While the digitalization of music has been underway for well over a decade, there continues to be a steady flow of new services emerging to satisfy all forms of digital music distribution.  Platforms such as Pandora and Spotify are well known across even the least tech savvy of circles, though these services are just the tip of a rapidly growing streaming music revolution.  Actually owning music is already becoming a thing of the past – with increased wifi and wireless coverage rendering any smart mobile device into an on demand personal jukebox.  This comes without the need to ever download and, in most cases – purchase, any music.  Leading the next wave of on-demand music delivery are three innovative startups – each approaching the landscape from very different angles – and in so doing, providing consumers with a variety of novel ways to experience new music.

SoundCloud

Founded in 2008, SoundCloud is the leading social sound platform with over 20 million registered users1. Referred to early on as the “YouTube of audio”2, SoundCloud enables users to record any sound – whether that be a music record, full album, demo instrumentals, or even a live set.  The audio file is then uploaded onto SoundCloud’s servers and then available for streaming across any computer or mobile device.  SoundCloud is a way for new artists to get their music out to a wider array of fans (think the next gen distribution platform previously provided by MySpace) and for established artists to consolidate some of their non-core activities such as podcasts, remixed tracks, and live concert recordings.   Whether you’re looking for Swedish House Mafia’s set from Coachella, a teaser from Usher’s soon to be released single, or Kaskade’s weekly mix, SoundCloud has it all – and does so with fervent artist support – often a rarity in the world of “free music.”   In addition, Soundcloud’s API enables virtually any website to embed a SoundCloud player on their page – greatly broadening the platform’s reach around the web without login requirements.

Like virtually all social networks, SoundCloud allows users to follow one another – providing a live update feed of all the latest tracks and sets from their favorite artists.  Also, fans can insert text comments directly into the audio feed – providing means to actually communicate with musicians through the music and enabling a real-time conversation that can act as beta test for new songs.  Comments like “love the beat drop here”, “this guitar riff works well”, and “speed up the tempo” are common and represent the ability to crowd source feedback – which can be very helpful for up and coming artists.  The band R.E.M. even launched a crowd sourced contest to remix tracks from their recent album2.

Perhaps most important to fueling user growth among the masses is continuing to ensure that top artists remain engaged on the site.  To that end, SoundCloud offers an array of data analytics tools for premium members to get detailed dashboards such as who is listening to their music, what demographics they are popular with, and where their music is being shared.  This is also SoundCloud’s primary monetization form at the moment – charging for premium monthly subscriptions to the small % of users who want access to this toolkit and ability to upload more content on the servers.  Some speculate that with their latest partnership with payments company Adyen2, the company may pivot into a platform for selling individual tracks a la iTunes and Amazon, but the company remains mum on their strategic direction.  Regardless, SoundCloud still represents a great means to connect with your favorite artists and opens up an entirely new channel of music that you’ll never be able to find in stores.

Check it out at: www.soundcloud.com.

 

Turntable.fm

Turntable came virtually out of nowhere when it launched to rave reviews in the summer of 2011.  Drawing huge word of mouth interest among the tech set in Silicon Valley, the site experienced incredibly fast growth and within just 3 months was streaming over 1 million songs per day3.  Much of this was due to the fact that turntable had ushered in a new form of digital music: synchronous listening.

The site is based around the concept of a DJ chat room.  When a user logs into the site, they create a profile and select an avatar, a character design not unlike those seen on the Nintendo Wii.  Next, they can join or create a DJ room.  It is here where the magic happens.  The room itself looks like a cartoon version of a club / small concert hall– a dance floor at the back with a DJ booth at the front with giant animated speakers propping up the stage.  Users can hop up on the decks by clicking on one of the 5 available slots above the turntables.  Next, they can either select songs from the turntable database or even upload their own tracks.  Along with the other DJs, they will then be responsible for curating and delivering music to any other users in the room – who are all listening real time.

It is this concept of shared listening that drives the uniqueness of the platform.  No longer are you plugged into your own playlist, listening by yourself.  Suddenly you have the opportunity to stream your music to up to 100 people all at once.  It is akin to bringing the concert experience to the desktop (and mobile device with their app).  The idea that you listening alongside your friends or family or even strangers completely changes how you digest the music as it imitates the same “buzz” you’d experience at a live show.  Social mechanisms on the site also reinforce this.  A live chat window allows users to be in constant communication while a meter at the bottom lets them either “Awesome” or “Lame” a song – too many “Lame” clicks from the crowd and the song skips to the next DJ.  There’s a bit of an endorphin rush as a DJ when you start a track and the crowd starts responding excitedly in the chat window.  Additionally, when you click “Awesome”, your avatar starts to bob its head up and down – seeing a wave of avatars doing this in unison means the crowd is rocking out to your selection.  While this does not make one a digital Tiesto, it sure feels like it – and it’s that notion that keeps me coming back for more.

Find me on: www.turntable.fm (My username is Mateofish)

 

Playground

If we think about the streaming music spectrum, on one side is On Demand listening.  Spotify is the best example of this – a service that features limitless choice in song selection, and by definition enables the highest degree of customization in curating playlists.  Users must actively pick and choose what they want to hear by building up a playlist one song at a time.

On the other side is Leanback listening.  Pandora and other internet radio services sit here and require minimal user engagement – simply enter the type of music you want listen to, sit back, and consume whatever the service deems relevant to your initial query.

Music services have to date largely clustered around these two ends of the spectrum – presenting a gap in the middle that the team at Playground is looking to fill with their app called Playground.  Playground is based on the concept of personalized playlist discovery – the notion that people want to listen to music that is relevant to their tastes and preferences, while not wanting to have to build their own library.  From a user experience standpoint, playground’s mechanics are very simple and easy to use.  Upon logging in, users are presented with a beautifully laid out set of tiles that represent playlists that other users on the service have created.  Overlaid is the playlist name as well as a representative track – e.g. “Energy Mix” (Deadmau5 – Some Chords).  Like many streaming companies, Playground functions on an internet radio license – meaning that users cannot see the track ahead of them, and they can only skip tracks a limited number of times within a given playlist.

The nuts and bolts of the service are what drive its value beyond simply being a more social form of Pandora.  By using Facebook Connect, Playground is able to gather insights about your listening habits on other music services – and uses this information in conjunction with internal data in its algorithm to constantly deliver you the most relevant playlists on your homepage.  In essence, the service is able to offer users the best of both worlds – allowing greater pick up and play than Spotify, and analytics that have the potential to drive greater playlist relevance than Pandora.  As Playground Founder Vivek Agrawal notes – “With Spotify, the music content is unsurpassed in terms of volume, but getting what you want is difficult.  With Playground, we’ve provided a means to shortcut the playlist building process and allowing users to quickly get to the content they want.”  As the company begins to explore various business model functions around the service, Agrawal notes that a dual model makes sense – free with ads, while a modest monthly subscription would allow for exclusive content and no ads.  In the meantime, the company continues to hammer out new updates to its beta release so don’t miss out on being a part of the early user base by downloading Playground from the Apple App Store or checking it out their site www.playground.fm.

 

[1] SoundCloud CrunchBase Profile http://www.crunchbase.com/company/soundcloud

[2] Steve O’Hear, “Monetization Baby: SoundCloud Planning To Let Users Sell Tracks? Adyen Chosen To Power Payments (Updated).” Aug. 13th, 2012.http://techcrunch.com/2012/08/13/monetization-baby-soundcloud-planning-to-let-users-sell-tracks-adyen-chosen-to-power-payments/

[3] Alexia Tsotis, “Billy Chasen And Seth Goldstein: Turntable.fm Was Less Of A Pivot And More Of A Restart.” Sept 14th, 2011. http://techcrunch.com/2011/09/14/billy-chasen-and-seth-goldstein-turntable-fm-was-less-of-a-pivot-and-more-of-a-restart/


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Cloud storage services, offered by companies such as Amazon or Dropbox, provide users a safe and reliable solution to store and remotely access content online. Previously a tool to backup and transfer data and a substitute for local storage, cloud storage gained renewed attention and a new spin this month with the launch of Apple’s new iOS5 and the iCloud. The feature generated quite some buzz and is indeed very cleverly engineered. But the key question is: will it significantly impact the way people shop and use digital content or is it just another cool Apple product? I believe it is the latter.

iCloud automatically stores your music, photos, documents, apps and calendar and pushes them into all your devices. Movies are not supported yet, but that’s due to disputes between Hollywood studios and HBO, not Apple’s fault. iCloud is already linked to your iTunes account and is native to Apple’s mobile productivity apps, so there is no need for uploads or synchronization. You take a photo or buy a song at iTunes on your iPhone and it automatically appears on your iPad’s library. As Apple puts it, iCloud is “automatic, effortless, and seamless — it just works”.

And that’s exactly the problem. It just works on Apple’s devices, for songs purchased from iTunes and documents created on Apple’s productivity apps. Incursions outside the Apple’s ecosystem are possible, but either inconvenient or costly. To access iCloud content from PC computers, users have to install an iCloud application and use an interface much like Dropbox, with specific folders assigned for upload and download functions, resulting in an experience that is far from effortless or seamless. To upload music imported from CDs or purchased somewhere other than iTunes, users have to join iTunes Match for $24.99 per year. So, as with most Apple products and services, iCloud essentially locks consumers into Apple’s closed environment.

Taking a closer look at competitors’ cloud offerings, it seems that platform-centric solutions are becoming the industry norm.

Google Music Beta, for instance, provides a clean and elegant interface that allows users to upload up to 20,000 songs and play them online on any device. It also offers cool features such as “Instant Mix,” which automatically creates playlists by analyzing the musical characteristics of a chosen song. The music experience is seamless across any Android device. However, Google Music has no iPhone app, so if you want to run it on your Apple device, you must do so through the browser, a clunky process, as is uploading individual albums.

Even Amazon, one of the pioneers in the cloud, offers somewhat limited cloud solutions to mainstream consumers. Amazon’s Cloud Drive gives users free remote storage of digital books, music and other content purchased on its site. Users can also store up to 5 gigabytes of content they didn’t buy on Amazon, free of charge. As expected, the platform integrates smoothly with Amazon’s Kindle Fire, but not with other devices.

Microsoft’s cloud products, such as Windows Azure and Office 365, are currently only focused on business segment, so not directly comparable with the retail services discussed above. Rumor has it, though, that the upcoming Windows 8 will enable users to automatically synch media, files and apps among different windows devices.

A universal cloud solution could indeed be disruptive. By reducing the cost of moving content between platforms to zero, it would virtually commoditize media distribution, i.e. customers would be indifferent to what content provider to use. Not to mention the impact on physical media and bricks and mortar media retailers.  

However, given the massive vested interested of companies like Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft in protecting and expanding their proprietary ecosystems, it is hard to ever imagine a truly universal cloud service. And as long as the cloud remains fragmented, consumers will still need to shop around multiple platforms and retail cloud services will be just one more tool companies like Apple use to keep customers locked into their platform.

The iCloud might be an awesome feature, but it will not substantially transform the way people consume media.


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Media Streaming Services: Industry Disruption?

Since the creation of MP3 format and its mass adoption, storage and management of music files have been a challenge, and creating a tool that could help manage this had been key for differentiation in this space. A definite solution to the storage and multiple device synchronization has emerged on the form of cloud players, and file management has been partially solved by internet radios. But what does this mean?

Cloud computing, which started with service providers delivering applications over the internet, has opened a new dimension to data storage and processing, having people worry less about its hardware storage and processing capacity and more about its ability to access to content and applications located on a remote server. Storage Bytes become a commodity and differentiation comes from applications and accessibility.

In the case of music, could drives and cloud players are disrupting the industry by making devices storage capacity almost irrelevant and providing access to a user’s media library without the need of moving files between devices. We have seen the example of iTunes and how it revolutionized the music industry by providing an easy-to-use tool to manage media content and synchronize two or more devices. Today, a service provider on this space should still focus on content management tools but not the synchronization capability.

Music presents another interesting benefit to could computing, a cloud drive provider doesn’t need to store multiple copies of the same song that multiple users have, they just need to control copyrights that users have to access certain files. This makes storing music on the cloud even more economical.

Currently, we see multiple services being offered from which three generic models arise: Cloud drive and cloud player, ad-supported Internet radio and unlimited access subscription schemes. All of which are accessible from most mobile devices, some TVs and Blu-ray players, and all laptops, desktops and game consoles. But which one will win?

I expect a subscription service offering cloud drive storage and device coordination capabilities and access to media content all in one should be the winner. The keys to win this game will be access to content at low cost, easiness to use and omnipresence on devices. This last point is particularly important; a winning service will be one that you can access from all your devices, including the infotainment system in your car, your TV and your home audio system. If you can’t access your content, then is useless.

I look forward to see how this industry evolves, I’m certain that it will bring many surprises.


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You have a distinct online identity. An identity built through your interactions with Facebook, Twitter, Google, LinkedIn, and others. This identity knows more about you than your parents do. Your parents know a few of your friends, Facebook knows them all. Your parents know your girlfriend, Google knows everything about her. Your parents might know you went to Vegas last weekend, but Twitter knows everything you did while you were there. (Thank your friends for uploading those pictures…) Your parents know what companies you’ve worked for, LinkedIn knows every colleague you interacted with while in these roles. This might be a little scary to some, but the brave see the potential in this electronic identity to open up a world completely personalized to their needs.

In today’s world, this identity lives entirely online. You open your computer and upload status updates, pictures, and information about yourself to share with friends. When the computer closes or the smartphone is turned off, you leave this identity behind and head into the physical world. But what if this personal identity could be extended into the physical world as well? Let’s think about what a day would look like in this futuristic new world.

Your morning starts with your alarm clock (synced with your Google Calendar) waking you up an hour before your first appointment. As you stumble into the bathroom to take your morning shower, a sequence of events is triggered. First, your coffee pot checks the time of your last Facebook activity from the night before and realizes you only got four hours of sleep. It automatically starts brewing a double dose of dark roast to get you through a rough day. At the same time, a touch screen monitor in the shower loads your schedule, email, and a list of important items due today while simultaneously setting the water temperature to your personal preference of 112 degrees. As you get through your shower, the thermostat, aware that you like the bathroom a toasty 80 degrees when you exit the shower, raises the temperature. Your car, realizing you’ve got to be at work in an hour, begins checking the traffic and construction reports on your route to work. It notices a detour in your route and sends you an email, which you get in the shower, warning you to leave early. As you exit the shower, your closet’s built in weather center checks the weather and learns it is supposed to be a chilly forty degrees today. It automatically rotates the clothing to bring your favorite cold weather attire to the front, keeping in mind your preference for gray suits for client meetings like the one you have today. As you zip your coat, grab your coffee, and head for the car, the smart kitchen checks its inventory versus your standard lineup and automatically places orders for bread and cereal.

Not bad for an hour’s worth of work. And the best part is that this is just a start. As your personal identity continues to grow and more devices gain access to the cloud, there is no limit to the potential customization of the world around us. Imagine every device you interact with being tied to your personal identity and fully customizable to your preferences. Every couch has adjustable lumbar specific to the user. Every TV adjusts volume, brightness, contrast, and content to the user. Windows and fans in every room automatically open and turn on to suit the particular user. Every vehicle adjusts handling characteristics to fit the specific driver. Every restaurant adjusts the menu to fit your culinary preferences. The possibilities are truly endless. So in the end, maybe it’s a good thing that your personal identity is becoming so detailed. I would certainly trust it more than my parents to pick out my clothing for the day.


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What’s the future of computer applications? Will it be based on the so called “web-apps” accessed through web browsers that run on terminal-like computers/mobile devices or there is still spac

e for the classic model of applications that are actually “installed” into the devices (maybe in a more transparent way)?

A computer application was, for a long time, synonym of something that (i) either came pre-installed in whatever device you acquired or (ii) you had to buy physically (via the old diskettes/cds) and install it by yourself (or, as most users did, ask someone else to do so). The whole process of buying an application and install it was expensive and too complex for the average user, who ended up sticking to the pre-installed package that came with his or her computer.

With the development of the internet and the increasing number of people with broadband access, some companies started to question and evolve this classic model or buying and using computer applications, but in slightly different ways.

One of the first to challenge this concept was Google, who predicted that in the future all applications would run in a server and users would access only the front-end (or the interface) of these applications  directly through their web browsers. As part of its strategy, Google then engaged into developing web applications that would mimic the functionalities of classic applications, but running entirely on the web (Gmail, Google Docs, etc.). The big advantage was that users wouldn’t need to install those applications anymore, all the data would be in the “cloud” and in the future they might pay for using those as a “service”. Google went even further and also developed a web browser (Google Chrome) that would make those applications to look even more like the classic ones (better layout, capacity to run off-line and some in-device storage). However, it seemed strange that a person would need a full powered computer, with lots of software layers, just to run a web browser (since all other web-based applications would run from inside the browser). The missing part of Google strategy appeared with the launch of the ChromeBook (http://www.google.com/chromebook/). In these computers, the Google Chrome browser would assume the role of Operating System (replacing Windows, for instance), making the system cheaper and faster by eliminating all the unnecessary hardware and software. The concept was beautiful but the ChromeBook project is still far away to be considered a success. Most initial reviews classified it as “expensive for what it does” and “a good complement to your laptop”. The fact is that web applications are still far to be considered as good as their offline counterparts (just compare Google Docs with Microsoft Word), and users would still need a normal computer for their daily activities.

Apple took a different approach. With the launch of the AppStore for its mobile devices, Apple found a new way to take advantage of the broadband development to evolve the classic model of selling and delivering applications to users. In an iPhone, anyone could easily go to the AppStore, buy an application (usually at a cheaper price than classic apps), and install it instantaneously without any pain or external help. It seems like a small difference, but think about how many apps the average user buy for their iPhone vs. the number of apps they buy for their PCs. The difference is huge. In fact, the idea worked so well for Apple that it just incorporated the same concept into its new OS X Lion (for full-size computers) – http://www.apple.com/macosx/whats-new/app-store.html. But did apple forget the concept of cloud computing dreamed by Google by not investing into web applications? Apple’s answer is the iCloud – http://www.apple.com/icloud/ – a platform that would, according with Apple, seamlessly integrate the data used by all your apps, in all your devices. Therefore, Apple users could benefit from higher quality Applications (not confined into a browser) and similar benefits of web-based applications.

Other companies are also going into this direction. Microsoft has just released the beta version of the  new Windows 8 OS (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p92QfWOw88I), which looks a lot similar to the  Windows Phone  OS (their Operating System for phones) and we can expect that it will provide an easier way for users to install and use applications in the future. Even Google is exploring the same model through its Android OS for smartphones.

Is Apple on the right direction or will classic apps last only until web-apps become more advanced?


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