1. Music Futurism
I’ve spent several years of my life writing about
the future of music listening. I love to look at the world
through the lens of a music startup that has an ambition to
change current listener habits and speculate on what the shift
could mean if it actually happens. The greatest challenge of
this pursuit is that behavioral change often takes a very long
time to occur, and by the time a predicted shift begins to
fully emerge, both the world and I have likely forgotten that I
ever planted that flag in the ground.
I have woken up several times in the past couple of years to a
news story about a music startup launch or new feature release
that sounded very familiar. I look back in my blog post
archive, and, sure enough, a few years earlier I predicted that
this very thing might happen. So I email the writer with a
hyperlink to an old blog post of mine, and then he or she
updates his or her news story with an acknowledgment that I had
said it first.
And then, life goes on.
There is nothing awarded for correctly predicting that some
thing might happen at some point. Furthermore, it often takes
several more years to learn whether a music startup or new
feature will cause a behavioral shift among music listeners.
There have been many cases where I hypothesized about how a
specific feature would look and feel, and why it would matter,
only to see that some company came to realize the potential for
a similar feature and incorporated it into a part of its music
website or mobile app.
Months or years later, I grab a coffee with the startup founder
and ask him or her about this feature, only to find out that no
one uses it. Did the company get the feature right? Could the
feature have been a commercial success if it had been
introduced in a different context or incorporated into another
product? It’s hard to know. I have heard that it can take many
different implementations for a feature to catch on.
Oftentimes, the company doesn’t have enough time to test every
possible angle. Some ideas come too early and others too late,
but sometimes they arrive right on time. Timing is what every
music startup must attempt to nail or defy.
Today, many versions of the future of music exist.
Interestingly, I think this has decreased speculation about
what this future might entail and increased concern from
industry executives and indie artists about how the present
will play out.
At the start of 2011, the online trade conversation about
streaming music services was mainly based on anticipation and
speculation: What will happen when company X does X? What will
happen when Spotify finally launches in the U.S. and a free
version is offered without a trial period? Will this freemium
model lead to wider use of subscription music? What will happen
when Apple releases a Pandora or Spotify killer? Apple has sold
over 800 million iOS devices and over 800 million credit cards
on file with iTunes. How about Google, Facebook, Samsung,
Twitter, or Amazon? What will happen when these major tech
giants decide to enter the streaming music space? Will there be
a streaming music war? Who will win? As each of these hotly
anticipated and highly speculated things happened, the music
industry’s focus shifted from the next horizon to the present
A strong indicator of this shift arrived in 2012, when several
indie artists published their royalty statements online and
stirred up a heated debate about streaming payout figures. In
sum, their blog posts and social statuses said, “Look at what
Pandora and Spotify pay me right now. My royalty payments are
too small. We must discuss this issue right now.” For
months, indie artists argued with industry executives about
whether they understood how to read royalty statements and if
streaming payouts could ever support their careers. Most
artists didn’t seem to care whether they would receive more
money from Pandora and Spotify as their business operations and
revenue streams grew in the coming years. All they focused on
was how their streaming payouts compared to their music income
and whether Pandora and Spotify royalties could supplant
declining physical and digital sales. Suddenly, the
conversation about whether Pandora and Spotify were the future
of music grew into direct criticism about whether either
company’s business model was sustainable.
The only major product launch that hasn’t happened yet – that
industry executives have hotly anticipated and highly
speculated about for several years now – is Apple’s move into
the subscription music market, which is rumored to be coming in
early June. Once Apple’s revamped version of Beats Music is
officially released, the everyday music listener will be able
to choose from a cornucopia of streaming music services.
During this time, my career path changed, too. I went from
being a trade journalist who mainly covered music startups to a
user researcher who works for a startup. I went from helping
the music industry make sense of the future to developing
consumer insights into how a company’s product is currently
viewed and being used in the present.
Once someone conducts user research into music listening
habits, it forces him or her to see the user base as the people
they currently are – not who he or she thinks they are or
wishes they would be.
For example, I haven’t used iTunes to manage my music library
in six years and I haven’t used the Music app on my iPhone
because I don’t buy MP3 downloads. If I were to assume on the
basis of my own experience that other people must not use
iTunes or the Music app, I’d be wrong. The survey data I’ve
seen suggests that MP3 downloads are still a primary way that
people listen to music and that the Music app (i.e., an iTunes
library) is among the most popular music apps.
It’s easy for those in the music industry to forget that a
company’s user base – let alone, the entire rest of the world –
doesn’t listen to music like they do, or like their significant
others, close friends, or family members do. I think that
people in the music industry also forget that attention
garnered by technology blog headlines doesn’t equal brand
awareness or time spent listening among consumers.
The reason why it’s been difficult for me to write about the
future of music listening lately is that I realize I’ll never
be able to see Pandora or Spotify’s desktop, web, or mobile
apps with fresh eyes again. I know what all the buttons do and
where every menu feeds. I use some of the features, but not
others. I’ve developed my own routine for using the apps and
have already set up the radio stations and music playlists to
which I regularly listen. The reality is that thousands of
people started using Pandora and Spotify for the first time
this week, and they’re having their own unique experiences.
They’re figuring things out for themselves, and they’re
probably asking questions that seem obvious to an experienced
user but aren’t readily apparent to them.
In other words, I’ve developed a stronger sense of empathy for
music listeners, or at the very least, a professional toolkit
that helps me to feel a user’s pain when the need arises.
This sense of empathy, however, feels much, much worse
than sharing the pain of another human being and feeling what
it’s like to walk in his or her shoes. I feel disconnected from
the real world and don’t see my colleagues as regular people.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of regular people might listen to
the same Pandora radio stations when they get ready for work,
button up the same dress shirt that they purchased at Macy’s,
eat the same breakfast cereal that they bought at Target, and
drive the exact same color vehicle to work, but they go to work
in companies that are quite different from music startups.
Venture capital-backed companies don’t operate in the way
normal workplaces do. When I described my work environment to a
friend recently, he said, “What do you mean that you get a
brand-new MacBook Pro laptop and they feed you a free lunch
I replied, “I don’t know, man . . . that’s just how things work
in Silicon Valley.”
I live in Silicon Valley, a place so
estranged from reality that HBO has created a sitcom that
satirizes its disconnect.
When I still lived in North Dakota and worked at Target, I felt
more connected to the real world. Once I moved to Los Angeles
to work at Billboard , it dawned on me that I was no
longer plugged into what regular people were doing. The people
who sat by me in coffee shops weren’t a representative sample
of the rest of the country, which wasn’t writing movie scripts
and meeting up with actors to discuss their careers. Now, I
live in Silicon Valley, a place so estranged from reality that
HBO has created a sitcom with the same name that satirizes its
Plus, every birthday I celebrate adds a year between myself and
my understanding of how anyone younger than me listens to
music. I have no clue what websites or mobile apps high school
or college students use to play music. I can assume that
YouTube and Pandora are on the top of that list, and that
Spotify is rising up the chart, but not much else.
3. iTunes Music
Apple has positioned itself to own and control the entire music
listening experience: from the most desirable computer,
smartphone, and tablet to the most popular app and music store,
from the most downloaded music player to the most established
headphone and speaker brand to the most widely distributed
Internet radio and subscription music service.
Now, you might ask: “Does such a position guarantee that
Apple’s subscription music service will be a huge success?” My
answer is no, of course not. But it probably will be.
Apple has over 800 million iOS devices through which it can
distribute its brand-new subscription music service to by
alerting users to download and install the latest software
update. It also has over 800 million credit cards on file,
although Glenn Peoples, a senior editorial analyst at
said, “not all of them have [been used to] or will be used
to purchase or access music.”
According to the Apple blog 9to5mac, the subscription music
will be “integrated” into the iOS Music app and will
“function similarly” to Beats Music for iPhone in that it will
offer curated playlists, a cloud-based library, and
personalized recommendations, but it will also feature an
“entirely new aesthetic” that corresponds to that of the Music
App and iOS.
Back in 2013, Apple released iTunes Radio the same way: through
an iOS software update and Music app integration. Let’s look
into whether this strategy worked for iTunes Radio.
Edison Research, a market research firm, gave a keynote called
Radio: Lessons from America” at a radio conference in
Dublin, Ireland in March of 2014. It showed music app usage
data as well as clips of interviews in which music listeners
were asked how they discovered iTunes Radio, why they use the
app, and what they like most about it, among other things. Half
of the study’s participants (54%) “strongly agreed” that when
they saw iTunes Radio was available on their computer or mobile
device, their curiosity motivated them to try it out.
Almost all the participants interviewed said they discovered
iTunes Radio via the iOS update on their mobile devices. They
also said that they found iTunes Radio simple and easy to use;
they liked the convenience of having their music libraries,
personal playlists, and radio stations in one place; and they
loved the one-click iTunes song purchase button. Edison
Research’s “Infinite Dial 2015” study showed that in the period from 2014 to 2015,
iTunes Radio climbed from third to second place in audio brand
awareness (62%) and stayed the third in brand usage (16%).
The other thing to consider is that Apple will have a one-click
subscribe button that will auto-renew every month until users
Google “how to cancel my iTunes music subscription.”
An earlier report from the online news website Business
Insider stated: “Apple is going to
relaunch iTunes with a focus on streaming music, rather than
paying for downloads.” If this rumor is true, which is easy to
believe, since Beats Music never released a desktop app,
Apple’s new subscription music service will also arrive in an
iTunes software update.
Apple doesn’t need to deliver the best streaming music
experience to make the iTunes relaunch a huge success. If Apple
can simplify the iTunes desktop app, it’ll be a big win for OS
X users, but especially for music listeners. If Apple can add a
subscription music tier to iTunes and make it user-friendly,
it’ll prevail in disrupting itself and rival music apps.
Put more bluntly, Apple may attract more paying users to its
subscription music service than any other company has achieved
since the market’s inception in December 2001.
Apple could bring its subscription music service to the
mainstream market. It could reach the everyday music listeners
and convince them to press the “Subscribe” button. In a few
seconds, they’ll type an artist name or song title into the
search box and a track will play through their earbuds. They’ll
browse through the curated playlist section and check out the
dozens of mixes for “Classic Rock,” “Country,” and “Chilling
Out.” They’ll open up the “New Music” section to see if any
albums or songs by favorite artists came out that week.
Frankly, no one knows for sure what the new Music app and
iTunes client will do other than select Apple employees and
industry executives, but chances are good that they’ll both do
what is outlined above, with a few extra twists or surprises.
Apple is well known for innovation and iteration, but streaming
music is full of conventions. The main point is that tens of
millions of people will potentially be doing these things for
the very first time solely because a small alert popped up that
told them to update their iOS or iTunes app.
That notification – a numeral one, encased
in a red circle – is what could ignite the shift from
owning songs to accessing them.
That notification – a numeral one, encased in a red circle – is
what could ignite the long-heralded shift in music listener
habits from buying and owning songs to subscribing and
4. Present Shock
A few weeks ago, I attended a music and tech happy hour in San
Francisco, California. I soon grabbed a table with several
people, many of whom work in the streaming music space. At one
point, a friend of mine who had read my book, Promised
Land, said to everyone at the table, “Guys, Kyle is a
music futurist. He wrote a book on the future of music.”
Everyone went silent and turned their attention to me. I froze.
He asked me, “So what is the future of music?”
Normally, this question is my favorite question. Some
of my friends might even tell you that a conversation about the
“future of music” is the only one that I’m capable of having.
But at that moment, I felt dumbstruck. How was I going to
explain to my friend and this table of people that my entire
perspective on the future of music had changed? How was I going
to explain what I learned when I transitioned from being a
trade journalist to a user researcher? How was I going to
explain that I had shifted from music futurism to music
presentism? How was I going to explain that I had stopped
wondering how people would listen to music in the future and
started asking, “How are people listening to music right
Thankfully, I didn’t tell my friend and a table of
strangers my working theory about how working for a
music startup has separated me from the world that most of the
population knows as reality.
A trade journalist’s job is to develop a level of expertise
that allows him or her to write a story about the music
business that’s accessible and insightful. The journalist
interviews several experts, locks down the facts, and widens
his or her perspective. Then, after a few rounds of editing,
the story is published. In contrast, a user researcher’s job is
to determine the research methods that’ll answer the product
team’s questions. He or she creates a survey to screen for
study participants, writes a script and conducts interviews and
sorts research data and outlines key findings. Then, after a
few revisions, the deck is presented. In both cases, the
person’s job is to communicate a fact-based, objective
The big difference is that the user researcher talks to music
listeners instead of industry experts, because they learn that
regular people have more to teach them about streaming music
services than do their colleagues.
Now, let me explain my shift from music futurism to music
presentism. First off, I’m not a music futurist like Gerd
Leonhard, who sparked the whole “music like water” debate. I’m
someone who follows the streaming music space and reports on
the next big startup. It’s been over two years since I’ve
written a long-form essay, in part because my career path took
a new direction, but also because the conversation about
streaming music services has changed, too, and I’ve been trying
to figure out why the discussion feels so different.
Why did Excel spreadsheets and royalty payouts become the
centerpiece of an industry debate? Why did everyone’s focus
shift from the next big thing to per stream calculations?
The next wave of subscription music services that everyone had
anticipated and about which they had speculated in 2011 soon
arrived. Spotify launched in the U.S. Google countered with
Google Music. Sony did Music Unlimited. Twitter did #Music.
Amazon did Prime Music. Apple did iTunes Radio. Microsoft did
Xbox Music. Samsung did Milk Music. YouTube did Music Key. The
list goes on and on. One needn’t anticipate and speculate about
what these tech giants might do in the streaming music space,
because they’ve already done things. Of course, they’ll keep
doing things – unsuspected moves and surprise acquisitions –
but what everyone looked forward to then has since happened.
Industry executives and indie artists stopped
leaning forward into the future of music and experienced what
media theorist Douglas Rushkoff calls
As a result, industry executives and indie artists stopped
leaning forward into the future of music and experienced what
media theorist Douglas Rushkoff calls “present shock.”
In his 2014 book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens
Now, Rushkoff explains that “present shock” is a feeling
that people experience when a predicted future arrives. It’s
the shock of losing the lean-forward momentum and realizing the
future is now the present. It’s the shock when the
vision of the “celestial jukebox” – “music anywhere, anytime” –
is a reality. It’s the shock when the world’s biggest
companies finally enter the subscription music market. It’s the
shock when indie artists complain online about paltry
royalty payments for their creations. It’s the shock
when Pandora and Spotify go from press darlings to public
enemies. So go ahead – ask me again, “What is the future of
Here’s my answer: There is no future of music. There is only
the present moment. Apple’s subscription service launch will
mark the arrival of music’s future into the absolute
Kyle Bylin is a user researcher at
SoundHound and author of Promised Land: Youth Culture, Disruptive
Startups, and the Social Music Revolution.
MUSIC, MAARTEN HORNSTRA (CC), ON