itunes radio

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.

Expansion plans for iTunes Radio getting clearer

Wednesday, October 9, 2013 - 10:45am

Two days ago we noted that iTunes Radio would probably expand its (currently U.S.-only) listening service to Canada, based on a viral spotting of a job listing. Now, Bloomberg reports on discussions with unnamed sources which clarify Apple’s roadmap in early 2014.

According to those talks, Canada is indeed on the map, along with the U.K. Those two territories are important because Pandora, generally considered to be Apple’s target competitor, does not do business in either of those countries. Pandora has overseas music licensing rights in Australia and New Zealand, where it serves music but not yet advertisements, according to RAIN’s conversation with Steve Kritzman, Pandora’s SVP of sales.

Bloomberg reports that Apple is also pushing iTunes Radio into those two markets next year. When it comes to geographic expansion generally, Apple has an advantage over Pandora inasmuch as it negotiates for content rights directly with content owners, while Pandora relies on statutory licenses which vary from country to country.

Apple’s reach into Canada and the U.K., if it plays out as predicted, would execute a triple strategy:

  • Expand audience: success in the Internet radio business is based partly on scale;
  • Grab virgin listeners: while Apple has a steep hill to climb against Pandora in the U.S., where over 72-million people are “active listeners” to Pandora, no such relative positioning exists in Canada and the U.K. In Canada especially, Internet radio users are hungry for choice;
  • Bolster existing businesses: Apple is rolling out the same imperialistic model as it did with its iTunes download business. Furthermore, Apple isn’t primarily in the music business at all -- it is a hardware vendor in the walled-garden ecosystem trade. Its platform services, like streaming music, are intended to retain iPhone and iPad users.

In this context, Pandora clings hard to its hard-earned advantages: the quality of its music selection engine, the loyalty of its active users, and its first-mover position in auto distribution.

Rhapsody launches new radio features, contributes to conformity

Tuesday, 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.

Internet radio distribution news: Google Music and iTunes Radio

Monday, October 7, 2013 - 10:15am

Crossing ecosystem boundaries can be as difficult as traveling across national borders.

Google Music (both the download store and the All Access streaming-music app) is soon venturing into hostile fanboy territory by distributing its service to Apple mobile users. Engadget reports that Google will produce an iOS app later this month. It will be interesting to track uptake. One clear loyalty point in Apple’s ecosystem is the iTunes network of buying, streaming, and listening. But ubiquity is a good strategy as users cross boundaries more than media brands want them to. People who like Android phones, for example, but prefer Apple’s iPad for a tablet experience, want to carry their music with them across devices.

Will Apple reciprocate with an app in the Android storeSorry, that wasn’t a serious question.

But Apple is venturing geographically, if you believe sightings of a job listing for an iTunes Radio music programmer in Canada. The listing (which has disappeared after first sighting) calls for a cross-genre music expert with knowledge of the local music scene. No matter when it happens, Apple’s global expansion of iTunes Radio is only a matter of time.

Earbits Radio pays artists in new ways

Monday, October 7, 2013 - 10:15am

Earbits, an indie-music Internet radio platform, has operated since late 2011 on the web and in Android mobile devices. Now it has launched its first Apple iOS app, refreshing interest in its unique artist-reward system.

Promoting itself as “Independent radio with no commercials,” earbits removes money from its relationship with users, while also paying its catalog artists with social currency such as newsletter signups, song tweets, and Facebook shares.

Earbits offers typical genre-based, lean-back listening with a few hundred house channels. There is no artist-seeded functionality as in Pandora or iTunes Radio. You can skip tracks, backward and forward. The stream is completely uninterrupted. On-demand listening is available throughout the catalog, in exchange for accumulating points for socially supporting artists. (More on that in a minute.)

The music-discovery value of Earbits is based on the curated indie-artist catalog, which is fractional by iTunes Radio standards -- somewhere north of 100,000 tracks from 10,000 artists represented by 500-plus labels. In contrast, iTunes Radio has its long arms around 30-million tracks, and Pandora’s slow-growing music genome provides over a million. But the tiny Earbits pool can be startlingly refreshing when nearly every track is a new discovery, which is RAIN’s experience.

Earbits is partly a musician marketing service. All interactive music platforms sing that song to some extent, with a chorus that repeats, “When this gets bigger, you’ll get some real money.” In a low-cost music market often criticized by creators for its grain-of-sand royalty payouts, the promise of a grander scale can seem like a receding mirage to artists and bands trying to monetize their recordings. In that context, and in a marketing realm that exists mainly online, the very concept of currency is subject to reinvention.

Earbits reinvents “payment” as social actions that directly support a closer relationship between fan and band. The point of Earbits, from the artist perspective, is fan acquisition, not financial gain. Accordingly, the Earbits app has built-in artist newsletter sign-ups, Facebook “I’m listening to” sharing, and Twitter following. The specific range of actions is configurable by the band.

On the user end, completing an artist-support action bestows Earbits currency called Groovies. (The name is rather retro-hippie in our view.) You start with 500 groovies for installing the app (or launching it in a desktop browser) and signing in with Facebook. Auto-sharing is specifically avoided (this ain’t Spotify), but available on every track played. Sign up for the band newsletter? Get 50 Groovies. Share the track on Facebook for 100 Groovies.

For the user, Groovies enable on-demand listening, at 10 G’s per track. Users can feel good about streaming a band’s latest album, because they paid for the access by virally promoting the artist. Earbits promises expanded Groovies functionality in the future, as a key to unlock app features.

Earbits’ PR framing of the Groovies system is not unlike that of the big players in ambition and self-importance: “Groovies are the currency that’s going to change the way people access and pay for music, and it’s going to create massive, sustainable careers for thousands of musicians.” At its current scale, Earbits is singing its own refrain of “When this gets bigger…” In the meantime, the listening is fresh, the quality high, the app unique, and the artist proposition is tuned to marketing reality in the digital era.

Internet radio changes the meaning of “album release”

Wednesday, October 2, 2013 - 12:30pm

Eddy Cue, Apple’s head of Internet Software and Services, and chief of iTunes and iTunes Radio, indicated in a recent interview that streaming Justin Timberlake’s new album a week before its release won’t be the last promotion of its kind. Without revealing any numbers, Cue said it was a perfect application of iTunes Radio. The iTunes Music Store has streamed preview albums in the past, but (as noted by Cue), the Radio environment is a more natural setting for long-form listening than a store.

Using radio to preview not-yet-released music is not new. Singles have received weeks of broadcast airplay to build demand. But mp3 eroded the efficacy of that, as P2P file-sharing, then the iTunes store (which opened in 2003) blurred the line between unreleased and released. Building demand started to feel like artificial friction in a marketplace where instant availability crossed back and forth between legal and illegal realms. Copyright infringement is a nuance that escapes many consumers, but digital availability has become an obvious and compelling fact of life

David Joseph, CEO of Universal Music U.K. and Ireland, noted in 2011 an interesting observation: "What we were finding under the old system was the searches for songs on Google or iTunes were peaking two weeks before they actually became available to buy, meaning that the public was bored of – or had already pirated – new singles.”

When the radio station is owned by the record store (as in Apple’s case), and both pay royalties to the labels, synchronizing release windows to consumer demand is solved. Release is a wave, not a particle. To many users, especially those invested in access-as-ownership, Justin Timberlake’s album was “released” on the first day of the preview stream. The download side of Apple’s merchandising benefited not only from preview build-up, but also from providing universal review access, which resulted in pre-sale reviews published in MTV, L.A. Times, New York Daily News, Washington Post, Variety, SPIN, Vulture, and dozens of other outlets. (Some of those skewering diatribes probably hurt iTunes download sales.) 

Whole-album Internet radio promotion is an intriguing experiment for all stakeholders. It solves piracy to some extent, and also hints at reviving albums from the fragmenting single-song marketplace. When you spend a week luxuriously accustoming listeners to a packaged collection, with no revenue damage, you encourage packaged buying down the funnel. At this writing, Timberlake’s album sits at #1 in the iTunes Store Albums chart, while the Songs chart doesn’t show his name until #31. Darn right Eddie Cue is going to repeat this experiment.

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