Sweet and Lowedown

Will Apple’s Tastemaker Test Win The Streaming Music Challenge?

Apple made big news last week by hiring one of the music’s best tastemakers, Zane Lowe, the preeminent DJ on BBC Radio 1 who has introduced the world to artists like Arctic Monkeys, Gnarls Barkley, Adele and Sam Smith.

With Zane’s hiring and the reported tapping of other music journalism talents, Apple is betting big on the ‘human curation’ chestnut that Jimmy Iovine used to sell the service to music fans, and more importantly, to Apple last spring.

Curation is believed to be a solution for streaming music’s problem of what to play next. All-you-can-eat music services like Spotify and Beats provide access to tens of millions of songs, but listeners consistently run into the issue of figuring out what they want to hear next. So by creating recommendations, radio stations and playlists that the music fan might like, curation helps alleviate the problem.

Except it isn’t that easy.

Why? First, is there’s a lot of music. Millions and millions of songs are available on these services and figuring out everything about the music is rather difficult. And then there’s the user expectation. A broadcast radio tastemaker like Zane is pretty adept at talking to a lot of people at once, but streaming the music customer expects—if not demands—a unique music experience based on their taste and listening habits.

The Beats Formula

Curation solutions have come in two flavors. Companies either use automated technology solutions, like Pandora’s ‘music genome’ and the Echo Nest’s taste profile. Or you hire a staff of music experts to pick music.

Beats’ Co-CEO Jimmy Iovine and Chief Creative Officer Trent Reznor rightfully pointed out that most services have the soul of a hard drive and that music fans craved more in a music experience.

Beats preferred playlists selected by humans, experts on music who understood what the listener needed music for, like cooking dinner, exercising or studying. The startup went on a spending spree, hiring a team of music programmers to build playlists and pick the perfect song. While others, like Rhapsody and Emusic, had staffs of curation experts long before Beats, Jimmy was the first to make human curation the main selling point.

When it launched, Beats had subscribers  select their favorite style of music. Afterwards, the service would feature playlists built by their staff of music experts who hailed from the radio industry and music blogs. Beats playlists were indeed compelling but the depth of the lists appeared to be light and the curation stale. After all, how many times can you listen to the same 15 tracks on the Indie Breakup or 2006 Hip Hop Gems playlist? Fact is hand curation requires a lot of hands to consistently churn out new lists, something the service didn’t quite get right.

Emotional Math

Beats management objected to algorithms that automatically choose the next song based on a set of rules. “The promise of algorithms that we’ve all bought into over the past few years, that you enter a band and you are going to hear a ton of music that’s all based on that seed,” Trent Reznor told USA Today last year. “I think we’ve all realized the reality of that is that it’s a shallow puddle, it immediately kind of sounds good and then you realize the limitations and you start to hear the machine in there.”

“(With an algorithm) you are using math to solve an emotional problem,” is the way Jimmy Iovine put it. He is partially correct. When the catalog is tens of millions of songs and you have millions of customers, picking what song comes next can only be tackled by math.

It’s impossible for a service to function without any algorithms. There’s just too much data and you need to rely on something with automated rules to do some of the heavy lifting. Even Beats, despite its marketing message of ‘the music service with music experts’ had several different algorithms that were used in the service or under development.

So marketing pitch or not, everyone (in one way or another) must use math to solve these problems. The success or failure of algorithms and curation depends on how companies employ the products and who’s in charge.

It’s far from me to tell Apple what to do, but hey, that’s never stopped me from dispensing advice of questionable value. Here are my guiding principles for building curation and algorithms in streaming services.

  1. The Right Tool for the Right Job

As much as I have a problem with Pandora and their marketing of the ‘music genome,’ the company sure went about solving the right problem with their algorithm. Simply put, Pandora is designed to serve up around 40 solid minutes of songs for the person who likes to listen to music. It doesn’t do more than that and that’s a good thing.

Technology products get unwieldy because they are designed like a Swiss Army Knife. My general rule is that technology solutions need to be designed to nail one solid use case at a time. Expansion beyond that gets to be tricky.

A good example: I recently spoke to David Porter, CEO of 8tracks, a radio service that features playlists curated primarily by the service’s pro DJ community. David mentioned that 8tracks had recently hired a data scientist to match his listeners to playlists that they might enjoy.

An algorithm must be very good to nail this use case, but it doesn’t rise to the level of a playlisting algorithm, where a user will think you don’t know music nor them if a Coldplay song ends up in a Jose Gonzalez playlist.

Defining what your algorithms are meant to do and sticking closely to those use cases is vital for success.

  1. Man Guides The Machine

An algorithm must be built as a tool for curators and not simply a technology product. Therefore it must be tunable and adaptable. There is no such thing as ‘code lock’ on an algorithm.

In my experience, this is not the way many algorithms have been built. Machine learning–the ability for algorithms to improve based on usage–is a big topic right now for many technology companies, but I have yet to see one example of a music algorithm that gets smarter with time. Ensuring curators have input and a modicum of control of algorithms is extremely important.

  1. Playing Your Position

What makes managing a music algorithm so absurdly challenging is that no single person is qualified to manage it. You must posses a full understanding of music composition as well as its place in culture. You should have the knowledge of how a data scientist goes about their work. And you have to have a keen observation about how consumers behave in the system.

Without any leg of this stool, the product will end up hamstrung. It cannot be managed by one human, unless you have a consumer driven, musicologist, data scientist on staff (not bloody likely), therefore it requires a team of experts to tackle the problem.

Each will bring an expertise and needs to trust other members of the team. Success should be judged on results and data; not taste or perfect code.

  1. Match Curation to the Taste of Your Listeners

This one is easy to say and hard to pull off. Curation should closely mimic the usage in your system. While a marketing approach will influence who your listeners are, good old data and analytics should be fastidiously monitored and results fully understood by the team.

A curatorial staff must adapt their approach to what the listener is doing, and what brings more value to their experience. And above all, it’s about your listeners’ tastes. Not your own.

Tim Quirk, my former boss at Rhapsody and formerly Google’s global content programming head, authored the objective approach to editorial that we practiced heartily at the service. He recently posted a series of tweets that questioned the practice of tastemakers being the lead programmers at services and believes that curators should function more like ‘park rangers than gatekeepers.’ “Yay curation. But boo anyone who thinks he or she knows better than you what you should listen to,” Tim summed up.

  1. There Is No Finish Line

The algorithm will constantly need to adapt to the music, the customer usage and the technology. Likewise music trends change over time. After all, few could have predicted the amazing rise (and the fall) of EDM? As long as you have music, you must have a team who lives and dies to have the perfect music catalog, the algorithm and the curation to fully create a great music experience.

The promise

The first generation of streaming services focused closely on catalog and access. We’re nearing the end of this era, as pretty much everyone has the same catalog and the apps are very similar. The next phase will focus on the music experience of the services. Curation, whether lovingly hand-crafted by humans, or processing massive amounts of data crunched down by an algorithm, will be the battlefield all the services will vie on over the next couple years.

We can already see this battle taking form as ‘the humans’ vs. ‘the geeks.’ That’s a mistake. A company needs to seamlessly blend these talents together to build curation that listeners will enjoy and create true value.

More Curation on Curation

Billboard What Apple’s Hiring of Zane Lowe Signals for the Company’s Music Strategy

Hypebot Zane Lowe Could Do More For Discovery At Apple Than Echonest’s $25.6 Million Does For Spotify

Music Ally Apple Hiring for iTunes Role with ‘Specific Expertise in Music Journalism’

Business Insider What We’re Hearing About The New Music Streaming Service Apple is Developing in Secret

The Roaring Mouse: Rhapsody Faces Its Future

Mark Mulligan recently commented on an announcement from Rhapsody that trumpeted the Seattle-based granddaddy of streaming music’s impressive growth over the past couple years.

His analysis:

Enter investment firm Columbus Nova who acquired an undisclosed stake in Rhapsody in September 2013. A reorg and a repositioning process followed paving the way for strong subscriber growth. Rhapsody had 1.5 million subscribers one year ago. If it continues to grow at its present rate it should hit 3 million by July this year. And if it sustains that growth into the start of 2016 it could find itself the second biggest subscription service globally. Current number two Deezer appears to be slowing so 2nd place could be a realistic target for next year. Quite a turn around for a service that looked like it was falling by the wayside 5 years ago. 

Surprisingly, Mark’s blog piece was extremely thin on the particulars about Rhapsody’s turnaround. I was surprised as he is one of the sharpest analysts in digital music.

Rhapsody’s growth is impressive. But the seeds of Rhapsody’s recent growth were sown years before Columbus Nova showed up to the party. When the company spun out as a standalone entity from its parent, Real Networks, it was given a few on-air marketing dollars from its other owner, Viacom Networks. Previously Viacom had poured hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising credits to Rhapsody, which it used to advertise the service on MTV, Comedy Central and other on-air properties. The efficacy of those dollars was questionable, as the company had around 800,000 paying subscribers. It was just too early to market on-demand music to a mass audience.

After the spin-out, Rhapsody was left without a sizable marketing budget nor the money to invest in a free tier like Spotify or Pandora. So the company was forced creatively figure out how to attract customers. One of the hardest things streaming services faced then–just like now–is getting consumers to plop down their credit card to pay to them. The president at the time, Jon Irwin. opted to partner with companies who already had access to credit cards—cellular carriers.

Precarious Partners
Before we get into that, here’s a little bit about the economics and goals of partnerships between carriers and music services. These kinds of deals have been seen by the music industry as the answer to building mass audiences of subscribers. Customers might ask themselves why they are paying $10 a month for Rhapsody, but if the charge is included in their cellphone bill, they might never see it. It’s always considered better to tap someone else’s customers than build your own.

Deals like these are extremely difficult to navigate. Labels are terrified of offering discounts for the service, which is a requirement to get carriers to agree to the deal. Carriers are reticent to pay for content that customers may or may not use. And everyone wants someone else to take a margin hit. It’s up to the streaming service to get everyone on board and craft a deal that will be successful.

The best deals are ones where all parties–and the consumer–are happy.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. A couple terrible examples: Deezer has built a massive worldwide audience of paying subscribers, and yet the rate of people who actually use the service is pathetic. Mark Mulligan reported that it could be as low as 20 percent. A low active rate infuriates subscribers and, therefore, carriers. While there will always be some level of inactives in a service, when it becomes huge, you aren’t building a distinct brand and service. Muve Music, which previously was offered through the Cricket pre-paid cellphone service, also had massive inactive users and really awful economics due to licensing deals it signed with music labels.

It’s critically important to build the right offering when selling the service. Music services on carriers come in two varieties: a bundled offering and a bolt-on service. In a bundle the consumer is buying a tiered plan that includes the music service. So for $70 a month, you subscribe to the Cellphone + Music and a bunch of other services. The bolt-on is much simpler and cleaner: add music for $5 or $10 a month. As a product guy, I much prefer the bolt-on. Why? Most of the inactives reside in the bundle and all those people represent a time bomb just waiting to blow up. Customers who quit in droves are expensive for everyone, but it tolls the death knell for the service.

And that’s the weakness with the marketing and distribution partnership through carriers. Specifically:

  • Sure the music service gets the massive benefit of not having to capture the credit card, but it also cedes control of the relationship with the customer.
  • With two parties involved, the company’s already thin margins selling music get deeply eroded, requiring the music service to rely on its own retail customers to prop up the distribution costs.
  • The service is completely reliant on the carrier to market to their customers, and the carrier may not be very motivated to do so.
  • The service can quickly lose brand equity, as the carrier might just call the service ‘Comes With Music’ instead of promoting its brand. If the customer is just subscribing to a generic music service this is a very bad thing, as the carrier could replace it at any time.

So the music services must walk a fine line:

  • Build and hold onto a strong brand presence that will motivate the carrier to do the deal in the first place.
  • Make sure the carrier does the right thing in selling the service and focus on the brand.

Do it wrong, and you end up like Muve Music, which AT&T sold to Deezer at auction prices earlier this year after acquiring what was left of the struggling Cricket Wireless. Do it right, and hockey stick growth follows.

A former colleague thought the relationship between the powerful carriers and little music services reminded him of a blend between Aesop’s fable about the lion and the mouse and the Roald Dahl story about the crocodile and the dentist mouse. In my colleague’s telling of it, the powerful and hungry lion wants to eat the mouse, but to do so will ruin his only hope for repairing the tooth. So the mouse has to convince the lion to not eat him before he can fix the tooth. I’m sure you can imagine who is the lion and who is the mouse.

Dialing Up Deals
After months of negotiations, Rhapsody announced its first partnership with the pre-paid carrier MetroPCS in 2011. In the next few years the company announced deals with European carriers, followed by a global deal with Telefonica and then T-Mobile’s offering.

So far, so good. Solid growth. But it’s an open secret that Rhapsody’s brand has been fading for quite some time now. And the partnership strategy isn’t helping develop a strong brand identity. In their thirst to make the deal, the company is making their brand look more like a quilt than something unified. The service is known as Rhapsody on MetroPCS, Unradio on T-Mobile, MTV in Germany, Napster in Greece, Spain, Sonora in Latin America.

It’s an open question if it will be able to maintain its presence with Spotify taking up all the oxygen in the room with customers while YouTube Music Key and Apple’s iStreaming launches. The company has faced issues before and has been written off time and time again. It remains to be seen if it can grow, in particular in the U.S.

As the partnerships ramp, expect the company to face downward margin pressure. Those thin margins will start to eat into the overall revenue of the company. Growth is fantastic, but it could also harm the company’s bottom line.

Maybe even more important, the company needs to answer the hard question about what position it seeks to occupy in the marketplace. There probably is room for a white label music service that works well with big distribution partners like carriers and cable companies. But without a solid brand and a strong direct retail subscriber base, the company could start to see more pressure to deliver meaningful value. It’s far from clear if a mousy little Rhapsody can roar in a den full of lions.

Disclosure: I worked at Rhapsody for nine long rewarding, frustrating, awesome and ridiculous years before last year’s layoff.

More Rhapsodizing

Music Industry Blog: How Rhapsody Became A Top Tier Player Again

Music Ally Rhapsody’s Napster expands across Europe and plots ‘laddered’ pricing strategy

Billboard Why Streaming (Done Right) Will Save The Music Industry

GeekWire Rhapsody Tops 2.5M Subscribers, Up 60% From Last Year