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Rhapsody Offers Sage Advice to Rival Upstarts

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By Jon Maples of Rhapsody for sidewinder.fm, a music and tech think tank.

One of the wonderful and humbling aspects of being in the streaming music business for over 10 years is that we've seen lots of strategies and ideas over time. Trust me, Rhapsody does not like to be considered the old man who yells 'get off my lawn' to upstarts. But it seems like some our streaming brethren are trying things today we've tried before, with mixed and sometimes absurdly expensive results.

Two recent trends seem familiar. First is Spotify's television advertising campaign. Granted, Daniel Ek's startup tapped Rhapsody's former ad agency, Droga5. So maybe it's no surprise that there's something amazingly similar to the Spotify spots and the ads we ran 2008-2010. They both forge an emotional connection to music. Both have interesting visuals that have raised a few eyebrows.

And it's not just Spotify who is advertising these days. Outside of the huge outdoor billboard campaign Rdio is running, the San Francisco-based streaming music service aired this spot featuring Paramore on The Voice last week.

But what exactly are these companies advertising? We tried the emotional connection to music with our Droga5-produced bubbles ad early on. The ad featured a woman who dove off a building into a bubble that immersed her into music. She dove into another bubble, and the music changed. Nice idea. Hard to understand in terms of product. Or value proposition. Or pretty much anything outside of diving off high rises, which we neither condone nor recommend.

After that we tried an artist-centric ad. We produced a spot where Jay Z posed through all his iconic album covers. It was a great ad...for Jay Z. For Rhapsody? Not so much. Most people didn't even know it was for our streaming service.

It really wasn't until we focused on showing the customer benefit with our more practical, but less ethereal ' Desmond and Molly' spots that we actually started to sell the value of our service. I know this is revolutionary, but it turns out you need to show what a service does to actually sell...the service! And no matter what you may think about the downhome style of the Desmond and Molly spot, it significantly outperformed any thing we ever did.

Full disclosure: it's no secret that we compete with both Spotify and Rdio for customers. But there is also a great deal to admire about both services. We love the viral nature of Spotify and the social features of Rdio. We certainly have questions about the long-term feasibility of both services. But any company who proves great value is good for the entire streaming music sector, which we are all trying to build.

If we're going to be successful, we all have to start with the service, up front and center.

Way back in 2006 Rhapsody had a service available on the desktop client and non-iPod MP3 players like the Sansa E200R. But what we didn't have was a website. So we went all in and built out a web product. For the launch of Rhapsody.com, we partnered with the labels to create Rhapsody 25. Any user, regardless if they were a customer or not, could play 25 tracks on Rhapsody without a credit card or email address. Just type Britney Spears 'Oops I Did It Again' into Google, and voila! Instant playback on Rhapsody.com! What could be better?

Well, lots, apparently.

Instead of selling the value of Rhapsody we ended up with lots of people who were more interested in hearing the song once and going away. Honesty compels me to admit that the experience could have been much better, but still—it seemed like we were missing something.

The good part about the free plays was that Rhapsody 25 users were playing the song on a paid service rather than going to BitTorrent to download it. But it was not selling Rhapsody enough that customers would ever pay for the service.

Since I'm that sort of streaming music geek, I closely tracked plays for Paramore on Rdio during its release on Tuesday. By Tuesday midday, Paramore's new record had 130,000 plays and its artist page had 200 follows when I looked.

After the ad aired on The Voice Wednesday night, Paramore's plays on Rdio jumped to 250,000, yet the follows only increased slightly, to 260. Today, it's up to 1.3 million plays, but only 760 follows for the band. It would seem to me that a play means a customer is more interested in sampling the song and when a fan follows a band, they're getting the more immersive experience that streaming services like Rdio provide for both the artist and the fan. So my theory is that most folks who came to Rdio did so to play Paramore's record and didn't stick around to experience a deeper connection with Rdio's service.

So what does this all mean? Paramore gave Rdio the exclusive for their new record as a trade for being featured in the ad. Great for Warner Music Group. Fantastic for certain fans of Paramore, who got to play the record gratis. What's questionable is what Rdio will really get out of it, particularly since they only were granted US rights and there were many, many complaints from Brazil customers on the site hoping to play the album.

For the record, Rhapsody would have loved to offer the record. But we're not sure if exclusives really do help either the service or the band. Last month we had 30,000 fans play the band in our service. All who pay $10 a month to listen to all music they care to. Which they can do today since Rdio's exclusive is over.

Since neither of our companies sell advertising, Rdio and Rhapsody are in the business of sourcing, identifying and enticing fans who are willing to pay for music. How you go about that is the hard part. My belief is that streaming companies have to sell the value of a music service and the benefits to customers instead of relying on an emotional connection to music, giving songs away or buying exclusive rights to a band's new release.

Jon Maples is the VP Product and Content at Rhapsody


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