Music consumption

18Apr06

I talked a bit about the dichotomy of "music matchmaking" back in January, in my initial explanation of the tagline for this blog. People generally find music of interest either through search (locating a song they already know about) or discovery, broadly defined (getting turned on to a new song or artist not previously known). Of the two, I think discovery is much more interesting and challenging. Despite the fantastic potential for online music services, music discovery is still relatively difficult, and at least anecdotally, many still rely more on friends than any other source to learn of great new music (whether the music itself is new or old). This music matchmaking dichotomy is mirrored by a music *consumption* dichotomy.

In Fred's post on Saturday about types of music consumption, he notes, "I go in phases when I want to control my music and when I want someone else to play music for me." I think this is true for most folks, as people typically consume music in one of two ways: (1) passive, radio-style listening to music of a known category of interest (radio format, genre, favorite DJ, or "myself" in the case of personalized radio like LAUNCHcast and Last.fm), or (2) active, CD-style listening to owned music of interest. I suspect most people have a certain ratio of passive/active listening, depending on the size of their music collection and their mood, interest in music vs other uses of recreational time, general propensity for the "risk" involved in new music discovery (in terms of investment of time and energy), and technological and cultural savvy. For many who've been living with P2P for 7 years and/or iTunes for 3, most *known* content of interest to them has already been searched and downloaded, if it wasn't already owned. Hence the importance of discovery for such early adopters. OTOH, my parents aren't terribly interested in tuning into new music; they'd just as soon listen to music they already own on records and CDs.

But why is radio in particular (in whatever form of delivery) so important for music discovery? Because music is an experience good in economists' parlance (check out Information Rules by Hal Varian and Carl Shapiro for more on the subject), meaning that consumers must experience it to value it. Apart from loyalty to a particular artist, most consumers will not buy a new album without hearing something from it first. Even 30-second samples are not really enough to truly appreciate a new music work. In fact, even one listen to the full track is often not enough. And, unlike most video-based content, music retains (or even increases) its value to a consumer over time, mitigating the risk that exposure could cannibalize sale. This is why "programmed" radio-style listening is important. Of course, beyond music discovery, there can be value to music-based radio, in that people can hear music they own or already know about but just couldn't recall top-of-mind to play or acquire. But it is music discovery that can differentiate a great radio experience from simply putting all or a subset of one's existing music collection on shuffle.

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