, and there was immediate apocalyptic talk that streaming killed the album.

Pessimism might be justified when it comes to the album’s product legitimacy in 2013 and beyond. Bob Lefsetz applies his characteristically blunt futurism to the topic in a reaction to weak sales performance of Katy Perry’s new Prism collection.

Streaming music is not the cause of declining album sales, although it does reflect and support changing consumer demands and expectations. Consumer choice has been evolving for 15 years. Whether that marketplace shift is blindingly sudden or laboriously slow depends on whether your clock is set to Internet time or normal-world time.

The album suffered its first collision with digital reality when the mp3 format was unleashed, along with corresponding computer apps that enabled recording CD tracks. The term “ripping” resonated with illegality (“ripping off”), but copying tracks to mp3 files was just a legal as copying them to cassette tape.

It was the widespread sharing of mp3 tracks that was legally problematic. Sharing mix tapes on cassette was illegal, too, but so cumbersome and one-to-one that nobody much cared. When the original Napster hit the net in 1999, a one-to-many file-sharing revolution occurred. Horrified record labels complained that they couldn’t compete with free music, an obvious though arguable point, but two other values made Napster popular: a long tail of music unavailable elsewhere, and tracks separated from albums.

The iTunes Music Store rescued labels by wrapping a commerce solution around some Napster attractions. Doing so demystified and sanctioned single-track consumption. Steve Jobs had to talk the labels into breaking apart their albums for sale, and gave them digital rights management (DRM) in exchange, at least temporarily -- mostly solving the copy problem for iTunes-purchased tracks.

Music as e-commerce was off and running, but the album was a seriously broken product by 2003. A CNN Money article in 2010 reported skidding album sales in nine of the decade’s ten years.

Streaming music was operating in various forms before iTunes Music Store launched, including webcasts (AM/FM and pureplay), eMusic (subscription to download) and Rhapsody (subscription to stream). The combination of all these forces -- unauthorized file-sharing, iTunes price-per-download, subscription jukeboxes -- ushered the playlist era, a mix-your-own-album type of music consumption. Music became increasingly granular, smashed from album boulders into playlist gravel.

The mobile computing revolution, which started with laptops and accelerated with smartphones, furthered the trend. As cell phone data speeds increased in rapid technology cycles, the concept of accessing music from anywhere became viable for an enlarging class of well-equipped consumers.

Something else happened: a new streaming business framework based on advertising unlocked the “celestial jukebox” to people unwilling to pay for a music subscription. Spotify, Rdio, and their ilk offered an easy, no-charge on ramp to the so-called access model, where music exists as an always-on cloud of content available anywhere, synchronized across personal technology devices.

More than just granular, music has become atomized. The musicians’ complaint is that atoms of music consumption don’t pay as well as selling the big rocks (albums) or little rocks (price-per-track). The streaming industry’s response is that the liquification of music is still in early days, and when streams become tidal, everyone will prosper.

Recent experiments in iTunes Radio indicate that streaming access can stimulate old-world music purchase habits. iTunes Radio streamed Eminem’s new album for week before its release as a download or disc. The service did something similar with Justin Timberlake’s latest release; we noted then that “album release date” had taken a new, more liquid definition. We also noted that Timberlake’s album was perched atop the iTunes Store album-sales chart, while its individual tracks were far down the singles chart.

Whether streaming is driving album purchases is difficult to determine, but there does appear to be correlation of iTunes Radio pre-release streaming and iTunes Store chart performance. The Eminem experiment seems to be producing the same effect. The album’s pre-sales have propelled it to the #1 chart position. At the same time (either connected to pre-release streaming or not), Billboard reports that the Eminem album will start its Billboard 200 life in the top slot, and notch the second-highest album-sales week of the year.

So, while general music streaming might not support album sales, targeted promotional streaming on a major platform might funnel users who still enjoy outright ownership into traditional music stores. Especially when, as with Apple, the streaming service sits side-by-side with the music store.

Brad Hill
November 6, 2013 - 12:15pm

Wednesday lies at the week’s fulcrum point, and can make you feel stranded in a dim purgatory between weekends. At those times Cafe Cody (www.cafecody.com) is the pureplay music station of choice, able to carry you away sonically. Emanating from Palma De Mallorca, Spain … well, look it up, and tell us you don’t want to be there right now.

Cafe Cody markets its programming as “The Soundtrack to Your Life.” There’s more: “CAFÉ CODY is about you and your evolving place in the world. It’s about your growing feelings moving you beyond the ordinary and mundane into your expanded richness and sensuality. It’s about a place for you to abide and flow.” Holy smokes, all that from a playlist? Well, we think it works.

There is definitely a sunset-over-the-ocean feel to the tracks, with lots of acoustic guitar, shakers, soft percussion, unintrusive sax -- it’s smooth jazz exotica with a world music tinge.

The lean-back attitude of Cafe Cody is reflected in the site usability. You don’t have a lot of choices, and there’s not much information. Hit the play button and a pop-up controller tells you what’s playing, and the two tracks surrounding it. You’re supposed to be escaping the mundane, remember? Forget about music discovery and fiddling with settings. You’re on a Mediterranean island… --oh, except there is a donation button, of course. Cafe Cody is listener-supported.

Brad Hill
November 6, 2013 - 12:15pm

Bloom.fm, a British subscription music service that launched almost exactly a year ago, reached 500,000 registered users. Bloom operates a freemium model with a no-charge service supported by three subscription levels, the least expensive of which costs one British pound per month. Users pay more for additional “borrowing” (downloading for offline listening) privileges, up to 10 pounds a month.

Bloom.fm houses a music library of 22-million tracks. It is a mobile-only service for now, with apps for Apple and Android devices, and a web app on the way according to the site FAQ. Bloom apps live up to the service name with music genres represented as flower petals.

Meanwhile, Paris-based service Deezer announced today having acquired five-million paying subscribers. Deezer’s music library has grown to 30-million tracks. Deezer is not available in the U.S. but competes with Spotify in Europe.

TechCrunch notes that Deezer was at the two-million subscriber level a year ago, so has more than doubled is paid usage. Spotify disclosed six-million paying subscribers in March of this year. Alongside the subscriber growth announcement, Deezer is releasing an app upgrade that includes a new music discovery feature that bears some similarity to Spotify.