Recently, Spotify announced a host of upgrades to their service, ostensibly to compete with the pending Apple relaunch of Beats Music. They're adding video and podcast content, improved music recommendations, and most interestingly, a feature called Spotify Running that tempo matches music to your jogging pace and creates playlists on the fly (I guess for sedentaries like me, the playlist will be an endless loop of Brian Eno's Discreet Music.)
It's good to see Spotify trying to do something a bit different. Streaming music services are boring Sidney, boring, boring, boring, because they're all so similar. They offer essentially the same catalog of recordings (exclusives aside). They use similar interfaces for browsing (main pane, artist pages, search) and playing music (skip, play, volume). They use similar recommendation and discovery tools, curated playlists and "people who like this also like". It all feels very generic, like trying to decide between boxes of corn flakes at a supermarket. If you used Real Player, Windows Media, SoundJam, Liquid Audio, Winamp, Rioport, Pressplay, Rhapsody or any digital music player since the mid 90's you've seen it before.
Why is everything the same? For one, these services (and their investors) may be scared to try something new, which might be confusing to users and turn them off. They may not be willing to invest in differentiating themselves creatively because of a lack of ideas. So the listening experience hasn't really evolved, over the past 15 years, which is crazy given how much user data these services have, how much bandwidth and mobility has improved, and how much money there is in streaming media.
All of these services need user growth, because their valuation is in large part based on this (even if they're not all paying customers). If want to grow your user base without a lot of creative effort or risk, the easy way is to make your service cheaper, or free. And it's "free" that has helped Spotify grow to dominate streaming music. Spotify's free tier is contentious - does it devalue music, does it help or hurt artists, should it be abolished? It's estimated that only 15 million of Spotify's 60 million users are paying subscribers. Perhaps Spotify's efforts to add spice to their service is in part due to the fear that they might not be able to offer a free tier in the future.
All things (user interface & repertoire) being equal, consumers will naturally gravitate towards the lower priced or free streaming music service. Removing Spotify's free tier could actually make streaming music more competitive, because streaming providers would have to attract customers purely on the merits of their consumer experience (although Apple, Tidal and Spotify seem set on pursuing exclusive content as their key differentiator, which is no panacea).
Many consumers just aren't interested in a streaming music service at $10 a month, making it highly likely that prices will fall over time. But why doesn't the consumer see all you can eat access to music for less than the cost of one CD as good value? Is it because, as some people theorize, there is so much competition for a fan's entertainment dollar? Or maybe that just about any music you'd ever want is available for free on YouTube? A bit of both, probably, but also because the streaming services don't really offer a compelling experience.
Ironically, the only way a streaming music service could insulate itself from price wars to any degree is by being the one that makes users go "WOW"; the one that transcends the tired jukebox and playlist metaphors, really embraces social and user data to influence listening. It would be great if Spotify's new features hailed the beginning of a new trend in streaming music, where the listening experience has increased value and meaning, and creativity is where the competition is, not the price point.
Thanks for reading!