Say you're a big fan of Sleigh Bells (the band, not the wintertime equine accessory). Wouldn't you want to listen to whatever Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss rocked on their iPods last week?
We already have the technology to make that happen, in what could be the biggest Untapped App of them all: artist radio apps that deliver not only their music, but the artist's taste. This idea could make money for everyone involved, as I'll explain below.
All the pieces are there. All that's missing is the execution, and that probably won't take much longer.
One of the most popular ways to listen to music online today is artist radio stations on Pandora, iHeartRadio, and other services that ask a user to enter an artist's name in order to hear a station with their music as well as stuff that sounds similar. Why not go one better by including:
- what they are actually listening to by scrobbling their devices;
- hand-curated selections of what they think you should hear;
- algorithms that can build an infinite playlist based on those factors, so that listeners will never run out of tunes;
and not only the listener but the artist thumbing tracks up or down to improve the programming?
In that version of the "artist radio" concept, the station would come as its own web app (at the artist's website or Facebook page) as well as smartphone apps on multiple platforms. The apps would include not only the artist station, but also tour dates, merchandise links, the artist's tweets, and any other data feed they're generating (videos, Pinterest, Flickr, whatever).
Now for the money part. In my vision, these apps would be sponsored by brands. Yes, the apps would be free and unlimited, on the web anyway (more on that below), but you'd have to put up with an ad for whatever company pays for the app.
Not only would the brand pay for the app to be developed, but they'd pay sponsorship money on top of that to the band itself, depending on the nature of the advertisement, the reach of the band, and the demographics to which they appeal. Just about every band needs more cash these days, obviously, and this would give them a way to earn it without selling their music to actual commercials. Depending on the deal, the sponsorship could include display ads, a splashscreen that loads before the music starts, or even audio interstitials that occasionally play between songs, just like they already do on the free versions of Spotify and Pandora. And users should be able to pay extra for an ad-free version, of course.
But what about copyright? Where does all the music come from? Isn't launching something like this so complicated that only lawyers and programmers would get paid?
That piece of the puzzle also exists already: The music could come from Spotify, Rdio, or any other company that has deals with most of the labels and publishers in the world as well as an API. In the case of apps that exist within Spotify (or Rdio if it goes that route too), some of the sponsorship money would have to go to the music service provider, because hey, the ad is showing up in their app too.
Rumor and reporting has it that Spotify is already working on supporting commercial and possibly sponsored apps (in fact, that's what we thought it was announcing earlier this week, when it announced that new play button for the web). So that piece of the puzzle is just about here too. Or, if an artist/label preferred, they could build their own DMCA-compliant radio station, rather than relying on Spotify, Rdio, or another consumer-facing platform. Or they could build them on top of Pandora, iHeartRadio, or another company that already does basic artist radio.
Unlike bespoke artist apps, these ones would be cheap to build using pre-existing elements. An artist would pretty much only need a list of songs and artists they like, someone to build an app using pre-existing building blocks, and the feed information for all the stuff they're already doing online on Facebook, Twitter, Rdio, Spotify, and so on. They would then have pretty much the perfect delivery system for broadcasting their taste to music fans via apps (the way they can already do with Wahwah.fm); keeping their fans hooked in to all of their social media feeds; and selling MP3s, merchandise, and concert tickets.
About those tickets: Because the artist would "own" the app, they could use it to sell their allotment of direct-sale tickets via something like Crowdsurge, rather than hooking into Ticketmaster or another middleman. This would let them keep more of that money, and it would be possible, because their app would become a main point of interaction with their fans, incorporating everything they're doing elsewhere.
Like many ideas, this one gets easier with scale. If it takes off, all an artist or manager would have to do is opt-in to a semi-automated app-creation factory. Send in some images, the Twitter and other relevant feeds, a Spotify or Rdio name, and 50 or more hand-picked tracks, and boom - they would have an incredibly sticky promotional and money-making tool that the market has already proven their fans would use.
There is one sticking point, when it comes to building these on top of Rdio or Spotify: People need to pay for a subscription if they want to listen to the apps they power on smartphones, tablets, and televisions for longer than 30 days. That's not ideal, but it means these artist apps could generate leads for subscription services. If you love that Sleigh Bells app (and maybe some other artist apps) enough to keep using it on your phone for more than a month, you'd have to subscribe to Rdio, Spotify, or whatever else in order to keep the music flowing. If you did so within the app, the band could receive a referral fee similar to the ones Rdio already pays out when app developers send them new subscribers.
Fans would have a real reason to keep using apps like this, unlike the 94 percent of mobile apps that are no longer used after a year. The music and other content would always be fresh. And the music would always sound good to fans of that artist.
I've been saying for years that maybe some people don't want to subscribe to music in general; maybe some of them want to subscribe to bands. All the pieces are there. Someone just needs to put them together.
Image: NY Times