Analysis

The challenge of connecting the streaming music silos


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streamsDo we need a ‘roaming network for subscription music services’? Union Square Ventures VC Fred Wilson thinks so, and has explained why in a blog post today, comparing siloed streaming music services to the early days of banking ATMs and Wi-Fi hotspots.

“I have used Mog (now owned by Beats which is rebranding it as Daisy), Rhapsody, Spotify, and Rdio. They all offer essentially the same libraries. The listening experience is almost identical,” writes Wilson.

“They differentiate with slighly different user experiences. Some are more social. Some are faster. Some offer better curation. But in my opinion they are all proprietary commodity services and a roaming service that would allow a subscriber to Rdio to log into Spotify would be a good thing for a lot of reasons.”

Wilson goes on to suggest that the music industry should be backing this idea, not least because it would avoid creating another Apple – “a dynamic where no one subscription music service could create the kind of network effects that would allow them to become the dominant subscription music service”.

It’s a really good point, and a thought-provoking post. Can it happen? I’m not optimistic, at least in the short term, but it’s well worth thinking about.

2013 and 2014 are going to be brutal years for streaming music competition, as the various services battle for consumer awareness and rightsholder support – including possibly scrapping for exclusives, which as Tomahawk’s Jason Herskowitz argued last week, may not be a good thing.

Against that backdrop, pulling the services together into a roaming network looks a tough challenge, which is not to say – as Wilson hints – that there isn’t an entrepreneur out there willing to try.

Another angle might be to provide better interconnection between the various streaming services: less a roaming network and more some kind of social glue that helps recommendations flow between them more easily.

This ties into something else Wilson writes in his post: “Just yesterday my friend Kirk found some new music because he follows me on Rdio. But I can’t do the same thing with my friends who are on Spotify. Because all of these services are silos, by definition of their paid business model. If a roaming network existed, there would be more social music discovery, listening, and, I believe, uptake of the paid subscription model by consumers.”

rdio-spotifySocial glue? Actually, there’s already activity around that. Facebook, for one, has already made its pitch to sit in between the various streaming services, enabling people using one to see what friends on the others have been listening to.

Is it working well? Not so much. Right now I’m using Spotify on my desktop, while looking at a Facebook news feed message telling me two of my friends have listened to Depeche Mode on Rdio.

If I click on the little play buttons, a pop-up (pictured) invites me to sign in to Rdio on Facebook to listen, with an unobtrusive ‘Play in Spotify’ link at the bottom left.

So the interconnection does work, but it’s not as seamless as it could be. I sense there may be a dilemma for Facebook here about how much its news feed items are ways for its partners to acquire new users, rather than facilitate simple sharing across different services.

What else? Tomahawk is another obvious answer as a service that’s trying to sit neatly in the middle of the streaming silos – hence Herskowitz writing about the area in his Billboard op-ed.

Its desktop application pulls music from a host of sources, including friends’ listening, to form “a universal translation layer across music repositories, streaming services and geographic territories” (in its website’s words).

The spin-off Toma.hk site is a simple way to search for a song, album or artist – or paste in a playlist link from Spotify, Rdio or Deezer – and get back a shareable page that’ll play wherever that music is available.

tomahawkTomahawk is an exciting and intriguing thing, complete with a recently-launched API for other developers to tap into. It’s still a work in progress though: no mobile app yet, and with room for evolution in the design and user-friendliness of its desktop app to appeal beyond geeks like me.

It’s also worth keeping an eye on ShareMyPlaylists, the social music site that thus far has nailed its colours squarely to Spotify’s mast, in terms of helping people share and discover playlists.

It, too, could sit in between the various streaming services – if only as a way for users to easily share playlists with friends on other services, or to migrate their playlists when switching from one to another.

CEO Kieron Donoguhe told Music Ally earlier this year that he’s not interested in such a role for now. “Right now if we did a deal with Deezer, Rdio or Rhapsody I don’t think we’d benefit much or grow our audience,” he said.

“I really don’t. Maybe in 10 years time, if there’s another service the same size as Spotify, we’d look at it. But right now, I don’t realistically see how anybody’s going to gain on Spotify’s momentum.” Time will tell whether he’s correct, but if not, ShareMyPlaylists could yet pivot to take advantage.

So the silos remain, for now, with the odd tool like Spotizr (which imports Spotify playlists into Deezer) and Musicbox (which does the same thing for Rdio playlists) showing the potential, yet not making serious progress towards Wilson’s vision of true “roaming” between services.

Still, he’s onto something, and while I’m unsure about the chances of that proper roaming network for subscription services that Wilson is after, I’m positive that there’s valuable work to be done connecting up the silos – hopefully with their active participation rather than against their wills. Well, I’m an optimist…

Stuart Dredge

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