Content Delivery Networks

Marrying data with the human touch to digital music

This is a contributed piece by Simon Cole, CEO, 7digital

Less than 10 years ago, IDC predicted that the ‘digital universe’ weighed in at around 130 exabytes. Next year, it will reach 7,910 exabytes. Data is perhaps one of the most important commodities available to businesses nowadays, no matter the industry. With it, they can gain the insight to build personalised and tailored services to meet the needs of their customers, and guide commercial strategy. It’s not simply a matter of having the data though; it’s about having the talent and technology to apply it successfully.

This is no truer than for the digital music industry which is currently standing on the edge of a new age of innovative services that bring together predictive radio supported by data analysis with the expertise of expert ‘tastemakers’ – the DJs and presenters who introduce us to the newest and best music. This evolution is encapsulated perfectly by Apple which has recently brought BBC Radio 1 Zane Lowe on-board to join the team for its upcoming re-launch of the Beats streaming service. In the not so distant future, we’ll look back and realise what a major turning point this was: both in terms of highlighting Apple’s efforts to establish itself as a heavyweight of music streaming and more importantly, the point at which streaming and music radio converged as a single digital industry.

For some, Lowe’s move to Apple has signalled the beginning of the end for traditional radio services; the tanks of the digital music business have officially rolled onto the manicured lawns of the radio industry. This doesn’t have to be the case if the radio industry doesn’t want it to be. Across the music industry there is a feeling that curation will be a crucial component in the future of online entertainment and will play a vital part in converting users. The result of this will be a convergence between streamed or ‘play-listed’ music, and what is currently understood as radio. Apple’s commitment to staying ahead of the game by marrying Zane Lowe’s well established capacity as a music tastemaker with their own streaming music abilities is testament to this. This won’t simply be a matter picking playlists - future ‘radio like’ services will likely bring together playlisting and predictive radio, with the kind of “listen again” radio programming that is already familiar to us on BBC iPlayer.

A new music model

It’s becoming increasingly clear that as the appeal of digital music reaches a more “passive massive”, the unlimited on-demand streaming services don’t quite work. For the attention of the mass market, they will need to adopt an approach that incorporates both algorithm-based playlists but also the recommendations of tastemakers, like Lowe, who understand what a playlist should offer. To create maximum value, the music industry needs to be able to offer services which truly meet consumer needs. This means tailored song and artist recommendations that use listener data, supported by the human touch and finesse of expert curators to provide an accurate and involving service.

So what will the digital music service of the future look like? A heavily curated radio-like experience supported by a robust technology platform and data analysis would seem feasible, where the likes of Lowe – and other DJs and presenters who I’m sure will soon follow his lead – could develop and present radio programmes for people to download and listen to at leisure whilst also allowing listeners to jump off from those programmes into more personalised playlists and other curated content. Data, in this case, will help develop personalisation that can be monetised in the form of more personal services – ultimately improving customer experience. If we consider that for commercial radio services, advertising represents the vast majority of revenues data will provide the opportunity to provide targeted promotions. Sensible and reasonable tracking of users’ interactions and habits can be used to serve more relevant advertising to each individual user.

Bringing the human touch to digital music

For the past 50 years, music radio has been the place that the vast majority of consumers visited for an easy fix of the music they wanted and radio has always been driven by the “entertain me” button.  By giving your listeners simple access to what they want, in an ordered fashion, that occasionally surprises but mostly follows a format, you will achieve loyalty.

15-24 year olds in a number of markets globally – including the UK – continue to turn to radio as their source of music entertainment, whether via mobile, services like iPlayer or good old-fashioned radio. As such, it is the responsibility of the radio industry to translate this audience into listeners for their own streaming services. Those people are increasingly listening online; in the UK 36% of this demographic say they listen on a mobile, so they are taking their radio into their digital world.  Key insights like this can be learnt through visibility and understanding of the way in which listeners currently interact with technology, through technology.

The science of data with the art of radio

Music services are evolving with the industry realising that the vast swathes of data they have amassed has the potential to create more compelling services and products that go beyond the simple ‘playlisting’ of streaming services we have today. New opportunities from wearable devices, and location or mood-based responses can really improve the digital music listening experience in a way that allows for better personalisation and massive scalability.

Through the combination of data scientists with robust technology platforms – capable of machine learning and real-time data-stream processing – sophisticated music curation and suggestion is undoubtedly advancing. While this alone would take us beyond the services of today, marrying it with the additional ‘sparkle’ which human curation brings would create a truly innovative service. Whilst there are services that can collate listener data – a presenter who is connected and in tune with the feelings and desires of their audience, like John Kennedy of XFM or Steve Smart of Kiss and their global equivalents, will have information at their fingertips to provide a real insight into the music being shared.


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