Let’s talk: How Apple’s Homepod, Amazon’s Echo and voice recognition are changing the music industry as we know it

The following MBW blog comes from Sammy Andrews, the CEO of UK-based creative digital agency Deviate Digital. During her career, Andrews (pictured inset) has previously held senior digital roles at the likes of 19 Entertainment and Cooking Vinyl, and is a former Director of Entertainment Intelligence. Here, she observes how smart speakers from the likes of Amazon, Apple, Google and Sonos are set to turn the music business upside down…


2017 was in many ways an amazing year for the music industry.

We finally saw a return to growth fuelled almost entirely by the uptake in streaming. We also saw the continuation of a significant move to mobile first with consumption levels of music scaling heights we’ve never seen before that will undoubtedly only grow further.

But where next?

In my last article for Music Business Worldwide – joining the dots between streaming and the live industry – I predicted many of the things that we have seen since, including services making better use of all of the wonderful streaming data.

(It appears that some of them are feeding that data back to rights holders quicker and more efficiently than others… ahem… but that’s a subject for another day.)


Today I want to talk about the next phase of our industry and the next phase of streaming consumption – and it won’t necessarily be via our screens.

In my capacity as CEO of Deviate Digital we analyse digital innovation and opportunity in the entertainment industry on a daily basis and work with clients to make sure their business is future-proof. If you’ve seen me speak on a panel or interview the past year, you’ll know voice activation and machine learning are a big part of those current trends.

The music industry, along with the rest of the world, is entering the age of artificial intelligence and smart assistants. Having spent ten years looking down at our screens, our heads – much to the delight of chiropractors everywhere – are finally raising back up and we’re using our voices.

“Having spent ten years looking down at our screens, our heads – much to the delight of chiropractors everywhere – are finally raising back up.”

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 12 months you will be aware of the unprecedented development and take up of virtual assistants and smart speakers. Make no mistake: these devices and this technology will have a profound effect on our industry across all sectors.

A recent survey from Adobe Analytics discovered that the most popular activity on voice controlled devices is, yep, you guessed it, playing music.

That’s pretty important for us as an industry if you consider that as I write this there are an estimated 39 million smart speakers in the USA alone.


During CES conference in January this year, Pandora CEO Roger Lynch said Pandora listening on voice enabled devices was up 300% year on year. And in December, the BBC launched its first full voice app for voice-controlled smart speakers.

What does this mean for the music industry? Read on…


1) DATA & CONTEXT

First and foremost, it is time for the industry to sort out its metadata once and for all.

We saw a huge surge in data tagging the past 10 years to allow for digital discovery on download and streaming services. Somewhat alarmingly, many companies are still in the process of doing that in various capacities as I type, (and yes that includes major labels if you were wondering – as well as the services themselves).

Entire catalogs have to be tagged to account for people searching for and interacting with music in ways that far extend the song title or artist (not to mention credits and meta data that allows rights holders to be paid).

We’re seeing search terms for music change beyond anything we saw five years ago – context is now a big part of music interaction.

We have music to work to, eat to, dance to, relax to, fuck to and, of course, let’s not forget the ever-popular music to sleep to; who would have thought our industry could make so much money from sleep playlists?!

“We’re seeing search terms for music change beyond anything we saw five years ago – context is now a big part of music interaction.”

Mood and activity playlists opened up an incredible discovery route for both frontline releases and catalog tracks and continues to do so more by the day. But beyond that – and specifically in voice-activated search – there is so much work to be done to ensure music can be discovered by people asking, well, just about anything they can think of.

Unfortunately, most of that information isn’t in there yet.

That new kind of tagging includes lyrical content as opposed to just lyrics. A voice request to “play me music about sunny days” requires lyrical content data; “play me sad songs” requires data on its key and lyrical content.

“Play me music written by Robert Harvey” or “produced by Rick Rubin” or “featuring Dizzy Gillespie” – it all requires contributor data.

You see where I’m going here?

Beyond that, and somewhat vitally, your entire catalog needs to be tagged in every language. Right now a lot of tagging in the west is done in English only – especially for older digitised catalog.

Record companies and distributors across the world are currently scrabbling to deal with these problems. (Last week saw Spotify add songwriter data to its service for the first time.)


2) INCREASING SUBSCRIPTIONS

With smart speakers we are also seeing people who previously had no paid music streaming subscription pick one up.

Grandmas around the world may never previously have had any interest in using a streaming service as they didn’t have a laptop or a smartphone – but now they have smart speakers.


3) INCREASINGLY REACTIVE

I’m going to grab my crystal ball out for a moment here and take this a step further. I believe as more people adopt smart health tracking devices, and our virtual assistants learn more about us, we’ll see these devices actually serve us up music.

Perhaps after a hard day’s work dragging the music industry into the future, I might come home and my health tracker will show I’m stressed; I predict my smart assistant will then start to offer me ways to relax.

“If my health tracker shows I’m stressed, my smart assistant could then start to offer me ways to relax.”

I could be greeted by “Welcome home Sammy, your heart rate and body temperature indicate that you’re stressed tonight, would you like me to play your ‘chill the fuck out’ playlist and open the wine cooler?” Yes, please!

Perhaps they’ll react to set dates and events. On 25th December perhaps I’ll be greeted with “Good Morning Sammy, Merry Christmas – would you like me to play you some festive songs whilst you quaff that mince pie and Bellini? ”


4) ADVERTISING AND CONTENT

Whilst I have the crystal ball out… let’s talk about advertising and content placement opportunities. These are very much one in the same to companies like Amazon – which has vowed to banish any interruptive advertising on its smart speakers, and instead wisely choosing to focus on content.

You won’t see the equivalent of pop-up ads or mid-stream / interruptive ads on Alexa yet; they want you to interact with ads posing as content. This is a very smart move and will mean brands have to rethink clever strategies and integration with these services.

“You won’t see the equivalent of pop-up ads or mid-stream / interruptive ads on Alexa yet; Amazon wants you to interact with ads posing as content.”

But have no doubt – they are all looking at ways to monetise. The amount of data they’re about to collect on us, everything about us and how we interact with these services is immense. Brands must now build voice experiences and ‘skills’ (at time of writing Amazon’s Alexa has over 25,000 ‘skills’ in the bank) that feel genuine and are engaging.

Disappointingly we are yet to see any meaningful easter eggs or content placement as part of marketing campaigns – a secret word to unlock tickets or location to a show, or a hidden interview or alternative song version, for example. It’s only a matter of time before that happens, and I look forward to seeing what the industry takes up here.

We’ve pitched many of these ideas at Deviate which the industry seems cautious to trial.


5) ANALYTICS AND ANALYSIS

Along with all of this data comes insight. Any every company in our business right now should be looking to integrate virtual assistant data and analytics along with every other metric you track from streaming consumption.

Understanding what percentage of streams are going from voice command is important, as is knowing what search terms people are trying to use and what errors are being thrown up.

Anyone with a smart speaker will know the frustration of asking for a specific track or playlist only to be directed to something else. We’ve a long way to go, but it’s up to all services and rights holders to make sure this data is available and analysed if meaningful advances and improvements are to be made.


6) LIVE INDUSTRY

Looking beyond recorded songs and into other sectors, the live industry has an incredible opportunity here. Ways that fans purchase tickets are already changing: we’re now seeing the streaming services push tours (to incredible effect) using listening data.

You can also buy both gig and airline tickets from bots, and now you can buy them from your virtual assistant in the same way you order a takeaway… albeit with a limited, and I’d argue questionable, selection of partners so far.

I want to call upon the music industry to take this a step further and look at really smart ways to integrate this based on consumption.

“What if, as part of your morning briefing from your smart assistant, it – via your preferred service – let you know the band you’ve listened to 352 times this year have just announced a tour.”

What if, as part of your morning briefing from your smart assistant, it – via your preferred service – let you know the band you’ve listened to 352 times this year have just announced a tour?

What if it then offered to reserve or purchase tickets on your behalf rather than you having to sit at your computer screen in a seventh layer of hell for two hours (watching the ghastly secondary marketing scalp away)?

Have no doubt this is a huge opportunity to help nurture artist-fan relationship if it’s done in the right way, with the right retailers. And on that point… there’s potentially some disruption to the market here with people entering the ring on ticketing – not least Amazon themselves.

Let the games commence!


All of this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Several major players are now fighting for our attention and our voices. The battle for our homes, activities and cars is only taking its first steps – but we have already seen integration with some cars and devices, and autonomous speakers like Sonos have wisely allowed Alexa into their world.

I’m aware of a few more speaker integrations rolling out with Alexa integration this year and a number of streaming services are looking at direct in-app voice integration too.

Looking even further ahead, you can be sure the rise of autonomous vehicles will deeply affect the way we interact with music and assistants, and will develop all of this further.

Apple’s delay in bringing HomePod to market is going to undoubtedly set them back in the race against Amazon and others. Many retailers are finding that smart speakers are often a multi-purchase to furnish several rooms in the house, which is likely to encourage brand loyalty as smart assistants get to know customers and understand them.

“I’m aware of a few more speaker integrations rolling out with Alexa integration this year and a number of streaming services are looking at direct in-app voice integration too.”

Perhaps Apple’s secret weapon here, however, is that Siri is already in most of the world’s pockets.

An important development that will undoubtedly impact consumer choice with both smart speakers and streaming services at large is the introduction of GDPR this year.

Article 20 in GDPR affects the right to data portability, which in the context of streaming will allow fans the right to move their playlist data from service to service. It applies only to the data provided by the user and not any subsequent analysis from the service – but it does mean that every service in existence that currently tracks our listening habits will need to be able to both export and import this information.

Whilst there are many considerations and potential predictions here, one thing is for certain: voice activation and artificial intelligence is here, it’s going to grow exponentially and it’s only ever going to get smarter.

As an industry, we must get smarter with it.Music Business Worldwide

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