BBC Radio One DJ Zane Lowe just announced a shock move to Apple. For the non-Brits and non-Anglophiles, Zane Lowe is arguably the most influential radio DJ in the UK and is renowned for being a tastemaker with an eclectic pallet. His left of centre focus and his commitment to supporting and breaking new acts has allowed Radio One the freedom to be unashamedly mainstream in much of its other output. So why does this all matter for Apple? While it is not yet clear what sort of role Lowe will assume at Cupertino it is a move bristling with significance and a clear statement of intent from Apple.
Fixing the Tyranny Of Choice
The Tyranny of Choice remains one of the biggest challenges for streaming services, namely how to make sense of 35 million songs. It has been challenge enough for the Aficionados at the vanguard of the first wave of subscription service adoption. It is a problem of far greater proportions for the next wave of subscribers, the later adopters who do not have the expertise nor intent to invest great effort into discovering new music. It is not as simple as ‘lean forward’ versus ‘lean back’. But instead gradations between the two. Beyond Apple’s inevitable Spotify-subscriber win back efforts, these early followers will be at the core of Apple’s streaming strategy.
The 6th Of March: Man Versus Machine
Spotify showed its own music discovery statement of intent when it acquired the Echo Nest on the 6th of March 2014. Zane Lowe’s final Radio One show will broadcast on the 5th of March 2015, leaving him free to join Apple on the 6th of March 2015, yes, 1 year to the day after the Echo Nest. Coincidence? Perhaps. Either way, the symmetry of Spotify making its bet on algorithmic curation and Apple making its bet on human curation is unavoidable. It is man versus machine, with Apple for once coming down on the side of flesh and blood over technology.
However expensive Lowe’s salary might be, it will be far short of the millions Spotify paid for the Echo Nest, which had burned through $25.6 million of investment to get to that point. Yet there is every chance that Lowe, used properly, could deliver more value to Apple’s music discovery than the Echo Nest can to Spotify. Don’t get me wrong, the Echo Nest is a fantastic outfit with some of the smartest music analytics people going. Along with Pandora’s Music Genome Project the Echo Nest is as good as it gets for music discovery algorithms. In fact when it comes to implementation and cool data driven projects, the Echo Nest leads the way. But there is a limit to how far algorithms can fix the problems posed by the Tyranny of Choice.
As Eli Pariser identified in his excellent Ted Talk ‘Beware Of Filter Bubbles’ there is a risk that recommendation algorithms actually narrow our choice and limit discovery. That by continually refining recommendations based on previous taste and choice they make our world views increasingly narrow and ultimately boring. Music discovery is not simply about finding music that sounds like other music we already like. It is also about serendipitous moments of wonder when something comes at us from the left field and leaves us breathless. That is the antithesis of ‘here are three other bands like this you might like’.
Of course it would be unfair to suggest that the Echo Nest is not sophisticated enough to engineer serendipity and surprise into its discovery system. (And Spotify is beginning to double down on human curation too). But the ability of a stack of code to perform this task versus an expert tastemaker is significantly less. And, another ‘of course’, it is impossible to definitively prove this one way or the other because ultimately the results are subjective and not properly measureable. Because one person’s awesome discovery is another’s sonic tripe. But that is entirely the point of the whole debate.
People Don’t Want Discovery, Well They Don’t Think They Do
There is a fundamental problem with algorithmic discovery: people don’t want it. In numerous consumer surveys I have fielded for numerous clients, respondents show little or no interest in discovery or recommendation features. Yet in the same surveys the vast majority of them state that they regularly listen to music radio, which is of course recommendation and discovery. The big difference is that it doesn’t feel like it. Instead it is an inherent part of the DNA radio. It is not an awkward artificial appendage that most people just don’t get.
During his Monday – Thursday 2 hour show Lowe will play 20 to 30 or so tracks. Listeners know and understand that these are the tiny tip of the iceberg he has sifted through that week, that these are the songs he has decided are the ones that need to be heard. And when he announces his ‘hottest record in the world’ they know it is probably going to be something pretty special, even if they might not actually like it. His audience appreciates him that way because he earned their trust over weeks, months and years. That is the asset Apple are buying. Even if he has to earn that trust all over again with a new audience, that is the model.
If Lowe was simply to push 20 to 30 songs a day to Apple users (whether that be on a radio show on iTunes Radio, as an iTunes podcast or as an iTunes playlist, or all of the above) the odds are in favour of some or most of those resonating with a large swathe of the target audience. Even if just one track blows away just a quarter of the audience each day, the impact of one fantastic discovery will have more impact than a torrent of ‘sounds a bit like’ recommendations.
30% Not 80%
An Amazon Prime executive recently said that when commissioning shows he didn’t want hits that 80% of his audience quite liked, he wanted shows that 30% of his audience loved. That is what discovery is all about. Not being content most of the time, but being blown away some of the time. Zane Lowe is not going to solve Apple’s discovery problem all by himself, but the hire shows that Apple is putting its money on moments of human magic being the nitrous oxide in its music discovery engine.