Guest Post by Anu Kirk on
But somehow you turned into the rich kid from an 80s teen
movie. You might be about to win, but nobody seems to like you.
The venture capitalists are pissed because you don’t make any
money, and you keep promising that’s going to change. The
artists think you’re robbing them, and your PR response and
outreach has ranged from tone-deaf to nonexistent. The
listeners don’t want to pay, or worse, they don’t even want to
come back for free music after a month. Even the labels
and publishers don’t want you to succeed (don’t feel
too bad about it, they hate everyone).
Worse, it feels like you’ve stopped trying.
Stopped coming up with new ideas, stopped pushing for something
better, stopped thinking. When I look at what you’ve got on
offer, it doesn’t really look substantially different from what
Rhapsody and iTunes launched nearly 15 years ago. How can that
be? How can we be stuck with the same lame UI, same ordinary
feature set, and no improvements? How can all of these
different services feel so similar, and all suffer from
You can tart yourself up with a slightly different interface
and say it’s a “revolution”, but the only thing you’ve got
going for you now is celebrity endorsements, and that is a
fickle, transient, and expensive way to live.
There are just a few kinds of companies left.
There are small, largely insignificant players desperately
hoping they’ll come up with some clever way to offer music for
free (for themselves or customers or both) and not have to deal
with full-on label licensing. Most of these companies are
getting by with tiny staffs and budgets, and have niche
audiences to match. Nearly all of them will fail. The best
possible outcome is to have someone larger, richer, and/or
dumber buy them.
Speaking of, at the other end of the scale there are the
titans: Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google/YouTube, and for
the time being, Spotify. Their current products are all rather
uninspiring. Competent, boring, nothing new. But they’ll keep
dropping prices until all the little guys are dead, and will
roll music into a larger digital media package with video,
games, books, and whatever else they can think of to further
pull users into their hardware and software ecosystems. They’ve
started on this already.
Finally, there’s the
“old guard” of companies like Rhapsody, RDIO, Deezer, Slacker,
and Pandora (you can probably throw a few more in the mix
there). If any of these businesses were really successful, we’d
all know about it. The services are indistinguishable, with the
same mobile deals, same new releases, same pricing, and
forgettable marketing. They’re all hoping something is going to
change, or that they’ll get acquired by someone before the
titans crush them.
I look at that world, at how little has changed, and I realize
there’s nothing to do. Nobody wants to build new features or
invest in building a great service. Nobody will admit the
current economics are unsustainable, but services are still
shuttering or selling for peanuts. It costs a lot to build one
of these, and a lot to run it, and you can’t make a real
business out of it in the current climate.
It’s not impossible. You know how to fix this:
Stop trying to be the same as every other music service from
the last 15 years. Stop thinking it’s enough to show up with
the same millions of songs and label-mandated featured new
releases and top artists/albums/songs.
Help people find something good to listen to. Make their lives
easier, not more complicated. Give listeners a reason to come
back weekly, if not daily. Stop recommending music to me that I
already like and already listen to.
Have a point of view. Show some style or
personality. Don’t be afraid to be for a
particular group of people, even if it means you’re less for
(or even not for) a different group of
people. If you try to be everything to everyone, you become
even blander than Wal-Mart.
Be smarter about your pricing. Nobody’s ever won a market by
berating customers for not appreciating their value. There have
to be price points between $10 (too expensive) and free (come
on!) that will work. Hire some economists, or at least do some
real experiments. Maybe “all the world’s music” is a dumb idea
when people only actually listen to 4-5 million songs. Maybe
letting aggregators monetize your server
space and CDN support (without cutting you in) is not the
smartest thing in the world.
Think about your marketing. Stop the lazy and
ineffective “x million songs
for $y each month”, the
slow-motion-crowds-cheering-“something about music” montages,
and the expensive and ridiculous artist endorsements. You might
not even need traditional marketing at all. Google didn’t.
Facebook never ran a TV commercial. YouTube never made a
Hell, somehow Netflix figured out their whole business, and to
be honest, they ain’t got nothin’ you don’t got, right? What’s
I did all I could to help you out, get you on your feet, and
give you a good start. Try not to mess it up too much.
It’s your life, music business. What are you going to do with
it? Be all bitter that no one appreciates your genius? Stand
sullenly in the back with your arms crossed watching the video
business and say “Psh. I could do that if I wanted to…”? Keep
smokin’ weed in your parents’ basement until they throw you
out? Or are you going to grow up and get real?
Yeah, maybe I’m a little disappointed in you, but I suppose
there are worse fates than growing up to be a boring employee
of a giant company like Amazon, Apple, Google, or Microsoft.
You could end up like Tower Records, for example. Or Guitar
Center. Or the book business.
I know, you’re going to start telling me about your big dreams.
I’ve heard it before. Even assuming you actually follow through
on any of it this time, I can’t get excited about any of your
plans at the moment.
I recognize that’s my problem as much as it is yours. So for
our mutual good, I’m taking a break.
I’ll check in on you from time to time. I hope we stay in
touch. I will always have a special place in my heart for you,
and every gig I play will have a seat reserved with your name
on it. Your tickets are at “Will Call”. And if you get your act
together, well, maybe…someday…
Anu Kirk was Rhapsody’s General Manager of
Product Management, pioneering the music subscription service,
PC client, and iPhone application. Most recently, he was
Director of Music Services at Sony.
He also worked on MOG’s award-winning mobile apps,
Wal-Mart’s digital music services, a video game, several
albums, film and TV scores, pro audio hardware and software, an
educational CD-ROM, and a class on 20th century music.