Why music discovery services fail for me

"Music discovery needs to be socia..." "ENOUGH!"Music Discovery remains a very hot topic at present, and the most notable entrant to the market of late has been Soundwave. I met their CEO at Hard Working Class Heroes in Dublin last year, and was impressed by the proposition. So, when it finally launched recently, I was all over it. In using it though, something occurred to me: an important fact which I think exposes the flaw in many of these new music apps and services.

I don’t particularly care what my friends are listening to.

Soundwave makes the same mistake that Spotify did with their Facebook firehose: I simply don’t need to know what my friends are listening to all the time, any more than I need to know what clothes they’re wearing or what apps they have running on their computers at the moment.

Here’s the thing: every music service (or feature) seems to start with a default position of involving some kind of social element. But my experience with music isn’t social most of the time; its actually highly personal. All of this got me thinking about what kind of music service I’d like to see, so I thought I’d spec it out here.

1.It must nurture and develop my relationship with music
First and foremost, any music service has to focus on my own relationship with music. I want it to surface content of interest across ALL the artists I listen to. Think about this. It would seem most music discovery services are all about the new. We all like to find new music of course, but what about the existing artists I already know and love? I want something that will find rarities I may have missed: songs, remixes, live performances… all those things that in pre-internet days I strived hard to find (often buying in bootleg form or paying over the odds for as the item was so rare). My point here is that my relationship with music does not lie solely with discovering new bands; a huge part of it is about discovering more from those bands I already like.

2. It must be pan-platform and entirely agnostic
Whilst the bulk of my playing comes via Rdio at present, I still listen to a lot of music via other sources – YouTube and SoundCloud being just two. For that reason then, any service aiding my relationship with music has to track all my listens, not just some of them. Anything less distorts the picture; the “musical graph” I am building.

3. Any recommendations must carry weight
I want to be recommended artists, but that recommendation has to mean something. This is where the granularity of things like Spotify’s Facebook firehose or Soundwave’s per-song tracking fails: those are moments, stripped of context. Its also unfiltered and verbose; I don’t have the time or inclination to wade through that. Unexpectedly, Rdio comes closest to fulfilling on this remit for me, because it effectively shows me not what my friends are listening to at every waking moment, but what they’ve been listening to the most. Hence, I can see what they’re really into, and that is then a recommendation with some meaning.

4. The picture it builds of my musical tastes will plug into other sites
I’ve said this umpteen times before: why has Last.fm never built a Facebook Connect-style system whereby all my scrobbles – arguably my musical persona in data form – could be used to dictate the content I get served on other music websites? It would mean I could visit a site like Pitchfork and see news, reviews and other content that I would actually be interested in. That would make my experience better and would keep me on the site longer – an appealing proposition for the site, one would think. Hell it could even surface ads in a better way for me, in theory, if advertisers were to know my tastes based on my listening habits. After all, bad ads are annoying, but good, well-targeted ones should be quite welcome because they’re actually relevant.

So why has no one built a service like this? Chiefly I think the main culprit lies in that social aspect that people are hellbent on building into everything these days. As many are now commenting, we could do with a little more anonymity in our lives. Every waking thing I listen to does not need to be broadcast to my friends or the public at large. Music is – and always has – had a highly private element to it, because music means something different to every one of us. Yes, we may enjoy music together in a social setting, but even then your response to that music is just that: yours.

Services do not always need to be social. One of my favourite services of late is Lumi, which surfaces interesting content for me based on my browsing history. That has a largely token social element which has gone almost entirely ignored by yours truly. Why? Because Lumi is about generating more interesting content for me first and foremost.

Now if only someone could do the same thing in music, fitting my criteria above…

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6 thoughts on “Why music discovery services fail for me

  1. ABIV says:

    I’ve thought a lot about this also. One thing I would like to point out you usually don’t care what 98% of your friends are listening to. But there is that 2% (or less) that have the same exceptional musical taste as you and can be instrumental in turning you on the new artists. Computers are pretty bad at discovery, that’s why people keep going back to facebook.

  2. Darren says:

    I agree on both counts – however I’m of the view that the 2% would get to you anyway, one way or another. Even if that’s them emailing you. Recommendations spread in innumerable ways.

  3. I completely agree with you that most people don’t care what their friends are listening to, but I don’t think that means a social music site can’t work. Isn’t that like saying Twitter wouldn’t work because your friends aren’t interesting enough to follow? Social is about more than just friends.

    On Twitter the vast majority of people you follow are people you have never met, but you have built up a trust with them over time based on the quality content they share. Why couldn’t the same apply to music? I’m not friends with Pitchfork’s Ryan Schreiber or ?uestlove (sadly), but I’d still love to know what music they’d recommend. Same applies to hundreds of people I have never met.

    Social, done correctly, could be an immensely powerful discovery tool. As long as the site then has the depth to take that discovery to the next level and still nurtures the very private relationship most people have with music.

  4. Glad to read this. Decoupling discovery and social is surely the way to go.
    I was using this quote from Trent Reznor for a while now 🙂

  5. […] Why Music discovery services fail for me by Darren Hemmings […]

  6. Dave Edwards says:

    Spot on. Could have wrote the article myself. I’m just about to dive in some camp at the moment, perhaps Spotify, with it’s good music discovery, but what about all your pre-existing music which then awkwardly sits on your local device alongside your newly discovered stuff. Naturally, it’s understandable why ones spotify library cannot be exported willy nilly, but it is a sticking point. One solution would be to have a method of uploading all your playlists (text only), and for Spotify to learn from these and add them within their ecosystem – but I know of no such tool. As a UK citizen with a UK bank account (living in Vietnam) I can receive most for-UK-only services, but many are US only. My Android device seems so happy with its PowerAmp, with it’s Dropsync for proper 2-way Dropbox sync – but I may have to snatch it away – I want to discover some new stuff!

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