Tag Archive for music

An Open Letter to Prince or Whatever You Are Called These Days

Dear Prince, Prince’s Publisher, and Prince’s Management,

Are you daft? Not as in Daft Punk – who is quite popular– but meaning “have you lost your mind?”. All of your music has been removed from Spotify and a bunch of other streaming music and video sites. And not just all of the music you recorded but anything you wrote and someone else recorded. This includes the Cindy Lauper recording “When You Were Mine” from her classic “She’s so Unusual” and the iconic Sinead O’Conner song “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Classic songs form a classic age. Great music just waiting for a new generation to discover it – and put money in your pocket.

Instead you and your publisher prefer to live in the musical equivalent of a cave. It’s dark, lonely, and you can’t see what’s happening in the real world. And in the real world services such as Spotify not only play the songs you want to hear but recommend songs that you may ever have heard of before. You know, like music written by someone in a dank cave. Let’s be honest, at this point in your career any connection you can make to young people, any time they can find your music and enjoy it, is a plus. You’re an old guy like me. If anyone in the 15 to 20 demographic runs across your music and thinks it’s pretty cool, you are way ahead. It’s certainly better than fading into obscurity or, worse, embarking on those nostalgia tours with Flock of Seagulls and Adam Ant. And if you doubt your obscurity, you pulled your music from streaming music services in July and I just realized it and I’m from your era. That’s not a good sign.

How do you think young people will find your music? From the music press? Almost no one under 40 reads music magazines, especially Rolling Stone. Even if young people are reading the music press (which will be online by the way), the music press isn’t writing about you. At least not since you changed your name back from an unpronounceable symbol that caused everyone to refer to you as “the artists formerly known as Prince.” I’m pretty sure that’s not the statement you were going for. How else? MTV? Ha! They haven’t been relevant from a music perspective in 25 years – at least! You won’t show up even on VH-1 since they ended the “Behind the Music” series. So, unless you plan to get drunk and plow your car into a crowd with a Kardashian in the passenger seat, I doubt any of these outlets will care enough to mention you.

So, let me help you out here. Young people get their music in one of two ways: through YouTube, and similar video services, and streaming music outlets such as Spotify and Pandora. In other words, the very outlets you eschew. They like to go to concerts which means we’re back to the nostalgia tour and the hope that someone in their 50s will drag their college age kids along, most likely against their will. Seriously, the technology of music delivery changed 15 years ago. No one under 45 buys CDs anymore and even digital downloads are on the way out. Just wake up and smell the bits and bytes.

And do you know why this is? Do you have a clue as to why people pay for streaming services? Three reasons. First off, many don’t. Music listeners who are not real serious about music or lack a real job don’t mind a couple of commercials if they can binge on Best Coast. Second, they can binge on Best Coast. Or R.E.M., Alabama Shakes, CHVRCHES, Stray Cats, Bryan Ferry, or even The Three O’Clock for cryin’ out loud. Except for Prince. That’s off limits.

Finally, it’s the recommendations. Whether recommendations come from friends or they come from predictive analytics, people like a good suggestion. And this is where you really miss out. Those social and automated recommendations help explain why we see teenagers and college students listening to music from the 80’s, 90’s, 70’s, or 60’s. Not the 50’s. They haven’t discovered that decade’s music yet but it’s coming.

Let me outline how this works. Someone hears a song by a band through a recommendation or a friends sends them a link to a video on Vimeo. They tell their friends about it who then go on a streaming music service to listen to it. The friends love the song too! Suddenly, they receive recommendations that basically say “if you like this band, then you might like these other bands”. On Spotify, you get a weekly playlist of recommended songs based on what you’ve been listening too. And in among those recommendations might just be one for Prince. Except that you and your publisher won’t allow these young people to discover your music that way.

See, streaming music and video services are all about reducing friction. Friction, in this context, is conceptually like friction in Physics. It’s an impediment – something that holds us back. A force against forward motion. In this case, streaming music makes it affordable to try out artists you never would have listened to, including those no longer on the radio (not that young people are listening to the radio). They make it easy to discover new artists that would have taken more effort to find than most people have patience for. In a nutshell, they reduce the impediments i.e. friction to finding and enjoying music, perhaps even your music. By removing yourself from streaming music services, you add to the friction, ensuring irrelevance to modern audiences. That is unless their parents are huge Prince fans and positively insist on playing old vinyl records for their children morning, noon, and night. Their kids will hear you but resent you so that doesn’t seem like a strategy you should hang your hat on.

Perhaps your music cave is full of money and you don’t care about royalties. Perhaps, but your cave is not full of relevance. As an artist, don’t you want to be heard? Doesn’t it bother you that there is entire generation of young people just waiting to discover your music, just waiting to hear you party like’s it’s 1999 (back in 1982), but who won’t because you and you’re publishing company are – what? Looking for more royalties? Please, get over yourself. Your heyday was 30 plus years ago. It’s one thing when a current megastar like Taylor Swift postures. It’s still not smart but she at least doesn’t need these services to remain relevant and, sadly, you do. It’s also why Bruce Springsteen continues to attract young audience members – he makes his music accessible to his fans and their friends.

So as someone who remembers your peak days somewhat fondly, I implore you, for your own sake stop the madness (but not Madness who is on Spotify and YouTube)! Allow 50-something women to send their college age daughters links to “Purple Rain”. Leverage all the predictive analytics, automated recommendation engines, and ‘bots to introduce your music to a whole new generation. Or, sit in your money filled music cave, fade further into obscurity, and let the Blake Babies become the avatar of music for the current generation.

And may God have mercy on our souls.

Spotify Knows What I Like But Not What I Want


I’ve spent a fair amount of time looking at predicative analytics. Predicative analytics is made of software, data, and a model that should forecast, or predict, something. Consumer goods and retail companies use predicative analytics to try and determine what someone will want to buy. Media properties use predictive analytics to take a good guess at what you would like enough to consume. In other words, predictive analytics tries to determine what you want. This is tricky and sophisticated stuff. It requires lots of data about individuals and people like them, an understanding of the patterns that indicate taste, and software capable of processing all of that data incredibly fast. Which brings me to Spotify.

Full disclosure: I love Spotify. I love it enough that I’m willing to pay for it. On Spotify, I can find almost – almost – any kind of music I might want. And I like a lot of music. My taste is, to say the least, eclectic. Progressive rock from my early youth, punk and new wave from my teen and college years, electronic dance music (which everyone knows is the successor to 80’s techno), 90’s alternative, modern indie, blues, early music (as in 1500’s), reggae, rockabilly and so on. When it comes to music, I’m certain to give predictive analytics engines a fit. I recognize this upfront.

Spotify has been doing a lot with analytics of late. Recently they released something called Taste Rewind. Their software asks a user to pick a few bands from a group they display and then generates a playlist from each decade from the 1920’s onward. That’s a pretty straightforward analytics and big data task. That’s not to say it’s easy to do but at the heart of it, Taste Rewind is comparing the characteristics of the artists that you choose with other artists in their database for similar matches.

Last week they added something new to their service. Called Discover Weekly, Spotify puts together a weekly custom “mixtape of fresh music”. With Discover Weekly, Spotify is trying to predict music that I want to listen to. Based on my listening history, and comparing it to others with similar taste, they put together a playlist that should – and I mean should – give me music that I want and have not heard.

Alas, it’s close but not there yet. For the most part, the music is serves up is music I like a lot. That’s good. I don’t like all of their picks but I think that’s impossible. No forecast, whether human or software generated, is going to be 100% accurate. The bad is that little of it is particularly new to me. Of the 30 or so songs in a Discover Weekly playlist, on average I’ve heard probably 28. The worse is that, while it’s all good music, it’s not necessarily what I want to hear. Just because I like The Clash doesn’t mean I particularly want to hear them now. Instead of Discover Weekly, it should be called “Music that you probably like but might not be in the mood for right now” Weekly. That would be a terrible brand name though…

And this is the heart of the problem with predicative analytics. Humans are so complex that trying to determine what they want is too hard to do. It’s a gamble at best. Discover Weekly probably works for a great many people, especially those with limited taste. For listeners who have wide tastes and really get into their music it’s probably impossible to predict what they want to hear at any one moment. Unfortunately, those are likely to be Spotify’s best customers. They are the customers who really want to discover new and interesting music, and are willing to pay for it, whereas the teenage Beyoncé fans only want to know what’s popular.

Discover Weekly should get better over time as Spotify refines the data model and adds new sources of data. It will never be 100% accurate but hopefully will figure out how to server up really new tunes.

It will be at that moment when they kick Apple Music right to the curb.