How To Fix Digital Music’s Second Screen Problem

The low number of paying music subscribers aren’t able to offset the tremendous costs associated with running these services. Could the music industry fix its online engagement problem the same way TV did?

As it stands—in September of 2013—the future of streaming music isn’t bright. Artists aren’t making enough money off the royalties to sustain efforts, let alone put gas in their vans, because there aren’t enough paying consumers showing up to make the numbers work. Looking at other forms of struggling media, live TV was in a similar death spiral as the medium increasingly became on-demand. For live TV however, the second-screen phenomenon kicked in and community has kept people tuning in at specific times in order to follow along with the online conversation. Music, specifically streaming music, needs to invoke the second screen, gathering people together online giving them a reason to consistently pay $10/month for vast catalogs of music.

In a recent filing to sell more stock shares, Pandora let loose—by law—some of the troubles they see in the future. The Verge’s Greg Sandoval reports one of the most concerning, "Possible slowdown in advertising revenue and listener hours" went one apocryphal excerpt. If Pandora is in fact bracing for a decline in listener hours, all streaming services should be worried.

There are apps or sites that have subtly addressed collective group listening, but few have taken it on directly. The ones that have, like Turntable.fm, are hardly treading water. One notable highlight is Twitter, whose usership has been able to turn quick quips into useful commentary on different forms of media including Twitter Music, making it a great media companion and a perfect value-add for streaming music.

Last week I stumbled onto Twitter Music’s product manager, Stephen Phillips, participating in a live listening party on Twitter. Using a hashtag to follow along, the group event was led (DJed if you will) by Rick Damigella, also known as @LinerNotes. Asked about the event, Damigella had this to say:

I began doing formal, organized listens in August 2011, when I started a music holiday I called #AlbumAugust. The idea being I would review an album every night, track by track, on Twitter. I would share a legitimate streaming link with my followers and we would sync up and listen together. I would later take these tweets and turn some of them into full album reviews on my blog. To my knowledge, there is no one else out there doing what I do. If there is, I've never heard about it and my most dedicated followers would definitely tell me if they found someone else doing it.

Could real-time engagement be the savior streaming service is looking for? It’s plausible. Imagine artists, producers, recording engineers all leading different live listening events for music albums. A musical version of DVD’s director’s cut, if you will. Rdio, Spotify, and even Rhapsody should have been using Twitter to pioneer these events and create demand for their services, instead of relying on people to see the obvious benefit of access to millions of songs. Streaming services are finally turning to software and developers as differentiators, instead of their catalogs, but they also need to figure out better ways to encourage online group engagement, something music has always thrived on.

Streaming music is clearly the future in some regard, and having access to almost every song at a moments notice is too valuable to just disappear. Unless more user engagement kicks in though, streaming music’s future will only look like Rhapsody’s recent slashing of staff and Pandora’s less than optimistic outlook.

If Spotify, or others are looking for that group listening hashtag, they can use my suggestion: #ListenWithMe.

[Image: Flickr user KT King]

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  • Chris Kelly

    I think a point has been missed: '[music] needs to invoke the second screen' …actually it doesn't. 'gathering people together', yes, thats a key part of amazing music based experiences…and venues, clubs & festivals have is covered perfectly. This leaves online services mentioned above with no problem to fix other than lining their pockets. And thats got nothing to do with music. 

    The reason music online like Pandora & Spotify might not be doing that well is because, they suck. They mistake 'access to the library' (the means) for 'reading a book' (the ends). The successful areas of music right now are where the artists & producers are not only independent but running their own shows. The internet becomes a promotional tool to get people to, (shock, horror) go to events and actually meet people in real life.

    Music is more than 'the industry'. Since the internet shook everything up I and many others have enjoyed music in a more open, freer and better way than its been for nearly a century. It turns out that removing a bunch of soulless business men and managers from the process makes the music better. End of story. My generation is the last to have memories of 'the first CD you bought'. Even though Im a designer and love CD/Vinyl designs, its not always required. its an invention of the industry.

    A fundamental part of music is to experience it in groups, all the online services that are struggling are failing to meet that need. (and in many cases pushing people apart, like Facebook does).