Sony: 'If people are searching for music, we messed up'
7th Oct 2013 | 14:20
Music Unlimited's head talks Sony's stream dream
When Rhapsody announced that it was buying up Napster in 2011, there was a feeling that online music had come full circle.
Rhapsody was the first-ever music streaming service to offer a monthly fee way back in 2001; Napster was the model that in 1999 showed the world that music could be shared and distributed through the web, albeit with a complete disregard for copyright.
In a strange way the two teaming up 10 years down the line to compete with the likes of Spotify was a move that made them seem like they were late to the party. A party they had essentially started.
One person who links the music services of old to the new elite is Anu Kirk. He was one of the primary architects of Rhapsody and now is Director of Music Services at Sony, looking after its streaming contender Music Unlimited.
Kirk has been in the streaming business for 14 years and has unsurprisingly seen a lot change over time. He does admit, though, that some things have unfortunately stayed the same.
"In the early days of online music, it was built by music nerds for music nerds. We were really excited about creating this celestial jukebox. That you could have all this music was astounding and we took a particular approach," says Kirk.
"But, for better or for worse, most of the music services that exist today have copied the original Rhapsody paradigm, including the mistakes that we made. There were a lot of things that made sense in 2000 that just don't make sense in 2013."
Kirk believes that thinking users know what they want to listen to is a problem that many of today's music services are still struggling with.
"We have found that even people who are knowledgeable about music have the same complaint that people with not as much knowledge have: they can't figure out what to listen to.
"Improving this is not about dumbing down the service but it is about anticipating needs. My objective is to create the kind of service that when you show up you are like: 'how is it reading my mind?'."
Part of this mind reading is moving users away from search. Kirk believes that the search bar shouldn't be at the centre of Music Unlimited or any other service and if it is then something has gone wrong.
"Listeners have been trained to search for music - it is the most obvious way to look for songs. But I would argue in my position as an industry thinker, it means that we messed up.
"It is one thing if you are a brand new user because we don't know anything about you. But if you have used it for a short while then we should be finding the music for you.
"I see that we have this haystack of millions of songs and so far the listener has to spend their valuable time looking for music. Users should still be able to browse but the key part of the experience is presenting them with something at the start.
"If I am doing my job then most of the time, most people will be like: 'yup, got it'."
For Kirk search leads on to another problem that plagues the streaming industry - that of braggadocio. With most music sites housing millions of songs - Music Unlimited has 22 million - it has become something of a numbers game.
"When you say something like 22 million songs, there is a lot of historical inertia. In the old days services didn't have that many songs so they tried hard to get to a certain threshold.
"It has been an easy way for marketing competitions - sort of like horse power. But most people have no idea whether 22 million songs are a lot or not. The fact is that 22 million is everything that is legally available to stream and it is almost everything that you can dig up.
"But you tell people you have 22 million songs they will say: 'well, you don't have the Beatles, Led Zeppelin or AC/DC'."
There are a few music services that get it right, says Kirk. And it is those that actually have fewer albums that make the model work for them.
"Look at Pandora. Very few people criticise Pandora for not having enough music, they say it is an awesome experience," reckons Kirk.
"Its catalogue is only a million songs but it pushes it as the best million songs. From its perspective there is no value in bringing in all of this content that nobody listens to."
Silencing the critics
Whether 22 million or 1 million, there will be some that are never pleased and Kirk knows this. Just this week, Thom Yorke announced: "as musicians we need to fight the Spotify thing."
Kirk understands the issues some may have with streaming, but believes that these services have not contributed to a downfall in music sales.
"I have no problem with people criticising things and certainly every industry could do better. The music industry could do better but it is important to say that every single person that works on these music services that I know of work on them for one reason: they love music.
"There is nobody sitting around rubbing their hands together cackling about all the money they are making - they aren't making much money. At the moment it is about as financially lucrative as running a small record shop.
"Everyone is in this business because they love music and want to foster that sense of discovery, that excitement of hearing a great record for the first time. Half the people that work in this business are musicians themselves."
As for the decline in music revenue, Kirk argues that streaming isn't taking money away: "In the US, the annual expenditure is around 35 dollars. The cheapest subscription service you can get costs 60 dollars a year. So, you are saying that music services are bad because people are paying double. How can that be?"
"If you eventually get everyone on to these services, revenues would go through the roof. They add value and give you an effortless way to discover new music."
Given that music is currently dominated by iTunes with downloads and Spotify with streaming Sony has a lot of work to do to make it relevant in today's musical landscape but Kirk believes that we will see Sony become as synonymous with music once again - just like it was when the Walkman brand was in its heyday.
"I would argue that the reason Sony is in this space, and what gives it an advantage, is that music is part of Sony's history and its DNA. If a company can have an identity and a personality, I believe Sony believes music is essential and this is why it is continuing to invest in music.
"It is practically in the name. Music is a critical importance and something that matters to Sony not just in a business level but an emotional and personal level."
And how will we see this going forward? Well, it looks like the Sony PS4 may hold the key.
"Part of the plan is that with the PS4, is that just as Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited will add value to that console it will work the other way as well.
"We have worked very hard to make sure that you will be able to play music in the background of the PS4 and that is something that our users have been requesting, the number one feature, and we think that it will be a good education of how much value these types of service offer - it should do really well for us."
- Want to know what is the best music streaming service? Find out here.