Online music services need to appeal more to people that like music

Having now fully digested all of the happenings at Midem, the music industry’s annual trade event held in Cannes, we are all now in a better position to gauge the health of the music industry. The mood was a mix of pessimism and optimism, which is becoming ever more common at such events.

On one hand, Spotify has broken through the symbolic figure of 250,000 premium subscribers, and labels in Sweden at least are reaping the rewards of the Swedish service’s success. Digital sales have also helped power UK label Beggars to a US No. 1 album – the first in 25 years from any UK independent label – courtesy of indie band Vampire Weekend.

On the other hand, the growth of digital-music revenues is slowing, as it becomes clear that the a la carte offering will not come close to replacing the losses in physical sales that the recording industry has experienced. And several countries are still going down the route of disconnecting or suing users caught illegally sharing files, something that in this day and age seems woefully short-sighted.

Inevitably, there were a lot of well-worn cliches on display at the event, but they were punctuated by the occasional moment of real clarity. One of these was provided by Vincent Castaignet, CEO of French music-discovery service Musicovery. He said that “all music services are made by geeks, for geeks.” Although an amusing assessment, is he right?

Consider Last.fm. The site has done a lot of things right, and has more-or-less nailed the social aspect of the service, but simple it is not. The home page is crowded, it’s difficult to immediately grasp what all the different parts of the service do, and even getting to the music is not completely straightforward.

This isn’t necessarily a problem for Last.fm, which has always been a service for people who want to interact with their music. But other services that do profess to serve the mainstream have similar failings in simplicity. Apple has won plaudits for its hardware design, but iTunes and the iTunes Store frankly leave a lot to be desired. Transferring music from your computer to your iTunes library and to your device is nowhere near as simple as it should be. And Apple operates in so many different content verticals – TV shows, movies and, now, applications – that the iTunes storefront is a crowded beast indeed. Why has Apple not solved this problem? The simple answer is because it has not had to, and because iTunes has not been a high priority for the company (though its recent acquisition of Lala means this is likely to change).

TDC’s Play service, something of a child prodigy among music services, also falls into the trap. In under 18 months, it racked up 20 downloads for every man, woman and child in Denmark. But not every man, woman and child uses the service. Those that use it do so heavily, but TDC privately admits that it has struggled to get some of its users to sign up for the music offering.

There are several reasons for this. DRM on the service means that you cannot use it outside your house, unless you are a TDC mobile consumer. And its main problem, say many Danes, is that the user experience is not good. The service is cluttered, complicated and visually unappealing, they say, and people simply don’t like that.

The take-up rate for TDC Play shows that giving away music for free alone is not enough for many people. But a more fundamental question is whether people actually want free, unlimited music. The notion almost seems perverse. We live in an age of always-on broadband access and unlimited consumer choice. In this context, a service such as TDC Play should be a music-lover’s dream. And it is. But what about music likers?

Although many people are diving head-first into services such as TDC Play and Last.fm, many more still have fairly conservative music-listening and -buying habits. Radio is still a popular way of consuming content. “Best of” albums and compilations still sell extremely well. And a service such as TDC Play won’t necessarily appeal to music likers – those who enjoy music but for whom it is not a life-defining activity – particularly if the trade-off for having unlimited access to music is that they cannot take their music with them.

It’s clear that the next big challenge for the music industry should not be how to “solve” the problem of piracy, or even how to make the advertising/subscription/freemium/unlimited-download model work. It should be to come up with a product, offer or experience that addresses the needs of the music likers. At the moment, they are under-represented in the field of online music. Address this large group, and you have a very exciting prospect indeed.

Music & Copyright is a fortnightly research service published by Informa Telecoms & Media.

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One comment

  1. Martin Rigby

    Interesting piece and quite right to concentrate on what mainstream music lovers want. I think there’s a generational divide, though, with the Facebook/Twitter generation wanting to do more social stuff with music (blog, mix, tweet, mashup etc) whereas older listeners want convenient and ubiquitous music management (liker younger ones) and easy (i.e. mostly passive) discovery which last.fm provides. As you say, ‘Eat A Much as You Can’ streaming services don’t really answer the needs of many listeners and certainly don’t meet the needs of artists and labels.