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A Better Widget: Why Aren't Online Music Services Music-Friendly?

Screen Shot 2012-11-25 at 6.13.12 PMGuest post by Kyle Bylin of sidewinder.fm, a music and tech think tank.

A decade into the digital music revolution, it’s remarkable that we can create radio stations that we can customize to our taste and stream tens of millions of songs. You would be forgiven, however, if you hoped that these online music services did much else. Of course, it could be argued that a “good” experience is characterized by great recommendations and the flawless playback of music. You could even say that a “good” experience is delivered when a complex problem is solved by a simple product.

But the fact is that Pandora and Spotify are spectacular achievements that provide an underwhelming experience. They are marginally better widgets, with minimal features.

Why have these services fallen short of their potential?

Aaron Tap, guitarist for Matt Nathanson and Paula Kelley | @aarontap

My first thoughts are twofold. First off, I think the social aspect of music sharing is over-emphasized by the tech/hype machine. I've said it before and I still feel it's true. People share songs in certain moments and a song here and there can take hold in a zeitgeist kind of way but what might define "success" would be the Spot-Dora equivalent of a hit single. And with broadcast being limited to one user at a time, and a user that has to launch an app and click buttons to make broadcast happen, likelihood of a "Rolling In the Deep" to launch on Spot-Dora is next to nil. So, at the end of the day, these apps become slightly more bloated versions of iTunes.

Aaron Tap | @aarontap
More importantly, though, is the fact that these applications are competing with every other piece of information on users' screens. Whether that be work, HuffPo, Angry Birds, or whatever. Everything is concentrated in a tiny space, whereas radio is ubiquitous and can accompany a host of other experiences without being "in the way" as it were. And with dedicated listening platforms (CD/LP/cassette/8-track) there is something defining about putting a record on, even if you're doing that while you vacuum or make dinner or whatever, that heightens one's investment in the music. I know you can virtually put a record on on your iPhone and then do the dishes. But while you're picking your album, you're getting push messages, etc. 

Kyle Bylin | @sidewinderfm
You hit an important thread when you said, “So, at the end of the day, these apps become slightly more bloated versions of iTunes.”

Obviously, such imitation is done on purpose, as it gives users an easy way to understand Spotify and the functionality it offers. But this also places Spotify inside a box without much wiggle room.

Part of the reason Spotify opened up their platform to developers is to expand the feature set without growing the risk. It has also been reported that Spotify may soon introduce a web app, which could open up many new possibilities.

Will Spotify and rival companies continue to pursue the "spreadsheet approach" to music apps? Should the experience be rethought or is this what the "average listener" desires?

Aaron Tap | @aarontap
Good thinking. Most of the interesting stuff that happens on Spotify has been with apps. It might just be that real change will come in some bold new application that strips off the staid layouts (I had never put it that way, but it totally is just a “spreadsheet” - boring!). Maybe something that combines the all-web search services of the Swarm.fm app with a purely visual/touch-based interface that allows listeners to interact with their music in new and unusual ways? It's very hard to hit on, because, as has been noted, developers are often a few steps removed from the average listener. As are musicians themselves. I'm still waiting for a surprise. An actual revolutionary idea.

Kyle Bylin | @sidewinderfm
Swarm.fm is a great app that unlocks the potential of Spotify. It solves a problem that the company has not, which is using your music library to inform you about new releases.

In terms of being purely visual and touch-based, it sounds like you are talking about a cross between Hunted and Aweditorium, which are amazing iPad apps that have beautiful design and let you to interact with music in new ways.

I have always wondered if the music library could be represented (Mufin Player and Planetary) and played (thesixtyone and Earbits) visually. To me, my favorite songs exist as part of a larger ecology and it would be great to explore just beyond where they lie.

The library should act as a "musical brain" that powers all other experiences.

Kyle Bylin | @sidewinderfm
I have wondered if many people just want radio, too.

Many basic, market-proven aspects of radio have not been brought to digital platforms. People want to listen to popular and familiar music, and discover a few new songs along the way. Preferably, the new songs that they discover are from new releases by artists they like. And all of the songs that they gave “thumbs up” to on one station are likely songs that they want to hear on a similar one.

On Pandora, radio stations exist in individual silos and have no concept of currents and golds. So, a song that gets a “thumbs up” in one station will likely not appear in another, and if you are listening to "Today’s Rock" you will almost never hear great songs from yesterday’s rock.

Aaron Tap | @aarontap
Much as I am not myself a hit-song person, I agree that some sort of baseline of familiar material in a station/stream is going to be essential to moving the concept to something that really takes hold.

"The library should act as a musical brain that powers all other experiences."

That is a great statement! Ever since you dropped the “spreadsheet” tag on me, I've been thinking about how the basic failing of all digital music is its placing of a mundane visual jacket on an otherwise unpredictable multi-stimulational experience. There's nothing about these interfaces (often) that connects one to the music. A PNG file just is not inspiring. So, contrary to my periodic wish for more info, I wonder now if we need less. Or none?

Kyle Bylin | @sidewinderfm
Rdio made their app more visual, but it’s still not visceral. It’s a better widget with similar features. It may be that reliable playback is what makes Rdio a “good” product, and it satisfies the needs of most listeners.

But I often wonder, like you, is this “as good as it gets” or can we do better? My thinking is that we can, it’s just a matter of, do listeners want things to be better? It’s easy for us to throw stones at music services, as we expected more and feel like we have been given less. The reality is, however, that everything listeners asked for in the digital revolution has been given to them and now it’s hard to say if they actually want these things. We have reached the promised land, and it still seems like no one is happy.

Aaron Tap | @aarontap
I agree. We (or they) can do better for sure but I don't think there's any consensus as to what better is. It's a bit of a "if it's broke don't fix it" conundrum. On a basic level, radio still works, so the main reason people might be looking for an alternative would be to have radio, in some form or other, on any device they may choose. That may not be compelling enough to yet drive great innovation. I do believe, though, that something will come along. I expect it will surprise me as to its form but I bet I will know right away if it's "the thing."

This originally appeared on Branch, an online discussion platform.

Sidewinder.fm is founded and edited by Kyle Bylin of Live Nation Labs. If you would like to contribute a post to be featured on the site, please reach out.