Playlists: How Listeners Take Ownership

Do you own Adele? Are you sure?

Music industry observers are holding up Adele's recent sales success as evidence that consumers still want to buy and own music in an increasingly on-demand digital age. For slightly more than the cost of one month on a premium streaming service - providing access to millions of tracks - consumers paid for access to just eleven songs. Unbelievable, right?

What does this say about the value of the long tail of music, or discovery mechanisms, or any individual artist? Unfortunately not much. For one thing, record sales are definitely not mutually exclusive with streaming service subscriptions. I am but one example of a consumer who maintains a premium music subscription and still purchases full albums. Secondly, Adele is an industry anomaly - you can't extrapolate from her success and draw any defensible conclusions about emerging artists, or even other megastars.

What it does say for certain is that listeners still enjoy feeling ownership of music. No, we didn't write Adele's songs, nor did we perform them (unless you're Adele reading this, in which case, thanks for your work!). But in addition to holding a recording, giving us control over how and when we play music, purchasing an album gives the consumer a feeling of access and partnership with the artist.

On-demand digital services, on the other hand, struggle to induce feelings of ownership. As long as you pay for your Netflix subscription, you have access to Netflix content, and that can feel like ownership (especially in hour eight of a binge-watch). But try viewing it offline, or after you cancel, or in non-covered countries, and suddenly any feeling of ownership of or access to House of Cards disappears. Ownership is an illusion that Netflix hardly tries to maintain.

So consumers clearly lack ownership in subscription models, but the reality is that we don't really even own downloaded digital purchases. Companies can take back our access to our "own files." Lose your hard drive, and you could lose your content. It is needlessly difficult to transfer some digital purchases between devices (especially if you used the iTunes store). Physical purchases are still okay as long as you physically hold them - but like any physical good, they are at risk of loss, theft, or destruction. You pay for the increased ownership, but maintain all the risk. You also need access to a physical player. My Macbook Pro is an incredibly powerful device, but it no longer has a CD drive.

So what really is "ownership" in music for the consumer? And how can subscription streaming companies give ownership to consumers?

The Playlist As User Generated Content

User generated content (UGC) is the key to the explosive success of many new-gen media platforms, including YouTube and Snapchat. Anyone can upload material to YouTube and immediately have it be searchable and potentially monetizable. Snapchat Live Stories are made entirely up of user-filmed videos and still photos, and are often much more engaging than professionally produced media.

User generated content provokes feelings of authenticity and builds a sense of community. For example, YouTube Gaming is entirely supported by tournament footage, Let's Play videos and game reviews uploaded by users. While this builds vast fortunes for a lucky few, for the most part players aren't uploading content for any explicit material gain. UGC is mainly created so that users can feel a sense of ownership and partnership with the community.

On platforms like Spotify, UGC manifests in the form of playlists. There are over 2 billion playlists on Spotify alone. While most listeners are not artists and do not have their own recorded music uploaded on Spotify, almost all of them use playlists to organize and curate their song collections - a necessity when you have access to millions of tracks. In this case, the UGC is being created for the direct benefit of the user who makes it. But it can also be used for the benefit of others.

Just like individual tracks, playlists are discoverable. Discovering a single track can be rewarding, especially for obsessives who can listen to one track for hours (Hello, that's me). But discovering a great playlist is even better. A well-maintained playlist changes and evolves over time, attracting great tunes to it like a magnet, paying musical dividends over weeks and months. 

Some playlist creators are major influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers, like Sean Parker. Some are brands or organizations, like the White House (above). But the playlists we value most are created by the radio stations we enjoy, or the artists we know and love, or our closest friends. These last playlists are the most authentic, made by our peers - but similar playlists are also made by the artists and curators we wish to feel closer to, building a sense of community around music. Importantly, playlists made by peers, artists, and Spotify themselves all look and feel identical in the product.

The vast success of Discover Weekly shows how an evolving, personalized playlist may be the best way of finding new music and inducing a feeling of ownership of music in users. In testing, personalizing the photo on Discover Weekly led to even more user uptake. That's Spotify's greatest trick: while users don't directly create the playlist, it still feels like theirs

Artists Embracing Playlisting

Of course the playlist is not a new concept. What is an album but an artist-created playlist of their own content? Isn't Discover Weekly like getting your favorite new 30-track album every Monday?

In fact, some artists are beginning to take the new possibilities of the playlist format even further than a static album. Matoma recently released a full-length LP on Spotify in the form of a playlist. The goal, he says, is to "update the playlist with a new single at least every three to four weeks for the next six months." And there's more possibilities too:

Say he wants to hold a special concert and within that set, he's going to launch his next single? Fans go nuts and want to hear the song again, and they can on their ride home when their excitement is at its peak, because it was just added to the playlist.

It's a fascinating move that feels more like the future of music than Adele's return to the past. While her success reminds us of the importance of quality musical content, Spotify's success reminds us of the importance of user-generated content in creating a sense of community, authenticity, and ownership around music.

Maybe instead of hiding playlisting functionality, other platforms can take a lesson. Let users take some ownership too.


My Discover Weekly:

Ford's Finds (one of my favorite playlists):

Augmented Reality is Already Here. It's Called Music.

Just when we were finally getting used to mobile, it feels like the next big thing in technology seeking to acquire and monopolize our attention is starting to arrive - virtual and augmented reality.

When we look at Facebook's Oculus VR, or Google's attempts with Glass and Magic Leap, or Microsoft's Minecraft Hololens demo, it's hard to ignore the future staring us in the face. Soon we won't be designing simple UX for flat, 5-inch displays, but the architecture of entire multiverses. We won't be checking in on Yelp or Foursquare - we'll be able to visit our favorite coffee shop without leaving the bedroom. Rich, immersive emotional experiences will be downloadable, transferrable, and pirateable. Physical space is being disrupted! Behold humanity's transcendence! 

Or maybe not. Maybe social norms are not ready to accept computers strapped to our faces. Maybe the technology will be prohibitively expensive, or perhaps it will remain accessible but low-quality. Maybe it will make some of us sick. And maybe, despite my personal optimism, reports claiming $150B in AR/VR market value by 2020 are a bit ambitious. 

But I am not here to praise AR/VR, nor am I here to bury mobile. No, I have come here on behalf of Music.

Despite the widely-reported death of the music industry, every time we dig it up we find it's still kicking. Adele sells 3 million records in less than a week. There are tens of millions of streaming audio subscribers worldwide, committed to paying every single month to access the world's music. It turns out killing an art that has existed for over 40,000 years - and perhaps far more - is difficult. How's that desktop computer industry doing?

It's natural for companies and consumers to get excited over emerging technologies like augmented reality. What if we had smart glasses constantly providing additional feedback and information on our surroundings? What if surprising creatures and characters popped into view behind everyday furniture, per Magic Leap's vision? How would this boost our productivity and our sense of wonder?

But this is what music already does. Augmenting our visual field is a new feat, but augmenting our sense of sound is one of the oldest human tricks. Listening to music helps surgeons perform better. Music surprises, inspires and thrills us through the release of powerful neurotransmitters. Music is what raises the hair on your neck in those horror movie scenes. Even the sound you can't hear can cause deep emotional reactions

Music is there when we seek to control our moods or immerse ourselves in our emotions. We inflict music upon ourselves, tying it permanently to places and people, providing sonic signposts in our memories of our lives. It's our breakup songs, our road trip soundtracks, our first dance. Sometimes music is unconscious; other times it's our entire consciousness.

One of the great challenges of AR and VR will be in providing an immersive social experience that mirrors that of music. When music plays in the background, it provides an emotional undertone for everyone in its presence. When Google Glass rests on your face, it is quite literally a barrier between you and the other person, introducing uncertainty and distance where music provides closeness. Are they filming me? What social metadata is layered over my facial features? It is difficult to imagine a first dance improved through the use of visual augmented reality. 

And yet it is commonplace - socially acceptable - to see humans wandering around in public, lost in thought, rocking out or self-medicating with music. If you ask Sony, the Walkman was one of the dominant cultural innovations in human history. If you ask Apple, it was the iPod. Either way, the emergence and acceptance of "personal stereos" was clearly a turning point for humanity's relationship with music.

Having music at our fingertips gives us something many of us lack but crave - control over our environment as well as control of our emotions. And thanks to mobile technology and music streaming platforms, we now have an entire universe of music available to us, instead of thirteen songs at a time.

Further augmenting its effect, the music we hear can now be responsive to our environments. Spotify allows users to discover popular tracks in their cities or even sync their music to their run. Technology also exists to sync music with gaming experiences or to soundtrack your surroundings.

Lean-back listeners don't have to know what they want to hear to enjoy themselves more than ever. Instead of a few radio stations available in each city, we have nearly unlimited personalized digital stations available to us at the touch of a button. Discovery has never been easier and reach never broader, giving hope to many thousands of aspiring musicians. For playlisters, soundtrackers, concert-goers and sharers, the availability and variety of music these days feels like painting with millions of colors instead of three stubby crayons.

Visual-based AR and VR are immersive and powerful, but they're fighting thousands of years of evolution to become our dominant emotional influencer. Music is already a deep, almost unconscious part of our lives. And how do you make the creation of powerful AR and VR experiences as democratic as the creation of music has become? When will infrastructure support the delivery of millions of high quality AR and VR experiences? 

It's not as though AR and VR could exist in the absence of music. Filmmakers are becoming the dominant creators of VR media, and they have some of the strongest appreciations for music. Remember that in film, music was originally considered more important than spoken dialogue. Judging from recent blockbuster releases, it certainly still is.

I believe in the industrial potential of AR and VR, and I buy into much of the hype, but ignoring or undervaluing music is a mistake. Music is what's worth investing in. You want to talk Net Present Value? The value of music spans millennia; media platform technologies cycle in decades. Scale? Music is absolutely universal, crossing every border and touching every culture; the Internet itself hasn't reached half the globe. Even Google may have realized that augmented reality solutions don't need a screen. They just need sound.

Why wait for the future? Playing music makes us happier and smarter. Hearing music makes us healthier.

Today, we already have music. And we always will.

YouTube Music: Google is Killing Itself

As a followup to my last post on Facebook’s push into music streaming, I thought I’d take a look at YouTube Music’s recent launch and Google’s push to make more sense of its disparate media-focused products as it tries to attract paying subscribers.

My takeaway: Google’s traditional "self-competition" strategy for launching and developing new products may doom its latest venture.

YouTube Music -

YouTube Music -


Google: Always Testing the Water

It is well known that Google has a love of testing and quantitative data in designing its products and services. (Who can forget the ever-popular “We Tested 41 Shades of Blue” story?) One of my favorite related theories is the “Google Makes Two Of Everything” theory. As this article notes, Google has a history of making simultaneous bets on competing products or technologies — Android Wear and Glass, Gmail and Inbox, Maps and Earth. Sometimes both products are a success (like Android and ChromeOS); sometimes the products are each failures (Google+ and Orkut…).

In the event where both products fail, it may be that Google’s lack of focus costs them substantially when they are up against an established, well-run competitor that is equally data focused. When it comes to social products, this was clearly the case — as Fortune explains, Facebook’s success essentially forced the dismantling of Google+. That same article points out some crucial lessons for entrepreneurs in the wake of the failure:

“Don’t sell people what you already have... Know who you are… Don’t compromise your core business.”

These are valuable lessons for startups and undercapitalized companies struggling to find product-market fit, but Google’s core business of search secures the company itself against any short-term failure. Each additional product launched through existing Google channels is an opportunity to gather data about their consumers — meaning they can take a longer view on product design and market success.

But this is not always a winning strategy. If the products being designed are targeted at consumers whose needs have long been underserved, Google can afford to take its time in developing strong products and business models. When it comes to social, however, Facebook simply launches better products and solutions faster for users who want to share, follow, and connect. They’ve learned from Google’s example on data-driven methods — and from Google’s ambition. Now Google’s failure on social products has led to Facebook finding a foothold, and their success may cost Google its core businesses of advertising and search.


Google’s Messy Media Products

Despite Lifehacker’s valiant effort, splitting Google’s media product offerings into just two competing services (Music+Red vs. Google Play) isn’t even realistic. Beyond that, it’s not clear from Google’s marketing which services you get from paying for which product. As of now, downloading YouTube Music gets you a free two-week trial to YouTube Red, which gets you ad-free playback and offline listening, but only for videos, and Red comes bundled with Google Play, but Play is also bundled with YouTube Red. This all replaces YouTube Music Key, but Red isn’t its own standalone app, while YouTube Music is, and then there’s YouTube Gaming…

(I had severe difficulty writing that paragraph, so it’s very understandable if you had trouble reading it and understanding it.)

The point is, Google is asking consumers to give up other streaming music subscriptions to come try out an ostensibly new service, for only a two-week trial (versus Apple Music’s 3-month offer), on a platform that really only has utility if you’re paying for the underlying YouTube Red service. Using YouTube Music without Red means no audio-only mode, no offline mixtapes, no features that actually make it feel like a music product — or at least not one positively differentiated from Google’s existing offerings. YouTube Red itself is kind of a mess, due to the lack of a standalone app and an inability to host some important content on its no-ad subscription-based tier.

With music, Google has stuck to its existing strategy of launching competing solutions and learning from the resulting feedback and data. As TechCrunch noted in its initial YouTube Red launch story:

The service makes a lot more sense than Google having a slew of limited subscription services with restrictions as to what you could access. The company says that watching the YouTube Music Key beta, it learned that users didn’t want to be told what was considered “music” and would be ad-free, and what wasn’t.

Wonderful. But should it really have taken Google one failed product and a long-term beta to reach this insight? And why didn’t they consider the cost of confusing their users in the meantime?

Made in Google’s Image — and Now Beating Them

While Google set the standard for the 21st century, they seem to have underestimated the competition. The landscape surrounding Google is not what it was for the first decade or so of this millennium. Companies like Spotify and Netflix (in addition to Facebook) have heavily data-informed processes and strong independent brands in the media world. Consider Spotify’s investment in analytics powerhouses and Netflix’s commitment to recommendation. What was once Google’s advantage is now the industry standard, and its weakness — coherence in product and marketing — is being exploited.

Google moves methodically, as befitting a 60,000 person company, but media is evolving faster than ever before. Mobile is already dominant, AR and VR are pushing into the consumer market, old players are dying and mobile-only ad-supported media platforms are finding huge valuations (see: Snapchat).

Spotify and Netflix are demonstrably nimbler, and they’ve already solved one of media’s biggest challenges: extracting value from the consumer. And with their strong product features and excellent discovery and recommendation engines, they are providing more value back to the consumer for their time spent on the service. While YouTube still wins on community, Facebook is challenging Google directly on social and now video as well.

The competition is mounting for Google, and its old methods of self-competition and disruption won’t work in this new, more intelligent tech media landscape. The time would be now for a coherent, standalone streaming music offering — but YouTube Music isn’t it.