Forget the Whole Pie: Why Small Music Services Should Cultivate Core Audiences

mike spinelliThis guest column was contributed by Mike Spinelli, a third-year law student at Quinnipiac University School of law, where he is studying music transactions and music licensing. He previously worked at SoundExchange. Contact Mike at

In his usual rant-like and slightly hyperbolic manner, the great Bob Lefsetz wrote in an e-mail, “Not long from now we’ll all listen via the same system. Some kind of streaming. Whether it be provided by Apple, Google or Spotify.” What Lefsetz is probably referring to is an ultimate service that a listener will use every day for the majority of his or her listening. He is also probably right, for casual listening the mainstream audience will turn to one of the mainstream streaming services.

Unless your service is Google/YouTube, Pandora, iHeart, Spotify, or other momentous and heavily backed service, trying to be the mainstream, all-encompassing service isn’t the right play. Of course, there will be oodles of money for the victors in the battle for the average listener’s attention span. However, smaller services will have a difficult battle against platforms with an already huge user base and teams of programmers. Executives running smaller services need to take the opportunity to cultivate and maximize the advantages they have already built, which is what large services do not (and cannot, by definition) do.

Instead of trying to make money by modifying a service to reach every listener on planet earth, executives should consider taking a step back to look at the established audience. A pattern will emerge. Your service likely has carved out a special niche for itself. Questions like “what type of content is being uploaded (if user-generated) over the platform?” and “Why are our listeners turning to our service over mainstream services?” should be asked. Forget the high level meetings about tweaking a specialized platform to distribute the latest Ed Sheeran album.

There are many examples of specific audiences loyally inhabiting smaller platforms. Digitally Imported, Beatport, and Bandcamp are a few. Digitally Imported is a non-interactive service that has built an audience of intense (and casual) electronic music lovers. Meanwhile, Beatport has become the go-to service for DJs within the electronic music scene. Although Digitally Imported and Beatport are now making changes that may pit the services against each other, each knows its core audience and each provides a specialized service to an otherwise under-served audience.

Bandcamp is a successful platform for independent bands of varying sizes. The majority of bands on the service are bands you would see in a few hundred person venue or in a Brooklyn apartment. Because these bands have limited online distribution, a lot of Bandcamp’s content cannot even be found on mainstream streaming services.

Do not underestimate these services. Each one attracts a specific audience because it is tailored to specific consumption behavior. They should continue cultivating their service around their audiences. Mainstream services try to reach the widest possible audience in every demographic and type of music, without specializing. In my opinion, it will be easier to build new and innovative profit models for smaller services because they can optimize around specific audiences. Instead of spreading your service thin by trying to gain every listener under the sun, think of expanding horizontally on a strong foundation of your core audience.

Michael Spinelli