By Eliot Van Buskirk of Evolver.fm.
In 2012, much of the world became accustomed to seeing what our friends were listening to on Facebook. It was the year when millions of us stopped listening to digital music alone quite so much, and began tuning in together, whether at the same time or asynchronously.
It’s easy to poke fun at the way this feature also lets you see music you don’t want to listen to. (“Great. Now I know that half my friends listen to music I can’t stand.”) But it has been an exciting trend since 2011; includes a lot more than just Facebook; and is far from over.
When you use your Facebook credentials to log into a music app, it’s not easier for you, but it also lets Facebook hook into what you’re listening to, and that is a large part of how the world’s largest social network, with over a billion users as of September — that’s about one seventh of the known humans in the universe — was able to pull this off.
To find out what Facebook thinks about what it has done for music — and what music has done for it — we spoke with Facebook manager of strategic partnerships Ime Archibong as 2012 came to a close. (Evolver.fm interviews are edited for length and clarity.)
Eliot Van Buskirk, Evolver.fm: Obviously, this was a big year for Facebook and music. What did you guys notice along the way, generally speaking?
Ime Archibong, Facebook manager of strategic partnerships: It’s been a great year for Facebook and music — our first intersection with this space. Even going back to the panel that we sat on together, it was all about getting things wired up, right? Getting the foundation into place and working with the Spotifys, iHeartRadios, Deezers, and all the big names out there; making sure that users and folks that love music have an optimized experience and a way to share that with their friends, and have that conversation about music; and we’ve gotten good traction, both in the developer ecosystem and with users.
2012 was about setting the foundation, getting the right people on board, and putting the pipes in place. I would say that in 2013, some of the stuff I’m most excited about is what you can do once you have everything connected: really leaning into and solve the problem of discovery and what people are going to be listening to next, and making sure that they can get that social signal in a way that is meaningful, exciting, and engaging.
Last week, I was at my sister’s wedding in Nigeria, which was fantastic. One of the nights after the wedding, I was sitting around the table with some cousins who were all in the same age range, and although we don’t know each other intimately, the conversation quickly evolved to some of the universal topics that people can discuss — music, of course, being a rich one. What are you listening to right now — what artists and what types of music? We talked about that literally for hours, and since coming back to the states, that conversation has continued on Facebook as well. They were able to, after I pointed them in the right direction, go to my [Facebook] Timeline and check out the music that I listened to over the course of the last year. They can also see what I’m listening to on the Spotifys, Songzas, and MOGs, and chime in when they see those stories on their news feed. For me, it was a validation of the online experience that we worked so hard to put together last year.
Evolver.fm: There are a few ways that Facebook connects people with music — this “connective tissue” that at first we were looking forward to, and now we’ve seen it how it works. Which parts seem to be the strongest? There’s the news feed, the real-time activity ticker, the music tab, and people actively embedding stuff. What are people using the most, or how are they using them differently?
Archibong: It’s no mystery that the news feed [in] the Facebook homepage is one of the most-visited places around the internet at this point, so the stories and conversation that happens off of the music we’re surfacing in the news feed has been fantastic.
We’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about people’s identity on Facebook… with the launch of Timeline. [If you're my friend], you can see a quick snapshot of what I’ve listened to, broken down by month, by service, by listening type — album, musician, song or playlists. Those are two big [aspects] that performed well in 2012.
In 2013, I’m excited about the idea of identity being fully flushed out — being able to go to the music part of my Timeline and getting an even more rich experience on that side of things.
The other part, which has been little talked about but has improved over the last month, is the music dashboard. It’s essentially the news feed but just cut for music. It used to be a chronological list of what you listened to, but if you go to it today, you’ll see some of the moves that the team that is thinking pretty hard about this stuff is making.
How do we really unlock discovery? It’s not just Ime’s consumption, but it’s also the pages that you may have liked around Facebook. If Ime has said explicitly that he likes Rihanna, we should give him the Rihanna status updates in that space. If Ime is friends with Jillian, maybe it makes sense for us to show that music content there too, because that’s just another signal to help unlock, hopefully, this problem of discovery that we’re trying to help solve.
Evolver.fm: One observation I had made over the year was that people weren’t always in favor of the social news feature. “I read about Kim Kardashian’s outrageous bathing suit at 10:30am on a work day” seems different from “I listened to this.” Not everything performs the same way on Facebook. Did you notice anything interesting about music versus other hooked-in activities?
Archibong: I think your observation is fair. One thing we do at Facebook when we launch products is we launch and we listen. We listen very carefully to our users. Music, like you say, has been pretty successful, and you’re a music-head, so you understand the concept of what Last.fm has been doing for years. If you’ve been an avid Facebook user too, I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of friends over the last seven or eight years saying “check out this new track,” and they’ll drop a link there, or “what music should I be listening to?” in their status update.
Having conversations about music is not new or novel to the Facebook experience. If anything, the Open Graph took it to the next level and elevated the experience — and we’ve seen that in the adoption, the developer excitement, and the industry excitement over the course of the year.
Evolver.fm: How does YouTube fit into this? I feel like before this Facebook music initiative, YouTube used to be how you did music on Facebook. Is that considered part of this whole scene, or are the Spotifys, Deezers, and Songzas overtaking YouTube? Is that something that’s being talked about?
Archibong: It’s not something that’s being talked about, and I wouldn’t be the person to talk to about YouTube’s usage vs. Spotify and so forth, but I think you’re right. One of the things we see, of course, is those links that people were pasting to have conversations around music — a lot of them were YouTube and Vevo links. And Vevo was actually one of the partners who said, “Hey, the music video use case is super compelling, and is a great volume today — let’s make sure that we’ve optimized our [Facebook] Open Graph integration so that we have a great experience within Facebook, and once they come to Vevo.com they are able to share that content more easily with their friends.”
Evolver.fm: It’s great to be introduced to the music that your friends are into, but it could also be interesting to flip the thing around. When you already have music in common with somebody, either that you could maybe see their updates about music more if you know them, or even straight-up be introduced to them if you don’t. Are those priorities in 2013?
Archibong: Facebook has always been about your friends, so our thinking is typically taking that lens and trying to figure out the different signals you can extract from your friends. But the use case you describe is interesting. The way we’re trying to solve that right now is exactly what we’ve done with the music dashboard over the past couple of months, and continuing to push the boundaries of that page and that real estate, which is “Don’t just show me what my friends are listening to, but show me what Rihanna is posting right now and everything that people are commenting there; show me Special K, or whomever some random band is that I’ve liked, or that my friend is talking about in their status update.”
Evolver.fm: On a high level what has Facebook done for music in 2012, and what has music done for Facebook?
Archibong: Since Facebook existed, people have had conversations about music there. We know we can’t go and do everything. In order for us to be successful, our users are having the experiences; they’re having conversations with their friends about relevant topics — in this case, music; they’re filling out their identity online in a holistic way — in this case, through music. We’re going to need to partner with folks to do that — folks that are excited about the future of social and music.
We worked with the big names, the Spotifys and iHeartRadios of the world, but another interesting trend was the Songzas of the world. When we first started talking to those folks, they understood what social was, and they were using a lot of the stuff that the Facebook platform had to offer without even having had a conversation with the Facebook team. Leaning into folks like that and seeing the success they had over the year — we’re super excited about that and where they’re going with social integration.
To answer your point directly, about what music did for Facebook over the last year: It made the experience, conversation, and engagement that is happening inside of Facebook better, more exciting, and more compelling for our users in a way that we couldn’t have done alone.
The flipside of that — what Facebook has done for the music industry: We talked about the plumbing, and what we were able to do [there]. One of the high-level goals that we have in the platform team is to be a meaningful distribution platform for our partners. I think that has been achieved, without a doubt, and all you have to do is look at the list of our partners and the growth they have talked about publicly, and the traffic they are getting from Facebook to grasp the meaningful impact that I think we’ve had for some of these developers…
Archibong: Exactly. For you and I, and other folks in the industry, the growth is great, the consumption is going to be great, but some of the meaningful metrics that get me most excited are when, for example, [Spotify CEO] Daniek Ek gets up on stage and says that a Facebook Connected user is twice as likely to pay for music as a non-socially-connected user. That is meaningful for the industry. And when I go talk to the Earbit team down in San Diego, and they tell me about the integration and what it’s done in terms of bringing an audience to independent artists — that gets me excited, because that’s touching those independent musicians directly. When Elias [Roman] over at Songza tells me that a socially-connected user is listening to 20 percent more music than a non-socially-connected user, that gets me excited too.
We’re talking about meaningful metrics not only to these companies, but also to the industry more broadly. We’re talking about more catalog consumption [i.e. more attention to so-called "deep cuts" that don't get radio airplay]. We’re talking about paying users, and touching the real economics of the industry. That’s where the real power lies.
Evolver.fm: In terms of the economics, Facebook is doing a lot in terms of exposing its users to these services, and these services are really grateful. Is Facebook just happy to be in the position of integrating all this stuff, or does that turn into a commercial type of thing? I mean, you’re putting company after company on the map, doubling their users, and so on. I can see there being the temptation to say, “Okay, you get your first hundred thousand users for free, and then it’s going to cost you.”
Archibong: I can’t get into the details, but at the highest levels, what’s good for our users tends to be good for us, so that’s where we see the majority of our value and it tends to be our focus right now. If anything, I would say one of the things we’re excited about is that we continue to be a meaningful platform for distribution for these partners on desktops, and as we move to a “mobile first” world, for lack of a better word — I think everybody’s talking about that now — that we continue to be a meaningful distribution platform for these folks.
Evolver.fm: I think that’s going to be a big thing in 2013. Spotify has apps, and they only run on the desktop, but it seems like it’s getting to a “Russian doll” scenario on mobile, where people love the apps that exist inside of things, but there’s only so much screen. It’s going to be interesting to see how that all happens.
Archibong: The real estate on mobile makes a lot of the UI element, and the beauty that social can bring to these apps and these experiences, difficult. I think the user experience is going to be what ends up winning out. I think about mobile apps like Soundtracking that are doing a great job with helping you capture a moment. Back to my sister’s wedding — when she got up there and was dancing with my dad, she started crying, and I thought, “This is a beautiful moment. Not only do I want to capture this picture, but I want to add my message to it, and I also want to add the song they were playing for their father-daughter dance.” Apps like Soundtracking let me do that, and capture that, add [the photo, song, and message] to Facebook, and share it with the friends and family members that weren’t able to make it to Nigeria as well. It’s really the user experience that’s going to be interesting and unlocked on the mobile side of things.
(Photo courtesy of Quora)