Is music discovery important in a society where most of the stardom and audience are concentrated in a few top acts? Research tells us it is, and new music discovery products tell us that major online music services know it.
How Discovery Happens
Music Discovery comprises an entire section of The Infinite Dial, the benchmark U.S. consumer survey of listening habits and trends produced by Edison Research and Triton Digital. In the 2016 edition, 53% of respondents said the music discovery (“keeping up-to-date with music,” which can be different from extending the boundaries of one’s listening) is at least “somewhat important.” Through a youth lens (ages 12-24), that involvement with music discovery rises to 69%.
How do people discover music? According to The Infinite Dial, it is mainly word of mouth, traditional radio, and YouTube:
The above chart represents a competitive challenge for online music services. three of the largest listening apps — Spotify, Pandora, and SoundCloud — have released discovery products that clearly seek to deliver that moment of delight when a new track or artist hits a listener’s musical pleasure center.
New Discovery Discoveries
Spotify launched Discover Weekly last year, and its widely recognized triumph has probably galvanized product development in other services. Discover Weekly is a victory of data in the long-running clash between humans and algorithms for ownership of user loyalty. (Spotify’s acquisition of The Echo Nest in March, 2014, signaled the company’s dedication to data-based music intelligence.) Discover Weekly — a 30-song playlist, personalized to each user and refreshed every Monday morning — instantly became a hit that everyone buzzed about at conferences. Its effectiveness is based on a skillful expansion of the user’s established taste, by linking up with listening data from other users with similar taste profiles.
Pandora, which was founded as a technology company whose Music Genome intelligence layer is marketed as delivering a perfect “next song” moment — delightful for sure when it happens, but not necessarily a music discovery moment. Last week Pandora emphasized its human curation skills when it released nine genre stations of new handpicked music. Like Discover Weekly, Pandora’s “New” stations will change weekly. Adoption of the stations has reportedly been quick, with over a million “adds” within 24 hours. (All the more impressive because the new stations are surprisingly difficult to find in the Pandora apps we tested.)
SoundCloud, which boasts an audience larger than Spotify or Pandora, jumped into the game this week with the release of Suggested Tracks, a new discovery environment that spins out playlists derived from what the service calls “state-of-the-art machine learning algorithm.” Long-time SoundCloud users who have been frustrated for years by its Charts directory, which dismally attempts to differentiate between genres as diverse as classical, electronic, and jazz, and is in our view an epic music discovery failure, might have been boggled by that description of data expertise. But our test of Suggested Tracks yielded a stunning positive impression, as we hit the Like function over and over as the service dished up streams of sonic delight. Presumably, as those new Likes are fed into the engine, Suggested Tracks will become even more refined and better.
We’re calling out the three products described above because they represent major resource commitments in large independent services. Other platforms, serving smaller and vitally engaged audiences, likewise strive to retain loyalty by delivering new likes and keeping users up-to-date. Slacker Radio, for example, has recently doubled down on its conviction (verified by listener data, we have been told), that human-hosted playlists, with a little talk mixed into the tunes, drive listening. That strategy seems to emulate the personality of terrestrial radio.
A New Era?
Broadcast radio has been the traditional gatekeeper of music discovery for decades. In a universe of music, radio sorts it out and surfaces the best — that’s the time-honored pitch, sanctioned by government exemption from paying label royalties, and intermittently spoiled by payola scandals. Mainstream America relies on radio as it always has (though less among younger listeners, according to Edison). Now, with nearly the entire commercial discography online and available to access at very low cost, gatekeeping of any sort is both challenged (because any individual can listen to anything) and affirmed (because most people don’t want to work hard to figure it out).
The online music services have learned that pure access isn’t enough. Their new and surprisingly effective tools are bringing music discovery into an era of personalized delivery.