Songza

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.

RAIN Weekend Perspective

Friday, October 4, 2013 - 10:30am

RAIN’s Weekend Perspective reviews the week's main events, and refreshes your synapses for next week.

The week started with a legislative bang when Rep. Melvin Watt introduced the Free Market Royalty Act in Congress. (Just in time for a general governmental shutdown.) The bill has two main planks: first, to withdraw the terrestrial radio exemption from paying artist and label royalties, and second, to remove the government from its traditional role as arbiter of royalty rates. RAIN interviewed attorney and consultant David Oxenford. Today, Oxenford posts a comprehensive analysis of the bill on his Broadcast Law Blog.

METRICS

On the metrics front, important measurements arrived from Triton Digital and Pandora.

Triton’s Top-20 Web Metrics Ranker for August revealed broad, if incremental, webcast gains across broadcast streams and pureplays measured in the report.

Meanwhile, Pandora (which is included in the Triton report) released its own monthly Audience Metrics report for September, announcing substantial year-over-year gains in active listeners, listening hours, and share of all U.S. radio listening. Small month-over-month gains were reported as well. September was the first month in which Pandora and iTunes Radio operated concurrently, a competition undergoing much scrutiny. The results of that half-month of activity bolsters Pandora’s claim that Apple’s new service does not pose a dangerous threat to Pandora’s audience growth or retention. But, of course, it’s early days.

PARTNERSHIPS:

A few business development scenarios enlivened the week. First, and most significantly, Rdio augmented its service model by introducing free, unlimited Internet radio-style streaming to its mobile apps, which previous allowed only a 14-day trial before asking customers to subscribe for ongoing listening. The new feature, called Stations, is ad-supported, thanks to Cumulus Radio repping Rdio’s inventory as part of the recently completed deal between the two companies. Rdio and Cumulus wasted no time putting their alliance into action. 

Songza linked arms with FourSquare, inviting users of the lean-back streaming service to check in at select FourSquare locations to receive Songza rewards -- including six months of free premium service in some cases.

Clear Channel-owned iHeartRadio moved to flesh out the Talk section of its radio aggregation platform, snagging rights to distribute certain Turner Broadcasting content. The new shows and clips will help balance an already strong ABC presence in iHeart Talk.

 

Slacker's new "My Vibe" steps into concierge-style programming

Friday, September 27, 2013 - 12:45pm

Creative curation is Internet radio’s latest programming vogue. Songza, for which “life moment” playlists are the cornerstone of the service’s “Concierge” programming strategy, emblemizes the approach of serving the user in action, furnishing a music stream that matches daypart, activity, and mood. This tactic, more than simple genre or decade playlists, seeks to make the service exquisitely responsive to the listener’s transient state of mind. Songza attempts to soundtrack the changeable here-and-now.

It is an appealing service paradigm, one that can be optimized by granular song tagging on the back end, refined by user customization actions (likes, skips, shares) on the front end. Slacker, a competing platform which has long specialized in creative in-house playlists, recently co-opted Songza’s playbook and established a new aspect of its listening app. Called “My Vibe,” Slacker’s day/do/mood associations are clearly modeled on Songza’s leadership. Slacker introduced the mobile version with an iOS app specifically designed around iOS 7 (it is gorgeous), and its new Android experience dropped into Google Play yesterday (it is serviceably attractive).

If you choose the “My Vibe” path through Slacker’s new apps, you are presented with a greeting which calls out the current daypart ("Pick some music for a Friday afternoon") and requests a couple of choices -- just as Songza does. If there is a key differentiator in Slacker’s favor, it is how the interface is packaged on a smartphone screen. The user makes two choices on one screen to get the music started. On Songza, the user is pulled through three decisions on three screens. A tiny detail? Yes, but convenience resides in details, and the lean-back listening market seeks the best, most personalized music with the least effort. On this point, it’s a win for Slacker.

The two services also differ in how user choices are described. Songza requires more knowledge of music sub-genres -- a nice hook for people who do understand, for example, psybient electronica. Slacker, in contrast, uses evocative station titles like Yoga Flow -- attractive to listeners who catalog music by its effect rather than genre designation.

If Slacker’s My Vibe stations seem familiar to its users, there is a reason: the stations are existing Slacker playlists repurposed for the My Vibe environment. The new interface appears to be accomplished through tagging of existing assets (“Handcrafted stations”) to the day/activity layout (“Music for every moment”). If that is comprehensively true, Slacker has leaped into Songza’s space without any additional handcrafting.

It will be interesting to see whether other platforms bite into the music-for-now space, and -- futuristically -- how this programming tactic might be extended by new mobile technology. Imagine a smart watch which feeds you workout music when it discerns that you are exercising, or lullabies when you are in bed. Or consider Google Glass, which wouldn’t need to ask what you’re doing -- it can see for itself. My Vibe? Or, My Every Move Tracked By Technology?

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. 

Taco Bell and Samsung among first on new Songza "native advertising" platform

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 - 12:10pm

Webcaster Songza has launched a "native advertising" solution it says is already producing benefits for advertisers in engaging potential customers.

Songza is the webcaster known for its Music Concierge, which offers curated playlists suited to listeners' activities and moods (and has been replicated by services no less than iHeartRadio and Slacker). Native advertising means incorporating brands and ad messages into the actual content of a service -- in this case, Songza's musical experience.

Co-founder and CCO Eric Davich described the benefits of the platform, named "Sponsored Moments," to the SoundCTRL blog. According to Davich, the program is about tapping "into the personal, trusted connection we have with our users in order to provide contextually relevant experiences."

Songza has worked with brands like Taco Bell and Samsung and created song collections like "Getting Hyped" and "Going Back to College" that fit those brands.

"We work closely with brands to tell their story with the personality," Davich said. Brands "need to contextualize their message in a way that relates to the consumer's context," he continued, "not just who they are and where they're from, but also what they're actually doing at that very moment."

Songza recently completed it latest round of financing of $4.7 million (investors include Lady GaGa's and Justin Bieber's managers), and took home the FlashFWD award for "Best in Discovery."

Read more in SoundCTRL here.

Songza raises $4.7M to forge ahead with ad solution program

Wednesday, September 11, 2013 - 9:20am

Internet radio service Songza completed a $4.7M round of private equity funding yesterday, almost exactly two years after receiving $2M in venture funds (as reported in CrunchBase). Yesterday’s commitment will be invested in scaling Songza’s native sponsoring platform, in which advertising creative is integrated into Songza “life moments” streams. (See Billboard's reporting here.)

Internet radio advertising lags the sophisticated user targeting of the web at large. If demographic ID is a brass ring, personal targeting is a holy grail. The most rudimentary network advertising on the web can accomplish the former, while browser-cookie placement and personal profiling can deliver startlingly individualized results. Targeting technology is what makes a user’s eyes widen in astonishment (and often alarm) when an ad pops up on Facebook that reflects browsing activity on external sites just a few minutes before, refined by an understanding of the user’s personal Facebook profile.

Internet radio ads generally convey a better sense of protected privacy, but in advertising, privacy equals cluelessness and reduced value. For users who don’t have knee-jerk reactions against targeted ads, irrelevant sponsor messages that interrupt an audio stream can seem all the more intrusive and annoying for their blindness. Recent tests of iHeartRadio (video pre-roll) and Pandora mobile (display pop-ups) betray some network buying at a low value to both the user and the advertiser. (Songza runs irrelevant ads, too.)

Songza’s specialty programming offers curated music streams targeted to common life situations, day parts, environments, and moods. The categories are often smartly thought-out; one at-work channel eliminates all lyrics (good for writers). It makes sense, and might even be pioneering, to evolve ad solutions that match the “life moments” of each stream, where the curation of sponsor messaging is pertinent to the user’s real-world circumstance. And since Songza offers registration via Facebook and Google+ (standard for many sites, but not all internet listening services), and requires access to the user’s personal profile, the second crucial part of holy-grail targeting is in place.

Songza isn’t mentioned as often as Pandora, Apple, and Spotify in industry coverage. But this round of capital funding could result in distinct revenue rewards, while providing a more personalized (if snoopish) consumer experience.

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