Music Streaming

Earlier this year I spent a Sunday morning walking the streets of Castlemaine, North-West of Melbourne. The smell of an old store lured me to David Byrne’s book, “HOW MUSIC WORKS”. Music has had a strong influence throughout my life and David’s work always interested me. In that book I was reminded on page 101 that:

“Music tells us things-social things, psychological things, physical things about how we feel and perceive our bodies-in a way that other art forms can’t.”

Those days in the 80s, I remember the metal scene it did a few things for me, expanded my social circle at the height of my teenage years, built my identity through particular genres of heavy metal, my friends we would pick bands we thought represented us, we each wanted to be different, but we were united on metal music. Picked up the guitar, we played in bands and taught ourselves how to compose, it all had a sense of purpose and direction. I might of stopped playing guitar, but I still continue building my identity with music.

On May 28th 2014 Apple announced, after countless speculations, that they had acquired Beats, this was just before the re/code conference. Jimmy Iovine and Eddy Cue were interviewed by Walt and Kara at the conference. Many in the blog sphere wrote afterwards about Jimmy's charisma. But for me I wanted to focus on what he said with this introductory statement:

“All the business guys in entertainment are desperately insecure. And the guys in Silicon Valley seem to be somewhat overconfident.”

Jimmy’s comments, I think, surprised Walt and Kara as they continued their abrupt style, maybe they thought this guy wasn’t tech enough and they would test him.

“They cost a fortune. They’re a very good service. But all of these free services are being funded by venture capital. There’s not a real business model beneath it, and when that money goes away, it’s going to cave. We’re in America. Spotify should have 10 million people in America. Not worldwide.” - Jimmy Iovine

Jimmy feels the current business of streaming will fail and it’s not a technology problem, after hearing his comments I could find reports also raising similar questions. So this leads me to ask is there a problem music streaming is trying to solve? Reflecting through the mind of a listener, functionally music streaming appears to be the Internet’s version of the Radio. It’s material programmed on what is understood to be liked by a listener. At the moment streaming allows you to choose the tracks or indicate the music you like and then it does its best to supply you the music. In an earlier part of the interview Jimmy told us what’s wrong with these streaming services:

“We think that streaming services need curation. The album is going away. We all know that. The sequencing of an album used to be important. You need an hour’s worth of music. Some of the other services are just based on algorithms. That doesn’t work. Kids listen to programmed radio, and it doesn’t work. We wanted to fix that.”

Eddie Cue also added:

“I grew up listening to albums. Music is dying, in the way that we all want it. Smallest number of new releases we’ve ever had in iTunes this year.”

Albums and singles were influenced by technologies of the time, we have memorable artists such as “The Beatles” and “The Beach Boys” that experimented and influenced a generation of concept albums. These albums and what followed attempted to tell a story, create a memorable experience, project ourselves into the artist’s world through their art, making connections. The cover, lyrics, song sequencing all became important. Streaming might not have a physical limit on length, unlike albums and singles, so perhaps the technology provides a new opportunity, but do people really want to listen to endless algorithm music? I don’t think so, there is more value to the listener in the artists and their art than algorithms.

I love my Maths, so I understand algorithms can be powerful but the music I choose to listen to comes from trusting people in my social circles, I’m not sure you can put an algorithm on that.

“A century of technological innovation and the digitisation of music has inadvertently had the effect of emphasising its social function. Not only do we still give friends copies of music that excites us, but increasingly we have come to value the social aspect of a live performance more than we used to.” - David Byrne, page 143

David Byrne talks about the influence of technology on how we experience music, in particular how it has made recorded music ubiquitous. If there is already a flood of recorded music I struggle to see how music streaming improves this situation, by all accounts I would say that digital distribution doesn’t need improving, it’s already working well, iTunes has proved that.

The value of music is being challenged here. My own observations are telling me that it’s your given situation, the social and emotional circumstances you are in that appears to determine music’s value. Are streaming business models currently too focus on the technology?

“we pass music from hand to hand (or via the Internet) as a form of social currency; we build temples where only “our kind of people” can hear our kind of music (opera houses, punk clubs, symphony halls); and we want to know everything about our favourite bands - their love lives, their clothes, their political beliefs.” - David Byre, page 221.

You could be a musician sharing music that would influence your colleagues or be in love with someone special and you want to appreciate the music they like. When you receive these shared gifts there is a level of trust which is hard to code into algorithms.

Music was always something we participated in, unlike other forms of art it can transmit emotions at that moment and move individuals or crowds in concert. When the music and your situation intersect you enter a period of connection with that art, a social gift of experience. I would argue that the current streaming landscape does little to improve music consumption because it lacks the nature of receiving an experience.

Maybe all streaming has done is replace the dial on the radio. Serving more for discovery and only the frugal see it as an opportunity to have an instant library of music. However streaming hasn’t grown like iTunes has, it certainly hasn’t killed off downloads as can be seen in this report (page 9, fig. 2), so something else is going on.

Eddie Cue talked of growing up listening to albums in the re/code interview. Songs, albums, MixTapes and playlist have traditionally been the packaged unit of art for recorded music. Thinking this through I might see how digital downloads and the cherry picking of songs might of lead to an underserved problem for the listener. They now have a disconnected bag of songs, they give short bursts of meaning but no longer conjure up the artistic experience of the traditional album. The album wasn’t just a functional collection of songs, it’s was a social exchange of emotional energy. Cherry picking seems to have had a dismantling effect and changed the value of recorded music.

Playlists can help us arrange our cherry picked songs into an experience, but this is not the same as receiving experiences from others. Sometimes we don’t care as much or have the time, those traditional albums helped with that. We really like consuming experiences and getting recommendations from others. We don’t just want anyone’s work, it appears to come from artists we trust because we build our identity from it.

Deeper into the re/code interview Jimmy talks about curation, maybe this is the new experience packaging for recorded music:

“This is the new album. To create a listening experience that goes 30 minutes, 45 minutes that moves people? That will work. They’re not going to pay for access.”

I like Jimmy’s theory, focusing on the listening experience, matching situational contexts so the listener can be emotional moved and socially connected in ways that are familiar. People don’t want to pay for radio style access to music, they want to pay for an experience. Streaming at the moment is more about technology, not how we consume music.