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Indies and Amazon talk smart speakers and music: ‘It’s all about metadata’


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According to research firm Strategy Analytics, shipments of smart speakers grew by 169% in 2018 to 86.2m units globally, driven by Amazon Echo, Google Home, and devices from Alibaba, Baidu, Xiaomi and Apple among other companies.

At next week’s AIM Connected conference in London, the opening panel will be discussing “smart devices’ effect on streaming”. Ahead of the event, Music Ally gathered some views from speakers at the conference, about what these devices mean for music.

“Smart speakers are an effective funnel into purchasing a music subscription for a largely mainstream audience, one which might not have tried one otherwise,” says Gérald Youna, digital accounts manager at Beggars Group.

“They can help promote the shared experience of listening to music together, and place it back at the centre of homes in living rooms and kitchens, alongside users’ listening on mobile devices.”

“What’s most exciting about smart devices is the opportunity to super-serve every music fan no matter their taste. Smart devices have ushered in new ways of interacting with music that were not possible even a few years ago,” agrees Athena Koumis, head of music culture, North America at Xite.

That mainstream aspect is very much the view that Amazon takes on this area too, with its Alexa voice assistant. “She has allowed us to open up music streaming to mainstream music consumers that wouldn’t typically stream in the traditional way,” says Ivy Taylor, product manager at Amazon Music.

Athena Koumis

Athena Koumis of Xite

Deezer’s VP of hardware partnerships, Riad Hawa, says that between 2017 and 2018, use of voice controls to play music on that streaming service rose by 471%.

“Listening time per user also showed a significant increase. This huge growth showcases the clear demand and connection between increased smart speaker music consumption, which is allowing music fans to access content quicker and easier than before,” he says.

“This has huge potential for increased streams and audience growth, which of course is really interesting from an artist and label perspective.”

Youna thinks that speakers could increase the amount of music streamed by people at home: a good thing, because that’s the environment where music is competing with games, video-streaming, television and web browsing.

“That said, a massive portion of smart speakers’ usage is family-orientated, so we’ll be competing with Baby Shark and Greatest Showman on there too,” says Youna, who is hopeful that independent labels can secure a significant slice of the music listening, even with less do-do-do-dos and big musical numbers.

“As devices improve and learn from users what music they like, when and what for, our listeners should be instantly served more of the music they are after, rather than just hits, gold catalogue etc. so our music has the best chance of reaching them,” says Youna.

“For example, my ‘play me music for cooking’ voice command results should be unique and tailor-made to me (via listening history, skips of tracks I didn’t like being served etc). This should promote better access for our music to contextual listening (work out, chill, sleep…) compared to non-personalised editorially-curated playlists.”

Taylor agrees. “We’re building a more personalised and conversational music service than ever before – whether that be asking her to ‘play more like this’ when you discover a new song you love, or finding out that one of your favourite artists has just released a new album when you ask her to ‘play music’,” she says.

Youna accepts that there are challenges, however: the more listening that is “lean-back” in this way, the less engaged the listeners might be with the artists who are actually making the music.

“For example, an add to a DSP coffeehouse playlist is great for stream volume and income, as they are some of the most listened to playlists, but those listeners are passive and far less likely to add tracks to their collection and seek more from the played artists,” says Youna.

“The best-case scenario is a healthy mix of lean-back and more discovery-promoting playlist adds: ‘Best New Indie Tracks’ or personalised new music lists.”

Excitement but also caution

It’s fair to say that a lot of people within the independent sector blend enthusiasm about the potential impact of smart speakers with caution about the potential challenges.

“As a Marshall Mcluhan fanboy, I always find new mediums fascinating. We start to use them in the same way we use existing mediums, and as we experiment, our behaviour and the medium itself evolves,” says Michael Cassidy, chief innovation officer at FUGA.

“I’m excited about this journey and how it will change the industry we work in, but am also concerned about choice and the proprietary nature of the smart speaker ecosystem. I am interested in how this new medium will affect the content that we create and communicate in general. We are asking AI bots very personal things which they use to make decisions about music for us.”

Michael Cassidy of FUGA

Michael Cassidy of FUGA

Joshua Jankowski, Founder at archForm, also has mixed feelings about the emergence of smart speakers.

“They do greatly reduce friction, and also make interactions with technology more human. So the most immediately exciting thing to me, is that people are more likely to spend longer listening to something on their smart speaker – which can only be good for music,” he says.

“Personally, my concerns stem from privacy, and a feeling of unease around a microphone that’s always on. Not because I’m particularly concerned about what Amazon, Google or anyone else might do with the recordings – best practices around privacy are always improving – but more due to the potential opportunity offered to hackers and others to either listen in, or more likely route their activities through the device.”

“There is also the concern that it’s another opportunity for human choice to be replaced by algorithmic choice – e.g. ‘play some happy music’, rather than thinking about / finding some happy music that you like. Is there potential to erode individuality / individual tastes with a more ‘one size fits all’ type method? You could argue both ways, that this leads to less new music discovery, or potentially more music discovery given part of the effort of finding new music is taken away.”

Deezer’s Hawa talks about one of the issues his company has been lobbying in Europe about: fair access for companies like Deezer and Spotify to the smart speakers and voice assistants owned by Apple, Amazon and Google.

“Smart speaker providers have to ensure that all services have an equal footing on the hardware platform. We want to see fair competition between streaming providers, which ultimately benefits consumers from both a content and a service perspective,” he says.

What can indies do?

Smart speakers are growing in terms of shipments, and getting smarter features. But what should independent music companies be doing to capitalise?

Gérald Youna sees marketing opportunities for indies. “It can be a track by track album commentary, liners over an exclusive playlist, a podcast-like show, or a dedicated ‘skill’ for example,” he says, citing Paloma Faith’s ‘Paloma’s Bedtime’ skill as an early example.

Jankowski, too, thinks that technology like the Alexa Skills Kit has the potential to create “some new and novel ways to listen to or discover music”.

Metadata looms large as an issue for indies to get on top of. Xite’s Koumis outlines the challenge. “Labels should provide as much metadata as possible to DSPs. One of the most efficient ways to do this is via DDEX messaging,” she says.

“With smart devices, people are more likely to seek out music for situational contexts or mood-based in general terms rather than specific queries. In order to connect these requests with the right content for that particular user, complete and descriptive metadata is needed to hyper-personalise music experiences via smart devices.”

“Smart speakers’ algorithmic streams are powered by our metadata. The quality of it and its potential enrichment (adding mood, context like dinner, lyrics…) is arguably more important than it’s ever been for labels. To get it correctly and keep up with the increasing complexity of it could be a challenge for indies and especially smaller structures,” warns Youna. “The bigger acts on majors may be better equipped to make the most of them at first, while smaller artists on small structures get up to speed.”

It’s good to be early

Amazon’s Taylor says that Amazon is working closely with labels – indies included – on programming, editorial and marketing support. “From labels and distributors, we really appreciate getting accurate and consistent metadata for upcoming releases – and the earlier the better because the sooner the tracks are in our system, the sooner Alexa can start learning them,” she says.

Cassidy continues the theme. “At this stage it’s all about metadata. Independent labels should ask their distributors if their content is being delivered with all the metadata required to make their content findable when directly requested by voice,” he says.

“Is content delivered with Apple and Spotify Artist ID? Are all the song writers and contributors listed? Is content being sent with lyrics and mood metadata?”

Ivy Taylor of Amazon

Ivy Taylor of Amazon

He adds that labels should be thinking about how “memorable, distinct and pronounceable” artist, album and track names are, and how to ensure listeners understand that pronunciation so they can access the music through the voice assistants without problems.

“Think about using more audio advertising to teach people how to ask for music,” he says, before warning of another potential headache for labels: “Soundalike song and artist names we think will also become a problem – if you own the rights to a popular song you might want to watch out for this.”

A final piece of advice comes from Keith Jopling, music and media strategy leader and consulting lead at Midia Research, who thinks labels should not be held back by fears or caution.

“Develop the data and work with the brands, but mostly be alert to the opportunities, develop the right voice skills and don’t waste time or effort experimenting too soon, wait until something works and then leap in,” he says.

Deezer’s Hawa agrees. “Smart speakers have no screens or visual prompts, making it a pure auditory experience. There’s an opportunity for innovative labels, artists and streaming services to change how they approach and encourage music discovery. It’s still a very young field and we’re going to see some cool solutions going forward,” he says.

AIM Connected is London’s brand new, landmark conference connecting business, tech and people, combining AIM’s Indie-Con, Music Connected and Women In Music events. Final tickets are available now.

Stuart Dredge

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