Online music services: made by geeks, for geeks?

I’ve just returned from Midem, the music industry’s annual knees up held in (usually sunny, but not really in January) Cannes. The general mood was the mixture of optimism (Spotify, new business models) and pessimism (piracy, stalling digital sales) that has long been par-for-the-course at music industry events.

Inevitably, there were a lot of well worn clichés on display, but these were punctuated by the occasional moment of real clarity. One of these was provided to me by Vincent Castaignet, CEO of Musicovery, a music discovery service (see what he did there?) Very casually, he told me that he believed that “all music services are made by geeks, for geeks”. It made me laugh initially, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised that he was probably right.

Consider Last.fm. The service 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 straight-forward.

This isn’t necessarily a problem for Last.fm, which has always been a service for people that want to interact with their music. It’s a service designed, in short, for people like me: music fanatics, for whom music plays a core roll in defining their identities.

But other services that do profess to serve the mainstream have similar failings. 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, to your device, is nowhere near as simple as it should be. And Apple now operates in so many different content verticals –TV shows, movies and now, of course, applications – that the iTunes storefront is a very crowded beast indeed.

Why has Apple not done more? Simply, because it has not needed to, and because iTunes has not been a very high priority for the company (although its recent acquisition of Lala means this looks likely to change).

TDC’s Play service, something of an infant 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, and TDC privately admits that it has struggled to get users to sign up for the service.

There are several reasons for this. DRM on the service means that you cannot use the service outside your house, unless you are a TDC mobile consumer. And the main problem with the service, 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-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 like TDC Play should be a music lover’s dream. And it is. But what about music likers?

While many people are diving head-first into services like 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. They are music likers – those that enjoy music but for whom it is not a life-defining activity. And a service like TDC Play won’t necessarily appeal to music likers, particularly if the trade-off for having unlimited access to music is that they cannot take their music with them.

The one thing I’ve taken away from Midem is 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/unlimted 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.

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