luchadores inside

Today yet another streaming music service launched hoping to capture the world’s hearts and ears. Joining Spotify, Rdio, Rhapsody, and a host of other services, Beats Music, a subsidiary of Dr. Dre’s Beats Electronics is the newest app offering all-you-can-eat, on-demand music. It arrives as a replacement to MOG, which was acquired by Beats Electronics in July of 2012 and will be shut down this April.

How does Beats Music differ from all the rest? The first thing most will notice about Beats is that unlike Spotify and more recently Rdio, there’s no free ad-supported option. After a 7 day free trial, Beats costs $10 a month. Not off to a great start.

While Beats offers a desktop version, it was clearly built with a mobile-first mentality. Its app is faster and slicker than Spotify’s and Rdio’s. And unlike Spotify’s mobile app, which focuses on search and other utilitarian elements, Beats pushes features like curated playlists (one of the apps’ biggest selling points, it says) to the forefront.

Indeed, Beats wishes to differentiate itself by improving music discovery. Spotify and Rdio have millions of songs but how do you decide what you listen to? Beats says it wants to crack this problem by focusing as much on human/expert curation as on algorithmic or social curation.

That’s a nice PR talking point but, to be honest, other services are already experimenting with human curation. Sure, Beats’ recommendations are “expert”-driven, but what’s so novel about expert recommendations? They’ve been around since at least 18th-century Germany.

Meanwhile, the human curation experiments we’ve seen on other services are arguably more unique: This week, the band Real Estate created a Spotify playlist of songs that inspired their forthcoming album. Not only does it help the band promote its music, it also provides fans with an intimate listening experience (“my favorite band made me a playlist!”) and a useful discovery tool. And for anyone skeptical of the influence Spotify playlists can have, look no further than this year’s breakout artist Lorde, who shot to stardom after being featured on Sean Parker’s “Hipster International” playlist. That said, Spotify needs to do a much better job of showcasing and unearthing these, something Beats is smart to prioritize.

But many listeners forgo playlists altogether and solve the “music discovery” problem by using Internet radio — either dedicated radio services like Pandora or the radio features offered by Spotify. The closest thing Beats has to “radio” is a featured called “The Sentence” which serves up songs based on a multiple-choice statement you craft describing where you are and how you feel. For example, you could say “I’m on a BOAT & feel like CLEANING with ZOMBIES to OLD SCHOOL HIP-HOP.” For this sentence, it suggested “Shakiyla” by Poor Righteous Teachers. It’s a good song I wouldn’t have thought to listen to on my own, and the Sentence is a cute service, but it feels needlessly complex when I could just go to Pandora (or Spotify or Rdio) and set up an old school hip-hop station. Furthermore, Pandora’s already been in the “music taste prediction game” for over ten years, collecting millions of data points on user listening behavior.

At our last PandoMonthly, Pandora CTO Tom Conrad said, “Success is understanding what you want to be best in the world at, and investing it all in that.” For Pandora, that means being the best at predicting listeners’ tastes. For Spotify, that means having more of the world’s music at your fingertips than anybody else; Spotify continues to ink deals with huge artists like Led Zeppelin that you won’t find on Rdio or Beats. For Beats, it seems like the goal is to outdo competitors on music discovery, but it’s going to be difficult to compete with Pandora on that front. Certainly, Beats has a very slick, user-friendly app. But so does Rdio, which now offers a free version like Spotify.

Granted, it’s possible that Spotify’s free model isn’t sustainable in the long run. And maybe Beats can capture some users based on brand recognition alone. But without a free option, it’s difficult to imagine too many users switching over to Beats on the strength of its app design or brand, especially when its competitors offer a greater selection or better discovery tools for cheaper.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pandodaily]