Friday, 1 May 2009

The future of music is: Filtered

[this post is featured as the comment editorial in this week's indespensible UK-based Record of the Day weekly magazine and is part 1 of 2 posts on innovation in music. Next week's focuses on music the product].

If the music industry is changing so much, how come the biggest promotional platforms for bands are still mainstream media - radio, press, TV and The Charts? It might be tempting to think that it’s because music label marketing is so steeped in the tradition of radio, press, TV and The Charts that they know not much else. But this is no longer true, especially in labels where digital specialists beaver away on this or that initiative for new music campaigns via apps platforms, social networks, e-tailers and blogs.

The simple fact is that radio (followed by TV) is still where the majority of consumers say they discover new music – at least it is when you look at research tracking by the likes of NPD, Viacom etc. I find that remarkable in this day & age, but the point where this changes is when it gets really interesting for music and for the way music is marketed.

It might even be the point where the business itself finally tips into a new paradigm where radio and TV matters less than digital media, or even doesn’t matter much at all. Some artists have already reached that point, such as Ingrid Michaelson, with 250k album sales and 800k downloads with barely a mainstream murmur. Indie band Metric has had recent similar success.

The reason is that many fans have reached that point too. Forward moving artists will concern themselves less with a radio-led charm offensive and more with a fan-base-building digital campaign along the lines of Michaelson.

It is in many ways surprising that mainstream media is still seen as the golden ticket to success, when we’ve had some ten years of development in digital. But then, since digital only represents just one fifth of industry revenues, perhaps it isn’t surprising at all. The business will still focus supply and marketing activities firmly towards where consumers discover the product and spend the cash.

However, over the next year or so, there are some clear signs of a more full-tilt transition to digital. An obvious one is the increasingly moribund physical retail space – you can’t buy CDs if there’s nowhere left to shop for them. Another is breakthrough digital only applications including of course, Spotify and applications platforms like the iPhone.

But what could make a greater single impact than these factors combined is if music discovery really came on leaps & bounds, digitally. It has been threatening to for a while of course, with numerous recommendation engines (most notably and music social networks emerging as more effective music discovery platforms than radio and retail for a sizeable segment of music fans. Such services have certainly improved upon the basic search capabilities that drove earlier generations of music services, including of course P2P.

But for all their clever functionality, no recommendation engine or social network has become the music discovery standard in the way radio has. This is for a variety of reasons: algorithms are yet to work perfectly as filters for music (if they ever will); recommendation results are still a bit hit & miss; social networks like are a bit too cluttered for mainstream use. Blog aggregators and blogs are too specialist.

But there are a number of ways in which music discovery will change in the next year or two that will collectively make a huge difference:
  1. Music crawlers and mega-charts. Going beyond the boundaries of any one social network or just crawling blogs, combined web crawler services that cover all the major metrics of play-counts, profile views, search-terms, twitters etc. – for both bands and songs – will aggregate everything and provide constantly refreshed mega charts to replace the traditional charts as we know them. The BBC’s Sound Index was pioneering for band buzz, but for a more focused application of the concept take a look at We Are Hunted ( Fresh out of Australia this web crawler amasses all into the 99 most popular tracks of each day, presented in a simple 9-track-a-page format with a stream & buy button on each & every track.
  2. Social programming. So-called fourth generation discovery after the first three generations: 1. The EPG; 2. Search and 3. Recommendation. Go Fish and You Tube already pioneered social programming to some extent, allowing individual users to programme & broadcast very simple personal video channels. Now iLike & Facebook have really opened up social programming in audio. I’ve been sceptical about this - who wants to discover content through a multitude of individually programmed channels? I wasn’t sure until I tried Peoples Music Store (, which I think is a fun and very social way to discover (and even shop for) new music. Judging by this week’s news, Universal music agrees, licensing some 300,000 songs to the service.
  3. People, places & lifestyle. Geo-location technologies will allow users to use their mobiles to filter all sorts of content by location, timing and lifestyle preferences. Imagine a playlisting application that can give you a playlist relevant to a business trip you are taking today, or the mood you’re in as you are stuck in your tinderbox on the M1 on a hot sunny day.
  4. Personalised home pages. This one is for the ISP’s to crack, although iTunes really should have done it ages ago as well. The BBC and Google are masters of it. You really don’t have to bother going anywhere for discovery other than your own personalised homepage of your preferred access provider. The likes of Sky, Virgin & BT are developing it as the holy-grail for their multi-platform customers.
  5. New content brands. In many ways the antidote to all that goes above, new content brands are old fashioned, trusted editorial brands that thrive digitally due to their expertise in exploiting long-tail content, reduced barriers to entry and targeting of audiences previously underserved by mainstream media platforms. Think Lost Tunes, Mondomix, Pitchfork, eMusic, Daytrotter et al. Established Blogs and even Brands that do it well can create new preferred destination services for digital users.

With all this space for music discovery to develop it keeps me optimistic for generating new opportunities to drive more immediate consumption – transactional as well as streaming. Current discovery platforms like YouTube, Pandora, & Spotify aren’t necessarily good purchase drivers for music, but that doesn’t mean new ones won’t in the future.

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