Analysis

Music’s future in a world of bots, smart assistants and invisible interfaces


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The ‘future of technology’ session at last week’s FastForward conference in Amsterdam, moderated by Music Ally, started off with a discussion about virtual reality. You can read our writeup of that here.

The conversation moved on to chatbots and voice-controlled devices with smart assistants – think Amazon’s Echo and Alexa – and what they’re going to mean for musicians and the music industry.

We Make Awesome Sh’s creative director and head of design Rob Hampson talked about the company’s spin-off The Bot Platform, which has run chatbots for artists including Hardwell, Axwell Ingrosso and Olly Murs. We recently profiled the company.

“We’ve seen some pretty incredible stats coming out of that in terms of engagement rates. Just the amount of discussion and the interactions we’ve seen,” he said.

“People are actually getting some return on their investment with chatbots… Axwell Λ Ingrosso being the main one. They sold about £10k worth of merchandise within the first three months of having a bot.”

Hampson stressed that artist bots are not hiding their artificial nature: fans are not expected to believe they are chatting to the real Olly Murs. In fact, it would be a very idea if they did.

“They’re not pretending to, and I don’t think they should pretend to be the artist, because that’s too much of a mixed message,” said Hampson.

“These are bot versions, or automated or computer versions of the artists. They can provide information such as tour dates, tell you about new album launches, directly to your Messenger account… This isn’t a message that just goes out generally on a Facebook timeline. It’s something that goes to a person, and we’re seeing a 99% read-rate on messages.”

[One thought from us: it might be fun if there was a feature where the real artist *could* log in and be the bot for short periods of time, whether for fun or as part of a publicly-announced competition…]

StubHub senior product manager Sam Flamand-Gloyne said the ticketing company is also experimenting with bots, explaining why an automated chat interface in a messaging app appeals.

For me, chatbots is really the next generation of search engines. And it’s more powerful than search engines in many ways,” he said.

Why? First because so many people spend so much time using messaging apps now: Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp have a billion active users apiece. And second, because a conversational interface can be better for some tasks than tapping keywords into a search engine.

Warner Music UK’s VP of digital Emmy Lovell agreed with Flamand-Gloyne about the future role of chatbots.

“I’m incredibly excited by them. They will replace search, and we are experimenting, very much in the early stages, whether they might replace websites,” she said. “Obviously there’s a vanity URL that needs to be captured, but…”

Lovell also addressed the question of how bots are presented to fans. “Crossing over into trying to imitate an artist is an absolute no-no. That emotional connection’s gone between fan and artist, and if you break that bond between the fan and the artist, then you’ve potentially lost them forever,” she said.

“In the lab at the moment we’re trying to experiment with what’s okay – and what’s very obviously not an artist but is still an engaging interaction – and what’s not okay… We’re experimenting a lot and we’re learning all the time.”

From chatbots, the conversation turned to voice interaction, spurred by the popularity of Amazon’s Echo speaker and its Alexa assistant. Flamand-Gloyne pointed to Google’s expectation of getting more voice searches than text searches by 2020 as a sign of how fast this technology is moving.

“Tech is becoming more and more invisible to the end-user. It’s really interesting. Things like Amazon Echo, there’s no [visual] user interface. You just talk to it,” said Hampson.

He went on to talk about the intriguing – but also possibly worrying – next step for this technology: personalisation, driven by the amount of data that will be captured on what we say to our devices and how we use them.

“Obviously we’re chatting to these things and data’s being collected, and as we move forward with technology, you’re going to find Amazon Echo in your car, or in different places in your life,” said Hampson.

“We’re going to continually join the dots… maybe it will realise that when I’m in the car I like to listen to this kind of music, or maybe the data from my watch is going to show that when my heartbeat is at this rate, I would prefer to listen to this kind of music.”

Flamand-Gloyne agreed that personalisation will be allied to voice interfaces in more and more ways, including for ticket buying.

“Ticketing in the future could be I’m speaking to Alexa or Google Home and say ‘Hey, I want to do something this weekend with friends’,” he said.

“And it would come up and say ‘I know you’re friends with these people, and I know you like to spend about $100 on a concert, and I know that your favourite artist is in town this weekend’. And I can create a conversation, call them up and we can all decide [whether to go].”

“I think voice is incredibly exciting,” agreed Emmy Lovell, who went on to cite a recent example of Amazon using a musician for Alexa’s ‘fact of the day’ feature.

“Last Thursday, Ed Sheeran’s birthday, when you said ‘good morning’ to Alexa, it gave you some stats about him, the fact that it’s his birthday, the fact that he’s currently got the number one and number two singles in the UK,” she said. “It’s fun, it’s interactive. I’m truly excited about it.”

Lovell was also enthusiastic about music’s prominent role in Amazon’s ecosystem from the days when it first started selling CDs, meaning that it’s one of the first sectors of the company’s business to see experimentation with Alexa.

But she also looked forward to more competition. “Apple will blow things out of the park when they get their stuff right. They’ve got an app store, they’ve got hardware, they’ve got software, and they’ve got so much data to personalise your experience through voice,” she said.

“Amazon have got the advantage at the moment because they’re first to market. But Apple will be brilliant at marketing voice technology, because they’re very good at marketing very challenging technology. And then Google need to catch up. It’s an incredibly exciting time.”

“She continued: “The interesting thing is they haven’t incorporated Amazon’s data about you yet, and once they do that, it’s unstoppable. And that’s what Apple are so good at doing: they connect their datasets… It’s brilliant stuff, and once Amazon do that and once Google connect, the world’s going to change as we know it.”

Stuart Dredge

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