Apps, Mobile & SMS

Mainstream Fanatic: Songza Takes Music Playlists To The Masses

Post by Kyle Bylin (@kbylin) of Live Nation Labs and Ultimate Chart.

6a00d83451b36c69e201676371db6d970b-250wiEvery year, dozens of startups attempt the impossible: to make their product mainstream. In the music sector, this proves to be a particularly challenging task, because startups are often founded by fanatics who are unlike the casual listeners they’re targeting with their product.

The team at Songza, a music streaming service, faces this hurdle.

The company presents itself as a destination for hand-crafted playlists and effortless music discovery, but the roll-out of its latest platform signals that its ambitions are much larger. Many companies have tried to create a mainstream playlist service before, but none have attempted this feat in the way that Songza has.

When a user visits Songza, they’re now encouraged to use a feature that helps them select the perfect playlist for that time period. For example, if you open Songza on a Tuesday afternoon, it suggests you may be seeking music for “Working or Studying”. If selected, it displays a list of genres, and if you pick “Pop”, the playlists “The World of Adele” or “Soft Pop” are recommended.

This feature, branded as Music Concierge, is innovative and intuitive; it narrows the pool of playlists and eases the burden of picking one. By suggesting the right music for their day, it has the potential to increase the amount of enjoyment users derive from it, thereby enhancing their mood.

But what’s striking about the feature isn’t what it does. The remarkable thing about Music Concierge lies in the fanatic activity that drives it and the effect it may have on those who use it.

II. Maximizing Music

Behind Songza, there’s a hoard of music experts and dedicated users. These are the fanatics who swap songs in and out of the playlists for “Working or Studying,” or “Getting Lucky,” or “Unwinding After A Busy Weekend” until they achieve perfection.

They imagine themselves working or studying in the future and attempt to align music with that experience in hopes that they can increase their focus and deepen their enjoyment of the task.

After several hours and possibly debates with friends, these fanatics arrive at a list of songs that suffice and now must determine how they fare in the real world. The next time they’re working or studying, they’ll cue up the playlist, make a few adjustments, and press play. Depending on how well the songs carry them through the designated activity, they’ll either redo or finalize the playlist.

This process takes time and effort, more than a casual listener will devote. Songza removes this burden for casual users entirely and makes it easy to harvest the fruits of fanatic labor. It might just popularize the notion that different times of day call for different kinds of music if the service goes mainstream.

For decades, fanatics have had a romanticized idea about having a soundtrack to their lives. When they wake up in the morning, they dream of a playlist beginning—just like in the movies—that syncs up the perfect songs to their day and only pauses for dramatic moments between star-crossed lovers.

The introduction of the cassette opened the door to this music utopia, making it possible for fanatics everywhere to capture their favorite songs and blend them together in a thematic fashion.

But this form of playlist curation goes beyond that. Playing the right music at the right time is only one part of the equation. That’s what a DJ does. When fanatics create playlists, they attempt to imagine future experiences and orchestrate music that maximizes the level of enjoyment they expect to derive from the activity alone. Their goal is to make the activity itself better through music.

Rather than settle for a playlist that’s good enough, a fanatic explores all possible songs and chooses the best ones. This is a daunting task, but their playlists speak for themselves.

Songza has now packaged these playlists and made them accessible to casual listeners. The question is: Could a feature like Music Concierge produce negative effects? If so, what might they be?

III. Conveyer Belt

Products are conversations—and Songza mirrors what users tell it. We may not recognize the person staring back at us, but that reflection is us, and it speaks volumes about music fans today.

We’re overloaded with choice, often opting to listen to the same old songs as a way to avoid facing unlimited options. Moreover, we outsource choice—using filters like iTunes and Pandora rather than “doing the work” ourselves. We stand alongside the conveyer belt that the web provides us, assigning thumbs up or down to songs as they pass us by. If unsure, we skip the song entirely, because determining if we like it proves just as—if not more—paralyzing.

Music in the digital age isn’t always the paradise of choice we sought. As often, it’s the paradox of choice. Recognizing this, Songza set out to develop a better product, one that helps users find great playlists and requires zero effort.

According to user feedback, even the act of typing in an artist name to create a playlist—the way a user creates a station on Pandora—demanded too much thought and energy. It also revealed that the best music service—to them—is free to use with no strings attached or annoying audio ads.

Added to this, Songza had to make it extremely clear to users how its product differed from web darlings like Pandora and Spotify, who are often wrongly compared to each other.

First the company released a new platform and a mobile app with an increased focus on its curated library of playlists—and it has now placed Music Concierge at the forefront of that offering. This is significant, because it encourages users to rely on a filter rather than on themselves and to pick a playlist over choosing one.

Perhaps more troubling than this result is the possibility that this passivity will carry over into the way users interact with the playlists they’ve chosen. Songza already assumes that a user is doing something else and listening to music, which diverts their attention from the response songs stir individually to the experience a playlist creates collectively. Rather than actively engaging with the music and the artists who create it, users begin an activity and use Songza to entertain them.

Now we shouldn’t pretend—even for a moment—that this scenario somehow differs from the way that most people listen to music. The distinction to make is that most musical experiences contain songs that have the potential to shake us from the motions of everyday life and captivate us to engage with them. When we listen to the perfect playlist for an activity, in contrast, it never interrupts our workflow or demands attention.

IV. Mainstream Fanatic

Generally, the first people a new music service attracts are fanatics. They instantly saw the value in joining, the group listening service, and likely went on to become DJs. So too, they’re the people who discover Songza and feel compelled to submit playlists for consideration.

The web platform and mobile app that Songza developed, though, required too much investment to cross the chasm and captivate a casual listener. To streamline the product and broaden its appeal, Songza introduced Music Concierge.

Turntable eluded the mainstream market and declined in use because it failed to translate the fanatic activities that drove its product into one that solved a problem that casual listeners have.

The wider narrative of Songza, however, goes much deeper. As the service gains traction, it will likely further the transition of music to merely the audio backdrop to our daily activities. It won’t be assumed that we do something else and listen to music, it’ll be accepted that we’re always doing something else.

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  1. Great write up, Kyle. Your distinction between the needs of ‘fanatics’ vs. casual listeners is basic, but foundational to the challenge of successfully marketing a music app. These companies need the casual listeners because without their numbers they have no hope of building a successful, profitable service.
    I would add that targeting the casual listener is more difficult than simply offering an incremental solution to a problem they aren’t aware they have – you also have to somehow make them aware of the problem, and convince them to care enough to adopt your solution.
    Despite my love of the music industry I am planted firmly in the casual listener camp. With that said, Pandora and Spotify work just fine for me. Why should I switch? That’s the question they need to answer, and they’ll likely need to throw some real money and effort behind that answer to make it stick. Pandora and Spotify have enough market share now that incremental solutions like this one may not be enough to really compete.
    That’s also the double-edged sword of making a service more passive and touting that as a selling point. Yes, that might be what the casual listener wants, but it also creates an inherent barrier to excitement and wide adoption.

  2. I am intrigued by this music concierge feature. I will be putting it into practice all weekend and will have a review Monday on my site I am a music fanatic/DJ/music director of 20 years with a boatload of experience in entertaining casual listeners through music. Thank you for your description of what Music Concierge sets out to do. I look forward to presenting the execution of it.
    – Mike

  3. Perhaps my tastes are too eclectic, but on the odd occasion that I’ve used this type of innovation the results have been way, way off.
    Then again, if you’re into AI and reality covers for the most part, then you probably do need some help.

  4. Great read Kyle! I’m always interested to hear how others are listening to music, since I’m about the only one I know who can’t multitask (other than driving) while listening. There’s no way I could study or even write emails with music in the “background.”

  5. Refe: Thank you for your comment. You make a great point about app adoption and it’s one I’ve thought about in the past.
    In order for a user to see the value in Shazam, they must first feel the pain of wanting to know what song is playing on the radio. Then they must be educated that a solution to identify that song exists and see the value in installing the app.
    Next, they must encounter the problem again, recall that a solution exists, and execute against it. Only after many uses does a user form a habit, connecting the problem with the solution and shifting their view from passivity to activity.
    The fanatic fallacy causes startup founders to perceive their problems as being more universal than it actually are. They use their own experience as evidence that a solution should exist. When, in reality, most users can’t relate to the products they create.

  6. Brian: You’re an interesting study when it comes to a musician and a listener.
    One thing I’ve wondered about is if the availability of music everywhere has made people uncomfortable with silence and it has become a tool to socially isolate and dampen the sound of their own thoughts.
    It’s just a theory, one I’ve mused about for awhile now.

  7. I think it’s safe to say that you’re not Songza’s target user. =) Then again, maybe you should program some playlists.
    You never know…

  8. Nice to read from you again on here, Kyle. Nevertheless, I prefer creating my own playlists because I enjoy it.
    And when once, music used to be almost always around me, in a way like other people would use a fragrance, having gotten busier and busier, I currently find myself creating time windows in my schedule especially for listening purposes and for live playlisting (which is not far from DJing actually).
    Again, another guy not in the core audience for Songza, I guess.

  9. I wonder what these new streaming companies are seeing in the market that causes more and more of them to spring up every year? Pandora is the biggest player in the space and their revenue numbers are awful. They just told Wall Street that they don’t expect to make a profit until 2013 at the earliest.
    I’d love to sit down with the founder of Songza, or Rdio, or any of the others and hear what it is they have up their sleeve (or don’t?) to rise above debilitating royalty rates. Charging artists for airtime or promotion? Additional premium options to encourage higher adoption rates? I believe that someone can come up with a solution for profitability in online radio – listeners certainly love the services they use – but I wonder if it will come from any of the current players.

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