interactive-experience-ipad-musicWe’re at an interesting time in the evolution of the digital music landscape: subscription streaming appears as if it’s finally about to come of age. We’ve spent over fifteen years getting fans used to access versus ownership; now that the audience is ready for it, how do the services stand out in an increasingly competitive crowd?

While leaked pitches of lofty,unrealized growth projections make it a stretch to say the industry is right where it’d like to be, the long haul for streaming services – beginning in 2001 with Rhapsody, Musicnet, and PressPlay  - has finally produced some encouraging landmarks: 20% of music revenue now comes from streaming; Spotify has grown to 10 million paid subscribers; rumors of the Apple/Beats deal and an upcoming Amazon streaming service could signal the giants’ acceptance of the end of the download era and their eventual destiny in streams; and new services from powerhouses like YouTube and Soundcloud are on the way.

Music when, where, and how we want it is more accessible than ever before – embedded into devices and living rooms and cars, bundled in family plans with other services – literally at our fingertips, everywhere. Recent numbers from ABI Research say that paid streaming subscribers will grow from roughly 30 million today to over 190 million by 2018 and the all-time revenue made from on-demand streaming music will rise from $5 billion to $41 billion, suggesting that subscription music has finally reached its tipping point.

The challenge for the market players now, both big and small, is how to ensure their future and get their piece of the pie. With consolidation on the horizon, the market may find itself with two or three major power players fighting for the limelight, but still wide open with opportunity for one of the many incumbents or a crafty newcomer to shake things up. The ecosystem is in place – devices, connectivity, bandwidth, eager users – and the prize is there for the taking for the one who gets it right.

So where do we go from here? What does it take to “get it right” at this stage in the game?  That’s not such an easy question in a landscape where, despite a wealth of offerings to consumers, there’s very little to distinguish one premium offering from another – everyone has 20 million songs for $10/month, mobile access in some form or another is usually free, and quality doesn’t seem to matter. And for many fans streaming music remains a confusing proposition if not concept; they may now know what it means to stream vs download a song now, but what service they should use, through what device, and at what price is another question. There are plenty of free options out there, but if the goal is to convert those users into paying subscribers by adding additional value, what’s the secret formula? Where do services look to move the industry forward and take the market out of the doldrums?

Having had a front row seat for the ride since the early days – first helping create the original Rhapsody music service and then moving on to work with services around the world while building the independent music distributor IODA over the next decade – it’s interesting to note in retrospect how not much has actually changed in the subscription service experience. While we’ve certainly seen dramatic changes across our digital lives – the social web has brought artists and celebrities much closer to fans, as a society we consume and create more visual content than ever, and connected screens are now ubiquitous in our lives – the services themselves are not all that different from the product experience of Rhapsody and the other early music services. Discovery has improved and become more social and personal, and software has moved from the PC to mobile and connected devices via native apps and APIs, but otherwise the role of the player and the user experience has not significantly evolved: you find the music you want to hear, press play, and leave.

This lack of an engaged experience is one area that is wide open for innovation. These screens need attention and fans want to give it; it’s there for the taking. It’s a lost opportunity for the platform, the label, the artist, and the fan alike once the play button is pressed and attention shifts away from the artist and the music at hand back into the background it typically occupies. The traditionally thin bio and photo artist profile that constitutes the status quo for artist identity today doesn’t capture the imagination, and the static album cover as visual experience grossly under serves the fan and misses an opportunity.

True fan engagement happens in many places and many ways across the web, changing and growing every day. If the fan wants more from the artist they are driven to find it elsewhere, out of the music player and onto other sites and apps where it happens.

Digital music services can benefit from this attention, but today’s content and data services offerings don’t provide a way to capture it. The content is out there, fragmented and chaotic, just waiting to be unlocked, organized and presented to fans in new ways. Imagine Flipboard-style magazine experiences bringing social content, imagery, and editorial into the music platform. Gamification driving artist interaction and content consumption. Users engaged in rich, modern, interactive visual experiences that complement the audio, driving deeper artist fan connections and platform loyalty.

The music user experience has a long way to evolve in the digital world. We can capture the essence of that nostalgic gatefold LP experience and go beyond it in new ways that reflect how fans interact today while creating rich visual experiences to fill our lives. Maybe a few musicians will even make some money along the way.

[animated gif by Brad Jonas for Pando]