Yesterday word came down that, based on a few conditions, online radio platform Pandora would buy streaming music site Rdio. If Pandora simply builds Rdio's on-demand functionality into its platform, the market will now have three very similar services-Pandora, which would provide a data driven playlist "radio" service as well as on-demand listening; Apple Music, which has a curated Beats 1 radio channel as well as on-demand; and Spotify, which has started rolling out a few curated shows and also generates playlists based on artists. YouTube Music, which launched last week, also offers users a chance to pick an artist and then decide what type of listening experience they want from there.
Everyone seems to be moving toward trying to do it all-but is that what users really want? And is it good for artists, especially those who don't have big budgets or major label backing? Personally, I'm scared of a world where one company is the record label, distributor, radio station, and record store all in one.
We've seen a number of studies that show people value experiences and connections above almost anything else. They want to feel like they are discovering a great track along with a DJ and all the other listeners-there's a moment of excitement and community that goes along with hearing a world premiere or a great artist interview at the same time as others all over the world. It's really fun to watch social media when a big track makes its debut, because you can see how truly connected we all are-people are tweeting live from every corner of the globe, all talking about how excited they are to listen to something. That's the type of community great DJs can facilitate. And it makes the discovery process frictionless for those listeners who don't have hours to scrape Soundcloud for what's next.
If everyone is just listening on their own to something a machine has selected for them, it makes it a little less fun, and new artists won't be discovered until they hit some level of success or major labels put their push behind. We spend so much time with our headphones slapped on our ears listening alone as we jog or commute or run errands-there's something to be said for at least connecting with the DJ, even if you don't connect with anyone else.
For artists, a great DJ can open doors and allow great moments of serendipity to happen. I know of a guy whose track was played on a local independent radio station that happened to have a great app, and on the other side of the country, an editor at a major music outlet just happened to tune in. She heard a track about the rapper's car and it reminded her of her brother, and after a few emails, he had a big story in a major magazine and was playing at one of their showcases.
When everything is just based on data, those moments can be lost. One of the best things about the new online radio stations is that they mix everything up-you can hear multiple genres and types of artists in the same hour. When things are based just one genre, you tend to get stuck, and smaller, often independent artists have a harder time breaking through.
Hopefully the Pandora/Rdio deal will turn out to benefit artists and at least give them another outlet to make money and find fans. But as all these services regress to the mean and try to control the entire listener experience front to back, it's worth asking who really wins.