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The Holy Grail of Music Listening: Social, Discovery, and Recommendations

Holy-grailGuest post by Sagee Ben-Zedeff (@sageeb) for sidewinder.fm, a music and tech think tank. Ben-Zedeff is the founder and CEO of Serendip Media.

Three months ago, Nielsen published one of my favorite reports of the year, Music 360. It’s a rather comprehensive, in-depth study of consumer interaction with music in the US. The results this year didn't surprise me, and shouldn't surprise anyone who has followed the behavioral trends around online music consumption in the last few years. However, I know many people were quite surprised.

On Hypebot, senior contributor Clyde Smith summed up the report best when he wrote: Radio = Discovery, YouTube = Listening, Friends = Buying”.

You have to admit that for a survey taking place in America, the land of the free and the home of the brave online music streaming market, it's quite remarkable to find out that 64% of teens listen to music primarily through YouTube (out of the existing music services Pandora came the closest with 35%). It's almost as interesting to read that 48% of Americans discover music most often through listening to the radio — followed by through friends (10%) and YouTube (7%). Last but not least, 54% of US consumers are most likely to purchase music based on recommendations from friends, not music they heard on their favorite music service.

I say the results are not surprising mainly because of what I read between the lines of the Music 360 survey — that with all due respect to the way online music services design their products and tailor their offerings, music listeners haven't really changed their behavior when it comes to music consumption.

Music has always been a very social activity, where a great part of the magic lays in the ability to listen to albums with other people, share the experience, and engage about and around the songs. People are passionate about music genres they like and genres they hate, both online and off. Nothing has changed in that aspect, other than the fact that social platforms have replaced the water coolers and the record stores as the facilitators of music-related chatter. As Jason Herskowitz of Tomahawk puts it: “It only takes a quick glance at your favorite social network to see that people love sharing their favorite music.”

Discovery continues to be an integral part of music listening. It’s social in the sense that it is often fueled by your social circles (friends) and environments (hanging in record stores or drinking in bars). However, discovery used to be fueled primarily by professionals and experts, whose role was to expose listeners to new music — radio personalities, critics, and club DJs. It seems that today people have greater access to such experts through the Internet, as well to millions of amateurs who are eager to share their discoveries, and yet the Nielsen survey shows that people still tune into broadcast radio.

Recommendations , possibly the oldest form of marketing, are also linked to experts. They usually come from trusted sources that provide us with advice on subjects they know about (or think they know about). While experts used to be the main focus of recommendations, the Internet and social web have turned everyone into a potential expert. Amazon, Foursquare, and We Are Hunted show us how the power of recommendations is shifting regular people, especially those who share similar tastes.

So when you ask yourself why many people use YouTube as their primary music service, even in places where other online music services are available and popular; why radio is still the most popular means of discovery, even in 2012; and why people turn to their friends for music recommendations, you must take a good look at social, discovery, and recommendations, or the lack thereof in existing music services.

Social

Sharing on social platforms has slowly but surely become a central trend of the Internet. Whether it's sharing your own content (Instagram, Path, and Facebook) or curating content by others (Pinterest, Twitter, and Flipboard), more and more people define themselves by what they are sharing online, and even more people consume content directly from their peers instead of traditional media outlets.

While sharing music with friends and listening to music shared by friends is certainly a popular online activity, the current user experience in most music services is largely broken, according to Herskowitz:

“...the people on the receiving end are often less than enthused, either because they don't care for your taste or they wind up following a link that doesn't play. With everyone using multiple and different music services, sharing has become ineffective, and worse, spammy.”

In an age where everything is available online, and is one Google search away. Where music is slowly becoming a commodity, and has never been so easy to consume, record, and share. Online music services have built walled gardens that give their users access to music, but nothing more than that. If you're my friend, and you're not using the same service as I am, it’s as if you don’t exist. On a photo or news sharing service, this would be absurd. Yet this is the reality of the online music service market.

YouTube has solved this pain. Its videos are readily available to nearly everyone and easily shared on any social platform. Hardly any barriers are in place for the person sharing, or the person consuming. It also comes with a huge catalog, where you can easily find any song you're looking for, and can even "upload" videos that are missing (even if this may not be entirely legal). If you’re looking to share music, YouTube should satisfy your needs 99% of the time, and will allow you to do so in an effective manner.

Discovery

Online music services are mainly focused on "on-demand" listening. They offer users the ability to play the content they are interested in, so oftentimes you find yourself listening to music you already know.

While most music services have a Pandora-style "radio" feature, discovery is rather limited. Stations are created when you input an artist, and it then recommends similar artists, which restricts discovery by definition. Add to this the fact that the catalog itself is limited and is updated at a much slower pace. You start to see why almost half of Americans tune into plain old broadcast radio to discover new music.

So why is radio so effective at enabling discovery? Radio has few limits on catalog and stays very up-to-date because there are people editing those playlists who are informed by data, but not beholden to it. Automated playlists and advanced machine learning algorithms may come close in a few years (or may not), but at the present a computer can simply not compete with a human in the act of choosing the next song, and doing so based on human instincts, and not thanks to some proximity algorithms of semantic filtering.

Recommendations

Recommendations are a matter of trust. When you trust the person providing the recommendations, you take them whole-heartedly. When music is played from some server, based on a user's input or some algorithm they don’t understand, the level of trust is low and so the effect of these recommendations will not be quite as profound. They’ll most likely not be treated (or trusted) as recommendations at all.

The Internet can connect us to millions of people, some of whom are worthy of our trust. The “wisdom of the crowd" has proven to be effective for Amazon purchases, news curation on Twitter, and many other aspects of our lives. It seems as though music is not different. Mining the tremendous noise for a quality signal is the name of the game, but when it’s achieved, the results are quite magical. Discovering your music soul mates over the Internet and, perhaps even across the ocean, is nothing short of magical.

When the music is being shared and recommended by someone you know or follow and value, the trust level is high and recommendations are very effective. This is why recommendations from friends are the main motivators of music purchases, not hours of listening on a favorite music service. And that’s why it’s no surprise that teens are flocking YouTube and sharing millions of music videos everyday. 

OK, So Now What?

What the Music 360 report proves is that while online music services are blooming, they are broken in regards to what matters to music listeners. What really comes as a surprise is that this is not news to anyone. In fact, two years ago, speculating on "What's Ahead For 2011," George Howard wrote :

“What people in the music startup world keep missing is that the VAST majority of people don't want every piece of recorded music. Rather, they want what they like, and then they want to be led to other things that they might like by people they trust… So, we'll see curation take center stage (maybe in 2011, or later, but it's the grail)."

Around the same time when Howard’s post came out, my partner and I started talking to people in the music industry about social discovery and recommendations. Most of them questioned this model all together. Today, with Turntable.fm rising and falling, and with nearly every service calling itself "social" by simply integrating with Facebook's Open Graph, it's time to seek the grail that Howard talked about. To quote Herskowitz again, it's time "to take a step backwards philosophically, and a step forward technically." Here is how music services must approach social, discovery, and recommendations:

  • Social needs to be an integral part of any music service for it to succeed. But just showing what your friends on Facebook have listened to, especially when it's shared seamlessly and not voluntarily, is not really social. Social means sharing, and for sharing to work the music needs to be accessible to everyone. At least to a certain extent — let me listen to the song, then worry about signing me up. Social also means engaging — commenting, giving feedback, and adding information — which has to be tied to the listening experience itself. Focusing just on playing the music simply doesn't cut it anymore and is sending users to other platforms.
  • Discovery should be an integral part of the music experience, and it should not be limited by catalog or a list of participating friends. There are many great sources out there that support real discovery, and allow users to broaden their horizons and make their listening a lot more interesting. Music services should look outside of the box (the walls of their box) to properly foster meaningful discovery. This should be done either by using third parties that focus on recommendations (The Echo Nest), or opening the platform to developers as Spotify and Deezer have done.
  • Recommendations should be based on either experts or peers. However, access should be easier and more effective, and again not rely solely on the social graph. Users today have less time and less ability to find these experts and services must focus on making sure these connections are part of the experience. Songza has focused its entire value proposition on connecting users to expert music editors. Serendip and Playground.fm focus on seamlessly connecting the users with peers who match their music tastes. In all cases, recommendations are integrated into the experience, and lead to more music purchases, but such that are directly connected to the listening habits of the user. In all cases, users grow to like, and depend on, these experts, which in turn contribute greatly to satisfaction and retention.

I'm a strong believer in technology, but one that serves existing user behaviors, and enables people to do what they have always done and want to do in a better and more effective way. Music services must not settle for simply offering "every piece of recorded music" on some server and a nice looking search box. They must strive to meet the social, discovery, and recommendation needs of music listeners. And there's never been a better time to set out on a quest for the holy grail of music listening than now.

Sagee Ben-Zedeff (@sageeb) is the founder and CEO of Serendip Media, a social online music service, now retired music journalist and blogger, and a member of the editorial board of the IEEE Special Technical Community on Social Networks (STCSN).

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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