Music IS social, and it always has been. We talk (and argue!) about it; we watch concerts together; go clubbing together; experience it as a communal soundtrack for birthday parties and religious worship and much, much more…
Any over-confident tech startup promising to ‘make music social’ is drunk on their own disruption. But of course, they’re talking about social in the ‘social networking’ sense: digital connectivity. And it’s true that in their current form, the big music-streaming services aren’t particularly social.
There were 176 million people using paid music subscriptions on streaming services at the end of 2017, but much of our time on Spotify, Apple Music and their rivals is spent listening alone – or thanks to headphones, listening alone in a crowd.
It’s true that YouTube and SoundCloud have comments; Spotify has its desktop ticker of what your friends are listening to and the ability to make playlists collaborative; Apple Music has a new personalised playlist called Friends Mix, constructed of tracks your friends are digging. But there’s still a nagging sense of… more that could be done here.
That’s also been the driving force behind hundreds of music/tech startups down the years, almost all of which were so unsuccessful, nobody reading this article would remember their names. The blunt conclusion might be that ‘social music streaming’ isn’t a thing that people want or need.
Alternatively, perhaps it’s just that the streaming services, tech startups and the music industry haven’t figured out how to make social a feature that people want or need… YET. Which might just be a reason to keep experimenting, while also learning the lessons of past failures.
Here are a few more thoughts on that. Social music is…
I couldn’t give a hoot about what some of my closest friends and family members are listening to. Not because I don’t love them dearly, but because we just don’t share musical tastes.
Equally: there are some ‘friends’ (in the Facebook / Instagram / Twitter definition, which encompasses everything from work colleagues and fellow parents at my children’s school through to fun people I met at a conference at some point) who may not be my closest circle, but whose current jams are much more interesting to me – because we share tastes.
A playlist based simply on what all your friends are listening to is useless, because it doesn’t filter out the noise from friends with (subjectively!) TERRIBLE taste in music.
That doesn’t mean a feature like Friends Mix is useless: it’s just a data challenge for an algorithm capable of giving much more weight to the friends whose tastes match yours. Hopefully this is how Apple’s new playlist works.
The other caveat here, though, is that Friends Mix sits within a walled garden: it would be more accurate to describe it as Friends Who Also Have Apple Music Mix. It’s a subset of your social contacts, even if that can still throw up some decent recommendations.
Back in September 2011 at the f8 conference, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg proudly unveiled the latest iteration of his company’s ‘open graph: the ability to link Facebook with your music-streaming service, and thus pump details of everything you listened to into the news feeds of friends.
“With this update to Open Graph, we’re going to expand the set of industries and products that are becoming social,” said Zuckerberg at the time – see: even he forgot about concerts and clubs and birthday parties and church services!
He went on to promise that “listening can spread really quickly throughout the graph… Being able to click on someone’s music and play it is a great experience, but knowing that you helped a friend discover something new, and that you have the same taste in music, is awesome”.
It wasn’t awesome. Spotify CEO Daniel Ek was the guest of honour at Zuckerberg’s f8 keynote, but within weeks his service was u-turning on its new policy of making new users sign in with Facebook, and was also adding a private-listening mode. The then-CEO of Beats Music, Ian Rogers, delivered a blunt verdict: “If your music service is currently barfing every track you play to Facebook, turn that shit off.”
‘Frictionless’ music sharing was a step too far, and while it lives on in Spotify’s desktop ticker, the fact that it’s nowhere to be seen in the company’s lead product – its mobile app – speaks volumes. There’s little value to a noisy feed of everything your friends – again, unfiltered by whether they actually share your tastes – are playing. Those of us who remember This Is My Jam have fond memories of its focus on more ‘meaningful’ sharing of a song at a time, although that ultimately shut down.
Every few years, someone comes up with the idea to gamify music discovery by getting people to rate or recommend new tracks, score points if their picks catch on, and then get bragging rights with a league table of the best discoverers.
Every time, I’ve loved the idea. I loved it in 2008 with Thesixtyone and TheNextBigSound. I loved it in 2010 with startup NoiseToys’ mobile game HitMaker. I loved it in 2012 with TastemakerX and again in 2015 with Tradiio, both of which used a virtual stock-exchange mechanic to invest (virtually) in your recommendations. Which was also an idea I loved in 1998 when a friend ran a website called Popex.
I’m an early adopter of things that rate how good you are at early-adopting new music! Hear me roar! And then hear me whimper each and every time when none of my friends bother to sign up, and no sustainable business model for these services emerges.
That doesn’t bode enormously well for 2018’s take on the idea, US startup Laylo, even though it was a Midemlab winner in June with a slick pitch for what looks like a clever app. There IS real-world social kudos in ‘I heard them first’, but I’m not sure we need an app to tell us which friends are the best talent-spotters.
That said, ‘I heard them first’ is a useful signal for the wider music-recommendation algorithms on streaming services. If Friend X regularly listens to artists and songs that later blow up, perhaps their choices would become an input into my Discover Weekly / New Music Mix playlist on Spotify or Apple Music, for example.
But a standalone app or startup? I wish Laylo well, not least because if they can buck the last decade’s trend, I can finally prove that my music-discovery skills are awesome. Or not, if they’re like my Fantasy Football player-picking skills…
Here’s a startup pitch that enjoyed a brief, quickly-disproved moment of prominence in the industry a few years back: ‘People love music! People love messaging apps! What people would really love is a music messaging app!’
Nope. Rithm, PingTune, La-La, Doowapp, Music Messenger, Beatshare, MuzApp, Sharebunk, Ditty, MSTY… There’s yet to be a breakout success in this category. Yes, people do love music and messaging apps, and it turns out that if they want to message friends about music, they’re happy doing it in WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. Not least because their friends are actually on those apps to message.
It’s no surprise that the focus has shifted towards making it easy to share songs from your streaming service of choice into your general messaging app of choice. The average smartphone owner may use nearly 40 apps a month, but good luck making a standalone music-messaging app one of them.
Another pitch from the past: ‘It’s a real problem that someone on Spotify can’t easily share their playlist with a friend on Apple Music’.
It wasn’t a problem big enough to make a success of startups like Songdrop, Bop.fm, Whyd (before it pivoted to making hardware) or Unision/Sylo in the past, or the open-source Tomahawk. As with some of the other examples in this piece, it was a twin issue of lack of consumer demand and the lack of a sustainable business model that did for the idea. Audalize is taking a new spin on it in 2018, but will face those issues too.
There is something important here though. We DO need more connective tissue between the big music-streaming platforms. If you’re a label, artist or ‘influencer’ trying to maintain a single playlist across the various services, it’s a pain keeping it updated. That’s something that Soundsgood has pivoted towards, for example, and maybe there’s a B2B business there.
Data portability’s big moment, meanwhile, may be less about sharing playlists with friends on other services, and more about hopping over to join them.
If you leave Spotify for Apple Music or Apple Music for Spotify or either for Amazon Music Unlimited or YouTube Music or Deezer, there are some tools available to rebuild your own playlists, but no way of transferring across your musical profile – everything the service knows about your last X years of music listening, which powers its personalised recommendations and playlists.
You’re starting afresh, and at the time of writing there’s no incentive for the streaming services to make churning to a rival easier; and no obvious appetite for regulators to make them do it – this isn’t an issue like, say, porting your mobile number from one operator to another.
This isn’t about social music, and that’s the point. All those startups were right – we do need more connective tissue between the streaming services – but social sharing isn’t really the pain point.
In pure self-interest, hurrah for the merger of social music-video apps Musical.ly and TikTok under the latter’s brand. Perhaps the Music Ally office (that’s us) will be fielding less phone calls in the school holidays from kids demanding a crown on their Musical.ly (not us) profiles.
Still, Musical.ly was some phenomenon, reaching 100 million dancing, lip-syncing users at its peak. Even more so than its forerunner Dubsmash, it showed there was a real demand – particularly from tweens and early teens – for this kind of service.
There’s also an argument that Musical.ly sold up to Chinese firm Bytedance at *exactly* the right moment, just before all of the kids moved on to video-game Fortnite, just before that massive fanbase of under-13s led to chastening consequences with privacy watchdogs and regulators, just as Facebook was tying up its own user-generated-content (UGC) licensing deals, and (surely) just as the pressure on Musical.ly for similar deals was about to ramp up from music rightsholders.
Still: Musical.ly showed the potential for user-generated music videos, building a nine-digit audience and exiting for more than $800m. On a smaller scale, Triller is another example of a social/UGC music videos app showing potential, with 30 million users, $9.5m of funding and licensing deals with Universal Music and 7digital in the bag.
Don’t ignore Smule either: its Sing! Karaoke app (for which video is now a notable ingredient) has 50 million users, including two million paying subscribers. The company is rebranding the app as ‘Smule’ and preparing a big marketing push.
The bigger beasts of the social world have taken note. Those Facebook deals, for example, have led to the development of the Lip Sync Live feature on the main social network, as well as the ability to add music to Instagram stories. Snapchat seems enthusiastic about the potential of featuring music in its AR lenses, if (unsurprisingly) a little cagey on whether these will lead to full licensing deals.
Fans sharing musical video clips created / curated by and/or starring themselves is a phenomenon that has a role to play in the music industry’s present and future. And let’s not forget Musical.ly’s new home either: TikTok has 500m users according to Bytedance.
All of this is taking place outside the main music-streaming services. The question of whether social, UGC video has a place on Spotify, Apple Music and co is one worth further discussion, even if it’s via partnership with some of these standalone apps rather than through original features.
I’ve been paying for a music-streaming subscription since 2009, but I still listen to live radio. A different kind of ‘social’ is one of the main reasons why: the sense of being part of a community of listeners around my favourite shows and DJs.
It’s something that my station of choice, BBC 6Music, does brilliantly. Listener comments are read out with their reactions to what’s been played; regular features get listeners on the phone to recommend the music they love; the DJs are interacting constantly with fans on Twitter; and the way they address the audience emphasises that it’s a community. WE are listening together.
I don’t get that from, say, a big Spotify playlist. RapCaviar has more than 10 million followers now, but it’s not a community. Spotify has taken the first steps in that direction with branded concerts that bring fans of this playlist (and others) into real-life proximity, but what more can be done?
Apple has its Beats 1 live-radio station, of course. Startup Stationhead has built a platform where anyone can play radio-DJ using the catalogues of Apple or Spotify. Vevo has its Watch Party ‘co-viewing’ feature, while the chat window has become a core part of the livestreaming experience on Twitch, YouTube and apps like YouNow.
Back in the day, Soundrop tried to create Spotify-powered chat-rooms, while Turntable.fm gave that idea an avatar-powered visual spin. Meanwhile, in 2018 TheWaveVR wants to get people listening (and dancing) together in virtual-reality environments, with social features on the agenda for other music/VR startups too.
There are a lot of ideas here around creating communities and individual social interactions around streaming music. If the streaming services want to cannibalise more of the radio industry’s revenues – see Spotify CEO Daniel Ek’s most recent interview for his views on that – community will be one of the keys.
Smart speakers are dumb in plenty of ways still. For example, knowing exactly who’s in the room around them and how their musical tastes dovetail. What does a future look like where they do, and can adapt the music they serve up accordingly?
But there’s a bigger challenge here. Not just who’s in the room and what music do they like, but why they’re in the room at that particular moment. Is it dinner-time? Is it a party? Is it a funeral wake? Are any children present? How can Alexa (or Google Assistant, or Siri etc) put together a good playlist for those people in that context?
(Or at least rule out The Pogues’ ‘Fiesta’ for a wake, and nix Rage Against The Machine if the kids are still up?
People gathered around hardware listening to music together, be it a turntable, a CD player or now a voice-controlled speaker, is one of the oldest social experiences of the recorded-music age. I’m fascinated to see what smart speakers can bring to the party in the coming years.
They’re just one potential element in a blizzard of experimentation that’s still possible (and, I’d argue, necessary) within and around the current streaming services.
In writing this article, I kept coming back to that original, rather blunt conclusion: maybe ‘social music-streaming’ isn’t something we want or need (as music fans), because we have plenty of other places and ways to chat about the music we stream.
It probably is something the big streaming services want and need though, especially in the future, as they scrap for new listeners AND those listeners’ time in what we’re constantly being told is an attention economy. If you’re Spotify or Apple Music, why would you NOT be thinking about how to bring some of the conversation and connections around music to your platform, in some new and perhaps surprising ways that fans will realise they do want and need?
Perhaps it’s about partnerships and integrations: why, for example, can’t Spotify or Apple Music pull in the conversation from other platforms around a big new release while I’m listening to it – whether that’s my friends on Facebook or interesting strangers on Twitter? Is SoundCloud’s recent relaunch of comments in its mobile app a challenge for its rivals to figure out on-platform discussion? What might a communal RapCaviar listening experience look like?
Conversation and community are intrinsic to music in the real world. It’s not quite time yet to give up on the idea of weaving them into the way we experience it in the streaming world too.