Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Web 2.0? I'm still waiting for the music sites to catch up...

So there are plenty of ways to buy music online. I finally caved after holding out for years when my 80GB Neuros II arrived with a coupon for eMusic (why I picked the Neuros is another topic entirely, but I can say that I am extremely pleased with my choice). Let me first say that I really like eMusic a lot. I've been a subscriber since November 2005 and have gotten my money's worth times five. I'd looked at places like iTunes and the new Napster, and I was continually (and still am) unimpressed at the selection they provide. However, since eMusic is shunned by all the major labels, it is often only useful as a place to discover new stuff, and not so much a place to look for specific items. Why? Because eMusic doesn't treat you like a crook. They offer value instead of limitations. They don't shackle you down with DRM, which is why the Big Labels won't do business there (as if you can't readily download all the Big Labels' music already). As I've noted before, they are the second biggest (legal) music download site in the U.S.. Betcha didn't know that. Even I was completely surprised, and I've been an avid fan of their service for almost a year.

Anyhow, iTunes was probably the first breakout success of selling music electronically, but lots of others are joining in, making what appears to me to be a marketplace that is getting more crowded with indistinguishable choices.

Here are the four things I think no one is successfully doing... yet:

1. Thinking BIG.
2. Using imagination.
3. Doing something more than copying iTunes.
4. Targeting more than the casual music fan

If I were to design a music system, for instance, (it's one of my biggest interests, so I like to talk about it), I would want the following features:

1. Very comprehensive selection. This is something nobody does in my opinion. I'm talking about an amount of information similar to the Gibraltar Encyclopedia of Progressive Rock which is a resource that's been around for at least 10 years (on and off) and is one of the best sources of information for that genre. Looking at services like Napster or iTunes, 80-90% of what I look for is not there... and I'm not necessarily looking for really obscure stuff. It seems if it's not new, there isn't a very big chance either site will have it. Neither of those services are particularly "long-tail" about their offerings. I want everything. I want to be able to look up singles Pink Floyd released that never made it on to an actual album. I want to be able to find the discography for (to pull an obscure name off the top of my head) Itoiz, a Basque rock group from the mid-late 70's. I want to purchase the record Journey released solely to its Fan Club back in the 70's. Right now, you can get 10 times the selection on Amazon, if you're willing to pay for (and wait for) shipping physical media.

2. Detailed discographies. I would want not only a listing of what records the artists released, but when, and preferably in what format (LP, tape, CD, etc), including track times. And this is just the beginning. I would want to see track listings, writing credits, and most importantly for much of the music I personally enjoyed, who played what on each track, especially guest artists who might have contributed. I want to be able to say "Gee, the guitar player on this Stu Hamm song is really good, I wonder who he is and who else he's played with." Often the CD's liner notes will give you this info, but my CD's are all stuffed in boxes. I only carry around my Neuros, which doesn't have any of that info. If I hear a song on the radio I like (very hypothetical here, unless we are talking about the classical station), it would be cool to look up the song and find out who wrote it. Maybe that person has written for other artists and I might be interested in that stuff. What side projects is Mike Portnoy involved with these days? Who has Tony Levin done session work for recently?

3. Lyric database with full-text indexing. This would be a great resource for figuring out exactly what the heck Elton John is singing in some of those classics of his, but perhaps more useful is being able to locate a song by the lyrics. Again, there's the scenario of "I heard something on the radio, and I didn't catch the artist, but the refrain went like this..." and identify the song.

You might want to have a song with certain topics for a wedding reception (I personally used John Lennon's "Grow Old With Me").

Maybe your sweetie's name (like mine) is Jennifer... are there any songs that use that name? Styx did one? Hmmm, not too appropriate. What else is there...?

It could answer long-held questions in music history... Did he really sing "The chair is not my son."?! Is "Louie, Louie" really dirty or is it just some weird pseudo-Jamaican patois? Did he just sing "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy"?!

4. Correlation with other media. iTunes does a bit of this from what I understand, but I envision it as being much more complete. What was that song I heard on so-and-so show (I won't embarrass myself by pointing out that the most recent show I could think of with a lot of musical content would be "Miami Vice")? Who does it? What album is it on? Who did the soundtrack to that movie I just saw? Who sang the "Gilligan's Island" theme song? Did they do anything else interesting? (For the first season it was The Wellingtons, who had a schedule conflict when they changed the theme for season 2 and couldn't do it again, but they showed up later as The Mosquitoes).

Did you know Mike Keneally once did a beer commercial? It's really cool, too. That kind of stuff would be linked. Of course, you can take link to other media a bit further: Adam Ant did a (non-musical) guest spot on "Sledge Hammer" in season 2. Who were all the jazz musicians that Bill Cosby introduced on his "Cosby" show as older relatives of his? IMDb is a great example of this kind of comprehensive linkage, except it only covers movies and television.

5. Reviews. I didn't realize for quite a while that eMusic's formal reviews are from All Music Guide, but regardless, they are really good. The reviews are well-written, detailed and thorough, and the reviewers are obviously very literate in the genres they review. Good detailed reviews are useful not only to help evaluate a particular piece of music, but also as a great jumping point to know where else to go from there (see #6). User-contributed material is, of course, very important. Feedback on reviews, similar to IMDb would be a good thing, as well as allowing users to acquire a reputation based on the quality of their reviews based on feedback from other users. User reviews are often more useful than profession reviews, because let's face it, who really cares what those pseudo-intellectual erudite snots think... will it play in Peoria? ;-)

6. Recommendations. This is another example of something eMusic does really well. They have two levels of recommendations. The first is like Amazon's, where they list "people who purchased this also purchased that". I've logged a lot of what I own into Amazon just to get improved recommendations from them. It's pretty tedious, but the results are sometimes very interesting and useful.

But eMusic also has extensive linkings to related artists, along with the ability to browse by very granular categorizations. For instance, "Rock" is not a genre: It is about 20 genres (and even that is conservative, you could probably come up with 40 without getting too obscure). It amazes me that some of these sites have a dozen classifications for different flavors of electronic or dance music (many of which boil down, essentially, to permutations of a single song), but lump everything else into "Rock" or "Rock/Pop".

For me, browsing by "Rock/Pop" or "Jazz" any of the other overly broad categories most sites use is essentially useless. By what standard are Herbie Hancock's "Head Hunters" and Ella Fitzgerald in the same genre? What about Simon and Garfunkel compared to Dream Theater? A fine-grained system of classification is a recommendation system unto itself.

Another good source of recommendations would be in the artist's biography itself. Who are the artist's influences? Who does he or she like? Looking at section 2, who has he or she worked with?

7. High-quality electronic downloads. I'm not one of those audiophile freaks who claims to be able to tell the difference between 320Kb/s MP3's and mint-condition, laser-tracked vinyl playing through a tube amp, but I would often pay more for the option of better (or even lossless) compression. Mindawn is the only place that I know of that does this, which is a shame. I think a lot of people would like this option. Even if that amounts to 5% of your customers, that could be a hefty increase in your revenue.

8. Topical and timely updates. Are any of my favorite artists in the news? Do any of them have a new record coming out? Are there any concerts in my area that I might be interested in? In each case (as with all of these features), there is a link to information that will be both interesting, and likely to lead to increased sales. The difference is that everything is tied together in a way that no one has quite accomplished yet.

There is nothing here that couldn't be done technically today. The worst problem is probably organizing all of the necessary information. So why isn't anyone doing it? Is it the best we can hope for to have 28 places to buy and download Britney Spears music, but nowhere to buy The Flower Kings?

I still feel like I'm missing something insanely useful and obvious, but since this is already a lot more than any current site does, I'll settle for what I've already got.

Is the "Long Tail" real or is it just another marketing fad?


wes said...

i love emusic. it trumps iTunes in almost every way, especially if you are independent minded. if they got more major labels to sign up with them more people would turn away from Jobs and co.


ConceptJunkie said...

Wes, the problem isn't eMusic, the problem is the labels themselves. Rather than embrace the new market, they would rather plug their ears and sing loudly (and badly) while the very thing they are desperate to prevent, to the exclusion of providing value (and respect) to their customers, goes on all around them.

In the meantime, I'll continue digging my eMusic subscription and only pay the RIAA when I "absolutely have to" (i.e., when the new Spock's Beard is released next month).