The New Musical Functionality…

07/17/2004

Over the last few months webloggia has been full of discussions about the new musical functionality that’s starting to emerge around the web. I wasn’t immune from this trend – I wrote about MediaUnbound (On MediaUnbound and Recommendations Engines) and linked to the (currently pretty awful) Music Recommendation System for iTunes. Dan Hill has also been talking around the subject, talking about first Socialising mp3-based music listening and then about whether whether recommendations scale. And those minxes over at 2lmc linked and commented upon the views of people who are suggesting better ways that iTunes could handle transitions between songs. And of course the new version of iTunes and the iTunes Music Store also now has the user-generated iMix feature – standard web-native functionality which allows people (and now people in the UK, France and Germany rather than just the US) to put mix tapes on the web where other people can rate and/or buy them. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg…

Then of course there are the staples of this new musical functionality – from the rapidly-becoming-indispensible audioscrobbler (which uses the flexibility and granularity of net-enabled MP3 playing devices to create charts, lists and recommendations) through to the self-generating radio stations like last.fm and launchcast. And then there’s all the little hook-in tools like iChatStatus (publish current listening to iChat’s presence display) and Kung-Tunes (publish current listening to the web) that have slowly becoming integrated into my life without my really noticing how they all hook together, communicate, branch off and build upon each other.

All this new funtionality is emerging at the same time (or at least starting to be adopted at the same time) because we’re beginning to see a world in which a decent number of early adopters are now starting to do a substantial portion of their listening on digital devices. Obviously the iPod has been the major success story here – the definitive product that has been encouraging people to do the necessary work to transfer their music into more easily manipulatable digital files. But the increasing prevelance of broadband and wireless connectivity is helping too – becauase it’s the connection of these appliances to the internet that has created the explosion in interoperable, interconnected devices, applications and people. Clearly, the number of people listening to music through these channels is still tiny compared to the entire music-consuming public. There may be many people using iPods, but there’s still an adoption path for moving all your listening into digital jukeboxes and being perpetually connected to the internet (ubiquitous, always-on, non-computer-centric internet in the home is a bit of an obsession of mine at the moment).

But this small proportion looks like it is set to grow. One of the first questions you have to ask yourself in any organic R&D role (which is I think how I’d characterise what I do) is am I a freak or am I an early adopter? You have to have some sense of how much your instincts and excitements are in tune with real people in the world because otherwise you cannot possibly evaluate how those people might respond to the products, concepts or propositions that you think are exciting. In this case, it’s becoming fairly clear that people who are listening to digital music and in connected ways are very definitely more like early adopters than they are freaks. They’re pointing in roughly the right direction. And there are now enough of them that it’s becoming more and more worth people’s time to build little tools or widgets or applications or paradigms or appliances or business models around them. Which in turn appears to be making the whole area still more attractive, creating a feedback loop that is pulling more and more people towards new ways of listening. I don’t want to sound too cheesy but I’m afraid I can’t help myself – it’s pretty clear that we’ve reached a critical mass and that new musical functionality is about to explode. The only question now is what will be there when the smoke clears?

Over the next few days I’m going to write about some of the core trends that I’m seeing in people’s use of digital music, attempting to extrapolate from some current behaviours that we’re all observing around us – concentrating on how people wish to interact and use their music. I’m not going to spend too much time on the way some people may wish to legislate against these desires or build around them – because I believe for the most part that any attempt to do so will inevitably fail. Competing models that more adequately fulfil those needs will rise to take over in their place. The model that meets the most needs (while having the least obvious incumberences) will probably win in the really long-term, even if the market, commercial advantages or monopolist practices deform it in the short to medium term.

I’ll be talking about four major areas that seem to me to be indicative of the unevenly-distributed musical functionality of the future – (1) portability and access, (2) navigation, (3) self-presentation and social uses of music and (4) data use and privacy. These trends within these areas are – I believe – representative of much larger trends across the consumption of all text-based, audio-based and video-based media and so it might be possible to draw conclusions beyond the consumption of music. I am however not planning to do so. And I make no claims that these areas of enquiry are absolute or canonical, or that there are no other areas that I should also be investigating. All I’ll argue is that these four areas are core to the movements that we’re currently seeing and that they are each likely to play themselves out in the product designs, interface designs and business models of the near future.

Of course what comes after that remains to be seen…

Tomorrow: The New Musical Functionality, Portability and access