How to win the music streaming wars

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on January 21, 2014

From The News Desk

If you haven't noticed, music streaming is experiencing a bubble, an inevitable characteristic of any growing industry. At the turn of the 20th century, hundreds of automakers and airplane manufacturers, many of them housed in people's garages, popped up across America. Over time, however, these markets matured, until, inevitably, only a few companies remained. Expect the same to happen to music streaming services, which boast the same core product (music) streamed at a similar audio quality and offered at similar price points, but possess little else to differentiate themselves.

Nevertheless, the industry as a whole is growing. Last year, for the first time, paid music downloads fell while streaming rose. In the way that CDs overtook vinyl and digital downloads swamped CDs, music streaming will dominate digital downloads. And with the news that Spotify is starting a merchandise-selling feature it will make available to all artists while Beats is launching its mobile-first human-curated music streaming service (and shutting down Mog, which it owns), the battle for your ears is intensifying.

Spotify's new eBay-like ploy is an intriguing first step to what I see as the movement to a more community-focused approach. Until now "social," as it pertains to music subscription services, meant sharing my music selections with "friends," i.e., people who populate my social network on Facebook and Twitter mostly. This is beside the point for musical misanthropes like me. Frankly, I couldn't care less what music my friends listen to. What I would like, though, is the ability to learn more -- much more -- about the jazz artists who compose the majority of my listening. I don't mean album reviews written by critics I agree or disagree with, though, and while Beats' promised human-curated plus computer algorithm play list creation sounds nice, that's not what I need either.

What I really want is a return to the 90s. No, not Smashmouth or Alanis Morissette. I mean the CD-Rom.

You remember those, right? CD-Roms provided three dimensional dictionaries and encyclopedias tossed out as multimedia extravaganzas. They never caught on, but that, I suspect, was because of the technological limitations of the time. They were still a good idea but a little too early -- and just like the failure of the Apple Newton didn't doom PDAs the death of the CD-Rom doesn't mean they weren't a good idea.

Let's use John Coltrane as an example. In the music streaming service of my dreams, I'd be able to choose an artist and see every album he's ever recorded in chronological order, as well as the option to list alphabetically or even within genres. Now, let's put aside the fact that so much of the tagging is riddled with errors. Instead we can pretend a human with knowledge of jazz curated the list to ensure accuracy and consistency. What's more, I should be able to drag and drop songs into easy-to-create playlists.

In addition, the liner notes from every album should be available, as well as a detailed John Coltrane biography with links to specific songs as they relate to his musical development, photos, reviews collected over the years, articles from Downbeat magazine and stories published in other media. I'd pay extra either a la carte or built into a more expensive subscription package for access to videos of Coltrane in concert. Why not also provide a breakdown of the equipment that Coltrane used. What kind of reed? What brand and model of saxophone did he play for most of his professional career? How about quotes from the master himself? Perhaps a great saxophone artist from today like Joe Lovano or Joshua Redman could break down Coltrane solos measure by measure and explain all the intricacies?

While we're at it, there could be a community-driven discussion forum for Coltrane fanatics to discuss the man's music, share photos, ideas, observations, opinions, and stories. From an online store I could order T-shirts, books and DVDs, framed photographs, and other stuff related to Coltrane. And for wannabe audiophiles like me, there could be the option of streaming music at CD-quality, for which I would also pay extra.

Suddenly, this music streaming subscription service moves well beyond plain vanilla audio and instead provides a 360-degree multimedia perspective on a great American artist. Plus, from the standpoint of the business, there would be tremendous opportunity to upsell.

Now, multiply this by every artist and the possibilities are almost endless.

[Image Credit: Wikimedia]