Spotify Puts Collaborative Playlists in Facebook Messenger (Jun 21, 2017)
Spotify has launched collaborative playlist creation in Facebook Messenger by way of an “extension” (Facebook Messenger’s apps with its app). This will allow multiple friends to work together to populate a playlist even if some of them don’t have Spotify accounts of their own. That in turn turns Spotify into something of a music layer within Facebook rather than merely a proprietary service, and once again raises the question of whether Facebook would ever want to buy Spotify outright and integrate it more tightly into the Facebook experience. Facebook has so far entirely sat out the music market, doing the odd partnership here or there but never becoming a serious player, even though social features are often touted as one of Spotify’s strengths and an important feature for music services overall (though I have to add that a survey I ran a couple of years ago suggested social features are actually well down the list of the most important features users look for). At any rate, this looks like a neat addition to Spotify’s feature set, as well as a useful integration for Facebook Messenger, and a good showcase of what’s possible in Messenger now that the original bots vision has been replaced by something a bit more realistic and focused, with all the user interface elements needed to power something like this.
Any service which becomes central enough to its users’ lives eventually has aspects which become essentially intimate to the user: what feel like private places where the user feels extremely comfortable, and where intrusions of content, ads, or other unwanted outside elements feel like a violation. I suspect users’ own playlists on Spotify feel like just such a place to its loyal users, and so the news that Spotify is testing a “Sponsored Song” ad unit in which songs are literally placed into users’ playlists should be concerning. Almost every ad-based business model eventually engages in such violations, either temporarily or permanently, because the drive is always to push the boundaries of ad load and the places where ads can show – the most valuable real estate is also often the most invasive, and each ad platform has to draw its own line between what is and isn’t acceptable in the pursuit of ad dollars. Spotify’s recently leaked full results for 2016 show that its ad-based business is loss-making even on a gross margin basis, while its subscription business is profitable on that same basis, so there’s always going to be a push to squeeze more ad revenue out of each user. I’ve recently finished a piece for Variety which will publish in the next couple of weeks in which I argue that Spotify should in fact ditch its free tier and go subscription-only, because of all the tradeoffs the ad-based business forces, especially in its relationships with labels. But these types of encroachments into what should be sacrosanct aspects of the user experience are another example of the risks of the free tier, especially relative to the small rewards – just 10% of Spotify’s revenue in 2016.
Taylor Swift’s Music Comes Back to Spotify (Jun 9, 2017)
Sprint Offers 6 Months of Free Tidal HiFi to Subscribers (Jun 9, 2017)
Streaming Music Boosts Indie Label Payouts by 52% (Jun 8, 2017)
★ Apple Announces HomePod Home Audio System with Siri (Jun 5, 2017)
Tidal Loses Third CEO in Less Than Three Years (May 26, 2017)
Weekly Narrative Video – Streaming is Saving Music (May 19, 2017)
This week’s Narrative Video is on the Streaming is Saving Music narrative. This narrative was in the news several times this week, with Spotify’s 2016 financials leaking, news that SiriusXM is debating a bid for Pandora, and Rhapsody’s announcement that it’s making layoffs and replacing its CEO. The reality is that streaming music is doing wonders for the music labels, but the streaming services themselves continue to struggle. And it’s worth noting that it’s paid subscription streaming specifically that’s really giving the industry a boost. The video talks through these topics and other trends in the industry, reality-checking the prevailing narrative. Subscribers can see the video on the Streaming is Saving Music page. If you’re not yet a subscriber, you can sign up for a 30-day free trial here, and you’ll get access to this video, past videos, all the latest commentary on the site, and lots more besides.
SiriusXM Talking to Pandora about an Acquisition (May 18, 2017)
Pandora, which has long been one of the most popular online music services in the US but has also long struggled to turn a profit based on that popularity, is apparently in talks with SiriusXM about an acquisition. By contrast, as I wrote in a column for Variety a few months ago, the latter is one of the big success stories in the subscription content world, which I suspect mostly flies under the radar because it delivers through satellites rather than the Internet. What the two have in common, of course, is radio, though neither provides the traditional FM or AM variety. SXM already has a limited online version of its service, while Pandora has recently been branching out into on-demand music, but there’s probably quite a bit more that could be done by bringing the two sets of assets and their respective audiences together. The fact that Rhapsody today announced job cuts and the departure of its CEO is indicative of just how challenging being a second-tier player in the music streaming business can be. And in reality the second tier encompasses essentially everyone but Spotify and Apple, while even Spotify seems to be heading in the wrong direction financially.
Musical.ly is one of the few big app hits in recent years that didn’t come from one of the big established players and isn’t a game, while also being that rare example of a Chinese tech company that’s done well in the West. It’s popular with teenagers, who use the app to create short music videos using original songs, and Apple will now be the supplier of those songs, replacing a small UK-based provider. It will also therefore be able to promote Apple Music within the service, and will integrate with Apple Music for paying subscribers. Recode notes that the app has declined in popularity recently as measured by App Store rankings, but the reality is that its ranking has been extremely volatile, rising as high as 11th and as low as 92nd over the past six months. That volatility is driven almost entirely by the day of the week, with the app peaking over the weekend and dropping during the week – had Recode written its piece last Saturday, for example, the app would have been ranked #41. Given Musical.ly’s popularity within its target segment, Apple is smart to strike a partnership that allows it both to drive additional revenue and market to the app’s users. I’m almost surprised Apple didn’t just acquire the company and app outright, given Apple’s recent investment in creative and content apps with News, Music, and Clips.
Spotify is Hiring for a Hardware Project (Apr 24, 2017)
Spotify is apparently hiring a senior hardware product manager, even though it doesn’t currently make any hardware of its own. The job listing (which is as far as I can tell no longer on the Spotify Jobs site) suggests that Spotify is looking to create a hardware product, although there are no real details about what form it might take. Predictably, the focus is music and talk content, so this is likely an audio player of some kind. The fact that Spotify has now removed the listing suggests that it probably gave a little too much away (or didn’t expect any reporters to find the listing), though the attention this is getting now may well spur just the kind of applications Spotify is looking for even without a formal listing. A move into hardware does and doesn’t make sense for Spotify. On the one hand, given the difficulty it’s had in generating a profit from music services, it might see hardware as a source of margin. But hardware is a notoriously low margin business, with single digit margins even for large scale players, and with many consumer electronics companies actually in the red frequently if not permanently. As such, coming from a standing start into what’s likely to be an established category feels like a steep uphill battle for Spotify, and I don’t rate their chances highly. To top it all off, of course, Spotify currently benefits enormously from being a device- and platform-agnostic service, which makes it appealing for other hardware vendors to integrate it. If it starts to compete with those vendors, that attitude might start to change. Also worth noting is that the company seems to be hiring people with voice technology and natural language processing skills, which may be part of the same project, but also looks like a wider initiative at Spotify.
★ Samsung Uses Google Music as Default Option on Galaxy S8 (Apr 21, 2017)
Apple is starting a new program through which it will spend a month at a time promoting young relatively unknown artists through its various Apple Music assets, including the streaming service, Beats 1 Radio, and in other venues. When Apple first launched Apple Music, the Connect feature felt like it could be a great way for artists of all sizes to connect organically with their fans through the platform, but it really hasn’t taken off in that way. Meanwhile, SoundCloud and YouTube continue to do better in helping young artists get their start before they get signed to labels. This effort is aimed at a somewhat later stage in the game, but builds on Beats 1 DJ Zane Lowe’s reputation for giving artists their big break, but if it’s a monthlong effort it’s hard to see how it will be scalable. However, it’s all part of Apple’s pitch that its service is the best for artists, whether that’s through exclusives, discovery and promotion, or simply getting paid for their work (since it’s one of the few services that doesn’t have a free tier).