Music can't be served by machines alone any more than food can. Back in the first half of the 20th century, the Automat was popular, as in automatic food dispensaries that sprang up all over New York City. They were never successful as standalone devices but required the context of a really good cafeteria. At a certain point, the cafeteria owners realized that the cost for the operation and footprint of those banks of glass-doored refrigerators and of the excess, spoiled food just wasn't worth it. People could do a better job, more efficiently and with a greater attention to customer satisfaction.
We love our vending machines, descendents of the Automat, but they are only good for snacks that can keep, not for anything like real nutritious food. For that, you need a good diner, with smart, efficient cooks and wait staff catering directly to your needs. The Automat is dead. The same fate awaits automated music service. Take a look through Apple's ( AAPL) iTunes or Pandora or any other music service out there. You'll find a host of choices from stuff you are familiar with and a handful of things you've never heard of but are very similar. Some services even tell you, so-and-so among your friends likes this song. Spotify, if you let it, will alert your Facebook crew to your listening preferences. In a perfect world, that would be great, because friends would be sharing music that they discovered. New music would spread like wildfire, small acts would benefit as well as large. But it doesn't work. There is such a profusion of data out there, and so much noise in the data, that all of these shared listening experiences are virtually useless. At this moment, I open Spotify and it tells me "Trending near you: Taylor Swift" and beneath that, "This album by Bruno Mars is popular in your area." In the sidebar, it says, "You follow Big Sean" and "Check out Lil Wayne." Sigh. Anybody who knows me knows those names are all anathema. I admire Taylor Swift and should she evolve into a grown woman someday I may be able to take her more seriously as an artist -- but at the moment, I would rather listen to a baby cry on the subway. Same with Bruno Mars. I don't know Big Sean from Adam and have never intentionally chosen to follow him and Lil Wayne sets my teeth on edge.
Wrong on all counts. I recognize the potential in streaming music services. I get it that people are suddenly getting the music they want from those services and digital album sales are dropping. But those services aren't establishing community, they aren't yet creating shared musical experience. That is ultimately going to stultify the music industry, stymie growth and balkanize musical culture. I want to turn on a music service and find a community of like-minded souls cheering over the latest Bjork live recording or David Bowie video or some new classical or jazz recording or something completely different that I've never heard before and would never have considered but for the recommendation by a trusted voice, a friend or a reviewer. Online right now, the only place where that happens is through magazines or on my Facebook page, with no streaming service in sight other than YouTube. Streaming music, fail. It pains me to say it, but what streaming music needs is the guy shouting into the microphone, This is what you need to hear, you're going to love it; that larger-than-life personality establishing a reputation and building an audience for his own curation and entertaining salesmanship and, in turn, for a particular music. That role is vital: It establishes a platform to quickly build trust in the music and offers a broad avenue for many people to approach and share the same music at more or less the same time. It provides a focus for the social experience. I hate DJs, in general. But I find myself listening, especially to the ones who are willing to stick their neck out for style or an artist, who are looking to build an audience for themselves and bring people together around a particular music and not merely fawn over the latest industry hype. Those DJs serve a vital function. Oh yes, DJs cost money and streaming services, you say, can't afford that overhead. Well think again. As they begin to charge fees for listening, and as competition grows, Pandora, Daisy and Spotify will find they can't afford not to go that expense. They'll need to establish a strong draw and a way to keep visitors on the site. The only way to do that is with consistent, engaging personalities curating the stream. -- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in New York. Follow @CarltonTSC