White noise has value. You might not think it, given the disparagement it’s received from some quarters of the music industry in recent months. It’s been positioned as the antithesis of ‘proper’ music, clogging up streaming services and diverting royalties away from artists.
But if you’ve ever suffered with insomnia, or have had a child who can’t get to sleep, you’ll know that in these contexts white noise can be hugely helpful – and thus valuable.
It’s the fact that it sits alongside music and other audio content on the DSPs that presents challenges, rather than the material itself being value-less.
Still, the presentation of white noise as a ‘problem’ continues, and in the latest example the entity on the wrong end of that is Spotify. According to Bloomberg, at least, which reported on “Spotify’s $38 million white-noise problem” yesterday.
It has seen an internal Spotify document from January claiming that white noise and other ambient podcasts were accounting for 3m daily listening hours on the service, buoyed by their promotion by its podcast recommendation algorithms.
It also reports that Spotify considered “removing these shows from the talk feed and prohibiting future uploads while redirecting the audience towards comparable programming that was more economical for Spotify” – a measure that could boost the company’s annual profit by $38m.
It didn’t come to pass, and those podcasts are still available, but it does spark some thoughts.
First, there’s clearly an audience for white noise and ambient (waves, rain etc) podcasts, to the tune of 3m hours a day. This is a demand that’s being supplied, not audio that’s being pushed at people who don’t want it.
Second, the moment any streaming service starts redirecting listeners “towards comparable programming that was more economical” for its business is a dangerous moment indeed.
Personalisation and accurate (well, mostly) recommendations are a key part of the streaming ecosystem, and deliberately reducing their quality to boost your bottom line opens you up to disruption from rivals who don’t do that.
(Ironically, this kind of redirection in another context has been a long-time fear for some music rightsholders. They have been watching Spotify closely to detect any signs of it steering users away from their music and towards… white noise and ambient sounds! The assumption behind that fear is that this would be economically beneficial for Spotify, so Bloomberg’s report complicates that theory.)
But third, the days of the pureplay music streaming service are numbered. Podcasts, live radio shows, audiobooks, guided meditations, ambient noise… This is going to be a world of audio streaming services, likely still paid for by a single subscription, the revenues from which will need to be divided fairly between all that content.
That’s the really big challenge, for DSPs and rightsholders alike. The streaming services must puzzle out the formula for these calculations, but then – this is the most difficult bit – persuade the various rightsholders to agree to it.
Meanwhile, the rightsholders will need to marshal their arguments for as big a share of the pie as possible to go to their content, while acknowledging the value of the other things that people will listen to on these services. Yes, including white noise.
Content bundles bringing music out of its silo aren’t a new challenge for the music industry: Apple, Amazon, Spotify itself… Music’s value isn’t calculated in a void. Bloomberg’s report simply sharpens the awareness of this trend’s importance to the next phase of streaming.