The Problem with Subscription Music Services

By Karen Allen

For the first half of this year, I’ve been systematically trying the subscription music streaming services, some concurrently, in an attempt to understand what’s holding them back. On the surface, it’s an incredible value. $5-$10/month for all you can eat music streams, with playlist building, mobile access and no advertising. Some even have social graph integrations so you can find your friends. Most allow for limited local song caching. However, they have been slow to get users. Is it a cultural hurdle we have to overcome with our collector mindset, or are they really just not there yet?

Many, many articles have been written comparing and contrasting the services by feature set and price. They even quote fancy statistics and draw plausible conclusions. Some go one step further and discuss playlist-building apps with strong recommendation engines, like Moodagent. This is not one of those articles. This is a lifelong music fan taking an honest stab at subscription. After six months, I think I’ve finally hit on the problem.

Music services aren’t making me more of a fan.

Let me explain. I spent about a year ripping my CDs in a high bitrate, sorting them into piles for sale, for keeps, for giving away, etc. I have an external drive dedicated to nothing but my music collection. My MP3 collection is pristine. And you know what I learned after that year? I don’t want to hear 95% of those songs again. I’m so over them. I want to be turned onto something new. So, I fired up the music services (radio and subscription) and prepared to be dazzled.

I should say I mostly listen to music at my computer, probably six hours or more a day. My mobile burns through a battery quickly, so I don’t use it for music. I am most interested in music discovery. I don’t tend to noodle with playlists unless I’m doing quick and dirty best-of lists. I am happiest not when I find a new song I love, but a new artist. If I had access to as much music as a kid as I do now, I probably would not have gotten such good grades.

What would make me more of a fan? Oh, I’m so glad you asked.

  • Know Me. I’m on your service 6 hours per day for 2 months and you still think that LMFAO release should be on the first page I see when I log in? I thought we understood each other. I clicked the little heart/star/whatever when I liked something. I listen to you. Now it’s your turn. I’m giving you permission to be an obnoxious record store clerk. And for the love of god when I tell you I don’t like a song, it means I’m not going to like it on the next station you make for me, too.
  • Give Me Context. You’ve played something I like. Well done, I’m very happy. Now let me take the plastic off the record and explore. No really, take it off. What do you mean I can only see the name of the song, album and band? Who’s in the band? What other bands have they been in? Who wrote the songs? What else should I know about them? Don’t send me all over the internet, make me a fan here!
  • Demystify New Releases. I love that the new releases every Tuesday are in one neat list. I tend to go through them one by one, but it’s a bit like eating Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans. I have no idea what each one will sound like. C’mon, shorthand this for me. Either tell me at least what genre it is, or rank them by what order you think I’ll like them in.
  • Surprise Me. We’ve played so much alt-rock, indie electronic and ‘80s classics together that I think we could single-handedly keep an eyeliner factory in business. Now take my hand and show me The Cure of country music. I hate jazz; show me a jazz artist I’d be surprised to know I liked. Jump me out of my box and land me somewhere amazing.

In short, stop making it so hard to become a voracious music fan. We all had a spark of it when Napster, then iTunes, first launched. But once you acquire all you know, you hit a wall. The music services could learn a lesson from that.

I’m hooked, I’m willing to pay; be a good dealer and keep me coming back for more.

Posted by Ted • Wednesday, August 10, 2011 .