Twitter #Music reportedly near its end

Monday, October 21, 2013 - 11:00am

Tech and social realms burst into chatter Saturday evening when AllThingsD reported that Twitter would soon pull the plug on its #Music service, introduced just six months ago. Engadget speculated that the departure of Kevin Thau from Twitter, project head for #Music, might have left the still-new music-discovery app without a will to survive.

Twitter #Music always seemed an incomplete service, though with attractive features. The iOS app took off strong, then faded from the popularity charts. The service is not often in the news or conversation around music streaming platforms.

Hooking into music references on Twitter, #Music leads with the social aspect of music sharing which, for other services, is secondary. As such, #Music is an effective discovery milieu, rewarding the lean-in user with unexpected long-tail bands and artists. The default setting plays 90-second song clips from the iTunes Store, which by itself is unsatisfactory -- there is no native capability to play whole songs. (Similarly, the BBC’s new Playlister product requires a hook into Spotify, YouTube, or Deezer for whole-song listening. We have doubts about it, as expressed here.)

In fact, #Music can invoke Spotify or Rdio for users who have signed up with either one, and doing so turns Twitter’s app into a lean-back listening station driven by Twitter-based music charting. Set up that way, Twitter #Music is entertaining, illuminating, underrated, and, following the initial flush of curiosity, underused.

No official word from Twitter about the fate of #Music. We’ll keep up the vigil.

David Byrne contributes to the Spotify dialog with unusual balance

Tuesday, October 15, 2013 - 9:55am

David Byrne (Talking Heads) is getting a lot of media attention for his OpEd in The Guardian, in which he contributes the latest high-profile artist opinion about Spotify, and streaming music generally. Much of the commentary on the column attempts to feed the fire of controversy: note the Digital Journal’s inaccurate headline: “David Byrne lambasts music streaming.”

In fact, Byrne provides the most balanced, sober, high-altitude opinion recently published -- a refreshing antidote to slashing rhetoric unleashed by Thom Yorke, Nigel Godrich, and others. Opinions center on artist payouts from Spotify and other services, and the truth is that sentiment falls liberally on both sides of the fence. Spotify, as a proxy for the streaming distribution model, can be, and is, viewed as both an extraordinary exposure platform and an agent of devaluing music product. 

Byrne properly notes that the benefit or deficit inherent in streaming depends largely on the artist’s career stage. Exposure at any cost is more important in early stages than later, when monetization of a growing fan base takes priority. 

There are times in Byrne’s 2,200-word disquisition when he seems disconcertingly like a Spotify newbie, or unfamiliar with essential aspects of the service. “There is also, I’m told, a way to see what your ‘friends’ have on their playlists,” he writes with unnerving cluelessness about Spotify’s industry-leading social connectivity. But Byrne’s above-it-all perspective does give him a solid grip on the major levers which shape the streaming business for tech companies, record labels, and recording artists.

It is the end of Byrne’s skeptical prospectus which lends the most credence: he has no answer to the inevitability of streaming music, and he avoids demonizing. More than that, he short-circuits quick conclusions by backpedalling from his own misgivings: “Were recording artists simply spoiled for a few decades and now those days are gone? Even Wagner was always in debt and slept with rich women to get funding -- so nothing’s new, right?”

But you know there’s another rhetorical shoe to drop, and Byrne lets it go by extending his thinking beyond music to all Internet-delivered media. This is the quotable quote: “It seems to me that the whole model is unsustainable as a means of supporting creative work of any kind. Not just music. The inevitable result would seem to be that the internet will suck the creative content out of the whole world until nothing is left.”

An apocalyptic view to be sure. But Byrne’s column is must-read for its intelligence and scope of thinking -- and as a tutorial to flame-throwing artists who scorch the earth with simplistic indictments of streaming music.

QUICK HITS: Musicians on Spotify; iHeartRadio Theater pics

Friday, October 11, 2013 - 11:45am

Video: NME Magazine took a video camera to young musicians in the U.K. to ask them, bluntly, whether Spotify is evil. (Watch it here.) The answers were (perhaps politely) all variations on the theme of “No.” Musicians (at least, the ones edited in) expressed favor for the exposure and marketing opportunities of being on the Spotify platform.

iHeartRadio Theater pics: Four years after opening its New York City theater, iHeartRadio is expanding its venue business to Los Angeles. Using a remodeled TV studio (formerly the stage for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno), iHeart will host an opening night featuring Katy Perry, as has been well publicized. Billboard got inside the place, still showing signs of construction, and snapped some photos. (See them here.) There’s also some Q&A with Clear Channel exec Tom Poleman. 

Spotify has streamed over a million years of music

Friday, October 11, 2013 - 11:45am

To celebrate its fifth birthday this week, Spotify posted an infographic of intriguing usage statistics. A million years of streaming in five years of operation -- 200,000 years per year, 17,000 years per month -- is fun to ponder. One user has created over 90,000 playlists, which is frighteningly organized even for the most avid lean-in listener. President Obama is on Spotify.

Eighty percent of Spotify’s 20-million song catalog has been streamed. The flip side is that 20 percent has not been touched, presumably even by the indie artists who distributed their stuff there. Twenty percent seems like a surprisingly large portion of Spotify’s long tail to go untouched. 

Here is our recommendation to Spotify: Create an “Untouched Tracks” playlist, which auto-updates with each new addition, and removes tracks the moment they are first streamed from the playlist. Award honor points to users who get first-streamer bragging rights, and an Adventurous Listener award every month to the user who has first-listened to the most music. Promote it adequately, and that 20 percent unstreamed statistic will shrink in no time.

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.

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