Streaming Towards 2018
Hope y’all are doing well. This week was supposed to a piece I'd been sitting on for a bit, but a cluster of streaming news last week made me wanna talk about that, so that mysterious post is delayed another week. Instead, this week I’m gonna try and make a few coherent thoughts about streaming music headed into 2018. If you like this newsletter share with your friends and please let reach out to me for any comments, suggestions, or even tips. Would love a scoop.
Apple bought Shazam for $400 million. YouTube is rumored to be starting a new music streaming service, code named “Remix.” Spotify and Tencent swapped stakes with each other. And I’ll also throw in that Musical.ly was bought by Toutiao, a Chinese social media company, a couple weeks back as well. All of this together just feels like a good moment to think a little about where a few of these companies are headed.
I’ll start with Apple. Initial reports of Apple buying Shazam noted that they were getting the song-recognition app for well under their $1 billion valuation. Now, a 2015 Verge headline said a bit of why that shouldn’t been too shocking: “Shazam is now worth more than $1 billion despite not making any profit.” A number of articles about Shazam’s valuation took it at face value leaving it comment sections to yell “Bubble,” “VC foolishness,” “They can’t be worth that,” which what to do you know the nerds were right. Nearly two decades old, Shazam’s most known product of song recognition software faced competition from Google and other companies who were able to somewhat match it. That’s why I assumed two rather different reasons for the purchase.
Cherie Hu of Billboard pointed me to a Atlantic article that mentioned the “Shazam Effect,” the catch all phrase to describe the app's listener data. That’s why the Mark Mulligan said that this purchase was Apple Music getting their own equivalent of the Echo Nest in being able to collect even more information. But, part of me actually finds this slightly more interesting, because Shazam potentially could track and follow songs that aren’t even on Apple’s internal radar and I wonder how that kind of information could affect playlists. Still, that’s just one thought and certainly one if I was on the Apple Music team I’d find interesting, but again I’m nosy and love collaboration.
The other side was as Venturebeat observed was simply about voice and Siri. The idea of further integrating voice into the Apple’s ecosystem. That certainly reasonable, but I on a deeper level connect more towards the Shazam for Brands projects which was combining voice with marketing, which is the entire point of voice anyway. This is pretty afield of music streaming and maybe I’m extracting too far, but if voice and augmented reality are where these companies are moving, then Shazam wasn’t just bought for improved song listening.
A similar thought entered my head reading about Spotify and Tencent swapping stakes. Right now Spotify appears to be ever closer to IPO—a holiday tradition in the music business press—despite the fact they continue to show little ability to make streaming music work. A few conversations last month revealed how woefully behind I am in understanding the Chinese streaming market. Still, the market’s size would tell me that there is no way Spotify wouldn't play a long game to establish footholds in the country. This stake swap along with Apple’s purchase of Shazam, shows a couple companies trying to find what is truly next. Playlists are the hot trend of 2017, but this is music and all trends eventually fade.
That’s why rumors of YouTube reestablishing their own streaming service feels so odd to me. I love YouTube, but increasingly I wonder if YouTube, or Google for that matter, understands why I like their products. YouTube remains the most exciting library of recorded music and images. Apple and Spotify might have fuller official catalogs, but the amount of music videos, remixes, concert footage, and fan generated content makes their competition awfully dull and isolated.
That’s why I laugh when I see Apple Music or Spotify throw money at lavish music documentaries, when I can already watch full concerts and countless interviews on YouTube. There is this strange misreading of the kinds of video people want to consume, because these videos are relatively static and non-interactive, especially compared to the YouTube reaction community or the major EDM channels. Not to completely dismiss the style, but a few big artists docs won't build up an audience or a community in the same way these other videos on YouTube are able to. They have different aims, but one feels rooted in 2017 fan culture and the other in 1977.
The content I’m highlighting on YouTube is often outside of the scope of labels, but that’s what’s so great about YouTube: Community. The last few weeks have been fairly grim for content creators ranging from YouTubers concerned about more ads being pulled and Patreon changing their billing system in a way that actively hurt small time creators and supporters. That’s why I really hope this new YouTube streaming service acknowledges the advantage they have that other services lack. I’ll go out on a limb and say YouTube must know that, but the scant details of this project showed little hope that it was pushing towards a more creator driven world.
All of these companies appear to still be figuring out exactly what is their next move. Spotify needs more scale, so connect to China. Apple wants to move more into voice, buy Shazam. YouTube, still the largest player in this space, wants better footing with labels, so start another paid streaming site. Even though they issued no public statement, despite my emailing, those chorus-only videos were an effective middle finger to Lyor Cohen and YouTube, so perhaps they’d like less of that. Obviously all three of these companies will continue to headbutt each other, but I didn’t mention Amazon this entire piece, and if that three way fight is going to open up, then they’re ready to make a dent in the space.
Links 2 Read
Streaming Music Why Royalties Are Only A Trickle - The Irish Times
Royalties are a topic that I probably won’t ever get to spend a ton of time on here, and especially not from another country, which is why I found this article on the Irish music industry particularly interesting. Now the author does give me a shout out at the end, so forgive the slight bit of arrogance.
Spotify’s RapCaviar Picks The Hits Of Today & You’ll Never Be On It - TrackRecord
Again sorry for the self-promotion, but I’ve been chatting about RapCaviar for so long that I’m happy this piece finally came out. Honestly just happy to give a little context/explanation about one of the biggest playlists in the world and how it actually works sans media narrative BS.
The Return of the Techno Moral Panic - The New York Times
I’ll admit that part of this newsletter was inspired by John Herrman’s work at the Awl and what he does currently at the Times, so this feel very on the nose. Still this history lesson is a nice reminder of when the internet wasn’t everything, as a way of understanding why we’re now asking more questions of the companies that made the internet everything.
YouTube Review 2017 You Can’t Ignore PewDiePie - Medium
Well, that leads nicely into this piece by Julia Alexander that explained the current controversies and issues that plagued YouTube this year. While “Fake News” and “Russian Hacks” continue to swirl around the other tech giants, YouTube’s issues appear a bit more homegrown from exploitative child videos or that their biggest cultural output is an annoying loudmouth (PewDiePie) that says racist shit. YouTube’s year in review is sadly fairly bleak.
YouTube Made Hundreds of Thousands Off Of Bizarre And Disturbing Child Content - Buzzfeed
Lastly this Buzzfeed piece about people behind some of those highly popular child exploitation videos is so wild. Part of me has to remember that a show called “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” where it was just a half hour of people harming themselves and kids doing dumb shit, but I guess the internet’s version of that is fairly gross. That gross content model filtered through YouTube’s algorithm is more than a bit unnerving. I could end this by saying all these companies are bad and actively pray on people’s worst instincts, but then we’re back in the world of a Techno Moral Panic.