Startups & Funding

Dear Kyle, Music Discovery Is Neither A Lie Nor A Path To Failure

image from Paul Lamere, the Director of Developer Platform at The Echo Nest. He blogs at Music Machinery.

This week, the usually excellent Hypebot published a post by Kyle Bylin called Music Discovery: The Path to Digital Failure. In this post, Kyle takes issue with a recent Billboard article about how music discovery is one of the key areas in the new music business. Kyle pulls no punches. He says “Music Discovery is a lie that is never going to come true”. His argument is threefold:

(1) “Music discovery is a dead pool of music startups, where zero successes exist“

I’m not sure which world Kyle lives in, but it is not my world. I see music discovery success everywhere I look, from emerging startups like Discovr, Songza,, SpotOn, The Sixty One, We Are Hunted, and many more, to more established companies such as The Hype Machine, Shazam, Soundhound, and Pandora. There are companies like The Echo Nest (where I work), Rovi and Gracenote that supply data and tools for music discovery. The biggest tech companies in the world: Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple, are all investing heavily in music discovery technology such as music recommendation and playlisting. Likewise, the growing music subscription services like Spotify, Rhapsody and Rdio are working hard to provide tools to make it easier for their listeners to explore and discover new music, recognizing that this is essential for subscriber retention. Even the traditional music tastemakers – such as the music labels, MTV and broadcast radio increasingly rely on discovery technology to surface new, interesting music. Oh, and by the way, three of the largest exits in the digital music space are discovery-related: ($280m), Gracenote ($260m) and Pandora (with a current market cap of 1.5bn). I wouldn’t mind going for a swim in that dead pool.

There are hundreds of companies, big and small, all around the world successfully improving the music discovery experience. The success is quantifiable and real: more music sales, longer listening time, improved subscriber retention, more satisfied listeners. Asserting that there are zero successes is just plain wrong.

(2) “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.”

This is crazy time. First, Kyle says ‘Music discovery isn’t a problem’ and then in the very next sentence he says that listeners ‘simply don’t know what to listen to next’. The only way that this can make sense is for Kyle to have a very narrow understanding of what music discovery is. I suspect that when Kyle says ‘music discovery’ he means ‘artist recommendation’, which is a very small part of the music discovery world. Music discovery is so much more than just artist recommendation and a big part of music discovery is helping that listener decide what to listen to next.

(3) “Music discovery requires a lot of work; no service can do that work for you.”

So we went from “Music discovery isn’t a problem” to “Music discovery requires a lot of work“. Which is it? Certainly if it isn’t a problem then it shouldn’t require a lot of work. If I really don’t have trouble figuring out what to listen to why must I “set aside a few hours to sift through and listen to a lot of “bad” music“. Yes, music discovery can be hard. That is why so many people are trying to build tools to help you explore for and discover new music. That’s why Billboard suggests that music discovery is one of the key areas in the new music business. Today’s music listener is totally overwhelmed by the amount of music available. Helping that listener sort through the 20 million songs that they have in their pocket to find something that they’d enjoy listening to next, perhaps something new, or perhaps an old favorite, will indeed be a key part of the new music business. Music discovery is not “a lie” – it is real, it is a big part of today’s listening experience and will be an even bigger part of tomorrow’s listening experience.


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  1. Music discovery—beyond the solutions that already exist—is a novelty problem, not a mainstream problem. Pandora, Spotify and iTunes, provide plenty of new music discovery mechanisms for the mainstream listeners. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a couple more services that either attempt to compete with the Big Three or serve some niche that the others neglect. Novelty products can still make money. It just means that they’re going to face a big challenge in compelling listeners to adopt their service, since they’re largely unasked for and unneeded.
    Kyle wrote, “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.” I don’t think that this represents most listeners in any way. In fact, Kyle is the only person I know who would ever sit around and do this on a regular basis. I believe that if you were to survey listeners you would find that most people are generally satisfied with the Big Three, plus friends, family and serendipity.
    Paul, you ended your post with, “Today’s music listener is totally overwhelmed by the amount of music available. Helping that listener sort through the 20 million songs that they have in their pocket to find something that they’d enjoy listening to next, perhaps something new, or perhaps an old favorite, will indeed be a key part of the new music business … [music discovery] is a big part of today’s listening experience and will be an even bigger part of tomorrow’s listening experience.”
    That’s certainly what the music industry posits, and wants so badly to be true, but I don’t think it matches up with reality. As I said before, I don’t think that average listeners see music discovery as a problem, I think they’re generally satisfied with current solutions. Instead, as Kyle mentioned in his original post, it’s the music industry that has the music discovery problem. Musicians and record companies are the ones that are overwhelmed; they’re overwhelmed by the din of competition and puny royalty checks. Music discovery is one of the last bastions on hope that the music and music-tech players have left to bank on. That’s why all these services keep popping up, despite the obvious business challenges.

  2. I have to agree with Refe on this one.
    Music Discovery (aka suggesting the next song) is one possible ingredient in any music experience ‘cake’.
    Companies (chefs) sometimes bake a great cake with the discovery ingredient, sometimes a bad cake, and sometimes they don’t use the ingredient at all.
    But 95% of people are simply looking for a delicious cake, regardless of whether or not they fully understand or appreciate the ingredients in it.
    I love iTunes, for example. But I don’t use Genius. I love the app for playing/organizing my collection of owned music.
    I love Pandora too. I use it when I want a passive experience that takes less effort on my part.
    Both are great cakes for me, and I don’t really compare them based on the ingredients.

  3. i can’t say that i see anything but mediocre “music discovery” on pandora, spotify, or itunes. part of the problem is that you have to be watching pandora and itunes while a song is on that you like or you won’t know what it is (that’s why radio has DJs). genius is annoying and slows things down so i avoid it. many others do too. spotify is also poor for music discovery. they really offer nothing in that way beyond a handful of paid feature releases.

  4. I agree with the fact that Music Discovery may be more of a music industry problem, as Kyle mentioned. How many music fans are truly SEEKING to discover new music anyway? Sure if something good comes their way, its appreciated, but I think we may be over-estimating the number of fans who are truly seeking new music discovery.

  5. monthly U.S. google searches:
    “discover new music” = 5,400
    “music discovery” = 8,100
    “mumford & sons” = 673,000
    “gangnam style” = 1,220,000

  6. Sorry Paul,
    But in terms of music discovery, Discovr, Songza,, SpotOn, The Sixty One, We Are Hunted, The Hype Machine, Shazam, Soundhound,, Pandora, The Echo Nest (props for the self promo), Rovi, Gracenote, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Spotify, Rhapsody, Rdio, YouTube, MTV — and any others you may add to this list — are not providing a quality experience for people to “discover” new and existing music.
    Children are hearing about music from each other but are completely desensitized from placing any value on their music, art and culture because they have grown up acquiring it for free.
    No good music discovery destination plus piracy plus an industry so dazed by new technology that it makes extremely bad business deals in desperate attempts to monetize its content equals a complacent society.
    Let’s just face it folks – Kyle is actually right here.

  7. If you are building a music service and your value proposition is to enable people to discover new music, then you are probably doomed to be a niche service provider. Discovery is a low priority for most. (Am I parroting Kyle?)
    If you are building a music service and your value proposition is to improve the listening experience via great programming, then you are probably on to something that’s a high priority for music consumers. (Songza is on to something.)
    The capacity to OBTAIN great programming (it’s subjective, I know) via numerous modes (machine, self, DJs,) has exploded. You switch modes depending on context (self for the gym, machine at the desk, DJ in the car, etc).
    Other then purpose-driven discovery, discovery is an artifact of ‘great programing’. It’s not dead, it’s not a lie, it’s just not the best problem to solve.

  8. From my standpoint Mr. Bylin and Mr. Lamere are looking at the same thing except that Mr. Bylin has a glass half empty point of view and Mr. Lamere has one that’s half full. The way I see it , there are two distinct kinds of music discovery. One entails a listener discovering music that is new to that person. It could be Mozart or Rhianna or anything else that crosses the listening path of that particular listener. The other involves a filtration process that distills a lot of newly recorded music down to a few selections that a large group of mainstream listeners then decide what becomes popular and what does not. One is more of any individual experience and the other is more of what becomes a shared communal experience. In my opinion, both Mr. Bylin and Mr. Lamere are talking about the first kind of music discovery which is largely what the post digital world experiences today.
    The gatekeepers of music from the past were never perfect, quite often were corrupt but did and to a certain extent still do provide a reasonably small selection of music that the mainstream listening public can get passionate about, listen to repeatedly and share with their friends. In my day, music creation was in the midst of revolutionary change. From Elvis to the Beatles to Jimi Hendrix to Led Zeppelin and everywhere in between music evolved continually. The second type of music discovery was all we had and of course it dominated our lives. “The Joy of the Single” shows how the boomer generation discovered and revered its music.
    Today, pull almost any 14-18 year old kid aside and whether they have 50 songs or 50,000 on their iPod, they all seem to be aware of the same constantly changing list of 20 songs that are fed to them by the old machine. The days of what’s left of the old time gatekeepers are numbered and clearly a new day is coming that exists within the visions of both Mr. Bylin and Mr. Lamere.
    The question yet to be determined is when and where will the two types of music discovery converge and what effect if any at all will it have and how will it manifest itself in our daily lives and the music culture of the day. No one knows the jury is definitely still out.

  9. Music discovery is an incredibly broad topic, because let’s face it, you technically have to ‘discover’ every last artist or song (or piece of art, food, beer, movie, whatever) that you care about (or hate). The question really is how fans will discover music in the future, and if technology has a serious and game-changing role to play here. And, frankly, if the masses care enough about discovering interesting music.
    If we’re discussing the narrower topic of technologies, algorithms, apps, or other intelligence designed to turn you onto new music, or rediscover old music, then I think Kyle has hit an important nerve. Because it remains unclear if the music listener is genuinely looking for an intelligent solution for discovering gems and broadening a musical collection in the way that a true aficionado would. Kyle argues that a legion of startups are chasing a solution n search of a problem, and if you look at the top charts of apps like iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, etc., not to mention the Ulitmate Chart, you will find stocking homogeneity and repetitiveness. It seems to support the thesis that ‘they’re just not that into music,’ at least to the degree or manner theorized.
    Actually, you yourself – a dedicated music listener – can’t be as deeply into every other thing, so you yourself become a case study in someone else’s industry. For example, I like drinking beer with friends, but I’m not trying to discover new beers. I go to a bar with 20 taps, and that seems like a huge number. A true connoisseur would scoff at that number. Got a tasty new beer to show me? Great, I’ll taste it, I will discover it and buy it later if I really like it. But I’m not really looking for that recommendation, and when I do receive it, it’s usually from a tried-and-true channel (okay, the analogy wears thin after a while).
    And let’s not overlook that there’s an entirely different school here, one that says discovery is really a myth – entirely. Instead, the theory goes that most fans have no idea what they really want, and that goes for music, film, fashion, taste in the opposite sex, etc. That this is essentially all told to us, that we accept what’s popular and ‘in’ and delude ourselves into thinking we’re making our own choices. A cousin of that theory is that music is rarely divorced from its social surroundings; we aren’t just listening to music but want to listen to music that is being listened to, that means something; very few are tastemakers on the fringes. Even Jason Bentley admitted to abandoning his support of a song or artist if there’s not enough energy or excitement out there on the group. The result is that if you hear ’99 Problems’ in isolation in the woods, never having heard of Rick Rubin or Jay-Z, or hearing it sung by someone else, you wouldn’t even realize you loved the song — even though it’s smacking you in the face.
    Maybe I’m having one too many beers. It’s a fun debate.

  10. Actually, piracy is a truly awesome music discovery system. Especially for kids. I’ve run into lots of teenagers who have listened to everything: bluegrass to metal to opera to swing era. The young people of the piracy generation are going to know more about music than any previous generation in history.

  11. It’s a nice afford and discover new music is very important for all musicians because people are getting boar with same music. There should be a something different now.

  12. Are you kidding??? When is the last time you heard a DJ clearly state the song that you were listening to? If he plays 5 or 6 songs in a row and then rattles them off (maybe, at the end), how am I supposed to know which was which? How am I supposed to remember all the titles he rattles off?
    How hard is it to glance down at your player device once per song to read the title and artist???

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