A new algorithm-powered music service seems to launch every other month, and yet none of them ever seem to revolutionize the most fundamental part of the music experience: finding new music. Beats, which dominates the premium headphone market, is launching a music service that bets big on good old human brains for music discovery.
For Beats, the strategy is about pairing a digital subscription brand and physical product brand to sell more of both, a strategy with which 50 Cent’s headphone company SMS is also experimenting in its partnership with Rhapsody.
The music service is the brainchild of industry vets Jimmy Iovine and Trent Reznor, and the technology from Mog, which the company acquired for $14 million in July. When Beats Music launches this winter, the streaming service will leverage Iovine's and Reznor’s personal networks, coming equipped with playlists built by music editors and well-known musicians. Clocking in at 70 minutes or less, each playlist will be centered around themes like artist, genre, year, activities and mood. In many cases, they'll be targeted to specific archetypes—hopelessly nostalgic 30-year-olds pining for indie rock's heyday, for instance. According to internal documentation acquired by GigaOm, the company's music editors are assigning these playlists to freelance experts, who are instructed to compile lists of theme-appropriate songs, but do so without elitism or "clever transitions" that might be lost on everyday listeners. Other playlists will be generated by artists themselves, making for a type of artist-to-fan connection not fully exploited by the other subscription services.
That’s a big differentiator in a field of companies like Rdio and Spotify, which allow user-gen playlists, but don’t curate them, making good ones hard to uncover. Aside from design, subtle feature differences, and varying default audio quality, these two services offer essentially the same thing: a millions-strong library of music with basic social features, Echo Nest-powered radio stations, and $10/month mobile access. As giants like Google get into the game—and Europe-based Deezer eyes its own U.S. launch—the pressure has never been greater to get people hooked on new music.
Machines alone can’t crack the music discovery nut, but that doesn’t mean they’re not an effective part of the equation. Beats is currently looking for data engineers and machine learning specialists to work alongside all these editors. In general, online music services all tackle discovery differently, each one utilizing some blend of machine intelligence (acoustic analysis, collaborative filtering, and crowdsourced user feedback are typically stirred into this pot) and human curation (Pandora's musicologists sitting down at the start of the algorithmic food chain or Google's music editors making recommendations alongside the machines doing the listening). Beats is busy crafting a multi-part discovery secret sauce of its own, but turning up the dial on the human side of that equation more than anybody else has.
A number of smaller music startups have tried to tip the balance toward human-powered editorial curation of online music. Turntable.fm didn't live up to its initial hype (and is now focusing on livestreaming concerts), but its virtual DJ rooms were wildly popular when they first launched. Meanwhile, services like This Is My Jam and Shuffler.fm tap into the whims of people (individual fans and respected music bloggers, respectively) rather than machines. They each have their own niche audience, but neither is a household name. Beats already is, and this new music service might only make it more that way.