Has the conversation about streaming music services changed in recent years? Has music's future entered the absolute present? If so, how did music execs and indie artists react. Kyle Bylin, a tech writer and user researcher, explores all of these interesting questions in his latest essay.
1. Music Futurism
I’ve spent several years of my life writing about the future of music listening. I love to look at the world through the lens of a music startup that has an ambition to change current listener habits and speculate on what the shift could mean if it actually happens. The greatest challenge of this pursuit is that behavioral change often takes a very long time to occur, and by the time a predicted shift begins to fully emerge, both the world and I have likely forgotten that I ever planted that flag in the ground.
I have woken up several times in the past couple of years to a news story about a music startup launch or new feature release that sounded very familiar. I look back in my blog post archive, and, sure enough, a few years earlier I predicted that this very thing might happen. So I email the writer with a hyperlink to an old blog post of mine, and then he or she updates his or her news story with an acknowledgment that I had said it first.
And then, life goes on.
There is nothing awarded for correctly predicting that some thing might happen at some point. Furthermore, it often takes several more years to learn whether a music startup or new feature will cause a behavioral shift among music listeners. There have been many cases where I hypothesized about how a specific feature would look and feel, and why it would matter, only to see that some company came to realize the potential for a similar feature and incorporated it into a part of its music website or mobile app.
Months or years later, I grab a coffee with the startup founder and ask him or her about this feature, only to find out that no one uses it. Did the company get the feature right? Could the feature have been a commercial success if it had been introduced in a different context or incorporated into another product? It's hard to know. I have heard that it can take many different implementations for a feature to catch on. Oftentimes, the company doesn’t have enough time to test every possible angle. Some ideas come too early and others too late, but sometimes they arrive right on time. Timing is what every music startup must attempt to nail or defy.
Today, many versions of the future of music exist. Interestingly, I think this has decreased speculation about what this future might entail and increased concern from industry executives and indie artists about how the present will play out.
At the start of 2011, the online trade conversation about streaming music services was mainly based on anticipation and speculation: What will happen when company X does X? What will happen when Spotify finally launches in the U.S. and a free version is offered without a trial period? Will this freemium model lead to wider use of subscription music? What will happen when Apple releases a Pandora or Spotify killer? Apple has sold over 800 million iOS devices and over 800 million credit cards on file with iTunes. How about Google, Facebook, Samsung, Twitter, or Amazon? What will happen when these major tech giants decide to enter the streaming music space? Will there be a streaming music war? Who will win? As each of these hotly anticipated and highly speculated things happened, the music industry’s focus shifted from the next horizon to the present moment.
A strong indicator of this shift arrived in 2012, when several indie artists published their royalty statements online and stirred up a heated debate about streaming payout figures. In sum, their blog posts and social statuses said, “Look at what Pandora and Spotify pay me right now. My royalty payments are too small. We must discuss this issue right now.” For months, indie artists argued with industry executives about whether they understood how to read royalty statements and if streaming payouts could ever support their careers. Most artists didn’t seem to care whether they would receive more money from Pandora and Spotify as their business operations and revenue streams grew in the coming years. All they focused on was how their streaming payouts compared to their music income and whether Pandora and Spotify royalties could supplant declining physical and digital sales. Suddenly, the conversation about whether Pandora and Spotify were the future of music grew into direct criticism about whether either company’s business model was sustainable.
The only major product launch that hasn't happened yet – that industry executives have hotly anticipated and highly speculated about for several years now – is Apple's move into the subscription music market, which is rumored to be coming in early June. Once Apple's revamped version of Beats Music is officially released, the everyday music listener will be able to choose from a cornucopia of streaming music services.
2. User Research
During this time, my career path changed, too. I went from being a trade journalist who mainly covered music startups to a user researcher who works for a startup. I went from helping the music industry make sense of the future to developing consumer insights into how a company’s product is currently viewed and being used in the present.
Once someone conducts user research into music listening habits, it forces him or her to see the user base as the people they currently are – not who he or she thinks they are or wishes they would be.
For example, I haven't used iTunes to manage my music library in six years and I haven't used the Music app on my iPhone because I don't buy MP3 downloads. If I were to assume on the basis of my own experience that other people must not use iTunes or the Music app, I'd be wrong. The survey data I’ve seen suggests that MP3 downloads are still a primary way that people listen to music and that the Music app (i.e., an iTunes library) is among the most popular music apps.
It's easy for those in the music industry to forget that a company’s user base – let alone, the entire rest of the world – doesn’t listen to music like they do, or like their significant others, close friends, or family members do. I think that people in the music industry also forget that attention garnered by technology blog headlines doesn't equal brand awareness or time spent listening among consumers.
The reason why it’s been difficult for me to write about the future of music listening lately is that I realize I'll never be able to see Pandora or Spotify's desktop, web, or mobile apps with fresh eyes again. I know what all the buttons do and where every menu feeds. I use some of the features, but not others. I’ve developed my own routine for using the apps and have already set up the radio stations and music playlists to which I regularly listen. The reality is that thousands of people started using Pandora and Spotify for the first time this week, and they're having their own unique experiences. They're figuring things out for themselves, and they’re probably asking questions that seem obvious to an experienced user but aren’t readily apparent to them.
In other words, I’ve developed a stronger sense of empathy for music listeners, or at the very least, a professional toolkit that helps me to feel a user’s pain when the need arises.
This sense of empathy, however, feels much, much worse than sharing the pain of another human being and feeling what it's like to walk in his or her shoes. I feel disconnected from the real world and don’t see my colleagues as regular people.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of regular people might listen to the same Pandora radio stations when they get ready for work, button up the same dress shirt that they purchased at Macy's, eat the same breakfast cereal that they bought at Target, and drive the exact same color vehicle to work, but they go to work in companies that are quite different from music startups. Venture capital-backed companies don't operate in the way normal workplaces do. When I described my work environment to a friend recently, he said, “What do you mean that you get a brand-new MacBook Pro laptop and they feed you a free lunch every day?”
I replied, "I don't know, man . . . that’s just how things work in Silicon Valley.”
When I still lived in North Dakota and worked at Target, I felt more connected to the real world. Once I moved to Los Angeles to work at Billboard, it dawned on me that I was no longer plugged into what regular people were doing. The people who sat by me in coffee shops weren’t a representative sample of the rest of the country, which wasn’t writing movie scripts and meeting up with actors to discuss their careers. Now, I live in Silicon Valley, a place so estranged from reality that HBO has created a sitcom with the same name that satirizes its disconnect.
Plus, every birthday I celebrate adds a year between myself and my understanding of how anyone younger than me listens to music. I have no clue what websites or mobile apps high school or college students use to play music. I can assume that YouTube and Pandora are on the top of that list, and that Spotify is rising up the chart, but not much else.
3. iTunes Music
Apple has positioned itself to own and control the entire music listening experience: from the most desirable computer, smartphone, and tablet to the most popular app and music store, from the most downloaded music player to the most established headphone and speaker brand to the most widely distributed Internet radio and subscription music service.
Now, you might ask: “Does such a position guarantee that Apple’s subscription music service will be a huge success?” My answer is no, of course not. But it probably will be.
Apple has over 800 million iOS devices through which it can distribute its brand-new subscription music service to by alerting users to download and install the latest software update. It also has over 800 million credit cards on file, although Glenn Peoples, a senior editorial analyst at Billboard, has said, “not all of them have [been used to] or will be used to purchase or access music.”
According to the Apple blog 9to5mac, the subscription music service will be “integrated” into the iOS Music app and will “function similarly” to Beats Music for iPhone in that it will offer curated playlists, a cloud-based library, and personalized recommendations, but it will also feature an “entirely new aesthetic” that corresponds to that of the Music App and iOS.
Back in 2013, Apple released iTunes Radio the same way: through an iOS software update and Music app integration. Let’s look into whether this strategy worked for iTunes Radio.
Edison Research, a market research firm, gave a keynote called “iTunes Radio: Lessons from America” at a radio conference in Dublin, Ireland in March of 2014. It showed music app usage data as well as clips of interviews in which music listeners were asked how they discovered iTunes Radio, why they use the app, and what they like most about it, among other things. Half of the study’s participants (54%) “strongly agreed” that when they saw iTunes Radio was available on their computer or mobile device, their curiosity motivated them to try it out.
Almost all the participants interviewed said they discovered iTunes Radio via the iOS update on their mobile devices. They also said that they found iTunes Radio simple and easy to use; they liked the convenience of having their music libraries, personal playlists, and radio stations in one place; and they loved the one-click iTunes song purchase button. Edison Research’s “Infinite Dial 2015” study showed that in the period from 2014 to 2015, iTunes Radio climbed from third to second place in audio brand awareness (62%) and stayed the third in brand usage (16%).
The other thing to consider is that Apple will have a one-click subscribe button that will auto-renew every month until users Google “how to cancel my iTunes music subscription.”
An earlier report from the online news website Business Insider stated: “Apple is going to relaunch iTunes with a focus on streaming music, rather than paying for downloads.” If this rumor is true, which is easy to believe, since Beats Music never released a desktop app, Apple’s new subscription music service will also arrive in an iTunes software update.
Apple doesn’t need to deliver the best streaming music experience to make the iTunes relaunch a huge success. If Apple can simplify the iTunes desktop app, it’ll be a big win for OS X users, but especially for music listeners. If Apple can add a subscription music tier to iTunes and make it user-friendly, it’ll prevail in disrupting itself and rival music apps.
Put more bluntly, Apple may attract more paying users to its subscription music service than any other company has achieved since the market’s inception in December 2001.
Apple could bring its subscription music service to the mainstream market. It could reach the everyday music listeners and convince them to press the “Subscribe” button. In a few seconds, they’ll type an artist name or song title into the search box and a track will play through their earbuds. They’ll browse through the curated playlist section and check out the dozens of mixes for “Classic Rock,” “Country,” and “Chilling Out.” They’ll open up the “New Music” section to see if any albums or songs by favorite artists came out that week.
Frankly, no one knows for sure what the new Music app and iTunes client will do other than select Apple employees and industry executives, but chances are good that they’ll both do what is outlined above, with a few extra twists or surprises. Apple is well known for innovation and iteration, but streaming music is full of conventions. The main point is that tens of millions of people will potentially be doing these things for the very first time solely because a small alert popped up that told them to update their iOS or iTunes app.
That notification – a numeral one, encased in a red circle – is what could ignite the long-heralded shift in music listener habits from buying and owning songs to subscribing and accessing them.
4. Present Shock
A few weeks ago, I attended a music and tech happy hour in San Francisco, California. I soon grabbed a table with several people, many of whom work in the streaming music space. At one point, a friend of mine who had read my book, Promised Land, said to everyone at the table, “Guys, Kyle is a music futurist. He wrote a book on the future of music.” Everyone went silent and turned their attention to me. I froze. He asked me, “So what is the future of music?”
Normally, this question is my favorite question. Some of my friends might even tell you that a conversation about the “future of music” is the only one that I’m capable of having.
But at that moment, I felt dumbstruck. How was I going to explain to my friend and this table of people that my entire perspective on the future of music had changed? How was I going to explain what I learned when I transitioned from being a trade journalist to a user researcher? How was I going to explain that I had shifted from music futurism to music presentism? How was I going to explain that I had stopped wondering how people would listen to music in the future and started asking, “How are people listening to music right now?”
Thankfully, I didn’t tell my friend and a table of strangers my working theory about how working for a music startup has separated me from the world that most of the population knows as reality.
A trade journalist’s job is to develop a level of expertise that allows him or her to write a story about the music business that’s accessible and insightful. The journalist interviews several experts, locks down the facts, and widens his or her perspective. Then, after a few rounds of editing, the story is published. In contrast, a user researcher’s job is to determine the research methods that’ll answer the product team’s questions. He or she creates a survey to screen for study participants, writes a script and conducts interviews and sorts research data and outlines key findings. Then, after a few revisions, the deck is presented. In both cases, the person’s job is to communicate a fact-based, objective narrative.
The big difference is that the user researcher talks to music listeners instead of industry experts, because they learn that regular people have more to teach them about streaming music services than do their colleagues.
Now, let me explain my shift from music futurism to music presentism. First off, I’m not a music futurist like Gerd Leonhard, who sparked the whole “music like water” debate. I’m someone who follows the streaming music space and reports on the next big startup. It’s been over two years since I’ve written a long-form essay, in part because my career path took a new direction, but also because the conversation about streaming music services has changed, too, and I’ve been trying to figure out why the discussion feels so different.
Why did Excel spreadsheets and royalty payouts become the centerpiece of an industry debate? Why did everyone’s focus shift from the next big thing to per stream calculations?
The next wave of subscription music services that everyone had anticipated and about which they had speculated in 2011 soon arrived. Spotify launched in the U.S. Google countered with Google Music. Sony did Music Unlimited. Twitter did #Music. Amazon did Prime Music. Apple did iTunes Radio. Microsoft did Xbox Music. Samsung did Milk Music. YouTube did Music Key. The list goes on and on. One needn’t anticipate and speculate about what these tech giants might do in the streaming music space, because they’ve already done things. Of course, they’ll keep doing things – unsuspected moves and surprise acquisitions – but what everyone looked forward to then has since happened.
As a result, industry executives and indie artists stopped leaning forward into the future of music and experienced what media theorist Douglas Rushkoff calls “present shock.”
In his 2014 book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, Rushkoff explains that “present shock” is a feeling that people experience when a predicted future arrives. It’s the shock of losing the lean-forward momentum and realizing the future is now the present. It’s the shock when the vision of the “celestial jukebox” – “music anywhere, anytime” – is a reality. It’s the shock when the world’s biggest companies finally enter the subscription music market. It’s the shock when indie artists complain online about paltry royalty payments for their creations. It’s the shock when Pandora and Spotify go from press darlings to public enemies. So go ahead – ask me again, “What is the future of music?”
Here’s my answer: There is no future of music. There is only the present moment. Apple’s subscription service launch will mark the arrival of music’s future into the absolute present.
Kyle Bylin is a user researcher at SoundHound and author of Promised Land: Youth Culture, Disruptive Startups, and the Social Music Revolution. His email.
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