Why human curiosity still reigns supreme
After years of development and the backing of industry bigwigs like Jimmy Iovine, Dr. Dre and Trent Reznor, Beats Music launched for iOS and Andoid in the United States this past Tuesday, instantly making it the most feature-rich music streaming offering to date. It debuted with a number of hallmarks of the reigning service Spotify—social playlisting, related artist pages, a follower/following system for users, 20+ million songs—but those are merely the foundation of Beats’ platform. Unlike Spotify, which outsources most of its music discovery mechanisms to third-party apps (like our own), the Beats Music team incorporates smart, as-close-to-human-as-possible music recommendation features directly into the service.
Beats Music, starting with the “Just For You” homepage, focuses on providing individualized recommendations. Their most unique feature is “The Sentence,” a Songza-like situational query that spits out a radio station based on genre, location, mood and who you’re with (e.g., “I’m ‘at a party’ & feel like ‘punching walls’ with ‘my BFF’ to ‘old school hip-hop,’” with each of the fill-in-the-blanks picked from 20 provided options). Beats Music flexes its editorial muscle in the “Highlights” section, where their team of curators—including sites like Pitchfork, some radio stations and celebrities like Ellen Degeneres—programs playlists that are loosely grouped around artists, genres, themes and current events. As you listen, Beats tracks everything and uses that data to provide curated recommendations—i.e., it will only recommend something that a curator has said “I recommend this.” No other music service offers as many ways of programming what you listen to next… at least not yet.
But with a growing number of streaming services entering the game, they all tend to overlap, and that’s only going to happen more and more. Beats Music, for example, built their service with Spotify as a foundation, then incorporated elements from Songza, Rdio, Pandora and editorial websites to round itself out. We’ve seen this same process of feature-parity play out among social media companies. When Snapchat exploded in popularity, the other social media platforms tried hard to clone their success: Facebook rebranded “poke,” Instagram rolled out direct inboxes and Twitter put messaging front and center in their app update. When everyone starts copying each other, they lose what made them special in the first place. If Rolling Stone keeps “curating” the same ‘Greatest 500 Rock Songs’ playlist on each platform, is their participation really a draw? Beats Music is an all-inclusive music streaming offering, but each individual feature is partially cloned from somewhere else, and the reality is that there’s nothing to hold back Spotify, Rdio and others from incorporating the same technology into their own. At this point, parity among platforms seems inevitable.
Of course, even a music streaming service that tracks everything you listen to has limitations. Beats Music may know you like to listen to hip-hop in the afternoons, but they will never know that the reason is to get pumped up for an afternoon run. They might nail the “what,” but they will never know the “why.” Fall into a short-lived country phase after a breakup, and they’ll keep feeding you depressing honky-tonk when you find new love months later. And then there’s the as-yet unsolved dilemma of artists with narrow or nonexistent licensing deals, whose libraries don’t make it past the walled gates. Who’ll be the first company to integrate Soundcloud and Bandcamp, with their uncountable tunes self-released or put out by small labels?
For what we’ve got now, Beats Music is the most fully featured, though it’s only a matter of time before someone else copies them. And then what? However extensive their discovery options, what you listen to—and where you listen—will ultimately come down to your innate taste. Whether it’s new artists or app interfaces, you’re going to like what you like, for whatever weird reason you like it. As all the services become the same, the best music discovery service is still you, with a strong sense of curiosity and a little bit of effort. That hasn’t changed since the days of vinyl.