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Music start-ups: Think of listeners first

Why did MySpace Music launch with a thud? The same reason the Zune did: the creators of the product were taking too many cues from content owners, instead of listeners.

Wired's Epicenter blog has the skinny on why MySpace Music failed to create any big waves when it launched. A lot of mistakes were made, including an unclear Web address and lack of any independent music. But I think it boils down to something fairly simple: the designers of the service were focused on the wrong audience. MySpace envisioned the site as an online showcase for major acts on major labels. The labels, anxious for any help navigating the file-trading era, were excited. But nobody bothered to consider why users visit MySpace, and what they might want from a music service on the site. Consequently, playlists were hard to create and share. There was only a superficial connection between pre-existing artists' pages and the new Music pages. Instead of a community of music fans, MySpace Music looked suspiciously like a bunch of billboards.

Listen to the title track to hear what Neil thinks of digital downloads...and bloggers. Neil Young via MySpace Music

MySpace Music has apparently moved to fix a lot of these problems, and when I checked the site today for the new Neil Young album "Fork in the Road"--available there as an exclusive until April 7--I found it to be fine for the task at hand. Then again, why couldn't Neil have posted these songs on his own Web site? If it weren't an exclusive, I'm not sure I'd think to check MySpace first, or at all, to hear these songs.

I think a similar problem hampered Microsoft's September 2006 launch of the first Zune player. Its most interesting differentiating factor from the market-leading iPod was its built in Wi-Fi connection. But the only thing users could do with it was transfer songs to one another, and those songs could only be played three times or for three days before they expired. In other words, Microsoft gave up too much control over its one differentiating feature to content owners. Better to go back to the drawing board and launch stronger with things like Wi-Fi connectivity to the Marketplace than to draw the ire of customers and scorn of reviewers and end up stuck with a tainted brand for the next few years. (The latest Zune software and service are pretty cool, but nobody knows it--just check out the comments every time I post about Zune.)

Like I told an entrepreneur I met at South by Southwest who was asking me for guidelines for the next big music start-up: concentrate on helping music listeners solve a problem, or do something they couldn't do before. Frame your company around listeners, not artists, not venues, not managers, not promoters, not labels. Listeners.

iPod: lets you carry thousands of songs with you. iTunes: makes it easy to get songs from CDs onto your computer and iPod. Pandora: gives you the "surprise" element of radio, but tuned more to your taste. Shazam: figures out what song's playing right now. Yes, it's possible to build a viable business catering to artists, particularly the emerging "middle class" who would be happy to to sell tens of thousands instead of tens of millions of albums. But there are a lot more listeners than artists, and they're willing to spend money--or at least look at advertisements--if you help them do something they couldn't do before.

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