If there's one thing music fans don't need in 2013, it's more digital music. At last count, iTunes store has more than 26 million songs available to buy, while Spotify and Deezer both have more than 20 million to stream.
The success of these services going forward is less about adding millions more tracks—although they'll do that anyway—and more about adding better ways for people to find music that they'll love in these giant digital haystacks. That's why "discovery" is the music-tech buzzword. The various digital services are all trying to evolve beyond being essentially search boxes for huge catalogues of tracks, ideal if you know what you're looking for, but much less useful if you don't.
There are three key trends that are going to define music discovery in 2013 and beyond: radio, context, and tastemakers. All three have a strong emphasis on how people are listening to music—on smartphones and tablets—not just desktop computers.
Believe it or not, the most old-fashioned music medium is just as relevant to the new age of mobile applications, albeit in the new form of personal radio. Of Pandora’s 200 million registered users in the U.S., 140 million of them have listened on a mobile device. As we know, Pandora’s appeal is a canny combination of passive music discovery and more active features, such as the ability to choose an individual artist, genre or song to generate the character of that stream.
Others are following the path that Pandora has blazed. For example, radio giant Clear Channel's iHeartRadio is picking up steam with a similar offering, while one of the key features of Nokia's Windows Phones is its Pandora-like Nokia Music app. Meanwhile, streaming services Spotify, Deezer and Rhapsody all have their own "radio" features, and Apple is expected to launch its own “iRadio” service in the coming months. And Bloom.fm is making waves in the U.K. with its impressive user interface. Radio will persist in the music-discovery realm because of its “set it and forget it” nature and the feeling that it is being curated by pros (even if that “pro” is an algorithm).
Closely related to radio, contextual music discovery differs in that it chooses songs for an activity, time of day, or a mood, for example. If the Pandora model is "play me something like X" (with X being an artist, song or genre that the listener likes), contextual discover will "play me something to suit Y” (where Y is a given situation). In the U.S., Songza has been the recent pioneer of this kind of contextual discovery. Its website and mobile apps have a feature called Music Concierge, which claims to "find the right music for your moments," whether that be Thursday morning at the gym, Friday night pre-clubbing, or a lazy Sunday afternoon. The emphasis here is on "original playlists handmade by music experts," stressing the importance of humans rather than computer algorithms. When Songza launched the feature in a new iPad app in June 2012, it racked up 1 million downloads in its first 10 days. iHeartRadio has since added a similar "Perfect for" feature to its own service, while Nokia has a team of musicologists working in its Bristol (UK) offices compiling playlists to suit every occasion and mood.
The third important trend is social music discovery, but in a more useful way than we’ve seen during the past two years, when digital music services scrambled to make users log in to Facebook in order to see everything their friends were listening to.
The problem is that few people share musical tastes with all their Facebook friends. In fact, many would rely only on recommendations from a handful of those friends—those they see as tastemakers—while politely ignoring those from the rest.
In 2013, the discovery challenge for digital music services is increasingly how to connect people to those trusted tastemakers whom they know personally, while also helping them follow the recommendations of those they don't—musicians, DJs, journalists and celebrities.
The Twitter #music iPhone app is a good example of that, with its attempt to turn people's Twitter graph into a music discovery app, including charts of Popular and Emerging artists who are trending on the social network. And Spotify recently introduced a new Follow tab in its desktop app (with mobile to follow) to help its users follow tastemakers, and thus get alerted when they listen to new music and update their playlists.
The Power of Playlists
Playlists are important here. Curated collections of songs from people who know their musical onions offer many ways into those 20 million–strong streaming music collections, with the added benefit for the digital services that the more playlists people create and/or subscribe to, the less likely they are to switch to a rival service.
Playlists are also very suitable for mobile devices. On smartphones, people may have less patience for navigating large catalogues, making a few carefully-chosen playlists appealing. Tablets have more potential for accessible, drag-and-drop creation of playlists, although that potential is largely untapped right now.
Look to the Future
If there's a formula for the evolution of streaming music services in 2013 and beyond, it could be expressed through these three trends, if you take for granted that they'll have 20 million songs available and increasingly develop with mobile usage in mind. For example, headphones brand Beats is gearing up to launch its Daisy service later in the year, with Daisy's CEO Ian Rogers saying earlier this year that "The next phase of internet distribution is all about curation by trusted sources,"and promising that his service would be "mobile-first" in its slant. Daisy is just one of many services setting its sights on better discovery and a mobile-first ethos as the keys to unlocking the next big leap forward in digital music.
The fierce competition to come is good news for the recorded music industry, hoping for a sustained comeback after a decade or more of falling revenues. And it should be good news for musicians trying to find new fans through digital platforms, especially if these services can reach the scale—tens or even hundreds of millions of paying customers—to ease current concerns about the amount of money artists receive from streams of their music.
But most important, better, mobile-fuelled music discovery can only be good news for the fans whose shifting habits continue to drive the evolution of all these digital services, and of the music industry itself.
This article is commissioned by Qualcomm Incorporated. The views expressed are the author’s own.