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The Young and the Digitally Restless

SpotifyGuest post by Michael San Pascual.

A new, technologically capable generation of music listeners is approaching adulthood. These former MySpacers are evolving into sophisticated music consumers with new and challenging expectations.

They have heightened demands for mobility and social connectivity; they value the freedom to actively seek music, and also the choice to passively discover it. They don’t acknowledge the monetary value of songs like they do trading cards, but instead collect them like seashells, freely and effortlessly. They do so because it’s their recently discovered “birthright” in this digital age, and because they can.

New technology has unveiled the true nature of their music listening behavior, raising the standards for music services that are easy to use, compatible with Facebook, and all the while unobtrusive. And even then, users may not pay for them.

Understandably, the young and the digital are a tough crowd to please, but the music industry has finally put its thinking cap on. The complexities of modern music listeners are becoming clear, and many efforts have been made to accommodate them.

iTunes and iPods continue to hold their own, but the MP3 library business is becoming a niche, existing in a more diverse and expanding music market.

The most adaptable online music service to date is Spotify, which debuted in the U.S. just over a year ago. Spotify acknowledges the wide-ranged expectations of its emerging market while remaining elegant, straightforward, and cost effective.

For many listeners, Spotify will be the “gateway” music streaming service, with the desktop version and mobile radio as the free entry points. New users will quickly find themselves organizing their favorite songs into playlists. The free 30-day trial gives them a chance to sync their playlists with their mobile devices, which are always accessible—even offline.

But Spotify is more than just a giant music library. Third party apps provide unique and diverse music experiences. Apps like Soundrop passively expose users to new music (a la Pandora) in different listening rooms. The radio-faithful listeners will be drawn to Billboard Top Charts. SeatGeek personalizes timelines of upcoming concerts. For the first time, listeners can choose between wide ranges of musical experiences all in one platform. Pretty nifty.

However, to completely win these listeners over, Spotify will have to prove that a paid subscription is more satisfying than actually owning music. This may be especially challenging, as many of these young adults grew up buying CDs and lugging around jewel cases, proudly displaying carefully curated collections. They accepted the transition to digital downloading because they still had personal libraries, valued as a form of self-expression.

To fully switch to Spotify, they must redefine “collecting” as a form of playlist building. In a different light, Spotify actually can unlock more “self-expression potential,” since playlists are compiled from a (nearly) boundless catalog. Therefore, users can more accurately define their musical tastes with Spotify playlists, which are available for friends to check out and even download.

Spotify also challenges the rationality behind pirating. Besides the fact that it’s illegal, pirating is more time consuming and takes up space. While it takes several tedious steps and applications to torrent an album, Spotify provides simple, instant gratification.

To ease the transition from iTunes, Spotify conveniently accesses the listener’s iTunes library. However, the sizable artwork next to each track title is slightly off-putting, especially when viewing the library by track name, resulting in weird, inefficient spacing.

Spotify’s success will depend on its ability to stay relevant as listeners’ habits continue to evolve. It must remain the cheapest, most intuitive music streaming app, concealing its nuts and bolts the same way Apple emphasizes its magic-like functionality over its technology. As long as Spotify continues to deliver all-encompassing, unparalleled music experiences, the young and the digital will continue to recognize the product differentiation and respond with brand loyalty and word-of-mouth. And who knows? Maybe even money.

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Michael San Pascual is a songwriter from Queens, New York. He studied at Berklee College of Music, where he started his pop/electronic project Mmmkay.

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