Social networking around music has emerged as a class of Web service. While terrestrial radio has yet to fully embrace this, music social networking represents a large opportunity for terrestrial radio stations to gain relevance and currency online. Fundamentally there are two functions around music that social networking can fulfill:
One is to enable people to connect with others and show that they belong to a certain tribe represented by the music and bands they follow. That’s one reason band merchandise is so popular because it allows the wearer to make a statement as to how cool/hip/ironic/grungy/ghetto/sensitive/goth they are.
Live concerts enable people to commune with this tribe and, later, tell others about it. Ringtones are all about this. In the online world, there are many sites that are generic services enabling social networking that incorporate music as one of the activities to network around. MySpace is the poster child of this category along with sites like Hi5, Xanga and iMeem. There are also pure-play sites like uPlayMe that use your taste in music to connect you to like-minded people.
The other broad function is to help you discover new music for your personal enjoyment. Traditionally, this recommendation role has been played by radio stations, record stores and MTV. There are many recommendation services online from Amazon’s rich set of reviews to music blogs and aggregators like Pitchfork and The Hype Machine, to the recommendations that service like Rhapsody and Napster offer, all of which are somewhat social but not really networks per se. Last.fm stands out as being a true music social network that uses the data on what other people have listened to play songs you might like. Other services include iLike, MOG, Finetune, Pandora and Live365 (my former employer, in which I have no financial interest).
These online services face challenges however. A service can either recommend new music but not play it, which makes it less powerful, or it can actually play music, which will require paying some sort of licensing fees. If they opt for the DMCA Webcasting license, the latest proposed rates could make this prohibitively expensive for most to get enough scale to make for a decent business. Services that want to offer on-demand streaming don’t even have it that good. They don’t have a statutory license and have to either rely on the DMCA’s Safe Harbor provisions or, as is increasingly the case, do audio filtering and licensing deals with the labels to enable music sharing and playback on their sites.
This spells opportunity for terrestrial radio. They can use their clout to negotiate on-demand and Webcasting rates to offer these services online and they have the brands, distribution and ad sales resources to be able to optimize the monetization of these services. They should also consider buying some of these music social networking companies and weaving the service into their existing online sites. On the flip side, the labels and music publishers should consider crafting voluntary, standardized licenses for social networks to be able to enable their users to share and listen to music off their profile pages on-demand. After all, they want to get paid for the use of their music and the easier they make this, the more licensees they’ll have.
While music social networks face challenges in becoming standalone businesses, they are services that consumers will use. After all, the basic needs of connecting to others through music and discovering new music haven’t gone away and indeed are becoming more acute. How do I find new music? Call me old fashioned but I still give the nod to sources like Nic Harcourt at KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic. But wouldn’t it be great to also get music recommendations from fellow listeners of the show…
Raghav “Rags” Gupta is VP of Consumer Services & Partnerships at Brightcove, where he has worked since ’05. His personal blog can be found at http://www.ragsgupta.com.