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.

If music services are adept enough at truly accommodating to the individual’s tastes and preferences, they can certainly cater to the mainstream market, but I would also imagine that this would involve the different types of listeners discovering music that is of various levels of obscurity, depending on how actively they consume and interact with new music.

2. It Depends

Jed Carlson | President and Co-Founder at ReverbNation

It depends on the service. In the case of Pandora and terrestrial radio, it appeals to the passive discoverer — which is pretty much all of us sometimes. This form of music discovery is no mystery, has been around for ages, relies heavily on repetition and inherent social cues, and, by definition, already translates to the mainstream market.

For the more ‘active’ discovery services, they are fighting over a small percentage of the public that focuses on defining the culture instead of reacting to it and adopting it. As a result, I don’t think you’ll see those business models work if they are built around monetizing active discoverers through traditional ‘attention economy’ approaches (read: ads) — as the number of this group is just too small. However, the influence of this crowd is not to be underestimated, as they truly are the tastemakers that create the initial social cues that can lead to the momentum that a song or artist needs to break out.

So the value to a record label or artist in having the ‘active discovery’ crowd get exposure to their music early on is significant. As a result, it would seem to me that an “active discovery” product must find a way to make money from the content owners (not the fans — who represent large numbers) in exchange for getting their latest music in front of these active discoverers. But how would this approach prevent a new form of ‘pay to play’? A difficult problem…

3. Younger People

Cortney Harding | Partnerships Lead at Soundrop

On the whole I’d say interest in music discovery skews younger — most folks I know over 40 aren’t as interested in discovering new stuff, although there are certainly exceptions. For apps and blogs, it also skews toward the more invested fan — people who make the effort to go out and find stuff and engage with it.

But radio (at least radio that plays “new music,” I’ll leave nostalgia stations out for now) is still a powerful discovery tool for the masses, and one that gets left out of a lot of discussions. I see more people listening to the radio via smartphones and the web, and think the reach of satellite radio will grow. And the question is the same as the above — how do you monetize that discovery?

I think TV ads are also a huge new source for music discovery — look at fun. and the car ad. Maybe that song would have gotten traction through traditional channels, maybe not, but that ad launched them pretty quick. Ditto for Pheonix and Santigold. The danger is that you will forever be known as “the band in the Ford ad” or “the chick from the Bud Light Lime commercial” but Santigold might be crying all the way to the bank.

Then, of course, we have the newest iteration, music discovery via viral video. This isn’t wholly new conceptually (if “Achy Breaky Heart” had existed during the YouTube era we would have all smashed our computers by now) but the rise of Psy and Baauer points to something bigger. What are the implications if the first time I hear a song is when I’m being corralled into an office wide dance to it?

4. Tastemakers

Jay Frank | Owner and CEO of DigSin

The listeners that music discovery services appeal to the most are those that are generally viewed as the music tastemaker in their social group. In order to maintain their standing, they need to continually be filled with the latest and greatest information on new music.

Much as the old adage of music reviews goes — that reviews are mostly read by people who already have a preconceived opinion of the record — so goes these services. The music geek wants to see if the service is accurate about what they already know to validate their new music experiences and know that the service is as “up to date” as they are. Finding something new is usually a by-product.

Even these services will tend to serve up a lot of listings in order to find accurate ones. These multiple listings will fall in one of two categories: artists the user already knows about and ones they don’t. The ones they know about are irrelevant as it defeats the purpose of discovery. Of the ones they don’t, they usually offer too many options, making it difficult for the user to actually zero in on one logical choice to discover and when faced with too many options, they’ll choose none at all. Or, if they choose one, it’s also likely because they experienced multiple impressions about that artist prior, and that discovery impression is what finally caused the listening process to begin.

The idea of discovery is probably what appeals most to these users. They like the notion that a system can catalog accurately every artist in the world and connect them in an orderly fashion. But when put into practical use, it becomes a less than satisfactory experience. Because the mainstream consumer neither has the time or patience or desire for music discovery, its chances of wide use is likely small. It’s also small because a mainstream user generally wants to discover music already validated by their peers. A service surfacing music that is less than the top 10 on a national scale or from within their peer group would appear to that mainstream user as a poor recommendation.

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