programming

Music services not boarding the early Christmas train, but maybe they should

Monday, November 4, 2013 - 1:10pm

Tom Taylor notes in his morning newsletter that all-Christmas radio is breaking out early on the broadcast side. Taylor’s interpretation: “Most are an attempt to lay claim to the local market’s Christmas image -- even if it irritates regular listeners.”

Local broadcasters walk on a thin November ledge between pushing Christmas upon listeners too soon, and attracting Black Friday ad dollars before it’s too late. Most online music services don’t have a sufficient local sales effort to worry about that conundrum, Pandora being the exception.

But a close look at activity in several music services this morning offers indications that users might be swinging into the holiday mood sooner than their in-house programming departments. Holiday listening stations don’t usually appear in the genre lists of music services this early in November, and that trend is born out. The following services lack a Christmas or Holiday preset in their “stations” lineups: iTunes Radio, Pandora, Spotify, Rhapsody, Rdio, Slacker (even as a sub-genre of Christian).

Interestingly, user-generated 8tracks.com shows a Christmas tag fairly high up the genre list (Android app), and digging into the details on the website shows over 300 user-created Christmas playlists, dozens of them created in the last few days. Creator comments reveal an eager early-season jubilance: “The jolliest time of year is back!” Some of these playlists were assembled in mid-October, indicating some degree of appetite for the Christmas spirit even sooner than broadcast radio is willing to bet on.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Clear Channel-owned iHeartRadio is displaying a “Holiday” channel preset this morning in the Live Radio section. Some of the listed stations are pureplays, not live, but the interesting point is user comments -- many listeners are happy to find the early dose of Christmas tunes. “Start super-duper early! Why not?”

Note to Apple, Pandora, Rhapsody et al: The Christmas train might be leaving earlier than you think. When you have an unlimited programming slate, it makes sense to claim the space early.

GigaOm gets a view of how Beats instructs human curators to program playlists for new service

Wednesday, August 21, 2013 - 1:10pm

Music subscription services have lately shown a greater understanding of the power and need for musical "gatekeepers" or curators to help users parse the oceans of music to discover that which they're likely to enjoy (just lately, see Spotify Browse  and Rdio Stations). In radio, of course, these wise sherpas have been called "programmers."

Beats Music (more in RAIN here) has stated that effective curation is its guiding principle as it rebuilds the Mog service (we've covered this here).

GigaOm got access to some Beats Music "internal guidance" for the musicians and freelancers who are creating playlists for the new service. These programmers are working with a web authoring system to sample songs and build playlists that Beats Music editors request (apparently focused on artists, genres, years, and listener activity -- and less than 70 minutes long).

"Beats Music definitely doesn’t want to sound like college radio. It wants human curation, but no strong DJ characters, with the exception of those well-known musicians asked to participate," writes Janko Roettgers for GigaOm. "Freelancers are told to 'beware of personal whims' and 'avoid overly clever transitions.' Oh, and 'talking down to listeners' isn’t desired, either. Record store clerks apparently don’t need to apply."

Read GigaOm here.

FastCo Labs article reveals how Pandora continuously experiments and tweaks programming

Friday, August 16, 2013 - 12:15pm

Fast Company Labs has a fascinating article that reveals the extent to which Pandora experiments and researches how its audience reacts to different variables in the way it creates its playlists -- with the aim of increasing the rate at which users return to the service.

[By the way, if this sort of thing interests you, please our coverage of Rhapsody VP of product-content Jon Maples' on the importance of music curation here.]

We really want to encourage you to read the entire piece, but we've pulled out some bits we found particularly fascinating.

According to the article, by John Paul Titlow, Pandora's data scientists regularly divide and subdivide its audience into test groups, then continually tweak how music is delivered to listeners. For instance, they might vary how often songs are repeated, or the ratio of very familiar tunes to new music. Perhaps they'll vary the concentration of artists that are "local" to a listener, or how many "live" or "acoustic" versions of songs a listeners hears. They even monitor how listeners react to music given their geographical location, or the time of day.

Pandora has run thousands of these tests over the years, some months-long, some taking just a few weeks. And they've apparently resulted in some very interesting insights. For example, the webcaster has found that listeners are less tolerant of unfamiliar music while they're at work. So the webcaster has adjusted for this, and now your personal Pandora channel may seem more familiar between 9 and 5, and a little edgier at night or on the weekend.

Or, fans of instrumental music (like most Classical and Jazz) are generally more receptive to new music discovery -- fans of vocal pop music, the opposite. Titlow writes, "The distinction is so pronounced that stations based on instrumental hip-hop will yield more serendipitous moments of discovery than those based on lyric-heavy rap tracks."

Pandora has even tracked how the same listeners may interact with the music differently based on which type of device they're using at the time -- on the web, or a mobile phone, or a Blu-ray player in a home theater.

While much has been made about the origins of Pandora's Music Genome Project -- hundreds of trained music expers dissecting each track and scoring it on dozens of characterists -- it's user data (skips, "thumbs up/down," etc.) that are training the system now. In fact, Pandora listeners create data far faster than its staff of human experts can. And to be able to more quickly ingest new music, Pandora has developed its own "machine listening technology." It merges the computer analysis of music with input from human experts "to create a deeper understanding of the music its service spins."

The article ends with a short bit about applying this intelligence to the dynamics of group listening, and how new technology could enable that. Again, we'd like to encourage you to check out the article here.

Rhapsody VP Maples finds expert-curation key to minimizing audience churn

Thursday, August 15, 2013 - 11:20am

We've read (and written) lots on the increasing importance of "music curation" (what radio pros call "programming") for music subscription services.

It's great to offer tens of millions of songs, but how does a listener start? Millions have grown up with the radio and developed the habit of "lean-back" listening -- flip a switch, and "music!" Music subscription services are doing more and more to offer customers effortless experiences of music they'll enjoy (we've recently covered Spotify's new "Browse," Rdio's "Stations" -- and Beats Music's very mission as a service "heavy on curation").

Jon Maples, who's VP of product-content at musis service Rhapsody, today shares some of what his company has learned about how music programming impacts customer usage.

Beyond solving what Maples calls "the catalog problem" for the user ("What do I listen to?"), good music curation can help maintain an audience by minimizing "churn."

Churn is that rate at which customers abandon a service. Since it's expensive to constantly acquire new users, business naturally want to minimize churn. Maples says the key is to keep listeners active -- give them reasons to keep coming back and using the service.

"It seems obvious, but if a customer uses the product more, they are less likely to leave. In fact, we've found if we can get a customer to play more than 50 tracks a month, the churn rate drops in the double digits," he writes. We've "utilized curation as a driver, so that every time our members fire up the service, they're going to get something new to play."

He points to Rhapsody's "Featured" section, and the prominence of the service's curated playlists, stations, and posts. And it's important to apply that expert programming across as wide an offering as possible -- "speaking to a wide variety of tastes and interests," as Maples puts it. "Our best customers listen to more than 200 subgenres a year."

Rhapsody SVP/Product Paul Springer will speak on the "Streaming Music Trends" at RAIN Summit Orlando on September 17. More information and registration is here.

Read more from Rhapsody's Maples in Hypebot here.

New Spotify "Browse" adds "programmed radio" style experience

Monday, August 5, 2013 - 10:55am

Perhaps acknowledging the importance of "aided discovery" and music programming -- as well as some customers' desire for "lean-back" listening -- Spotify has introduced a new feature called "Browse" to its mobile apps. The feature spotlights expertly-curated playlists designed to accompany specific moods or activities ("romance," "jogging," "commuting") -- similar to both webcaster Songza and iHeartRadio's "Perfect For" streams.

According to CNet (who spoke with Spotify VP of product development Charlie Hellman), a staff of 35 "musicologists," music editors, and writers not only create custom playlists, but monitor usage data for the more than a billion user-created Spotify playlists to find the most popular.

A traditional differentiator between on-demand music subscription services like Spotify and true online radio has been "programming" -- the human-created selection of songs that fit together to create a listening experience.

In the past, Spotify has offered both a "custom radio" feature (a stream of music similar to a listener-supplied artist or song based on data from The Echo Nest) and basic radio genre listening ("Country," "Classic Rock," etc.).

The new "Browse" feature is available on Spotify mobile apps now, and will gradually be introduced to other platforms.

Read more in CNet here.

Deeper understanding of listener expectations and preferences key to building audience, say Summit experts

Friday, April 19, 2013 - 1:50pm

Unsurprisingly, the panelists in our RAIN Summit "Accelerating Your Audience Growth" panel stressed the importance of good, "differentiating" content to build an audience -- especially as music (and even news) becomes "commoditized."

More interesting was this point: An important step towards delivering the right content is a more thorough understanding of your listeners.

Edison Research cofounder/president Larry Rosin (left) moderated this first panel of the afternoon half of the Las Vegas Summit. He asked Pandora VP of Engineering Chris Martin about Pandora's "genre" stations

[sidenote: Pandora not only creates channels "on the fly" by asking the listener for a favorite song or artist, it also offers more traditional radio-style channels programmed by genre, e.g. country or pop hits]

Martin (right) explained them as the product of realizing that not all Pandora listeners come to discover new music. Rather, these channels are an "entry point" for those listeners who want a "super simple" experience based around artists they already know.

Rachna Bhasin is SiriusXM SVP/Corporate Strategy and Business Development (lower on the left). She explained SiriusXM is always looking for new content and talent intended to drive more subscriptions. Those efforts are informed by significant amounts of research and interviews with listeners, and an understanding of the expectations of "key audience demographics" to develop that content ("We're doing a lot with Latin right now," she illustrated.)

The Echo Nest CEO Jim Lucchese introduced his company's concept of "audience clusters" as an example of understanding the listener to deliver the right content.

[The Echo Nest is a "music intelligence" service with a massive database on listeners preferences and musical attributes of millions of songs, which is used by services like Spotify and iHeartRadio (and SiriusXM's new MySXM customizable streaming service).] 

Putting "a real keen focus" on understanding the listener, Lucchese explained, means looking at "clustering audiences into different types of music listeners" and examining how different underlying programming rules need to be applied for those different clusters.

"We found different 'rule sets' drive engagement wildly differently based on (listeners') geography, (preferred) style of music... you need to understand your fan base better before messing around with rules."

Rosin followed up with a question on how The Echo Nest client services learn about listener preferences, especially new listeners. Lucchese (right) explained some services can scan a new listener's local media library (by examining their iTunes XML file, for instance) to get a sense of the listener. There's also public preferences expressed on social media (such as Facebook 'likes'). Then, of course, later the services can simply track "what you listen to" -- and, importantly -- "how you react to it and build that up over time."

The Echo Nest CEO spoke directly to broadcasters and advised them to improve their streams by spending more time "focusing on and understanding" their audience: "Online listeners provide you with a ton of information about who they are. We're still in the stone age about recognizing not just what they like, but how they listen. Developing that will make a more engaging experience, and a more profitable one," he said.

Speaking to this very point, ABC News Radio VP/GM Steve Jones (left) described how he wants this guide the development of his service.

For a hypothetical 28-year old country music listener, Jones' company has vast amounts of "non- fiction spoken word" that she'd find of interest (she could learn how to "advance her career, manage her boss, get relationship advice").

"We can't yet, but what I'm excited about is being able to, when that listener is finished listening to a Taylor Swift song to let her know there's an opportunity right now to drive that listening experience into one of those other areas," Jones said. "That, to me, is the future, to control how listeners are going to consume audio beyond any one narrow niche..."

SiriusXM's Bhasin even returned to the theme of "understanding the listener" when discussing Apple's expected entry into streaming radio: "They have lots of data" on purchase history and customer preferences from which they can draw to program the right content. "They're trying to build curation now."

Consultant Alan Burns (Alan Burns & Associates president/CEO) (right) even suggested streaming broadcasters and pureplay webcasters could look to each other for better ways to present content.

"What radio needs to do most of all, the thing that would boost online listening to (music) radio streams," Burns said, is to "make broaddcast streams skippable" (that is, replicate the ability of most Net-only streaming experiences in which a listener can instantly skip to the next song).

For pureplays, his advice was that "jukeboxes don't hold up as well" as programming with "deeper branding and content." Pureplays need to create experiences "that will help them develop the personal bond you get with traditional radio," he suggested.

You can listen to the audio of "Accelerating Your Audience Growth" from RAIN Summit West. Go to RAIN's homepage to find all the RAIN Summit West audio in the right-hand column.

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