itunes radio

Is Amazon inching toward a streaming music service?

Thursday, September 26, 2013 - 11:55am

Amazon caused a media ripple yesterday when it connected its previously independent Amazon Cloud Player with its MP3 Store. The Cloud Player is an online music locker where customers can store their owned tracks (whether purchased from Amazon or not), and play them from any device which can run an Amazon Cloud Player app (pretty much any device). People who prefer outright ownership of music, as opposed to the access model which motivates Spotify and Rhapsody, can get the benefits of mobility by maintaining their collections in the cloud, like celestial jukeboxes.

In mashing up the Cloud Player with the MP3 Store, Amazon joins buying, storing, and mobile playing in an agreeably seamless connection. That’s why Hypebot headlined the news: “Amazon Finally Gets Closer to iTunes” -- Apple’s download store is likewise integrated with its iCloud service.

But of course Apple owns the whole three-legged stool of downloading, cloud storage, and internet radio streaming, designed to cozy the user into an embryo of uninterrupted music monetization, at home and on the go. No less for Google, too, by the way, even though nobody’s talking about it during this period of obsessive Apple scrutiny.

Straddling the competitive fence which divides Apple and Google is one of Amazon’s cutting advantages. It has navigated mobile-OS politics by forking Android into a specialized operating system for Kindle Fire tablets, thereby remaining secular amid the tablet holy wars. Amazon apps are distributed to both iOS and Android phones and tablets. Amazon is everywhere, trading rabid fanboyism for the privilege of being despised by nobody.

From what better position to forge the missing link in the triplet chain of music merchandising? Last May, The Verge reported that Amazon was in talks with labels about a music subscription service. This is the ecosystem roadmap: sell the downloads first; provide universal cloud access second; lock in the user with unlimited listening third. If Amazon were to bundle a streaming platform into what is already a packed-with-value Amazon Prime membership, which now provides streaming movies and television, the media-loving consumer sector might undergo some kind of rapture and rise to the heavens.

If not, yesterday’s cloud/download maneuver will have been just another incremental product update. We’ll see.

Spotify adds four countries to its international portfolio

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 - 12:10pm

As jubilantly announced on its public blog (“Hello Argentina, Taiwan, Greece and Turkey -- Spotify here!”), the interactive streamer has expanded its reach. With the addition of those four, Spotify now distributes its desktop and mobile app experiences in 32 countries. The deal is standard Spotify: free, ad-supported desktop listening, a subscription tier to eliminate the ads, and a higher sub plan for mobile streaming and downloading.

Here are the international ranges of other music listening platforms:

  • iTunes Radio: U.S. only Xbox Music: 22 countries (free streaming available in 15)
  • Google All Access: 11 countries (U.S., Australia, added nine European countries in August)
  • TuneIn Radio: 80 countries and territories (see here)
  • iHeartRadio: U.S. only
  • Pandora: three countries (U.S., New Zealand, Australia)
  • Rdio: 31 countries
  • Rhapsody: 17 countries (some non-U.S. apps are branded as Rhapsody-owned Napster)
  • Slacker: U.S. and Canada
  • Songza: U.S. and Canada

As a counterpoint to the relentless regional agnosticism of internet radio (notwithstanding streaming broadcasts featured on TuneIn and iHeart), you might want to read remarks delivered by FTC Commissioner Ajit Pai (PDF) at last week's Radio Show luncheon. In his speech, Commissioner Pai held forth on the value of localism, before discussing revitalization of the AM band. 

Evaluating iTunes Radio and Pandora: Intelligence and inventory will shape the outcome

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 - 12:10pm

Media reviews tend to binary considerations -- either/or judgments of new products. Accordingly, reviews of iTunes Radio are commonly framed in opposition to Pandora, as in SFGate’s review premise: “Now that iTunes Radio has shipped to millions of iPhone and iPad owners, does that mean you should delete Pandora?”

The single-service presumption is wrong for people who carry a few different listening platforms on their mobile devices, but has an underlying reality. First, it is a natural consumer behavior to settle into one solution and build a habitual connection with it. Second, any streaming service grows in personal value the more it is used, as the user invests time listening, evaluating, creating playlists, sharing socially, and generally building equity in the platform. Loyal use pays off in better experience, especially when a recommendation engine is guiding the music. All such engines become smarter over time, as you thumbs-up and thumbs-down songs and skip tracks.

Platform intelligence is the first of the three i’s which frame the user experience of iTunes Radio, Pandora, Google All Access, and other internet radio providers that algorithmically personalize audio to the listener’s preferences. The Echo Nest is a large solution provider for many platforms. Pandora, of course, has built a proprietary recommendation brain (its Music Genome Project) over many years.

The second of the three i’s is the service interface -- the look-and-feel of the desktop and mobile clients in which the user builds a listening home and identity. 

Finally there is inventory -- the underlying catalog from which programming emanates. Some listeners want Top-40; others plumb an immensely long tail of 30-million tracks.

Accepting for now the premise that iTunes Radio is facing off primarily against Pandora for the lean-back listening market, the intelligence and inventory aspects of each will tell the story. Pandora’s genomic brain has proven out to millions of users as an exceptional listening experience. In a pre-RAIN Summit conversation, Geoff Snyder of Pandora described how algorithmic calculations enhance the intensive human evaluation of song characteristics. The gigantic collection of share, thumbs up/down, and skip metrics amassed by Pandora creates an amorphous cloud of intelligence that envelopes genome considerations and further personalizes an already smart engine.

What does iTunes Radio bring to the table? A recommendation intellect enlightened by the user’s personal music collection, in some cases garnered over ten years of iTunes purchases and imports. For a new service lacking any history of thumb-and-skip actions, that insight represents a meaningful and instant snapshot of user taste.

The inventory issue plays out sharply in comparing iTunes Radio with Pandora. While the exact scope of Apple’s catalog is not disclosed, the company’s direct licensing extends its existing comprehensive label relationships. Pandora, which pays statutory royalties, owns a slow-growing catalog whose every track is hand-qualified. Pandora’s library is fractional compared to Apple's, and a devoted listener can hear some staleness over a period of time.

Our intensive listening test of custom artist-centered stations running in parallel on iTunes Radio and Pandora revealed more adventurousness in iTunes Radio, as it explored the wider boundaries of its catalog, but also more mistakes. Song skips seemed to throw the stream off-track from personal preferences, as if they were over-weighted. (The testing was located in an iTunes account with zero purchasing history and no local collection.) Pandora provided the usual strong customization, but with selections previously heard in a long-standing station.

Apple will benefit from its ecosystem advantages, as commonly predicted. Perhaps a surprise that iTunes Radio was not surfaced as a distinct icon on the mobile desktop, it nonetheless will probably attract first-time internet radio users. Placing the iTunes download store links against full-track listening could extend iTunes’ legacy business, which might be facing a downtrend as access replaces ownership.

But there is probably not enough intelligence in the Apple system to lure Pandora users who have built years of customization equity in their platform. What Pandora needs to keep the scales balanced is a much fatter catalog -- and better sooner than later.

iTunes Radio more of a danger to smaller players than to Pandora, analysts suggest

Monday, September 23, 2013 - 12:20pm

Industry observers who spoke with Ad Week say don't look for iTunes Radio to decimate current leaders like Pandora and Spotify.

"Remember, even on (Apple's) own devices, Amazon Kindle books are the most read eBooks despite Apple's attempt to come in a change that business," said Forrester Research analyst James McQuivey. However, most of these experts think the competitive presence of Apple may be enough to squeeze out some smaller players.

"iTunes has a massive user base. Even if only 5 or 10 percent sign up, they are going to affect the on-demand radio stations that exist right now," said Mark Simpson, president of digital marketing firm Maxymiser. "I think we'll see a shrinkage in the number of players, while iTunes Radio grows into a significant player quite quickly."

Lauren Russo of media buyer Horizon Media sees Apple's entrance as a "win" for companies like hers. "Greater competition in the space will lead to better pricing and/or value" for ads, she said.

ABI Research predicts 294 million consumers will use Apple’s mobile iOS, updated last week with iTunes Radio "baked-in," by year’s end.

Read more in Ad Week here.

For a company known for breaking new ground, Apple delivers "nothing new" with iTunes Radio, say reviewers

Thursday, September 19, 2013 - 10:55am

Perhaps because it's Apple, the bar just gets set unrealistically high.

Not that anyone (that we've seen) is outright panning the new iTunes Radio service, one day after what was the most anticipated launch in Internet radio history. It just seems that some folks are, well, underwhelmed.

Billboard's Alex Pham "grades" the service as "a middling student with great unfulfilled potential." The spirit of this (and other reviews) is that iTunes Radio does the basics well, but where's the Apple excitement and pizazz? Pandora's been doing Internet radio well for 10 years.

He found the interface to be great, station creation simple and intuitive. But the genres seems unoriginal, and the Siri interface isn't really "ready for prime time." Read more in Billboard here.

Gizmodo's Mario Aguilar agreed the service was competent, and even "beautiful and dead simple to use." In fact, he found it "better than Pandora —- if only because there is less repetition. For its very limited functionality, iTunes Radio is very good at what it does."

But again, there's that "very limited functionality." Apple used to revolutionize. But those days may be over.

"iTunes Radio is just a decade-old product baked into a media player that hasn't added a noticeable feature since iTunes Match in 2011," Aguilar wrote. The service is "just another path to the iTunes Store... The only significant difference between iTunes Radio and the rest of an increasingly crowded field is that every song that's playing comes with Buy link."

Read more in Gizmodo here.

What are your experiences with iTunes Radio? Is it worth the hype? How does it stack up to Pandora, or Slacker, or iHeartRadio, or any of the other hundreds of competitors (such as the winners of our RAIN Internet Radio Awards)? We'd love to get your input. Please share your comments below.

Pandora to issue more stock, warns it can't sustain its rapid growth

Tuesday, September 17, 2013 - 12:00pm

Leading webcaster (and public company) Pandora plans to sell 10 million more shares of stock as a "follow on" offering, to raise $279 million for "general corporate purposes." The company's biggest investor shareholder, Crosslink Capital, also plans to sell 4 million shares it holds.

And though it says it has nothing in the works, Pandora may use some of the money it raises "for potential acquisitions of businesses, products or technologies."

Within its announcement of the proposed offering, Pandora warned it doesn't "expect to be able to sustain (the) rapid growth in both listener hours and advertising revenue" it has enjoyed in the last few years -- meaning it expects to continue to lose money in the near future. The company continues to battle sound recording and composition copyright owners over royalties (by far its largest expenses, consuming more than half the company's revenue), and faces perhaps its biggest competitive test yet with tomorrow's launch of Apple's iTunes Radio

Read more on this in The Wall Street Journal here, Tom Taylor Now here, and from Pandora here.

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