A Story

Anticipation builds for Beats Music

Thursday, October 10, 2013 - 11:00am

Every few days rumors are published about the impending launch of Beats Music. We know it will be soon. We've heard that there will be a subscription component -- possibly all-subscription, like Rhapsody and Google All Access.

We don’t know whether Beats Music will be any good. Well, it’ll be good. We don’t know whether it will be a standout in the crowded field Beats is entering. The service will launch within months, and The Next Web reports that The Echo Nest is involved in creating the recommendation engine. Echo Nest is the tech company that white-labels Internet radio curation for Rhapsody, Spotify, and other leading brands.

Luke Wood, Beats Music president, has promised an acutely personalized and expertly curated listening environment. All the lean-forward platforms promise that, and honestly, delivery on that promise is pretty good. Pandora has some extra mojo for many listeners, but iTunes Radio, Spotify, Rdio -- they all produce a customized Internet radio experience across a huge catalog that was unthinkable not too many years ago

So the question isn’t when Beats will come to market, or whether it will be personalized. The question is whether the product development truly contains innovations that will set Beats apart from the pack. Because inducing users to stick around after the trial period is getting increasingly difficult.

BBC (sort of) introduces Playlister, a (kind of) music service

Wednesday, October 9, 2013 - 10:45am

The marketing is impressive, the collateral design is dazzling, and the product itself is … slightly baffling, at first. BBC Playlister is a new feature woven throughout the BBC online music experience. The top layer is a tagging function, whereby users select songs for addition to a personal playlist. The resulting list is not a playlist in the usual sense -- specifically, you can’t play it. For that, the list must be exported to a real music service. Playlister has launched with three inaugural partners: Spotify, YouTube, and Deezer.

Confusing? Possibly, and the first question might be: Why bother? Spotify itself has been available to the BBC’s primary U.K. audience since 2009. YouTube and Deezer, likewise no problem in the U.K. Is the purpose to indoctrinate American music-lovers to the unique music discoveries of BBC programmers? There is a hint of that strategy in the BBC’s introductory video: “The U.K. is world-renowned for its music. And for 80 years, the BBC has been its beating heart.”

But the reality, as of today, is more mundane. Playlister on the BBC website surfaces the same global hits that all other music services are featuring this morning: Lorde, Katy Perry, et al. Why would any user build an unlistenable playlist, then export it to another platform, when that other platform is performing the same music promotion with native playlisting?

The answer might gain more nuance when the BBC presenters (show hosts) get into Playlister, which they are not as of now. If the BBC is a uniquely astute music curator, it’s the programmers who will deliver brand value to Playlister. (Oddly, the video shows a BBC programmer sitting on the floor surrounded by vinyl LPs, 1970s-style.)

Operationally, everything works without a glitch. It’s a well-executed launch. Registering, browsing, and collecting are woven into an attractive and painless product experience. Exporting to YouTube results in a video playlist, as one would hope for -- and that, at least, is a piece of unique value right from the start. The Playlister app within Spotify (web only for now; mobile promised for later) is ready to go as well, and works fine -- even if, again, carrying a playlist into Spotify from outside seems futile.

Drilling into Spotify’s Playlister app reveals a discovery environment demonstrably superior to the BBC’s website, for listening to BBC channels and programs. It is easier to find shows and presenters without wading through non-music options, losing the navigation menu to promotions, and other distractions foisted by the BBC’s own domain. The Spotify app keeps the experienced focused on listening. Playlister is not woven into the channel and presenter options, though, either in Spotify or on BBC.

BBC Playlister is not exactly a music service in a modern sense. Is BBC missing the boat, or cagily sidestepping the need to build one? From a business perspective, all the stakeholders win: distribution for the BBC, content acquisition for Spotify, and new ad inventory for Google-owned YouTube. More power to each of them. Not much power to the user, yet, but Playlister is worth keeping an eye on. Watch this space for new developments.

Pandora is 8th most-used smartphone app (comScore)

Tuesday, 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.

TuneIn on Samsung Shape: reinventing radio and consumer behavior

Monday, October 7, 2013 - 10:15am

Samsung, whose products increasingly foster the untethered lifestyle, has come out with a wireless home sound system called Shape. It is so-called because the shape of Shape is … shapely. Most reviews compare Shape to Sonos, which, while nicely shaped in its own right, similarly streams Internet radio and locally stored music throughout a home. Both systems hook into the home’s WiFi, are controlled by smartphone apps, and can multitask -- which means different rooms can hear different streams, playlists, albums, etc..

The smartphone app which serves as the remote control for Shape comes with a few services pre-installed: Pandora, Rhapsody, and TuneIn. Those selections niftily cover a wide service spectrum: Pandora for pureplay Internet radio; Rhapsody for subscription-only interactive music collection; and TuneIn for aggregated terrestrial radio stations.

That last point is the most interesting -- in a device that resembles radio, and is meant to replace the radio set as a household appliance, AM/FM is represented by a digital streaming platform.

As such, Shape (and Sonos, which also makes TuneIn easily accessible), position AM/FM in the life of a mobile-centric, lean-in consumer. Shape and Sonos are receivers of a sort, but the received medium is an Internet signal over WiFi, enabling a incongruent mix of formats: downloaded songs stored on a computer (or in Amazon’s cloud service in the case of Sonos), playlists maintained on a discovery service (Rhapsody), IP-delivered AM/FM webcasts, and -- crucially -- time-shifted radio programming (both on TuneIn).

Shape and Sonos encourage users, and force programmers, to think of consumable content as liberated from rigid delivery formats and schedules. Audio is granularized and liquified. In one RAIN household, TuneIn is used primarily to hear NPR program podcasts, detached from the original broadcast schedule. That use is gradually displacing radio sets.

Products like Shape, when paired with new content platforms like TuneIn, strive to reinvent not only technology (in this case radio), but also consumer behavior, while preserving content programming, and even improving access to it.

Music download sales decrease as streaming music gains

Friday, October 4, 2013 - 10:30am

Digital single-track sales are down over the first nine months of this year, compared to the same period in 2012. The decline has accelerated quarter-over-quarter, with the July-Aug-Sep period showing a 6-percent skid, according to Billboard. Digital album sales have fared better this year, gaining 2.6% over 2012, although the third quarter showed a similar summertime dip as single-track sales.

Download doldrums match the consumer trend toward Internet radio as an important venue for music discovery and the “access model” of ownership. Recent audience metrics reports from Triton and Pandora indicate that webcasting and Internet radio adoption is gradually and steadily climbing upward. As mobile listening crosses multiple devices, environments, and dayparts, access to cloud-based music jukeboxes takes the place of unit purchases and local storage. 

Apple and Google hedge their bets by operating on both sides of the fence, offering digital albums and tracks for sale, as well as customized listening to enormous catalogs of music. As a third leg of the stool, both services also provide cloud storage of owned music files -- a hybrid of the ownership and access models.

Rdio switches on “Stations,” pivoting on Cumulus deal

Thursday, October 3, 2013 - 1:05pm

That didn’t take long. Today, just 12 business days after announcing a partnership with Cumulus Radio, Rdio introduces a major service change by releasing a free, unlimited version of its Internet radio capability to Android and iOS mobile devices, and rebranding it “Stations.” As with similar offerings in Spotify (Rdio’s most direct competitor), Pandora and iTunes Radio, the Stations experience is ad-supported, or will be. At launch, mobile listeners will get an ad-free experience; desktop customers will see and/or hear commercials.

The announcement signifies quick progression of the quasi-acquisitional BizDev arrangement between Rdio and Cumulus, which includes handing over Rdio’s ad inventory to the Cumulus sales force. With Cumulus resources, Rdio adds an advertising component to its revenue model.

Pre-Cumulus, Rdio offered Internet-radio style listening as part of its paid subscription package in the mobile app -- new mobile users were granted a 14-day free trial. If the user canceled, the free version of Rdio’s mobile app became useless and Rdio lost a mobile customer. Desktop users got a better deal, with six months of test driving the subscription package, followed by a reversion to radio-style listening via a computer.

Rolling out uncapped listening in mobile brings Rdio to parity with its competitors. That’s an arguably overdue piece of positioning, and reflects back on the importance of the Cumulus partnership. Rdio is now a full-bore freemium service, with a feature set that traces a standard outline found in Spotify and iTunes Radio. Rdio’s business will continue to have a subscription side -- users may opt to dish out for accessing interactive features like on-demand listening and downloading.

The standardization of this model illuminates a crowded field. Internet radio enterprises are committed to a matrix of interlocking forces: scale, time, marketplace migration, and customer churn. The marketplace is widening over time, as new listeners either migrate from AM/FM or add Internet listening to new day parts. New services like iTunes Radio attract attention and attempt to steal share from competitors. Given the cost of content and delivery, music streaming is a difficult business from a direct-revenue standpoint.

With all this it is easy to imagine consolidation in the future, with two or three major players dominating the space. Leading up to upcoming moments of truth, platforms like Rdio are developing at a rapid pace to retain and grow their audiences.

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