Every year, dozens of startups attempt the impossible: to make their product mainstream. In the music sector, this proves to be a particularly challenging task, because startups are often founded by fanatics who are unlike the casual listeners they’re targeting with their product.
The team at Songza, a music streaming service, faces this hurdle.
The company presents itself as a destination for hand-crafted playlists and effortless music discovery, but the roll-out of its latest platform signals that its ambitions are much larger. Many companies have tried to create a mainstream playlist service before, but none have attempted this feat in the way that Songza has.
When a user visits Songza, they’re now encouraged to use a feature that helps them select the perfect playlist for that time period. For example, if you open Songza on a Tuesday afternoon, it suggests you may be seeking music for “Working or Studying”. If selected, it displays a list of genres, and if you pick “Pop”, the playlists “The World of Adele” or “Soft Pop” are recommended.
This feature, branded as Music Concierge, is innovative and intuitive; it narrows the pool of playlists and eases the burden of picking one. By suggesting the right music for their day, it has the potential to increase the amount of enjoyment users derive from it, thereby enhancing their mood.
But what’s striking about the feature isn’t what it does. The remarkable thing about Music Concierge lies in the fanatic activity that drives it and the effect it may have on those who use it.
II. Maximizing Music
Behind Songza, there’s a hoard of music experts and dedicated users. These are the fanatics who swap songs in and out of the playlists for “Working or Studying,” or “Getting Lucky,” or “Unwinding After A Busy Weekend” until they achieve perfection.
They imagine themselves working or studying in the future and attempt to align music with that experience in hopes that they can increase their focus and deepen their enjoyment of the task.
After several hours and possibly debates with friends, these fanatics arrive at a list of songs that suffice and now must determine how they fare in the real world. The next time they’re working or studying, they’ll cue up the playlist, make a few adjustments, and press play. Depending on how well the songs carry them through the designated activity, they’ll either redo or finalize the playlist.
This process takes time and effort, more than a casual listener will devote. Songza removes this burden for casual users entirely and makes it easy to harvest the fruits of fanatic labor. It might just popularize the notion that different times of day call for different kinds of music if the service goes mainstream.
For decades, fanatics have had a romanticized idea about having a soundtrack to their lives. When they wake up in the morning, they dream of a playlist beginning—just like in the movies—that syncs up the perfect songs to their day and only pauses for dramatic moments between star-crossed lovers.
The introduction of the cassette opened the door to this music utopia, making it possible for fanatics everywhere to capture their favorite songs and blend them together in a thematic fashion.
But this form of playlist curation goes beyond that. Playing the right music at the right time is only one part of the equation. That’s what a DJ does. When fanatics create playlists, they attempt to imagine future experiences and orchestrate music that maximizes the level of enjoyment they expect to derive from the activity alone. Their goal is to make the activity itself better through music.
Rather than settle for a playlist that’s good enough, a fanatic explores all possible songs and chooses the best ones. This is a daunting task, but their playlists speak for themselves.
Songza has now packaged these playlists and made them accessible to casual listeners. The question is: Could a feature like Music Concierge produce negative effects? If so, what might they be?
III. Conveyer Belt
Products are conversations—and Songza mirrors what users tell it. We may not recognize the person staring back at us, but that reflection is us, and it speaks volumes about music fans today.
We’re overloaded with choice, often opting to listen to the same old songs as a way to avoid facing unlimited options. Moreover, we outsource choice—using filters like iTunes and Pandora rather than “doing the work” ourselves. We stand alongside the conveyer belt that the web provides us, assigning thumbs up or down to songs as they pass us by. If unsure, we skip the song entirely, because determining if we like it proves just as—if not more—paralyzing.
Music in the digital age isn’t always the paradise of choice we sought. As often, it’s the paradox of choice. Recognizing this, Songza set out to develop a better product, one that helps users find great playlists and requires zero effort.
According to user feedback, even the act of typing in an artist name to create a playlist—the way a user creates a station on Pandora—demanded too much thought and energy. It also revealed that the best music service—to them—is free to use with no strings attached or annoying audio ads.
Added to this, Songza had to make it extremely clear to users how its product differed from web darlings like Pandora and Spotify, who are often wrongly compared to each other.
First the company released a new platform and a mobile app with an increased focus on its curated library of playlists—and it has now placed Music Concierge at the forefront of that offering. This is significant, because it encourages users to rely on a filter rather than on themselves and to pick a playlist over choosing one.
Perhaps more troubling than this result is the possibility that this passivity will carry over into the way users interact with the playlists they’ve chosen. Songza already assumes that a user is doing something else and listening to music, which diverts their attention from the response songs stir individually to the experience a playlist creates collectively. Rather than actively engaging with the music and the artists who create it, users begin an activity and use Songza to entertain them.
Now we shouldn’t pretend—even for a moment—that this scenario somehow differs from the way that most people listen to music. The distinction to make is that most musical experiences contain songs that have the potential to shake us from the motions of everyday life and captivate us to engage with them. When we listen to the perfect playlist for an activity, in contrast, it never interrupts our workflow or demands attention.
IV. Mainstream Fanatic
Generally, the first people a new music service attracts are fanatics. They instantly saw the value in joining Turntable.fm, the group listening service, and likely went on to become DJs. So too, they’re the people who discover Songza and feel compelled to submit playlists for consideration.
The web platform and mobile app that Songza developed, though, required too much investment to cross the chasm and captivate a casual listener. To streamline the product and broaden its appeal, Songza introduced Music Concierge.
Turntable eluded the mainstream market and declined in use because it failed to translate the fanatic activities that drove its product into one that solved a problem that casual listeners have.
The wider narrative of Songza, however, goes much deeper. As the service gains traction, it will likely further the transition of music to merely the audio backdrop to our daily activities. It won’t be assumed that we do something else and listen to music, it’ll be accepted that we’re always doing something else.
By Kyle Bylin