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Music Discovery: The Path to Digital Failure

FailureGuest post by Kyle Bylin of sidewinder.fm, a music and tech think tank.

Billboard has doubled down on a particularly dangerous idea. In the trade publication’s annual FutureSound white paper, it proclaims that music discovery is “The Key To Digital Fortune.” This is, at best, egregious hyperbole, and, at worst, complete mystification. Senior correspondent Alex Pham, who wrote this section of the paper, concedes that enabling listeners to discover music is “much harder than it seems, as evidenced by the numerous efforts” and that such “efforts” have been largely fraught with “trial and error” for more than a decade. But Pham fails to question the promise of music discovery and why it’s likely to never be fulfilled, let alone, address why music discovery is being championed as “The Key To Digital Fortune” in the first place. It’s clear that little thought went into this headline and that it has almost nothing to do with the reportage that follows, which is fine. But if the ostensible magazine of record wants to go out on a limb, it should notice that limb has already broken.

"Friends let friends found startups;
no one wants to rock them to sleep."

Music discovery is a dead pool of music startups, where zero successes exist. These startups die for a number of reasons, but mainly due to steep royalties and licensing issues, or the inability to convert a niche product into a sustainable business. If you look at the music startup sector, there are minuscule profits and fruitless exits. Shift your focus to the sole category of music discovery and things fair even worse. These services and apps register as blips on the radars of technology writers and receive launch coverage, only to fall back into obscurity and lay down to die. Some visualize related artists, while others suggest similar songs; none of them reach a mainstream market. Few executives are so cynical that they will publicly guess how much runway a music startup has left (it’s a very small world). But no one misses the chance to place a bet in private. Friends let friends found startups; no one wants to rock them to sleep. Even Pandora, the poster-child of online music, is a spectacular failure, whose days appear to be numbered.

"The only stakeholders that have a 'music discovery'
problem are the artists whose music isn’t being found."

The truth is that music discovery isn’t a problem, and it’s not a solution either. Music listeners don’t have trouble figuring out what to listen to; they simply don’t know what to listen to next. They have more than enough music, but not enough time to explore it. They enjoy re-listening to their favorite songs. Music startups believe that listeners like to discover music, because the founding members love to discover music. In search of a killer solution, they reduce an organic and serendipitous process to a robotic and deliberate exchange. Arguably, the only stakeholders that have a “music discovery” problem are the artists whose music isn’t being found. It’s assumed that masking this problem as a product and shipping the resulting solution to music listeners works, but it hasn’t. They still discover new songs they enjoy on broadcast radio and look up music videos on YouTube. Billboard says that music discovery creates “magical moments” that convert casual listeners to paying customers, but it never questions the demand for the trick or what it pays to be a magician. The only “magical” illusion that music startups have “mastered” to date is the “vanishing” act.

Music discovery requires a lot of work; no service can do that work for you. Sometimes, the right song falls into your lap at the right time and you manage to successfully capture it through a mobile app . You start listening to that song on repeat and become a über fan of that artist. But if you want to discover music on a regular basis, i.e. more often than by chance, you must set aside a few hours to sift through and listen to a lot of “bad” music. This is the only reliable and tested method to “discover” great music. You can entrust a musicologist at Pandora or disc jockey at Slacker to put in this effort and attempt to harvest the fruits of their labor, but no one can discover music for you. It doesn’t matter what custom stations you create or how many “thumbs up” you dole out, your input determines Pandora’s output. Slacker has 253 stations, but you, my friend, have six skips and tapping a button isn’t a “magical” moment that leads to fandom. There are dozens of equally flawed “music discovery” services that throw spaghetti against the wall in a similar fashion. These services help music listeners to stumble upon favorite songs and artists, but it still takes dedicated effort to find great music.

"Music discovery has revealed
itself as a path to digital failure."

For over a decade, music discovery has revealed itself as a path to digital failure. A distressed sector of music startups have masked an artist problem and championed it as a consumer product; only to emerge perplexed (and broke) as to why casual listeners won’t pay for their automated (and fanatic) solution. Maybe, it’s because “music discovery” isn’t a problem they actually have, and if they did, it would take more than typing the name of their favorite artist into a website or handling over their entire Facebook “Like” history to solve. Maybe, it’s because “music discovery” takes so much work that no sane listener would ever be tricked into doing it; unless, that is, they hear that their favorite torrent site is going to be shut down and they do some real research so that they “discover” what artists to type into the search box. It’s crazy that we drone on and on about the perils of the “infinite search box” and “unlimited music choice” but we can’t see that if “music discovery” isn’t a problem for pirate users then it’s not “The Key To Digital Fortune” with legal consumers. Admit it: Music discovery is a lie that’s never going to come true, and Billboard believing it’s true, won’t make it true.

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.

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