Social Music close

Matt Jukes
Matt Jukes
In Musings, Codegent College, Apps
16th September 2010
Social Music

People have been sharing music since the dawn of time. First we swapped 7 inches, then we made mix tapes and when the computer age arrived, we just clicked ‘send file’ and the work was done for us. Now music sharing has become truly digital and is being shared in a truly digital way. Music has become a much more social experience but who is going to lead in this digital market?

iTunes launched itself into the social music world last month with the release of the social music service Ping. In the short term, it has been a very successful venture, gaining a million sign-ups a day for the first week. These figures are amazing for any social network, but social networks aren’t about sheer numbers -- whether a social network lives or dies is dependent on active users.

So my question to you, Steve Jobs, is: once I have signed up, searched around for my friends and seen the last 5 tracks they have bought, what next? iTunes is the world’s largest digital music store and Ping obviously wants to get us to buy more music. Yet, in its current form, Ping isn’t going to do this.

Firstly, from a band’s point of view, unless you are signed to a major label, it’s really difficult to get your own space. Compare this with MySpace’s UX, where anyone can create a page for their band. Secondly, iTunes is trying to ‘own’ the conversations by restricting all users to a walled garden where it’s difficult to find your friends again -- and if your friends aren’t there, you can’t share with them through other social networks. Finally is Ping’s focus on what one’s friends have bought. There’s no reference to playlists they have created, their top listened to tracks or their favourite bands. This restriction of the conversation is bound to end it early.

Spotify understands the importance of not controlling conversations in the social music world. They burst onto the UK market early in 2009, with a free music streaming service that allows users to listen to a catalogue of over eight million tracks -- just as long as you can put up with the adverts popping up between the songs on your favourite albums. There is a premium service which will allow you to listen offline and on your mobile anywhere in the world and without any ads: quite a bargain at only £10 a month.

Spotify has always been social at its heart. It’s easy to share tracks with your friends. With just one click, you can send out what you are listening to Facebook or Twitter. You can even create playlists and tweet your whole set. This is all very well and good in the context of broadcasting one’s tastes (one way) but Spotify understands that this is not where social media should end; they have also come up with collaborative playlist, where a user can allow anyone to add tracks to their own playlist.

This was successfully incorporated into a recent campaign for Fiat. Here Fiat tapped into the ‘creator’ in their audience and got them to put together a set of tracks that would result in the “ultimate driving song”. This keen cross-promotion and integration with advertisers has been able to keep Spotify ahead of the pack.

Never one to sit on their laurels. Spotify has pushed on with Facebook integration, for example, so now, instead of waiting for your friends to broadcast what they’re listening to, you can browse their profile and see their favourite artists, top tracks and the playlists they have created.

This is all done through your Facebook account, so there’s no finding and making of friends again -- it even automatically updates your friends list when a new friend installs Spotify. The user experience is smooth and -- more importantly -- connected. I can’t wait to see what they add into this service, as I am sure they are going to make it even better. For a taste of where they are going, check out the open API for Spotify instant.

mFlow sits halfway between Ping and Spotify, with a strong emphasis on recommending music to your followers. mFlow has made this as simple as browsing their catalogue and tapping out a 140 character review (Twitter-style) which is then sent to all of your followers.

One very important difference with mFlow is the motivation for sharing. No longer are users sharing music in exchange for whuffie: mFlow offers their users 20% of any music which is bought off their recommendation, I don’t have to tell you that this kind of motivation appeals to the heart of every consumer.

“That’s amazing, why haven’t I heard of mFlow?” you may well ask. The answer to that reflects the same misgiving as Ping: the walled garden. In order to get a Facebook friend to buy a song you have recommended, you have to post it as a status update (which is easy from mFlow). Then your friend has to download an application, sign up for an account, find you on mFlow, then listen to the track. Then -- and only then -- can they get out their credit card and make a purchase, for you to get your 20% commission.

As much as I desperately want mFlow to take over the world, there are just too many points of failure in it. If this was a web-based system which required no download and used Facebook to connect users, doing away with concerns over “yet another log in”, then mFlow would be a serious contender.

The future of social music isn’t clear, as no service has got it completely right, but if you want my opinion, Spotify is leaps and bounds ahead of the competition.