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Marc Ruxin

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The Great Game of Music Discovery

Posted: 03/05/2013 3:48 pm

The wonderful thing about music is that there will always be another new band to love, and another song to rip you from reality and throw you into a more ethereal realm. With exponentially more music being made today than there was 30 years ago, music discovery has gotten considerably more difficult despite technology's great advances.

Prior to the Internet, there were only a handful of options for music discovery. These mostly focused around radio, magazines, a handful of TV shows, and word of mouth. The Internet connected a global long tail of available opinions and non-mainstream publishers like Pitchfork, or individuals posting on Twitter and blogs, which has allowed those with good taste and music savvy to build a following. Taste-making was democratized in the process, no longer being centralized amongst a handful of label honchos, journalists, and DJs. As a consequence to this, the ecosystem became increasingly fragmented, not just from a publishing perspective but also because micro-genres began to emerge rapidly as the cost of creating and distributing music dropped dramatically.

The Internet also introduced a wealth of algorithms to help navigate people towards the things they are interested in. But almost every one of them falls short by a massive margin for real music zealots. Pandora's library is too small, and as such the music becomes repetitive and needs constant fine-tuning. Apple isn't social or editorially focused enough to drive anything other than higher-level suggestions. Amazon's collaborative filtering gets you only part of the way because of shared accounts and numerous recipients of purchases, etc. Playlists are song driven and not artist driven.

In the end, there is nothing more powerful than a person insisting that you listen to a piece of music. In the past, that person was a DJ, a record store clerk, or a writer. But these music experts only a reached a small fraction of the global addressable audience largely due to analog distribution problems, and as such their influence was muted to an extent. By contrast, algorithms lack the personal imperative, the real life passion, and the basic human diagnosis that makes all the difference. Put simply, people powered music recommendations lacked scale before the modern social web and algorithms only excel in the assumptions and data garnered by scale.

But perhaps that is because we have yet to see a game built to solve the problem. The great thing about games is that they turn passive enjoyment into something considerably more active. Since games crown a winner and involve a fundamental competition, they inspire people to search harder and accumulate more knowledge, which forces discovery. For example, Risk helps you learn geography, Monopoly educates you about real estate, Scene It helps you learn more about movies, and Trivial Pursuit teaches you lots of random facts. Even social destinations like Twitter and Facebook leverage gamification to establish influence. Passionate users engage in an endless quest to accumulate more friends, follows, likes, and retweets than others in their social circle.

In music, listeners who know the most will be rewarded by finding music earlier and enjoying artists as they mature and grow more popular right before their eyes. Rock Band and Guitar Hero create a fun way to learn music and lyrics. Karaoke accomplishes the same thing. There are also unstructured music games people have been playing for years, such as the age-old quest for credit among friends, where one of them declares, "I was into that band first." But these examples don't do much to help in the discovery of what is new as much as they do to encourage you to learn more about what you already know.

However, there is one North Star that can't be overlooked. That is sports, and in particular Fantasy Sports. I would even go so far as to say that it is really the only long-term global gamification of anything -- ever. It is genre indifferent: football, cricket, basketball, soccer. It is social: leagues of friends and strangers looking for "values"(cheap players on the verge of stardom) engaged in a way that makes publishers and marketers drool over the constant updates, trades, and research that force countless additional page views to merely check scores. There are huge amounts of real-time data daily. It's global. There are limited licensing fees. But it is the forcing function of having to make moves and trades that keeps players sharp, active, and on top of every component associated with that sport.

But what if there was a fun, social forcing function that was stitched into our lives that enabled the easy and accurate discovery of music--new and old--and people who shared the same tastes? Wouldn't everybody who cares even a little about music be better off? Like Fantasy Sports but for music. It would force music fans to be proactive, daily or weekly, not just occasionally when you have that occasional new music itch to scratch. I am obviously so bullish on solving the problem with a solution that I started my company TastemakerX to tackle it.

Gamification may also solve an artist-to-fan problem merely exacerbated by social media. In today's paradigm, artists build massive Facebook and Twitter followings, but this fandom is still fairly passive and doesn't help delineate your biggest fans to the artists themselves. How do you recognize and activate your biggest fans from the massive when you have five million likes? You could do it if all of your fans expressed their passion and influence through a wide spread game. Imagine something that felt like Klout for music fans. If every fan had an influence score and artists who sounded like other bigger artists could communicate directly with the most influential fans of those bigger bands, they could be more effective in starting a revolution with those influencers. An example might go something like this: if you were a band that sounded like Wilco or Mumford & Sons, wouldn't it be great to target the 1,000 most influential fans of the those bands?

Hopefully there will be many in the digital music space who try and succeed in incorporating more social game-like elements to their experiences. Not only will a successful gamification of music help listeners find more of what they didn't know they'd love, but it should help artists sell more tickets, t-shirts and music. It will also help the criminally under-funded music tech sector. Success begets success, and well-funded companies will have time to build thoughtful, long-term companies.

Perhaps "perfect" music discovery is an unsolvable dream. In a world of virtually infinite choice, how do you find what you don't yet know exists? This post-modern self-reflection lies at the heart of the lifelong pursuit of cultural satisfaction. That said, there is a wonderfully long way to go before we should concede defeat.

 

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