Let’s Be Honest: Do You Really Care What Your Friends (Or Some Dudes You Don’t Really Know) Have Been Listening To Lately?

Apr 24th, 2008 // 9 Comments

binoculars_telescope_coin_265963_l.jpgOne of the venture capitalists at this week’s Leadership Music Digital Summit brought back some of the overheated first-tech-bubble rhetoric when he proclaimed that “the next big thing is going to be music discovery” as far as business models go, a declaration that caused a few raised eyebrows, including one of those attached to the face of your correspondent. Do people really want to be told what to listen to by anyone–even people that some algorithm has decided they have supposed musical affinities with? I have my doubts, and so does Marc Cohen at Ad-Supported Music Central:

[People] don’t seek to discover new music – it just happens. They don’t listen to the radio, watch TV or talk to friends for the purpose of discovering new music. This is a byproduct of the intended object of the interaction. The Internet music discovery sites, even with their social networking skins, assume the primary object of interaction to be music discovery. This misunderstanding of consumer behavior will be fatal.

Speaking as the proprietor of a music blog whose traffic numbers are laid bare for all the world to see, I think Marc is spot-on here; look at the pageviews for the intermittent posts we do on new MP3s and videos, and compare their traffic to that of, say, our American Idol posts. Some may say that putting new bands side-by-side with one of the biggest TV juggernauts of the decade is a sorta-fair comparison–but is it really? After all, Idol is about “new music” at the very least in terms of the artists who are fronting the performances, although that of course takes a back seat to the televised competition.

As “pop music” becomes more of a shattered concept and music gets further relegated to background noise, discovery for most people is going to happen more and more by accident, or via already-existing social frameworks. (Look at the decreasing sales/profile returns of bands featured on MTV’s “52 Bands/52 Weeks” series; you can plaster Beth Ditto all over ads for The Hills, but you can’t necessarily get those Heidi Montag fans to listen further.) But putting sites that have music discovery as their primary goal in social-networking drag is ultimately a losing game, unless you’re trying to recreate a dot-com version of The Producers.

Cohen then goes on to talk a little bit about radio:

The second conclusion I draw is that historically the number one source for music discovery – terrestrial radio – is a type of ad-supported music. The extent to which music discovery becomes a successful Internet business is wholly dependent on the success of streaming ad-supported music, as it is the on-line equivalent of terrestrial radio.

Since downloaded music provides a superior user experience to streaming radio, I will argue that downloaded ad-supported music will be the superior vehicle for music discovery.

If that downloaded ad-supported music is easy to acquire, that is. But the radio analogy made me also want to note that more and more stations are moving to formats where finding out about genuinely new music is nigh impossible–you’ve got your stations devoted to music from the ’80s and back, not to mention the glacial movement of music on the adult contemporary and country charts. If “the number one source for music discovery” isn’t so interested in helping its listeners, y’know, discover music, what does that mean for the medium as a whole? Is this another sign that this era of popular music is agonizingly grinding to a halt?

The Myth of Music Discovery [Ad-Supported Music Central]

  1. PopIsNotDead

    I have experienced a hearty malaise over the “music discovery” issue lately. Between Peter Gabriel’s TheFIlter and every other content discovery site purporting to be able to show me things I’ll like based on the things I already know I like, I just don’t think it’s working.

    Not to be totally self-serving, but we were just talking about a similar theme here- the issue of distilling your taste down to an algorithm.

  2. AL

    I think the idea of “new music” takes a backseat to everything on Idol: to the media event, the personalities (incl those of the hosts & judges), the apparent democracy in decision-making, etc etc. The whole thing just happens to revolve around a singing competition, which I think has been more successful than other similar competitions because, again, singing has a democratizing element. Anyone can do it, and everyone thinks they can judge a good singer from a bad one. If there is any interest in “new music”, I think it’s reducing that newness to mere novelty, as evidenced by the quick career declines of most Idol winners and deal-receiving runners-up.

  3. Catbirdseat

    Remember, VCs are only interested in throwing money at concepts that were “hot” approximately 12-18 months ago. None of them are really all that willing to take a chance on something that’s really a new or novel or unproven idea.

    Now, on the other hand, if any VCs are reading this, please disregard my statement above, and give me a holler, I’d love to send you my deck.

  4. Halfwit

    @PopIsNotDead: I tried TheFilter, and I also tried Suundflavor.

    The only one that’s ever worked for me is Pandora. I think it allows me to have my cake and eat it too: I do listen to find new music, but I know I can just let it run in the background like a favorite radio station and just bring up the window when I’m “surprised” by something I hadn’t heard before.

    Finally, though, the social networking process is crap. I obssessively track my habits on Last.Fm, but I don’t give two figs what my “neighbors” are listening to.

  5. bcapirigi

    there’s also the problem that when you do hear something on the radio you like–which happens to me, sometimes–there are no DJs to tell you what it is you just heard.

  6. mackro

    this works only within micro-genres.

    Example: if you bought, say, Digitalism on iTunes, iTunes will put up similar artists on a dashboard, and make it really easy for you to preview these in no time.

    With a combination of tight genre proximity and high degree of convenience, a submodel of this idea can work.

    As a general business model? Nooo.

  7. ens3000

    Re: the friends part in the title of this post, I think the answer is actually yes.

  8. Lawson

    “The third conclusion I draw is I know sweet fuck all about the way people actually listen to music”

  9. Anonymous

    I’m jumping in with a comment because I suspect my presentation at the Leadership Music Digital Summit is what sparked this post.

    What I said on stage was that technology has already democratized music production AND retail distribution. It’s cheaper than ever to make music and to put it up for sale; as a result, it’s harder than ever to get discovered because more people are competing for attention.

    I believe the most exciting frontier for innovation in the music industry is for technology to also democratize the discovery/promotion process. This could enable more artists to pursue and realize their dreams and create enormous value.

    The trend is already under way — simple tools like email or IM already result in “quality” content spreading rapidly from friend to friend. But there’s much room for innovation to accelerate discovery via social/viral spread (eg Myspace & Youtube facilitate viral spread), or via personalized recommendations (eg Pandora), or both.

    iLike has some interesting features in this regard. For example, we help artists send messages and concert alerts to their existing fans via an iTunes plugin — an extremely simple concept in principle, yet one that opens up a wealth of new possibilities. Another example: if you click on one of our concert listings on Facebook, we facilitate inviting your friends by showing you a list of *your* friends in that city who like that artist. As a music-lover who was previously using email to tell my friends about concerts, I think this is a pretty kick-ass feature.

    I define “discovery” fairly broadly, to include live music, or new releases from existing artists.

    I think we (the industry) have only just begun exploring the ways that technology can facilitate discovery, and I think it’s way too early to write it off.

    Lastly, I agree with the quote that people “don’t seek to discover music – it just happens.” That’s why a big part of iLike’s success has been to integrate inside Facebook, iTunes, and a dozen other places where people already spend their time.

    Ali Partovi, CEO, iLike

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