Apps & Mobile

Music Discovery: The Path to Digital Failure

FailureGuest post by Kyle Bylin of sidewinder.fm, a music and tech think tank.

Billboard has doubled down on a particularly dangerous idea. In the trade publication’s annual FutureSound white paper, it proclaims that music discovery
is “The Key To Digital Fortune.” This is, at best, egregious hyperbole, and, at worst, complete mystification. Senior correspondent Alex Pham, who wrote
this section of the paper, concedes that enabling listeners to discover music is “much harder than it seems, as evidenced by the numerous efforts” and that
such “efforts” have been largely fraught with “trial and error” for more than a decade. But Pham fails to question the promise of music discovery and why
it’s likely to never be fulfilled, let alone, address why music discovery is being championed as “The Key To Digital Fortune” in the first place. It’s
clear that little thought went into this headline and that it has almost nothing to do with the reportage that follows, which is fine. But if the
ostensible magazine of record wants to go out on a limb, it should notice that limb has already broken.

"Friends let friends found startups;
no one wants to rock them to sleep."

Music discovery is a dead pool of music startups, where zero successes exist. These startups die for a
number of reasons, but mainly due to steep royalties and licensing issues, or the inability to convert a niche product into a
sustainable business. If you look at the music startup sector, there are minuscule profits and fruitless exits. Shift your focus to the sole category of
music discovery and things fair even worse. These services and apps register as blips on the radars of technology writers and receive launch coverage, only
to fall back into obscurity and lay down to die. Some visualize related artists, while others suggest similar songs; none of them reach a mainstream
market. Few executives are so cynical that they will publicly guess how much runway a music startup has left (it’s a very small world). But no one misses
the chance to place a bet in private. Friends let friends found startups; no one wants to rock them to sleep. Even Pandora, the poster-child of online
music, is a spectacular failure, whose days appear to be numbered.

"The only stakeholders that have a 'music discovery'
problem are the artists whose music isn’t being found."

The truth is that music discovery isn’t a problem, and it’s not a solution either. Music listeners don’t have trouble figuring out what to listen to; they
simply don’t know what to listen to next. They have more than enough music,
but not enough time to explore it. They enjoy re-listening to their favorite songs. Music startups believe that listeners like to discover music, because
the founding members love to discover music. In search of a killer solution, they reduce an organic and serendipitous process to a robotic and deliberate
exchange. Arguably, the only stakeholders that have a “music discovery” problem are the artists whose music isn’t being found. It’s assumed that masking
this problem as a product and shipping the resulting solution to music listeners works, but it hasn’t. They still discover new songs they enjoy on broadcast radio and
look up music videos on YouTube. Billboard says that music discovery creates “magical moments” that convert casual listeners to paying customers, but it
never questions the demand for the trick or what it pays to be a magician. The only “magical” illusion that music startups have “mastered” to date is the
“vanishing” act.

Music discovery requires a lot of work; no service can do that work for you. Sometimes, the right song falls into your lap at the right time and you manage
to successfully

capture it through a mobile app

. You start listening to that song on repeat and become a über fan of that artist. But if you want to discover music on a regular basis, i.e. more often
than by chance, you must set aside a few hours to sift through and listen to a lot of “bad” music. This is the only reliable and tested method to
“discover” great music. You can entrust a musicologist at Pandora or disc jockey at Slacker to put in this effort and attempt to harvest the fruits of
their labor, but no one can discover music for you. It doesn’t matter what custom stations you create or how many “thumbs up” you dole out, your input
determines Pandora’s output. Slacker has 253 stations, but you, my friend, have six skips and tapping a button isn’t a “magical” moment that leads to
fandom. There are dozens of equally flawed “music discovery” services
that throw spaghetti against the wall in a
similar fashion. These services help music listeners to stumble upon favorite songs and artists, but it still takes dedicated effort to find great music.

"Music discovery has revealed
itself as a path to digital failure."

For over a decade, music discovery has revealed itself as a path to digital failure. A distressed sector of music startups have masked an artist problem
and championed it as a consumer product; only to emerge perplexed (and broke) as to why casual listeners won’t pay for their automated (and fanatic)
solution. Maybe, it’s because “music discovery” isn’t a problem they actually have, and if they did, it would take more than typing the name of their
favorite artist into a website or handling over their entire Facebook “Like” history to solve. Maybe, it’s because “music discovery” takes so much work
that no sane listener would ever be tricked into doing it; unless, that is, they hear that their favorite torrent site is going to be shut down and they do
some real research so that they “discover” what artists to type into the search box. It’s crazy that we drone on and on about the perils of the “infinite
search box” and “unlimited music choice” but we can’t see that if “music discovery” isn’t a problem for pirate users then it’s not “The Key To Digital
Fortune” with legal consumers. Admit it: Music discovery is a lie that’s never going to come true, and Billboard believing it’s true, won’t make it true.

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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17 Comments

  1. “They still discover new songs they enjoy on broadcast radio and look up music videos on YouTube.”
    that’s exactly what’s happening. music discovery is happening via radio while people are driving to work, or taking their kid to soccer. they hear something new that they like on the radio and do further listening on youtube, spotify, or pandora. but…there is very little music discovery happening at youtube, spotify, and pandora. people go there to listen to music that they first heard on the radio, not to find anything new. in fact, pandora and spotify are both terrible for music discovery. lots of bands want a pandora channel because they know there are listeners there. but the chances of someone finding you on pandora who doesn’t already know about your band is about 0.

  2. Wow! I completely disagree! Every time I go to Pandora I wind up discovering acts I’ve never heard of before. YouTube is a wonderland for children and teens. My wife is an 8th grade teacher and she tells me that all her children do is go on youtube for music. Friends with young relatives say the same about them. Every time I turn on the radio I turn it back off. It’s completely clogged with the same few pop songs and classic rock songs that are overly played out on repeat. The pop songs get airplay because the labels know kids will buy it and classic rock gets played because that’s all the older generation wants to hear while most new rock and indie acts suffer because their audience doesn’t pay for recorded music.
    Free album download at http://www.facebook.com/chancius

  3. maybe so, but most people still listen to the radio during drive time. all of the other ways of listening combined still don’t add up to the numbers listening to radio during those hours. that’s still where the mass audience is. the acts you discover on pandora, do you ever do anything about it? are any of them indie artists? do you go out of your way to engage with those artists via their facebook page or website? yep, lots of listening on youtube.

  4. Yup, there are many many more people who have a radio listening habit than those who have a music discovery habit. I admit I have the latter and agree it takes quite some time. It’s kind of like going fishing when considering the amount of time it takes, it’s just that the scenery is not as nice as a lakeside and the air is not as fresh. Also, I don’t use automatted services that do it for me because these are only as good as their database is, and the new releases I’m interested in, usually are not entered in databases just yet. Doing this online with the help of search engines and surfing the blogosphere (or what’s left of it) requires some background knowledge on what search terms are more likely to lead to satisfying results. The use of Boolean Operators is important, too, and that’s when it can feel like work sometimes.
    Back in the days before the internet, I used to read the music press but today, the music press does not stand a chance in covering the wide range of music that gets released all the time. It’s sad that they don’t even try but that’s probably a cost-saving measure for them. Yet, there is still no proper replacement for the music press of old and that’s why I usually rely on my own searches for new music discovery.
    But I also give away mixes as presents to friends and that’s one part of where the music discovery happens for them.
    Kyle, I know well there is yet no proper algorithm for enabling divergent online searches which despite being divergent, still produces search results which are close enough to what the searcher is interested in. But that does not mean people should be discouraged from trying to find and program one. Yet, this may well be more the stuff for a scientific research project, maybe in a cooperation of computer scientists and cognitive scientists, because before emulating how it works when people broaden their minds, that must be found out.
    And no, that was never the aim of those “failed” music discovery startups. They are just kind of placebos for the real task, and thinly disguised ones at that. Yet, so is the radio, but as people already have a habit of switching it on, it does work to some extent.

  5. Very boldly written Kyle, and certainly thought-provoking and provocative. I think this is one of your best pieces. I’m not quite sure if I agree with all of it, but I will say that I’ve never met a non-industry music fan that is complaining about ‘discovery’. Ever. I go to shows with these people, talk about music with these people… they might complain about the quality of existing music or debate this or that (as people always do), but never has the conversation turned to… ‘where can I find more music that I love?’
    In my own experience, I am actually searching for new stuff, I’m on the hunt and really thrilled when I find something. The scary part is that even I can’t be relied upon to contribute healthily to that discovered artist once I fall in love. I realized that after discovering araabMUZIK at Pitchfork Music Festival, I’ve probably streamed his albums maybe one or two hundred times total, playing the songs thousands of times in aggregate. I’ve even researched and played the songs that are sampled in his music, and deepened my appreciation for his influences. This was mostly on Rdio, Spotify, and YouTube, I did the math, it’s depressing.
    I’m yet to see him live. I’ve seen deadmau5 live several times, I’m not sure why I haven’t seen araab, but… you see where I’m heading here. Even super fans, once they discover, cannot be relied upon to contribute to their favorite artists — and it’s not their fault.
    Paul

  6. Great article. I agree, I personally discover less music that I like through music discovery apps rather than a general online radio station like Sirius. It’s not that people don’t like discovering new music, but I think that people are just so busy and picky with the amount of content that’s out there that it’s not worth the time curating the perfect selection by pressing a “like” or “dislike” button. I am a huge proponent of the power of singles too, and online radio takes that more into account. From casual but not diehard music fan, that’s just a personal opinion…..

  7. Enact is a web design and development agancy, fully equipped to offer a full host of research, design, development and testing services to companies and organisations big and small. Our focus is building custom software applications that work for our customers, no matter what business industry they are located in. With combined experience of over 10 years in the marketplace, we have had experience in almost all industries. Our clients range from new businesses trying to get a foot hold in their industry to large established corporations looking to improve their technical roadmap. We take problems and develop custom solutions for companies across all types of Industries.

  8. Enact is a web design and development agancy, fully equipped to offer a full host of research, design, development and testing services to companies and organisations big and small. Our focus is building custom software applications that work for our customers, no matter what business industry they are located in. With combined experience of over 10 years in the marketplace, we have had experience in almost all industries. Our clients range from new businesses trying to get a foot hold in their industry to large established corporations looking to improve their technical roadmap. We take problems and develop custom solutions for companies across all types of Industries.

  9. Provocative, but not quite factual. And when facts get ignored, it’s hard to take the opinions laid on top of those facts as seriously.
    Let’s start here:
    “Music discovery is a dead pool of music startups, where zero successes exist.”
    I was part of MediaUnbound, a successful start-up focused on music discovery (we were acquired by Rovi – aka SUCCESS!). This is but one example of many examples of successful start-ups (not to mention established companies working in the space).
    So, let’s back up, get some facts straight, and then dig in – this could be an interesting discussion.

  10. Furthermore – when you link to Pakman’s testimony and then claim lower down that Pandora’s “days are numbered”, you appear to not have read Pakman’s statements – in which he is arguing before Congress to reduce the licensing rates that Pandora (amongst others) has to pay – precisely because this rate reduction will, in his opinion, lead to greater success in the music start-up space…
    Ah well – you’ve got me to comment twice. 🙂 So I’m sure hypebot is happy with the ad views. Rock on.

  11. Kyle, another good observation. You probably read Paul Lamere’s rebuttal? Like a lot of casual music consumers, I have six analog buttons on my car radio. Depending on the interface, I would happily accept 100 more.
    In the context of driving (most of us drive 13,000+miles a year), the (discovery) buttons solve the problem of preventing boredom. In this context, discovery is a great solution.
    I think you have to individually examine the predominant situations where we consume music (in the car, at work, at the gym, etc.) and determine 1) what’s the problem, and 2) if discovery is a total or partial solution to the problem.
    I also think there’s a consumption to a-need-to-discover graph that is in play here. The more you consume, the more you need to discover. If you listen to music a lot, you need to discover new music; if you listen minimally, you are not compelled to discover (you want familiar).
    If you plot each context against this graph, you can quickly determine where music discovery is a killer solution.
    ~Bruce

  12. Might have to agree with PR on this Kyle – one of your finest..
    Just to be clear:
    Presently there is no such thing as music discovery.
    Whatever you people think might be music discovery — well, it’s horrendous.
    There is a quality, complete music discovery platform in development, and it will offer users more than a flat bio and a tiny rendition of album art — so stay tuned.

  13. Remember when everyone was rejoicing about “no more filters!”? Turns out that “Filters’ (i.e., A&R people) saved the rest of us from wading through a sea of dreck. Save copyright! Bring back music labels!

  14. A&R people must be the least efficient form of filtering. They aren’t actually filters, they are gatekeepers.
    What makes your comment even more perplexing is that you cannot, “Save copyright!” or “Bring back music labels!” and somehow stop people from uploading terrible videos to YouTube.

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