Music-streaming services: where to next?

It's been a rapid path from infancy to maturity for music-streaming services. We take a look at what else can be done to make these services more appealing for users.

Commentary Music-streaming services, they grow up so fast.

(Credit: Spotify)

It's been a rapid path from infancy to maturity for the humble streaming service. Buoyed by the brand recognition of larger players in the market like Rdio and Spotify, it would be fair to say that music streaming is reaching mass appeal and mass recognition.

Some consumer electronics manufacturers, like Sony and Samsung, are bundling deals with their own music services to sweeten the pot for potential mobile phone, console or TV purchases. Even large retailers like JB Hi-Fi are jumping on board to create digital music services to tie in with their bricks-and-mortar presences.

Figures released by the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) reveal that in 2012, digital products made up 46 per cent of the market's value. While there is no separation of streaming and downloads in that figure, it still shows that almost half of all music consumed is done through digital means.

But for a relatively small market like Australia, there are no fewer than 12 music-streaming services vying for your ears. That's a lot of services competing for a slice of the AU$184 million pie, of which a large proportion is eaten up by established players like the iTunes Store.

While most of the services are reluctant to reveal concrete numbers of subscriptions, we do know from public figures that Spotify boasts 6 million paid accounts worldwide, and Deezer claims to have 4 million. Rdio's local operation was contacted for comment on subscription figures, but did not respond to this request.

With the streaming space getting increasingly crowded, what else can these services to do to attract customers?

The power of curation

The curation features in many of the popular streaming services, in particular Rdio and Spotify, have improved significantly since launch. Through apps or radio-like streams, the casual listener is catered to quite well, provided their taste stays mostly in the mainstream.

Pandora is the long-term player that has to many become synonymous with the term "internet radio". Emphasising a seamless listening experience without needing much user interaction, Pandora is ideal for the "set and forget" listener. It was often considered a lone wolf in the streaming space, until iTunes Radio was announced earlier this year, which may prove to be a fierce competitor — especially with the possibility of analysing your existing music collection to provide recommendations.

However, amongst the existing streaming services, there is still something missing when it comes to accurate music recommendations based on artist, song or genre — personalised curation.

In theory, this is what Rara offers. A team of musicologists and music gurus based in London hand pick tracks for surfacing through playlists and suggestions on the landing page. This all sounds great, until you realise that this team might not share the same musical sensibilities as you, particularly on a more eclectic or independent tip.

Relying on an existing music-streaming service for accurate recommendations and personalised curation? The tweet above is just one example of where the current systems fall flat.

The highly anticipated and much-publicised streaming service Daisy, brought to you by Beats CEO Jimmy Iovine, could very well be the point of difference needed in an already-crowded market.

Speaking at an AllThingsD conference earlier this year, Iovine said that "most tech companies never get curation right. It's not in their culture. We will be miles ahead of them. If you are going to the gym five days a week, we know that, and when you wake up, we will have a list for you."

Just how Daisy will achieve this personalisation remains to be seen. What we do know is that it will use parts of MOG, the streaming service that Beats acquired last year that's tied in locally with Telstra.

(Screenshot by CBSi)

For the avid music listener who wants to use a streaming service for discovery purposes, personalised curation is not about using lists and songs chosen by high-profile artists. It is something that almost every site has in spades, and offers nothing extra that a quick Google search couldn't find.

Twitter Music was designed to present a good solution to the recommendation and curation issue by pulling in songs based on trends and social discovery. Again, it's another one of those things that looks great on paper. For the most part, though, Twitter Music only offers up recommendations as good as the taste of people you follow — and it has to rely on existing services like Spotify and Rdio to serve the songs, anyway. If you are an avid music listener, but don't happen to follow others with the same taste as you on Twitter, social discovery is all but useless.

Free, appealing and accessible

Accurate music curation is not the biggest issue that would tip someone over the edge to start paying for a streaming service. After all, why fork out cash when there are plenty of free alternatives to satisfy even the most eclectic of tastes?

Think of a service like YouTube, which is arguably home to a bigger library of rare songs, remixes and mash-ups than any of the other streaming services. Then there's Grooveshark, which offers a similar way to consume derivative content as well as originals found on regular streaming services. It operates in somewhat murky legal territory, but remains popular even amongst the crowd of newer services.

Spotify legitimised the "freemium" streaming model for streaming services by splicing in non-skippable audio ads between songs. At least if you don't pay cash to the artists or labels directly through a subscription, there's still some financial exchange going on thanks to advertising.

Yet, even this completely free service with no financial strings attached does not necessarily translate into long-term users. A study by industry researcher Mark Mulligan revealed that three quarters of Deezer users are inactive, with a similar number plaguing Spotify's service. It's not unusual for a large number of users to desert a free online service, particularly as many people sign up for a trial period and then promptly forget about it.

What it does show is that existing services aren't doing enough to set themselves apart from each other, whether that comes to personalisation, curation or a unique user experience.

 

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