Tomorrow, January 21, yet another streaming music service will start competing for market share with Spotify, Pandora and others. (Really? Another one?) And while each new entrant tends to create some boot-rattling, this one seems to be making more waves than others. Beats Music, the latest installment in the Dr. Dre/Jimmy Iovine audio franchise, promises a whole new music listening and music discovery experience that, if it does what it claims, could truly give current streaming service giants a run for their money (or lack of money, as the case may be).
How much anxiety is being generated? Well, let’s put it this way: while Beats Music will be an entirely paid subscription service (with a one-month free trial), current streaming services have begun expanding their free services in an attempt to compete—before Beats even hits the market. Last week, for example, Spotify dropped its listening limits for its free version of the service, followed by Rdio’s announcement that it will offer an ad-based free version for web users.
So what’s all the hype about? And is it warranted?
The big selling point of Beats Music will not be how many songs are in its library (it’s competitive, but not massive), but rather how the songs are selected and delivered to the listener. Yeah, computer algorithms that “guess” the listener’s preference based on use have been around for awhile, but they aren’t foolproof. (Have you ever had Pandora feed you a song that made you go, “WTF?” Happens all the time.) In response, Beats Music executives tapped the creative leadership of Trent Reznor to offer a more elaborate approach, supplementing computer algorithms with human curators. Its “Right Now” feature is a perfect example: Beats will ask you where you are, who you’re with, what you’re feeling, and what type of music you’d like to accompany that scenario—then marry that information with general data like your age and your listening history to generate a playlist it thinks you’ll really like. Pretty smart, eh?
So is this just another gimmick, or will it be enough to siphon customers from Spotify and Pandora? The current players seem to think the latter, which is why there’s so much boot-rattling and strategy-shifting. And in theory, perhaps they have a reason to be nervous. It’s an elaborate concept, and if it works, Beats Music could become a real competitor. Add to this the fact that they’ve got financial backing and an instant market by teaming with AT&T’s wireless service, and it’s enough to get all the major players nervous.
But then again…we’ve been here before, haven’t we? Barely four months ago, the streaming giants were rattled by the entrance of iTunes Radio, and so far we’re not hearing about catastrophic drops in subscribers or revenue. And you almost never hear anyone talking about Google Play Music All Access, which was also supposed to be semi-catastrophic when it showed up last May. While numbers may shift a bit here and there, so far it seems that either the newcomers haven’t grown enough to become a threat, or that the streaming market is still growing fast enough to accommodate new players without causing saturation.
So either Beats Music will rock the still-fragile streaming music market as it has been advertised to do—or it will be non-event like the others. We won’t have to wait long to find out.