Spotify

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.

Spotify's spotty Spotlight

Wednesday, October 2, 2013 - 12:45pm

Some noise is happening around Spotify’s recently-announced and felicitously-named Spotlight feature, which aspires to highlight new and exclusive music. Today’s view of Spotlight features Drake and Arcade Fire, so it’s not exactly bleeding-edge alt. Two up-and-comers, Haim and Lorde, are atop the new feature, and those two groups are getting most of the PR attention as Spotlight rolls out.

Never mind the confusions of whether Spotlight is looking under rocks for unknown talent or sitting on the couch with stars, the main problem is product bafflement. Interested users can’t figure out exactly what Spotlight is or how to find it. We scratched our heads here, poking at various Spotify environments (web app, Windows desktop app, Android phone app, iPad app) like chimps with sticks, trying to find a Spotlight-branded feature. On the Spotify blog, where Spotlight was vaguely announced Monday, one disgruntled customer griped, “You’d think they’d at least tell us what the product is.”

Answer: Spotlight is, in part, a Spotify-curated playlist. Find it by searching for “Spotlight On 2013.” The playlist has about 1,500 followers as of this post -- not huge uptake. But there's more to the fragmented Spotlight product. Feature articles, including band profiles of Spotlight artists (Haim and Lorde again), are branded as "Spotlight On" pieces, and can be found in the Browse section, after clicking the News button.  

Spotlight is clearly not (yet?) a broken-out discovery environment. And the playlist, in our opinion, isn’t compellingly interesting. But Spotify users should keep their hopes high for development here. Spotify is powering into “360 programming” -- witness the Spotify Landmark series, which debuted with an elaborate multimedia presentation of Nirvana history. So it would not be a surprise if Spotlight turned into an integrated feature that threw its marketing muscle behind new bands (much-needed positive PR, there), and which gave its users a more coherent environment to dig into. 

The diminutive power of the new Spotify Follow button

Wednesday, October 2, 2013 - 12:45pm

Spotify has long recognized that social, in its many dimensions, is a key differentiator for the music service. Spotify’s extensive (some say intrusive) sharing features set it apart not only from competing listening platforms, but represent a “killer app” that distinguishes interactive listening from traditional broadcast with which it broadly competes. At the same time, social is sticky, conduces users to build identities within Spotify, and ties them into a community matrix that intersects their larger social graphs.

On that last point, Spotify has launched an at-large Follow button, extending Spotify user profiles outside of Spotify boundaries, much as Facebook, Twitter, and other social services do. The button is beautifully productized, instantly accomplishing the follow action when the user is logged into Spotify, without popups of further authentication.

The little Spotify Follow button has the power to reverse Spotify’s usage equation -- from a listening service with social features to a community platform that concentrates on social listening. Perhaps the greatest benefit to Spotify is simple brand extension. As Spotify Follow buttons begin to appear all over the web (which is the prediction here), they both increase engagement of existing users and draw in new ones. As ripples from the iTunes Radio launch continue to wash through the waters of Internet radio, all stripes of competition must find ways to retain and grow audience.

It’s easy to imagine that the Follow button will be eagerly adopted. First, by devoted Spotify users seeking to build their follower base and increase social influence as music curators. The Spotify follower count could become a prestige marker similar to a person’s Twitter flock. Second, the Follow button could afford musicians, bands, and labels a new way of attracting attention to their profiles on Spotify. To whatever extent musicians suffer from the high signal-to-noise ration in Spotify, the Follow button gives them a way to cut through.

Dave Stewart’s Spotify reversal, and how music streaming becomes an ethical issue

Monday, September 30, 2013 - 12:10pm

Recording artist and producer Dave Stewart (best known for Eurythmics) has reversed his previous anti-Spotify stance, criticizing Radiohead’s Thom Yorke for “not getting it.” (Yorke famously conducted an angry public withdrawal from Spotify.) A year ago, surmising from Stewart’s public comments, he didn’t quite get it either. At that time, Stewart complained that if one of his albums were streamed nonstop for three years, he would earn only $47. Now, speaking to The Guardian, the man sounds like a newly-hired Spotify brand evangelist: “They [Radiohead] were misinformed. Spotify is one of the few companies that is transparent and actually pays properly [...] as a songwriter you should worship Spotify.”

Deification is certainly an extreme position in the Spotify opinion spectrum. But if holy reverence seems like an exaggeration, no more so than Spotify demonization which has labeled the service “a necessary evil” and “the definition of evil.”

A few days ago, NPR published an article titled, “Does Using Spotify Make You A Bad Person?” Two interesting points underlie the positioning of that article as a piece of ethics journalism. First, the title and its premise assume that readers have an established inner context for thinking about streaming audio as a moral gray area. Second, the question was sent in by a listener/reader, who was presumably struggling with an ethical dilemma related to her Spotify use.

Responses to the article range from polite disagreement to flaming scorn for posing the question in the first place. (The most incendiary comments reside on NPR’s Facebook page.) Overwhelmingly, article feedback refutes the gray-area premise. Some readers describe the value of music discovery in Spotify, and assert that long-tail artists benefit more from streaming exposure, even in tiny payouts, than they would without it. Others cite plain legality, criticizing the article as inappropriate on that basis. Indeed, the should-we-feel-guilty type of article is reminiscent of moral hand-wringing from the Napster days of 1998, when masses of consumers were enjoying an ownership platform that really was struggling to find a legal toehold.

Two media drumbeats contribute to framing Internet radio as a guilty pleasure, no less questionable than unauthorized file-sharing. First is a royalty and payout controversy, which spotlights both the still-immature life stage of the industry and the complexity of rights licensing. Partial information and misinformation skew public understanding of how streaming music content is acquired, and how creators and performers are paid for its use. When Dave Stewart accuses Thom Yorke of being “misinformed” -- and implies that he was, too -- it is easy to believe.

The second media drumbeat is celebrity advocacy on behalf of artists. When Thom Yorke, Dave Stewart, Nick Mason, and others utter their recriminations or reconciliations, their comments beget swirls of coverage and opinionated comments. These star-tinged blasts suffer from the same confusions and partial realities as the coverage of legalities. Stewart’s turnaround, like Nick Mason’s (see Friday’s RAIN Newsletter) seem to represent a growing reversal of celebrity sentiment, perhaps driven by balanced fact-finding such as David Touve’s correlation of streaming revenue to broadcast revenue. (PDF here.) Touve deconstructs ASCAP’s “Songwriters Under Attack” media campaign, and concludes that music creators might receive identical revenue for broadcast and streaming use, per listener impression. His calculations include some arithmetic runarounds, but notwithstanding those unavoidable fuzzy spots in the math, the report solves flagrant misunderstandings of the difference between one-to-one Internet streaming and one-to-many broadcasting.

In Dave Stewart’s latest epiphany, he forecasts the growing significance of streaming music in terms that Spotify and Pandora have used for a few years: “It’s a volume business.” Streaming companies often respond to critics by saying, “Just wait” -- much as Amazon preached to shareholders in early days of its growth (and still does). The popularity of free online listening is a recent phenomenon. Although the reach of Internet radio has expanded quickly to over half of online Americans, global expansion and distribution to mobile spaces are still germinating. In many cases the per-listener impression impact of a star act does not approach that of broadcast, even when critics talk about millions of streams, and for long-tail artists it is all upside as streaming scales.

Presumably, the expansion of Internet radio will also quiet the morality play staged around its growth.

Edison Research: Streaming hits the MainStream

Wednesday, September 25, 2013 - 11:40am

Edison Research has released a new study of streaming audio adoption, indicating that over half of the American online population listens to Internet radio. The research package, titled “The New MainStream” (get it?) details survey results of 3,014 connected Americans over 11 years old. The report was formally introduced yesterday at an Advertising Week panel in New York by Edison president Larry Rosin, in collaboration with Edison’s Streaming Audio Task Force partners Pandora (Steven Kritzman), Spotify (Brian Benedik), and TuneIn (Rick Cotton).

The headline stat is this: 53 percent of online Americans listen to Internet radio to some extent. By this study’s definition, “Internet radio” comprises the full spectrum of online listening, divided into three categories:

  • Personalized Radio: Services like Pandora or iTunes Radio which allow creation of personal “stations” based on an artist or song. (39 percent adoption.)
  • Streaming Live: Online webcasts of broadcast stations, not necessarily local to the listener. (27 percent adoption.)
  • On-Demand Music: Services like Spotify and Rhapsody which feature random access of tracks and albums. (18 percent adoption.)

Edison’s survey delineates and prioritizes why people are adopting Internet radio. Choice is the differentiating thread that runs through many responses. Consumer hunger for choice extends to track choice in on-demand services, and station choice in streaming broadcasts. Other responses, such as “Available on device” (44 percent agreement) and “More convenient than a regular radio,” (27 percent agreement) seem pointed at lifestyle customization.

Car and home remain staunch broadcast strongholds, according to Edison results. In both environments, Internet radio is meaningfully present, but running second. The disparity in cars (83% broadcast; 17% Internet) probably indicates the complexity and non-standardization which impede adoption of online audio -- a recurring theme in “connected car” sessions at last week’s RAIN Summit and Radio Show in Orlando. The delay in solving dashboard fragmentation gives broadcast radio a window of opportunity to develop distribution strategies on digital platforms.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the research is an implied expansion of listening hours as IP-delivered solutions insert themselves into formerly unoccupied contexts. From the press release: “The total time spent with audio is clearly expanding as people are now enjoying more audio from more devices in more places.” To whatever extent this premise proves out, it could provide a salve to AM/FM operators who feel threatened by the digital tidal wave.

Yet, the study’s main bullet points (see this infographic) do indicate that the shape of listening growth, and listening recession, imply upside for the Internet and downside for broadcast. Sixty-seven percent of respondents listen to more Internet radio than one year previous, but only 23 percent say the same about AM/FM. On the flip side, only six percent listen to less Internet, and three times that many listen to less AM/FM. (More than half of those surveyed listen to the same amount of broadcast radio year-over-year.)

The “listening expansion” theory is borne out by 26 percent of responses indicating that Internet radio listening transpires in “new time” previously spent without audio. Worth noting also, though, that 44 percent said that online audio replaced AM/FM listening to some extent. The upshot seems to include both realities: New listening time is being created, and some amount of AM/FM erosion is also happening.

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. 

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