It’s the summer of the Pandora killers. Google kicked things off in May with the launch of its All Access streaming service and Internet radio bolt-on. A month later, its chief competitor let out a resounding "me too!" as Apple peeled the wrapper off of its long-rumored iTunes Radio. Today, music subscription startup Rdio unveiled their own personalized Internet radio feature in a bid to win over a chunk of Pandora’s users. For this ever-growing army of would-be Pandora killers, upending the Internet radio pioneer won’t be as easy as it looks.
Rdio’s new personalized and artist-based stations are powered by the EchoNest’s music intelligence API. It’s the same core technology behind Spotify’s built-in radio feature (not to mention countless other music discovery apps) and thus the results have a familiar feel. Oh, you like that band? Here, you might also like these guys.
What stands to set these stations apart from Spotify’s, however, is Rdio’s superior social layer. Since day one, Rdio has let users follow each other and has baked those relationships pretty firmly into how their product works. The new radio feature is no exception: In addition to stations based on my collection and favorite songs, Rdio lets me tune into stations based on my friends’ preferences as well. It also pulls in data about your musical preferences from Twitter and Facebook.
This heavy social focus is smart. Without it, Rdio’s Internet radio would function much like many of the other Pandora wannabes, all of whom face the same uphill battle: When it comes to music discovery, Pandora’s approach is hard to emulate. The human-powered musicological data from the company’s Music Genome Project is now combined with trillions of data points on the behavior of millions of listeners, collected over the course of eight years. The now finely tuned process is the reason Pandora has 70 million listeners, who collectively hear more than 1.3 billion hours of music in a single month. And it’s why, year over year, each of those metrics climbs northward.
"We've heard about Pandora killers for years," Pandora chief data scientist Eric Bieschke told me. "The only thing we do is figure out the best music to play for people. None of these other competitors have that singular focus that they drive everything towards like we do."
Bieschke has a point. A company that puts all of their energy into one thing is probably going to do that thing better than a company for whom that thing is just another feature. As of right now, the difference between Pandora and most of its challengers is evident after half an afternoon of playback.
Rdio knows that competing with Pandora is no simple task. That's why it wove all that social data in so tightly. Another feature that the company hopes will set it apart is the ability to adjust how familiar each station sounds. Pandora users sometimes complain about the amount of repetition they hear on personalized stations, something the company is tweaking. Rdio preempts that problem by giving users a slider on the radio interface with two extremes: familiar and adventurous.
For Rdio, the point may be less to cripple Pandora and more to lure a handful of its listeners to its own service, whose core purpose—all-you-can-stream music subscription—is different from that of Pandora's. This move is also about trying to stay ahead of Spotify, a direct competitor which launched a similar radio feature last summer.
It's worth noting one thing most Pandora competitors have in common: They're new. Aside from Slacker Radio, which launched in 2007, most of the services gunning for Pandora's addicted listeners these days are things that launched within the last year or so. One of Pandora's biggest assets, besides its focus and unique algorithmic approach, is time. It's been around for almost a decade and has learned a lot about its users along the way.
Insofar as these newer services take a crack at smart, personalized Internet radio of the sort Pandora pioneered, they all have a long way to go. They also each have their own potential advantages: Spotify's subscription marketshare and quickly improving discovery features. Google's machine listening power and web-crawling semantic analysis potential. iTunes Radio's immediate integration on millions of smartphones and tablets. Rdio's social layer and superior UI.
Each of these products is just getting started. As time passes, they'll each get smarter and better in their own ways—just as Pandora did. In the meantime, we imagine Pandora is keeping a close eye on each of them.
What will radio look like in 25 years? Advances in time travel being as stubbornly slow as they are, a precise answer will require us to wait. But in 2013, we’re starting to see some clues. Just as has already happened with publishing, music, and now TV, the Internet and related technologies are poised to forever change the mere concept of what we once knew as "radio."
June 20, 2013
For Pandora, the competitive terrain has never looked rougher. In the last month, the company was joined by two gigantic, notoriously disruptive competitors: Google and Apple. As part of its All Access music subscription service, Google launched a personalized radio feature that mimics Pandora's core functionality. A few weeks later, Apple unveiled iTunes Radio, a similarly Pandora-esque offering that happens to sit atop the world's biggest digital music store.
These new entrants come after a prior trickle of new Internet radio products, many of which are powered by the Echo Nest's music intelligence API. Most notably, Spotify Radio went live last year, bringing its own flavor of the artist-based, thumbs-up/thumbs-down Internet radio Pandora has long been known for. Similar offerings have come from Rdio, iHeartRadio, and a growing list of others.
"Anyone that offers radio we view as competition. There's yet to be a service that's been launched that's had any impact on our growth," cofounder Tim Westergren told me in an interview late last year. In April 2013, 70.1 million active Pandora users logged 1.31 billion listener hours in just one month. That’s an increase of 24 percent over the same time period last year.
If you’re unacquainted, Pandora utilizes a complex algorithm that is based heavily on human intelligence. Unlike many other music recommendation technologies, Pandora eschews things like machine listening in favor of paying music experts with advanced degrees to sit down, listen to music, and map the "genome" using hundreds of different musical criteria, which can get very granular and specific. On top of that, years of user feedback (tapping the thumbs up and thumbs down buttons) have injected nuance and deeper intelligence into Pandora’s algorithm. This Music Genome Project, as it’s called, was unlike anything the world had seen when it first hatched in 2000.
Much has changed since then.
Its unique intellectual property is a big part of what has kept Pandora at the head of the Internet radio game. To power their offerings, products like iTunes Radio, Google Play All Access Radio, Spotify Radio and the other Echo Nest-fueled music discovery services all use different technical schemes for generating recommendations and playlists. Each has its own blend of human and machine intelligence. Obviously none are perfect, but as we’ve written on this site, iTunes Radio is looking pretty good.
For Pandora, the question is whether the secret sauce behind these other products can produce an experience that’s as good as (if not better than) what Pandora has been providing for years. The answer may vary wildly between casual listeners and hard-core music nerds of the type employed by Pandora to describe each tone, rhythm, and guitar effect in a Beatles song.
Meanwhile, Pandora faces rising tensions over artist royalty rates. The company’s attempts to have these rates (which it argues are unfair and onerous) lowered via congressional action have stalled. Last week, the company bought its own terrestrial radio station in South Dakota in an attempt to redefine the rules by which it’s required to pay out licensing fees to copyright owners. Calling the move a "stunt," music royalty collector BMI promptly sued Pandora.
The contentious licensing debate will undoubtedly continue until some kind of middle ground is reached—or one of the parties caves in. If Pandora throws in the towel, it could mean dramatic changes for the users of the service, who are now limited to 40 hours of free listening per month thanks to the royalty costs. In time, it could mean an end to Internet radio as we know it today.
Radio’s evolution has been slowly underway for some time. Pandora Radio is now nearly a decade old and today faces its fiercest competition ever. Music itself has been radically democratized, from its composition and creation all the way to the way people find and enjoy it. This year, we’ll see more change in the in digital music subscription and Internet radio markets than we’ve seen in the last five years combined. Meanwhile, companies like Stitcher Radio, SoundCloud and NPR are rethinking the way that spoken word audio content is delivered to listeners in a hyper-connected world.
Make no mistake about it: FM radio is still incredibly popular. In fact, it’s unlikely to ever fully disappear (The Internet is great, but have you ever heard of radio waves going down?).
Instead, what we’re seeing a slow erosion in the number of listening hours people spend with terrestrial radio. According the latest research from NPD, 23% of the average weekly listening time among 13-35 year olds is spent with online services, an increase of 17% over last year (which saw double-digit growth of its own) and only one percentage point lower than AM/FM radio.
Fueling this somewhat sudden shift is the rapid uptake of always-connected mobile devices, which allow consumers to embed streaming services and Internet radio stations ever more deeply into their lives. Smartphone penetration will continue to spread while the radio programmers of the future begin stake out their next frontier: your car.
The growth of Internet radio is only going to continue as younger generations of connected and mobile device-toting media consumers come of age. You know those toddlers you see staring into iPads? They’ll be about as familiar with old-fashioned radio dials as they’ll be with the morning edition of the daily newspaper.
Not only are new entrants getting in on the radio game, but traditional players are teaming up technology companies or building out their own development resources to stay relevant in an age when the word "Radio" is finding its way into major product launch announcements from the likes of Google, Apple, Spotify and whoever’s next. In other words, even the parts of traditional radio that survive the Internet’s sophisticated onslaught will work and sound differently than they do today.
So, who’s shaping this future? Which developers are crafting the smartest solutions? What does it mean when the likes of Google and Apple join the fray? How does online music discovery work? We think these questions (and many more) make this broader story ripe for the Co.Labs news-tracking treatment. Every now and then, we’ll branch off of this stub to take a deeper dive into what developers are building and precisely which technologies are upending the long-familiar concept of what we call "radio."
[Image: Flickr user Roland Tanglao]