31 July 2013
Lessons Learned From Recent Music App ‘Fails’

By Daniel Turner | @dantrnr | Contributions by Nicole Nord

Recent months have seen more than one questionable launch of a high profile music app. Most notable were the biting criticisms surrounding the Samsung-Jay Z app and Twitter #music app. Herein we provide a brief analysis of key lessons that music industry professionals and music app developers should glean from these costly blunders.

Privacy Matters.

“Privacy” in the digital space concerns the ability to make meaningful decisions about what personal information enters the online ecosystem and who has the ability to capture and monetize this information. Respect for privacy has quickly become an important metric by which app users and fans — sometimes referred to in legal geek speak as “data subjects” — measure the desirability of a product or service. In a very short period of time we have seen the average app user become increasingly more attuned to invasive — and evasive — privacy practices and general data collection overreach.

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24 July 2013
The “New” Pandora: Blue Ocean to Bloody Water

By Kyle Bylin @sidewinderfm

In late 2010, Pandora set out to create a new Internet radio experience.

Pandora wanted to rebuild the popular service to be “faster, easier, and more social” while remaining familiar to longtime users. By July 2011, Pandora started to roll out its new site to subscribers, collect their initial feedback, fix programming bugs, and make further improvements.

Months later, the “New Pandora,” which now allowed users to share songs with friends and learn more about favorite artists, launched for everyone. After over a year of testing and perfecting the user experience, Pandora finally released brand-new mobile apps for iPhone and Android in October 2012.

The journey from “clean sheet of paper” to “entirely new Pandora” took over two years to pull off. For the first time, the Oakland company provided a consistent listening experience and feature set across every platform. Most recently, it also introduced a TV-centric service for gaming consoles.

It’s indisputable that Pandora is a product for the mainstream market. It has over 200 million registered users in the United States — 70 million of whom tune in every month. Its dead-simple interface and tightly refined stations have proved a winning combination for music listeners.

If you have a commute that you want to fill with music, Pandora will cue up 30 minutes of songs that sound like Imagine Dragons. The similarity may soon veer toward banality, but the odds are that you will enjoy the music.

By now, the criticisms of Pandora have become well worn: repeated songs, little variety, limited skips, and frequent ads. The upside to the popular service (or why listeners tolerate the latter) is that it does the work, tailors the mix, suggests new bands, and maintains a mood. The convenience of Pandora, in other words, seems to outweigh the trade-off of having a limited experience.

As time goes on, though, that strength has become a weakness.

Take the song “Odds Are” by Barenaked Ladies, for example. If you click around the social charts in Twitter #Music’s mobile app, you can find the catchy new rock single pretty easily, and if you’re paying subscription fees to Spotify or Rdio, you can listen to it repeatedly. But here’s the rub: It’s still very difficult for Pandora users to stumble upon “Odds Are” and fall in love.

The “filter bubble,” as author and activist Eli Praiser calls it, prevents users of Pandora and other such services from being exposed to songs outside their personal universe of recommendations. If you aren’t in the orbit of Barenaked Ladies or similar artists, the “chances are so small” (as the lyrics go) that you’ll find that song.

This lament about Pandora’s lack of serendipity has been leveled against it many times before, but its “musical cocoon” is becoming harder to ignore.

Erin McKean, founder of the online dictionary Wordnik.com, eloquently stated in her 2007 TED Talk that “Serendipity is when you find things you weren’t looking for, because finding what you are looking for is so damn difficult.” On Pandora, discovering songs that sound like “Odds Are” is the easy part, but uncovering the hidden gem itself is damn difficult.

More worrisome is that Pandora is also bad at serving up favorite music.

Popular songs by seed artists frequently appear on radio stations, latest singles emerge in relevant places, and “Quick Mix” offers a singular listening experience with greater variety. But that’s all. There’s no way to solely listen to favorite songs, discover music by unexplored artists, delve into a stream of loved tracks by relevant users, or hear the latest songs by favorite artists.

To be fair, these are ideas that may not appeal to the widest market; they may have failed to gain traction upon research and testing.

If that’s the case, that casual listeners don’t care about these things, it makes sense. But it’s still a missed opportunity, as helping listeners find out when favorite artists release music is a valuable utility that no one does perfectly.

Personal discovery should be integrated into the stations you engage with; it should not be work or create work; it should play out naturally and happily.

But the “real risk” for Pandora, writes Max Engel, VP of Product at Web publisher SpinMedia, is that “music recommendation is becoming increasingly commoditized.” When rival companies like iHeartRadio and Spotify can leverage the music intelligence platform built by The Echo Nest to develop comparable experiences without considerable investment, it makes differentiation for Pandora difficult while making its “Music Genome” database look quaint.

Mr. Engel also worries that Pandora “solves a feature problem, but not a service one.” Spotify and Rdio have radio features, he says, so users have “little reason” to leave their primary service to get a radio experience.

There is a belief that Pandora has cultivated deep loyalty among music listeners, and that the switching costs of leaving the popular service for a rival would be too high. But are they? A student will abandon Pandora once she notices that more of her friends are on Spotify Radio. A father will switch from Pandora to Spotify Radio because it plays fewer commercials. A gym-goer will leave Pandora for Spotify Radio because it has far more variety.

The new Pandora suffers from the same old complaints: It has blocked a few fatal blows, but it’s near a thousand paper cuts. Tim Westergren has built a single island in a bloody ocean, and it’s showing signs of deep erosion.

13 July 2013
Can Apple Convince The Mainstream Consumer to Switch to iTunes Radio?

By Kyle Bylin | @sidewinderfm

Jason Herskowitz recently participated in an extended discussion with sidewinder.fm about Apple’s highly anticipated iTunes Radio product and whether it can attract the interest of the mainstream consumer. He is a core-contributor to the multi-source music platform, Tomahawk, and co-founder at Hatchet Industries, a yet to be unveiled stealth project.  This is a condensed and edited version of the first part of the phone interview.

Initial Thoughts

Much of the critical reception of iTunes Radio has consisted of balking at its similarities to Pandora. Industry pundits and market analysts are saying that Apple isn’t being
 innovative enough; it developed a “copy cat” feature, not a game-changing product. 

What was your initial reaction to iTunes Radio?

Herskowitz: This was my question, as I’m so close and tied into this market, is: how much do the “normal” people in the world know about or have brand affinity for Pandora? And if those people do, is Apple going to have something that is unique enough to get those users to switch from what they are already doing with Pandora. Those are all the things that raced through my mind when I first heard about iTunes Radio. As I got closer and started to realize that this isn’t a stand-alone app. This is actually built within the music app itself. I started to see more of the value proposition. The fact that of the mainstream users, who many are still in their iPod or iPhone music app and hitting shuffle and listening. The fact that there is radio programming within that same app, built on top of that same catalog. Is that moving the entry point far enough upstream that it’d siphon off some of those Pandora users?

Switching Costs

With that said, do you think Apple’s goal with iTunes Radio is to get Pandora users to switch or lock-in existing users to the music app?

Herskowitz: I think that most average iTunes users have used Pandora at some point or another. So I think Apple has to be thinking a little bit about switching. Because as you know and I know, and everybody else knows, the fact that all of the normal people that we know, that are not in this industry, are all generally aware of Pandora and have used it at least once and some of them very often. So I think Apple does need to think about getting those users to switch. Obviously, those that haven’t switched yet, or don’t know about Pandora yet, then great, they can get in there as well. But iTunes Radio is also going to help drive incremental download sales, which is of course, as Apple tries to extend the life of download sales as long as they can: this affords them the opportunity to do that. And of course, iTunes knows exactly how many iTunes downloads Pandora sells. Those are all numbers that they are very aware of, and they see how much sales Pandora drives, so they can think about: “If we can get upstream of Pandora…” There’s going to be benefits to them in the kind of longer play. Ultimately, I think Apple’s play is much more about the iAds platform than about being a music service for the sake of being a music service.

Mainstream Consumer

Media analyst Mark Mulligan described Apple’s move as “cautious” because it is “intent on innovating at a pace that matches the appetite of its mainstream customers.” How has the “appetite” of Apple’s mainstream customers shaped its iTunes Radio feature?

Herskowitz: I think the average, mainstream, music consumer is a very lean back consumer. These are not the guys that are the on-demand subscribers, these are the guys that want a big play button. They hit play, lean back, and go about their business. They are looking for an out of the way, programmed experience that requires very little work for them. And I don’t know this for fact, but based on my own historical usage of my iPod — and anecdotally of other people’s use of the iPod — I think probably the most common use-case you see of people that are still listening to music on the iPod or the local music on their phone, is they open up their library, hit shuffle all, they go about their business, and when they want to skip: they hit next until they find something that they are looking to listen to. So I think that the radio experience as Pandora brought to the mainstream market is something that Apple is very aware that is right in line with the consumption behaviors of the mainstream music fan.

I agree with you there. It always seems like question to ask is only ever, have casual listeners ever wanted more than Internet radio and does tuning into a custom station need to be a social experience? If not, then Apple should strive to find the signal and tune out a decade of startup noise.

Herskowitz: I think Apple has to a large extent. Whereas there are endless numbers of companies or products that are looking to solve the discovery problem and/or ways to get more of the listener’s attention, I think the mainstream consumer really wants to pay less attention to their music experience, not more. So an experience like Pandora or Songza, who has also done very well is this scenario, because they have taken all of the decision making out of the process for you. You don’t even have to say what you want to listen to, you just have to tell Songza what you’re doing. So you alleviate all of the paralysis around, what do I want to listen to? You say it’s Tuesday afternoon, it’s hot, and I’m working. Okay, now I have the choice of three playlists as opposed to some infinite choice of what artist station, or what song station, or whatever. So I think that there are a lot of people kind of pursuing the stream of, “We want to figure ways to get people to pay more attention to music.” When most people are saying, “I want to figure a way to pay less attention to music because it’s really, most often a background activity while I go about doing something else.”

Lean Back

On this topic of creating experiences that require consumers to pay less attention to music, that definitely seems like the route that Songza, 8tracks, and the upcoming Daisy music service are going. It’s lean back to even a fuller degree than it was in the past. It’s not just lean back radio, it’s an entire lean back experience of consuming songs that fit into a larger theme.

Herskowitz: I agree. I think that, as more and more things demand our attention, those experiences that require less and less of it are the ones that people are gravitating to, because otherwise you are competing with everything else. I had an interesting conversation the other day about the pricing around subscription music services; it turned to the fact that Hulu and Netflix, which are entertainment services that are a primary focal point while you consume them cost less than music, which is always a secondary focal point while you consume them. Even though you may be consuming them for less amount of time, the notion that how focal is it of your experience or your life at that given point, how much of that should be a determining factor in the price.

When we say that people pay less attention to music in these services, does the likelihood of these people purchasing music or subscribing to the service go down?

Herskowitz: That’s a good question. I don’t know. For me, and obviously this is a sample set of one, but as I sit around and listen to music all day when I’m working, or I’m driving, or I’m running, or I’m doing whatever, there are songs that actually shake me out of whatever I was doing, grab my attention, and change my focal point to, “Whoa, what is this?” That’s really powerful. And that, I think, is still very powerful then to say, “Okay, well, now, I need to know what this thing is, because it just totally grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me.” And so there, I could make the argument that I’m actually more prone to go and buy the song, or add it to a playlist, or make sure that I listen to that again. Because it had the capability to kind of really stir something up.

7 July 2013
“It always seems like question to ask is only ever, have casual listeners ever wanted more than Internet radio and does tuning into a custom station need to be a social experience? If not, then Apple should strive to find the signal and tune out a decade of startup noise.”

Kyle Bylin of sidewinder.fm [source: forthcoming essay]

24 June 2013
Survey: Tell Us Your Thoughts on iTunes Radio

By Kyle Bylin | @sidewinderfm

Sidewinder is conducting a survey about iTunes Radio. Please enter responses in the survey form below. We plan to analyze the results and publish a summary of in a future blog post. Thank you!

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27 May 2013
Roundtable: What The Music Industry Isn’t Talking About

By Kyle Bylin | @sidewinderfm

In this interview panel, three influential thinkers in music and tech — David Dufresne (Bandzoogle), Emily White (Whitesmith Entertainment), Frank Woodworth (Thrillcall) — talk about important issues in the music industry, interesting shifts in listener behavior, and how they would improve curation on subcription services.

sidewinder.fm: What is an important issue that no one is talking about right now?

David Dufresne | CEO of Bandzoogle: Something that folks don’t discuss enough is the fact that music is losing grounds to other forms of entertainment, in terms of mindshare and “wallet-share.” Apps, games, movies, professional sports, books, restaurants, travel, etc. It seems all of those have been innovating, creating new products, new distribution models and creating more awareness. All this while music has been at somewhat of a stand-still and with the main gatekeepers incentivized to actually slow down innovation.

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27 May 2013
Music Listening: Limited Attention, Abundant Choice

By Kyle Bylin | @sidewinderfm

When we talk about music, these two questions always come up: 1) Has music listening become a background activity? 2) Are music listeners overwhelmed by the plethora of options available online? In this interview panel, three thinkers in music and tech — Wesley Verhoeve (Family Records), Amber Horsburgh (Big Spaceship), Refe Tuma (music blogger) — provide extended thoughts on these challenging questions.

sidewinder.fm: Can music ever move to the foreground of the casual listener’s attention? Is the reality that most listeners are doing something else and listening to music, often to enhance the activity at hand?

Wesley Verhoeve | Founder of Family Records: Music can be both at the core of the listeners activity, or merely have a supportive or contextual role. We should be okay with that fact. We can serve the customer in either situation, and have these activities support our artists’ livelihood.

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24 May 2013
Roundtable: Is Music Discovery a Feature or Product?

By Kyle Bylin | @sidewinderfm

It’s an important question. There are hundreds of websites and applications that promise to expose listeners to new music. But can they make money? Are they worth money? This is where the discussion becomes challenging for many music startups. They don’t always provide value beyond what established services already do, and in many cases, their music discovery tool is one others could easily build. Thus, it’s rarely a defensible business. Below four music and tech experts weigh in on if they think music discovery is a feature or product.

Vote: Feature

Jay Frank | Owner and CEO of DigSin

Music discovery as a whole is best viewed as a feature, not a product. As previously described, when it’s looked at as a product, it’s likely set up for failure. As a feature, it could produce some great serendipitous experiences. The trick is that these features need to make the discovery seamless. For example, having a created playlist based on your habits that give you new music to listen to without thinking about it. The more passive the experience can be, the higher the likelihood that the discovery process would be effective.

Another important element is figuring out who the music discovery is for. Is it for the listener, the artist or the record companies? Each one would have a different desired outcome to the discovery process. Ultimately it needs to be for the listener, but the listener’s discovery needs are tough to ascertain as factors can be very specific.

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24 May 2013
Roundtable: Who Does Music Discovery Appeal To?

Twitter #Music is a music discovery tool. You can lean back and listen to each music chart like a radio station, but you often need to pull out your iPhone and skip past undesirable songs. Given the low ranking of Twitter #Music in the App Store charts a month after its launch, some industry pundits are calling the app a flop. It may be that the appeal of music discovery is limited to a niche audience. Below four music and tech experts weigh in on who music discovery appeals to and why.

1. Active Listeners

Liv Buli | Resident data journalist at Next Big Sound

There is a contingent of music consumers, those few dedicated souls who will regularly troll through music blogs, concert listings, and streaming sites with glee, just searching for that new sound that grabs them and striving to be the first in the know. While these are the listener that most actively seek out new music, for many the thrill is in the hunt, the ability to find something long before the masses recognize the magnificence. Music discovery in and of itself is an activity, and I while I do not doubt that an algorithm facilitating the quest would be appreciated, I doubt that this is the contingent that would find the most value in a the ultimate music discovery service.

Someone who listens to music often, be it in the car or other commute, during work, or when kicking back, as long as they do so actively enough to warrant either subscription to a streaming service, or the regular purchase of albums (and unfortunately, in some cases illegal downloads) are the listeners that are likely to derive most value from a solid music discovery service. These are the listeners that are curious and open to new music beyond what they come across on mainstream radio, discovering new genres and artists, and are pleased to have these insights delivered at their doorstep.

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23 May 2013
The Biggest Problem with Music Discovery Services

By Kyle Bylin | @sidewinderfm

If you want the short answer: a majority of listeners don’t care. They have zero desire to be recommended fledgling artists or emerging songs. The biggest problem is that there isn’t a problem. Music discovery appeals to a niche audience. To gain a broader perspective on music discovery and the biggest problems that services have, sidewinder.fm asked several influential executives in music and technology to share with their thoughts on the matter.

Perfecting Music Discovery Algorithms Is A Huge Challenge

Liv Buli is the resident data journalist for music analytics company Next Big Sound.

Well if anyone had found the key to creating the perfect music discovery service, this discussion would be a very different one. There are issues on several fronts.

At this point, perfecting music discovery algorithms is a huge challenge. For one, tastes are often eclectic and can be hard to pinpoint. It can also be difficult to account for what exactly attracts a listener to a particular song. Is it the genre? The lyrics? The key? The rhythm? The drop?

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23 May 2013
The Future of Direct-To-Fan Tools

By Kyle Bylin | @sidewinderfm

Here are two important questions for today’s artists and managers: What does the future of direct-to-fan marketing tools and services have in store for us? How will the landscape of these companies and their strategy shift in the coming years? In this interview panel on direct-to-fan marketing, four influential executives and thinkers in the music and tech industry weigh in on the future of direct-to-fan and how the landscape may soon shift.

I Foresee a Shift Toward Fan-Funding Platforms

Darren Hemmings | Founder of the digital marketing agency Motive Unknown.

Personally, I think it might shift more towards the fan-funding model, as shown by the likes of Amanda Palmer at one end, but also demonstrated by simpler services like the very excellent Beat Delete service where fans crowd-fund vinyl reissues of old releases. That removes some of the upfront financial liability but I think also empowers the fans that bit more and hence makes them feel more connected to the campaign. Songkick’s Detour project is another fine example of that model in action.

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16 May 2013
Divergent Streams: Reflections and Explorations of the Modern Music Industry

This is the preface for Divergent Streams, a collection of essays edited by Kyle Bylin (@sidewinderfm) and written by influential executives, startup founders, and thinkers in the music industry. Download a free copy of the e-book here.

I wanted something to read. Something that challenged me. Something that engaged me. Something that forced me to sit down and consider the writer’s perspective. What I found instead were news stories about trivial developments, blog posts with big headlines but small insights, and numbered lists lacking intellectual substance.

As someone who cares deeply about music and technology, I found this disheartening. I wanted someone to show me the bigger picture and help me see things from a different view. I wanted someone to visualize the future and inspire me to imagine what’s to come. Certainly, I thought, there must be analysts out there identifying emerging trends and writing about them in a way that would encourage me to grow as a reader.

But I couldn’t find anyone who did that on a regular basis. Although there are writers I admire and publications I love, I still wanted more.

Happily, this frustration presented an opportunity: Other people in music and technology may also feel the need for deeper analysis, I reasoned. So I set out on a mission to develop and curate the type of content I wanted to read.

I started out by taking on several younger writers and publishing their essays through Hypebot. Once this effort gained momentum, I started my publication, sidewinder.fm. I asked dozens of my friends, colleagues, and heroes if they would like to write guest posts. I told them my vision for a new conversation, but gave little direction about how it should begin. I wanted them to tell me what they had been thinking about lately and how they saw important issues developing. I wanted them to take on topics that they cared about.

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14 May 2013
Direct-To-Fan Campaigns Don’t Diminish Album Release

By Benji Rogers | @BenjiKRogers | Founder and CEO of the direct-to-fan company PledgeMusic.

Direct-to-fan tools can — when used to maximum effect — become the thinnest skin between the artist and fan. The full potential is possible and exists; but only a fraction of the artists and labels out there use it.

There are no real problems of scale because each release campaign can and should be as unique and original as the music that drives it. The main challenges are simply that the platforms are being used generally to minimal effect. They’re being used solely as sales engines and not as experience engines. And so the bottlenecks are with the creators of the campaigns. Gimmicks and competitions aside, what is the artist and label really doing for the fans? Or to put it another way, what are the artists and labels giving their fans to do?

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14 May 2013
Music Blogs Become New A&R, Run Niche Record Labels

By Kyle Bylin | @sidewinderfm

So far we have explored the music blog landscape and how it has has changed in recent years, as well as whether music blogs have reached a mainstream audience. In this final interview panel on music blogs, David Greenwald and Nicole Cifani, two influential thinkers and tastemakers in the music industry, weigh in on how the way in which music blogs tell stories has evolved and whether they think music blogs have turned into record labels.

Sidewinder.fm: Are linear narrative and story telling are integral to music as a culture? How are the narratives and stories music blogs construct for their audience evolving to engage new generations of music fans?

David Greenwald | @daverawkblog
Contributing editor for Billboard.com. Founder and editor of Rawkblog and Uncool

This is a good question. As a writer, it’s hard to gauge if the public cares so much about angles and backstory over music or if we just keep pretending they do so we can keep our jobs. Artists from Daft Punk to Bon Iver do show how much image and history remain part of the context and mythology of musicians, even as Twitter and Instagram make it possible for bands to humanize themselves or even oversaturate us with their everyday lives.

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13 May 2013
Potential of Direct-To-Fan Realized By Few Bands

By Kyle Bylin | @sidewinderfm

Direct-to-fan marketing tools and services continue to hold a lot of promise. They enable artists to connect with their fan base and sell their products directly to them. But has the full potential of these tools and services been realized? Who is realizing it? What part of this potential has yet to be fulfilled? In this interview panel on direct-to-fan marketing, four influential executives in the music and tech industry weigh in on the potential of direct-to-fan.

Direct-To-Fan Still an Afterthought to Many Artists

Jason Spitz | Independent online marketing consultant at The Spitz Agency.

The “full potential” of D2F is currently being realized by a few — very few — bands. I spent years running the online store for the Grateful Dead, and I can tell you their direct-to-fan business is quite healthy. In general, jam bands do D2F well. Smarter indie/rock acts make noble attempts, and some succeed, but many run sub-optimal campaigns. They often leave money on the table. Other genres hold promise, but aside from a few shining examples, direct-to-fan is still an afterthought to many artists.

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