A look back at a small slice of the History of Digital Music…
I distinctly remember the days when after having heard a song on the radio, or on TV (when MTV still was about music), I had to go to the local music shop, browse through rows upon rows of albums before finding that one album that contained that one song I liked. Of course, at the time, it was also possible to find it online, from mp3.com to Napster, Kazaa to Limewire, but these services were fraught with limited selections, low quality files and malicious users. Then Apple, after successfully negotiating with the Record Industry, opened pandora’s box.
The iTunes store made it possible to find and purchase almost any song of high quality recording for only $0.99, and buy complete records for about $9.99. But the consumer two problems emerged. Most users like much more than a few hundred songs, many actually own thousands. At $.99 a pop, that’s a lot of money to spend out on songs, some of which will only be listened for a week or 2. Secondly, this model did not promote music discovery of albums. Being limited to only 30 seconds at first (1 minute later), it was much easier and less costly to simply buy known songs one at a time than to purchase complete albums, where the rest of the songs could in theory (and probably in practice), not be as strong as that hit tune.
Pandora then came along to offer the unlimited listening experience and the discoverability that users wanted, with the catch of controlling which songs the users would listen to next. The freemium ad-supported model works well for discovery but not for a user selected experience. Launched in 2008, Spotify aimed to solve the issues inherent in the previous services while creating a business model that would benefit Users, Record Companies and Artists.
Spotify is a product I admire a great deal. Having learned from these previous experiences, the founders found a way to convince Record Companies to open their complete music catalog for online streaming. Employing the same freemium model as Pandora, users don’t even need to pay a cent to listen to almost any song they want – as long as they are willing to be interrupted by a few ads in the process. In short, this solves the two issues inherent in the iTunes Store model, namely that it is now possible to listen to complete albums and judge their quality without having to pay a fee. For users, especially music lovers, the Spotify service is a invaluable. For Record Companies, the business model seems to be proving itself by continuously decreasing the amount of pirated content online, but the direct returns to Artists has yet to be validated.
However, without an attractive and intuitive User Experience, the service would not have unearthed its potential value to users. The biggest key to its initial success has been that, on the desktop, the software works essentially the same way as any other music player – iTunes, Winamp, etc… There are no major surprises or difficulties. One can search through songs and create playlists. The main difference is that when looking at your library, instead of it being limited to a few songs, its almost infinite! What more can a user want?
Well a lot! Music inherently has a very social element to it and Spotify tries to facilitate that aspect. By connecting to the world’s most popular social network Facebook, it is now possible to share songs with friends directly and even browse through their public playlists. Users can discover the song that their friends like and share in their love of music. Furthermore, by opening up an API to outside developers, Spotify has also created a market of apps to cover different use cases that are not originally included in the service. This makes the platform a lot more attractive and useful.
Another important feature that makes Spotify one of my favorite products is the fact that it is now available on all platforms and devices. With the recently released web player, apps on Android, iOS, OSX and Windows, a user can access his playlist of favorite songs from almost anywhere in the world.
From Music Service to Music Portal
With 20M users, as of December 2012, Spotify now has an opportunity to become even more than just a service. With its extended reach in Social and ubiquitous presence on all devices, Spotify can become the Portal to Music. In order to achieve this objective, the inter-communication between users on the platform should be improved. Enabling direct chatting between users or even the creation of chat boards related to certain topics, genres, artists or albums would facilitate and promote more communication on the platform.
When browsing through artists and albums it is important to get a sense of not only what’s popular but what is good. Although music is subjective, the wisdom of the crowds can facilitate the discovery of new music and artists. At this point, it would be beneficial to have ratings for songs and albums to help new listeners identify the songs that they may want to hear first. Album and song reviews by professionals and amateurs should also be part of the system. The current situation requires users to visit multiple sites online like Amazon, CDnow or Sputnik, to gather reviews on albums before making their listening decisions on Spotify. But why the friction? Why should the user require to exit Spotify to reach that information? At this point, instead of starting from scratch, it would be wise to partner, or even purchase, a music review service and integrate it into the platform.
Furthermore, to achieve this grander vision, I also believe that music is not limited to the auditory senses but also the visual. Music – along with cat videos – is most likely one of the most popular categories on YouTube. User’s enjoy the experience of being immerse in the songs from the audio and visual sides. During parties and events, there is nothing more entertaining than viewing the videos of the songs on the screens. Spotify should aim to integrate videos into its service and make it possible for users to seamlessly transition between the two listening experiences.
The Future looks bright…
Currently, Spotify is one of my favorite products. As a music lover, it is able to satisfy almost all of my musical needs. I am actually willing and happy to be a paying customer, contributing not only to the Artists but to the continued development of the platform. I am also incredibly excited by the potential of the service. With better communication functionality, the integration of ratings & reviews and the addition of music videos, I believe that the foundations are in place for Spotify to transform itself into the central hub for music lovers and Artists: The Music Portal.