Friday, 7 November 2008

Music circa 2009: Comes With Apps

This post breaks with a tradition I have adhered to all my adult life, which is to never ever mention the C word until at least December 1st. I once complained vehemently to staff in Starbucks about having red Christmas coffee cups in October! I noticed that Starbucks are advertising proudly the fact that from yesterday (5th November), the cups are going red, so things are improving a little.

I also boycott several retailers every year due to an absurd commercial policy of launching Christmas before the Autumn is gone! But you know what? The clocks have changed, the nights are drawing in and my kids are already pouring through Christmas catalogues paying attention to detail that would put senior copyright lawyers to shame. Musically, we can all at least start to plan composition of our ‘best of the year’ lists (this blog will have one!). We will be reading such lists in the major music magazines in just a week or two as of course they launch their December issues in early November (who invented this need to bring everything forward?).

On the music market the big news in the UK this Christmas is of course, Nokia, which has at last launched its big Christmas market play, CWM (I assume no need to expand the abbreviation on this blog). I’m fascinated to see how it goes down, as is the industry in general. Will consumers go for it and more critically, if they do, will they stick with it? Making CWM a lasting proposition is Nokia’s biggest challenge.

This year, I am going one better than Starbucks, Boots, Q Magazine, Nokia and the rest of them by moving 14 months ahead - I am going to write my Christmas list for 2009, and it’s a list of applications I’d like to see working on top of my total music service.

Let’s make the assumption that CWM (and the swarm of all you can eat ‘total music’ services that follow) will take off and that music ubiquity will be with us (i.e. all of us who don’t already help ourselves on file-sharing networks) by Christmas 2009 (forecast warning: neither assumption is safe). Since we can all expect the entire music catalogue in some form or another for Christmas that year, I want some music based applications that can help me discover, choose, engage with and play my music. I want something that will get me beyond the snack fatigue I discussed a couple of posts ago.

New filters are needed, and by building application platforms on top of total music libraries, we can let music and technology fans and nerds let rip with creative ideas on helping consumers connect with music. Among the chaos this will create will be some truly ingenious concepts that will cleverly fill gaps in previously unmet consumer needs, or even drive new music consumption habits.

There is plenty of source material for app builders to get their code into: music editorial (okay that needs some licensing), music wikis, mp3 blogs and aggregators, mix tape & playlist sites and existing recommendation technologies (which need to be greatly improved upon). We even have twitter type applications which might become interesting when they can work for ‘rich media’.
I came up with seven desired apps before I began to run short on ideas, but it didn’t take too long to come up with these, so I’m guessing the actual quantity of music apps that could exist by this time next year is limitless.

The music apps market is about to become very, very competitive. Currently, most music apps are based on allowing users to create very basic tracks themselves, or to add ‘digital packaging’ to new releases – as with Snow Patrol, Pink and ACDC’s spreadsheet app. But apps that enable music discovery & choice, filtering the total catalogues we will have available to us, is where the big breakthroughs can come next year.

There might be around eight million or so digital tracks available by Christmas 2009, with up to a million newly released during next year if you count commercial and ‘DIY’ releases. As the common industry wisdom goes, only a tiny fraction of these will be commercially successful. The same goes for apps. With music ubiquity comes some sobering news, not for music companies necessarily, but for technologists, and it’s this: that fabulous, unique, fun music app you thought could be the next big music platform solution for the industry is now ready for you to submit, fully coded and tested, to iTunes & Nokia along with the other thousands of apps that will be developed for music. If you’re lucky, your app might chart and if you are really, really lucky, people will actually pay money for it. Technology is a hits business after all. Best of luck!

Here’s my starter list. How many could be hits? How many would you pay for and how much? Or do you think this will take the mystery out of music discovery? Feel free to comment and post your own suggestions.
  1. A ‘listen/buy’ hover-over button for the Sony e-book reader and Amazon Kindle, so as I read my copy of The Best 1000 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die (the fabulous book by edited by Robert Dimery) I can get the some direct audio experience right there & then.
  2. A plug in that enables me to order the week’s new releases ranked by their average critical review scores (so I can listen to the best-reviewed albums). I can also rank recent releases by their average user review scores. At last, I can sort the wheat from the chaff using crowd-sourced human opinion rather than a flaky recommendation engine.
  3. An app that shows me the guitar chords and tabs to Who Are You by The Who (it’s my favourite pop song and I can’t play it on guitar, yet) on my iPod or mobile screen in real time as the song plays. Lyrics ‘be handy as well of course, and no doubt karaoke apps will be big in Japan.
  4. A playlist generator for what I am about to do. For example, taking a business trip to Iceland today? Okay I’ll get Bjork’s “Wanderlust” of course but I might also get the Pet Shop Boys “Opportunities: Let’s Make Lots of Money” (although please forgive any credit related issues re Iceland). No more than ten songs per list though, its quality not quantity we want.
  5. My music heritage. It’s a social network app (sorry about that) with a difference. It enables me to punch in three song or album recommendations friends have made that have changed my life musically, but critically, why, how, where & when. The social networking technology does the rest.
  6. Instant song art. The blog Ear Farm did this, by entering a song title into Google with the words ‘picture of’ before the title. Results are random but fun, but then an app could do all sorts with the idea. Much better than those awful pattern graphics standard music players generate.
  7. Story text. It could be anything. It could be official, lovingly written sleeve notes by the artist or it could be a simple message from another fan about what the song means and means to them, or what listen out for in the song that might make it a more interesting experience for the listener. If I’m listening I’d like to read, and maybe write, some stories of the song I’m listening to.

Footnote. I may be getting a little ahead of myself with this post. For at least the past five years Deloitte’s Christmas Retail survey has shown the good old CD as the number 1 Christmas gift purchase in the UK. Surely this is the year that will change.

Footnote 2. I really like the Nokia CWM advertising in the UK. The choice of Santogold track is great and in the press ads the concept (that you can playback a song for what is happening in your life at any time) is really cool. But there is no way for consumers to make that an easy and fun thing to do, hence my application number 4 above!


Anonymous said...

Keith, great blog. If the market moves from music itself to music apps, how should songwriters, artists, publishers and record companies position themselves in order to get paid?

Keith Jopling said...

That's a great point and i don't know what the answer is, unless the music providers can negotiate now for either a revenue share from apps or equity in the platform where the app runs or is downloaded from. Otherwise it is one more industry layer built on music that doesn't pay directly for the music itself, like MPEG & the music device business. I'm not judging whether they should or not, it's an interesting debate though.