Photo: Half of Hozier’s first Spotify plays in 2014 came from playlist seeding
Curation within music platforms and services continues to be a hot topic today. How do we move on from the idea of a “shop window” of new releases, or endless and unwieldly lists of tracks, into experiences that are more personal, tailored and timely? Where are the services themselves heading, and how can artists and labels best leverage these opportunities?
As streaming continues to grow into the prevalent form of mainstream music consumption, each streaming service has an ongoing focus around improving their products and functionality around discovery and contextual listening: how to point listeners to the right music for them, at the right time. Not only is competition in the streaming arena continuing to heat up, but so are the growing distractions from other media all competing for eyeballs and attention. As a result, the services are fighting out for ways to differentiate their experiences and keep music fans engaged and listening.
Think back to a couple of years ago when streaming services (Spotify in particular) were criticised for being nothing but a “search box”. A great experience if you knew exactly what you wanted to hear, but with nothing to inspire or help provide interesting or intriguing suggestions. Streaming companies have since beefed up their resource and personnel around editorial in response. Spotify first launched the Browse page back in 2013, which has a central focus around a multitude of editorial playlists, with features that change throughout the day. This is an ever-evolving area, with this week’s Spotify Now developments to the service now tailoring which playlists are served up to your phone even further, factoring in user data such as location, age and your music collection. Meanwhile, both Deezer and Spotify have also added in spoken-word podcast content into their editorial this week, with the aim of giving subscribers even more of a reason to stick around within their apps.
This emphasis on self-curated playlists has also helped to affirm Spotify’s gatekeeper status; and given that the streaming model is geared around building up repeated or habitual plays of tracks over an extended period of time, the initial discovery of a track and finding the right set of ears is key. Recently at The Great Escape, Spotify’s Will Hope illustrated the potential for labels in building plays, quoting the example of Hozier, where almost half of the artist’s first plays on the service during 2014 came from seeding in Spotify’s playlists. And it’s now well known that Lorde wouldn’t have taken off without being included in Sean Parker’s “Hipster International” Spotify playlist.
Google Play Music have also made moves to add more timely recommendations; following their acquisition of music recommendation service Songza, they place playlists front-and-centre when you login (“It’s Sunday evening! Play music for Relaxing at Home?”). To the more clued-up and loyal followers of music, it can be easy to criticise the look and feel of these lifestyle-focused playlists. But the reality is that many people actively paying for services like Spotify are looking for listening experiences that easily fit a purpose or context for them, at the click of a button. Paul Lamere, director of The Echo Nest platform (the music intelligence big data outfit acquired by Spotify last year) recently presented at SXSW around some of the listening habits on Spotify. He revealed that almost 60% of the top 100 playlists are named around context (workout, chill, roadtrip) or genre. Spotify’s peaks in listening are also centred often around particular activities at points in the day: the morning run, commuting, Saturday night “party” listening. So the idea of music services (and labels) providing context is an important one.
An interesting area for future development around music contextualisation is going beyond serving up pre-determined static playlists, to creating evolving music experiences informed by data sourced from your phone, smartwatch or another connected device. Personalised radio services such as Pandora already take cues from your listening history and “thumbs up / thumbs down” feedback to generate playlists on-the-fly.
One of the next frontiers sits in music playback becoming informed by your environment. The both recently-launched adidas go iPhone app and the Spotify x Nike collaboration Spotify Running work by tracking your run, speed and distance much like other fitness apps, but use music sourced from Spotify to uncover new tracks which are matched with your running pace, and also aligned with your musical tastes. This goes further than the usual “music for a purpose” playlist. You can imagine future iterations of this idea being paired with a wearable for easier user feedback on what music is being played (your phone can stay in your pocket) or to use a gesture to trigger particular changes in playback – maybe you desperately need Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger to help you over the finishing line in the last 3 minutes of your run?!
Midemlab finalist Prizm is an interesting first iteration into how the Internet of Things can create contextual listening solutions for the home. Aiming to be “Nest for Music”, Prizm is a Kickstarter-funded project shipping this Autumn. Once connected to wi-fi and a pair of speakers, it uses location services and measures ambient sound to understand who is in the room, deciding which tracks and genres are played from Spotify or Deezer. In theory (I’d love to roadtest this!) the idea is to serve up more intelligent music selections – for instance, focusing on artists that both you and your spouse like when you’re both in the room together, or ramping up the BPM and volume during a party.
Despite ongoing technological developments around developing these “smarter” listening experiences, and the growing impact of pre-curated playlists from the services themselves, the main curators of influence are often in reality still the traditional media forces outside of the streaming platforms. Many music fans will still use trusted sources (BBC, Pitchfork, NOW, Billboard charts) as their barometer. At Domino, we certainly see that heavier rotation on daytime radio across outlets like BBC 6 Music can help build plays on streaming services. So it’s important for labels and artists not to underestimate the importance of tying their streaming strategies in with the wider campaign.
With that in mind, there is still a big need for relatable, human approaches in streaming curation (as mentioned in my midemblog interview). There’s a reason why it remains “easier” to find interesting new music each week on the iTunes homepage than on YouTube’s algorithmic #Music channel page. The importance of the human touch is underpinned by the so-called “Apple Crumble”, where key BBC editorial figures including Zane Lowe and four station producers have recently defected to Apple, reportedly with the brief to focus on their streaming radio offering.
Many of the streaming services (Spotify in particular) have an array of social features that allow artists to share music and playlists directly with fans – which can be powerful when used in a genuine way. Apple Music, iTunes’ upcoming streaming music service, is also set to launch with social features baked in for artists, which I hope will provide a more immersive and personal way to engage with music.
In amongst the ever-shifting landscape of music streaming, the call for the independent music community to collaborate together in the playlist arena is also something that I hope comes to fruition in the coming months, as the major labels continue to focus their efforts around building their own playlist presences. Given some notable criticism around freemium music within some circles, it’s important for us as an industry to help build differentiation across the services that people are actively paying for each month. The idea around crafting more authentic music experiences for fans to enjoy plays a part in this.
The possibilities around playlists and curation are still relatively in their infancy whilst the global streaming audience continues to grow and diversify. And while there is still significant demand and interest in albums as complete bodies of work, it’s undeniable that playlists can help provide more instant, quick-fire gratification in acting as a point of discovery for music fans. So ultimately there’s a need for us all to experiment in finding what connects with different audiences, remain open-minded about the possibilities in this area, and to get stuck in!
This is the latest in a series of posts from leading label executives, who’ll be posting regularly here on midemblog between now and Midem this June. The posts are sourced and curated by Motive Unknown‘s Lucy Blair; and you can find them all here!
Top photo via Hozier’s Facebook page