19 November 2012
Social Music: What Went Wrong and What Can Still Go Right

By Aaron Master | @aaronmidomi

When the history of music social networking is written, it probably won’t list 2012 as a strong year. Apple’s heavily marketed Ping service failed to catch on and closed down. Upstart Turntable.fm saw usage decline. A music app that was a near-exact copy of viral hit Instagram managed not to get bought for $1 Billion. Facebook users engaged in everything from eye rolling to wall screaming as their feeds continued to be crammed with robotic updates of high school friends listening to terrible music in Spotify.

Is music social networking inherently doomed? Not exactly. Right now, it’s just too slow – and lives in all the wrong places.

It’s Not You, It’s Me

What do you mean slow? I can tap “share” in Pandora just as easily as “thumbs up.” I can ID a song in SoundHound in under a second and share it to both Twitter and Facebook in another half second. I can auto-dump my entire Spotify listening history to Facebook. (Or, more accurately: Spotify will auto-opt me in to auto-share every song I ever play and use their UI to talk me out of hiding it or changing my mind.)

But there’s a big problem with all of that: it’s only fast for the sharer. But it’s not just about you, the sharer. It’s about me, the recipient. Being the recipient is a lot slower. It takes anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes to hear a song – and that’s if you have headphones on, or are in a place where you can play sound out loud.

That might be fine in a simpler, slower world. But most of those shares tend to arrive in places like Facebook, Twitter, and email, where they compete with much more quickly consumed items: news headlines, funny comments, political rants, and most of all: photos.

The Ratio at This Party is Rough

How much faster are photos? Consuming a visual – be it on Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook or Twitter[1] – takes half a second. During the time it takes me to listen to just one song share, I could have looked at literally 200 Instagram photos. Or read 80 “I Can Has Cheezburger” style images on Facebook. (I’ll admit it: I like this one and this one.) Each one of those items can be liked, commented, or re-shared – and those are the actions that make a social network viral and addictive. Those actions generate both the notifications and the endorphins that keep us coming back.

So it’s not that music isn’t social, it’s that it’s 200 times less viral – at least it is the way things are built now.

Whose Party is This Again?

But what about all those interminable Spotify updates I’ve seen in Facebook? That must show viral growth, right?

Sort of. Those weren’t just low value social posts about songs, they were high value ads for Spotify. Spotify went from having no U.S. user base to ubiquity in just a matter of weeks. It’s not clear that those posts helped people discover good new music or become more addicted to Facebook, but it’s undeniable that that it raised awareness of Spotify’s free on-demand music.[2] Which is also why I don’t believe full Facebook integration could have saved Ping: most Facebook users already knew that iTunes existed and that you could buy songs on it. So there would have been little benefit to spamming them with Ping ads, I mean social posts, especially when you couldn’t play friends’ songs in Ping.

Let’s Just Be Friends

So is social music doomed to defeat by an army of square-shaped photos and robotic ads posing as social updates? I say no. The key is to build relevant social media into existing music consumption, not to build music into existing social media. Here’s how:

— Full track playback services are the place to be social. This is the way to hear the full song your friend wants you to hear, especially on mobile.

— Playlists and radio – be it “traditional” AM/FM radio, or Pandora, Spotify, Rdio, TuneIn and iHeartRadio. People listen to music from playlists and radio, and while doing other things like driving, working, and – yes – checking Facebook. The social layer needs to leverage that, not rely on single song shares. (Curiously, iTunes is rumored to be launching radio early in 2013 – just a few months after shutting down Ping, their music social network, in October 2012.) 

— Relevant stuff, not spam. Kill the Spotify firehose and deliver relevant music from relevant friends – a musical version of Facebook’s EdgeRank. One way to facilitate this is by letting users specify a few friends whose taste they respect – something a recently acquired social music startup called “supertrust.” And for people who don’t know who to supertrust yet, recommend some people – perhaps even <gasp> strangers – with similar tastes to follow.

— Notifcations. Lots of them. This is huge, because users love the attention. When you “Star”, bookmark or Like something a friend liked or shared, it should notify that friend. And for radio, it should even tell a friend if you tolerated a full track playback of their song.

— Automate! Don’t make me make a playlist to share it. Just let my friends play what I played or liked in one click. Rdio does a good job of this but is alone in this regard.

— Get creative with charts if you can’t offer full tracks. iTunes, for example, could surface a smaller number of songs in “personal charts”[3] that restrict the voting audience to “musically relevant friends” or give bonus votes to those who are “supertrusted.” Or a broadly based chart could be enhanced with social indicators like how many people who heard a song bothered to share it.

— “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!” Yes, actually, you do. When consumption is slower, Likes and comments are more rare – again due to the 200x ratio. Badges are like “automatic likes” that can keep the most active sharers engaged.

Is Justin Bieber Coming to this Party?

There are certainly parties who don’t need these ideas; viral YouTube sensations like Justin Bieber come to mind. In that case, we should remember it’s the social music services that have been struggling (or annoying) so far, not the social efforts of individual artists. If you see friend after friend make exclamatory comments on Facebook about the awesomeness of some YouTube or Vevo video, you’re probably going to watch it. Just ask anyone who wondered what Gangnam Style was three months ago. Music videos have been powerful marketing tools for a long time, and there’s no reason to think they’re going away. What’s less clear is “how catchy” a video has to be – or how many cumulative exclamation points friends’ comments on it need to include – to make people decide it’s worth their time.

Are We There Yet?

Nothing here is too earth shattering, and tends to be the kind of advice we give to kids: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you (or at least make your service treat recipients as well as sharers). Give people gifts they want to receive (and make it easy to return or ignore bad gifts). Don’t be annoying (with spam posts). Send thank you notes whenever you can (or at least notifications). Make others’ lives easier. That’s a social music recipe for a better 2013.

[1] Twitter shows a particularly photo-centric bent, despite being primarily text based, and despite lacking a filter like Facebook’s EdgeRank which is known to prioritize photos in feeds. “9 out of 10 tweets with the most engagement (retweets, favorites, etc.) have an image attached,” according to BitTorrent. Interestingly, BitTorrent also noted that seven of the top ten Twitter accounts are musicians.

[2] It makes plenty of sense that Spotify decided to begin requiring Facebook in September 2011.

[3] Readers note: I first heard this term from Kyle Bylin, who coordinated this piece with me.

Aaron Master has worked at SoundHound Inc. since 2006 and owns shares of Facebook.

← Read More