Smart speakers like Amazon Echo speaker and its Alexa assistant have been getting plenty of music-industry people excited about its potential to provide new ways to discover and listen to music.
With the launch of Google Home (with its Google Assistant tool); with Sonos pivoting its business to focus more on voice controls; and with rumours that Apple and Spotify are getting ready to enter the market, there’s plenty of activity here.
But how popular are these smart, voice-enabled speakers already? Research firm eMarketer is publishing a report today that puts some numbers to the trend, albeit focused purely on the US.
The report claims that 35.6 million Americans will use a voice-enabled speaker at least once a month in 2017: up 128.9% year-on-year. eMarketer thinks that 70.6% of those people – just over 25.1 million – will be using one of Amazon’s Echo family, while 23.8% (just under 8.5 million) will be using a Google Home.
Other devices from the likes of Lenovo, LG, Harman Kardon and Mattel will share the remaining 5.6% of the market.
Wisely (given Apple looming in the background) eMarketer has avoided making hard forecasts for how these market shares will change in the future other than to suggest that “Amazon will remain the dominant player in the category for the foreseeable future”.
“Consumers are becoming increasingly comfortable with the technology, which is driving engagement,” said eMarketer’s VP of forecasting Martín Utreras. “Also, as prices decrease and functionality increases, consumers are finding more reasons to increase adoption of these devices.”
eMarketer has also put out some predictions for the number of Americans who’ll be using voice-enabled digital assistants: not just those that come with smart speakers, but the ones (like Apple’s Siri) that are embedded in smartphones and tablets.
“This year, 60.5 million Americans will use their Siri, Cortana, or other virtual assistant at least once a month,” claimed the research firm. “That equates to more than one-quarter (27.5%) of smartphone users, or nearly one in five Americans.”
(Note, that percentage rises to 33.5% of millennials – defined in this study as people born between 1981 and 2000, and thus aged 16-35.)
From a music-industry perspective, this is all important data, because these smart speakers and voice assistants are going to be increasingly important gateways to music for fans.
Amazon, for example, has been developing new discovery methods for music with Alexa and the Echo devices.
“We think voice is going to be really important. Voice control is the future of music listening in the home, and probably in the car as well,” Amazon’s Paul Firth told Music Ally in November 2016. “We know that people want to talk to Echo in a much more natural way than you might expect for a voice-controlled device.”
For Amazon, that has required teaching Alexa how to respond to commands like ‘Alexa, play Adele’s new song’. “We’re having to invent new metadata: ways to say that this track has just been served to radio, or this is the one that’s climbing the singles chart, so that when people ask for an artist’s ‘new’ song, they get the one they’ve just heard on the radio or wherever it was,” said Firth.
Meanwhile, Amazon has also launched a feature where Echo owners can say ‘Alexa, play happy 80s pop music’ or ‘Alexa, play sad indie music from the 90s’ and get a stream of suitable music in return.
“These aren’t playlists or stations: we’re building you a list of music on the fly, using a combination of genre, the decade – the original release date, not re-releases – and a mood,” said Firth. “Alexa is going to become smarter and smarter, and encourage more and more listening this way.”
Music companies have their own ideas about how smart speakers and voice assistants may change the way people access music in the future. For example, Music Ally spoke to Universal Music’s CTO Ty Roberts in December 2016, and he shared his ideas.
“Today it’s a command-and-fetch robot: ‘Tell me what the number one song was in 1989’ or ‘Play me Lady Gaga’s last album’. But it has the opportunity to evolve into a conversation,” said Roberts.
The example he suggested was of Alexa asking a fan if they’d like to learn about “early jazz, the founders of hip-hop or music from Chicago” before guiding them through some of that music accordingly.
“It’s an opportunity to get into a dialogue, to be a discovery experience driven by dialogue. I don’t want it to be a school: it should be like when you talk to that great friend you have who knows about music. Conversation! But it will probably take a few years,” said Roberts.
Others grappling with the potential, but also the challenges of voice-enabled speakers include Simon Wheeler of Beggars Group. At the NY:LON Connect conference in January, he outlined one of the latter.
“How will finding music change in a voice-activated environment… when you won’t have that same interaction you get when you look at a screen?” said Wheeler. “Now it’s just nothing in front of you. ‘I wanna hear music’. How are we going to push that forwards?”
Meanwhile, 7digital’s deputy CEO Pete Downton also gave his views to Music Ally on the implications, in January.
“Once you start looking at voice-driven operating systems and user interfaces, the world opens up in a lot of different ways, especially if you start thinking about the convergence of traditional radio and music-streaming services,” he said, comparing it to the ‘spreadsheet’-like interface of first-generation streaming interfaces.
“Houndify in the US are going much further than we’ve seen with Echo so far in terms of navigating the music catalogue. It lends itself really well to things like classical, where the digital experience has always been pretty poor. It’s a complex thing to do on a spreadsheet, but the potential of voice interfaces is super-exciting.”
If eMarketer is on the money with its figures today, the growth of smart speakers and voice assistants should increase the impetus for the music industry to continue exploring all this potential, in partnership with the technology companies behind them.