The Zero Button Music Player

Ever since the release of the Sony Walkman 35 years ago, the play button has been the primary way we interact with music. Now the play button stands as the last barrier between a listener and their music. Read on to find out how we got here and where we are going next.

imgresIn the last 100 years, technology has played a major role in how we listen to and experience music. For instance, when I was coming of age musically, the new music technology was the Sony Walkman. With the Walkman, you could take your music with you anywhere. You were no longer tied to your living room record player to listen to your music. You no longer had to wait and hope that the DJ would play your favorite song when you were on the road. You could put your favorite songs on a tape and bring them with you and listen to them whenever you wanted to no matter where your were. The Sony Walkman really changed how we listened to music. It popularized the cassette format, which opened the door to casual music sharing by music fans. Music fans began creating mix tapes and sharing music with their friends. The playlist was reborn, music listening changed. All because of that one device.

20111023_ipod_jpg__1337×1563_We are once again in the middle of music+technology revolution. It started a dozen years ago with the first iPod and it continues now with devices like the iPhone combined with a music subscription service like Spotify, Rdio, Rhapsody or Deezer. Today, a music listener armed with an iPhone and a ten dollar-a-month music subscription is a couple of taps away from being able to listen to almost any song that has ever been recorded. All of this music choice is great for the music listener, but of course it brings its own problems. When I was listening to music on my Sony Walkman, I had 20 songs to choose from, but now I have millions of songs to choose from. What should I listen to next? The choices are overwhelming. The folks that run music subscription services realize that all of this choice for their listeners can be problematic. That’s why they are all working hard to add radio features like Rdio’s You.FM Personalized Radio. Personalized Radio simplifies the listening experience – instead of having to pick every song to play, the listener only needs to select one or two songs or artists and they will be presented with an endless mix of music that fits well with initial seeds.

Helping listeners pick music is especially important when you consider that not all music listeners are alike, and that most listeners are, at best, only casual music fans. A study conducted in 2003 and again in 2006 by Emap (A UK-based Advertising agency), summarized here by David Jennings, identified four main types of music listeners. Jennings describes these four main listening types as:

  • Savants – for whom everything in life is tied up with music

  • Enthusiasts – Music is a key part of life but is balanced with other interests

  • Casuals – Music plays a welcoming role, but other things are far more important

  • Indifferents – Would not lose much sleep if music ceased to exist.

These four listener categories are an interesting way to organize music listeners, but of course, real life isn’t so cut and dried. Listener categories change as life circumstances change (have a baby and you’ll likely become a much more casual music listener) and can even change based on context (a casual listener preparing for a long road-trip may act like a savant for a few days while she builds her perfect road-trip playlist).

In 2006, the distribution of people across these 4 categories was as follows:

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This chart says a lot about the music world and why it works the way it does. For instance, it gives us a guide as to how much different segments of the listening world are willing to pay for music in a year. On the chart below, I’ve added my estimate of the amount of money each listener type will spend on music in a year.

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Savants will spend a thousand dollars or more on vinyl, concerts, and music subscriptions. Enthusiasts will spend $100 a year on a music subscription or, perhaps, purchase a couple of new tracks per week. Casuals will spend $10 a year (maybe splurge and buy that new Beyoncé album), while Indifferents will spend nothing on music. This is why music services like Spotify and Rdio have been exploring the Fremium model. If they want to enroll the 72% of people who are Casual or Indifferent music listeners, they need a product that costs much less than the $100 a year Enthusiasts are willing to pay.

However, price isn’t the only challenge music services face in attracting the Casuals and the Indifferents. Different types of listeners have a different tolerance around the amount of time and effort it takes to play music that they want to listen to.

A music Savant – someone who lives, eats and breathes music – is happy spending hours a day poring through music blogs, forums and review sites to find new music, while the Indifferent music listener may not even make the simplest of efforts like turning the radio on or switching to a new station if they don’t like the current song. A simple metric for the time and effort spent is Interactions Per Listening Session. In this chart, I’ve added my estimate of the number of interactions, on average, a listener of a given type will tolerate to create a listening session.

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Interactions per Listening Session is an indication of how many times the listener controls their music player for a listening session. That music Savant may carefully handpick each song going into a playlist after reading a few music blogs and reviews about an artist on The Hype Machine, checking out the artist bio and previewing a few tracks. The music Enthusiast may grab a few top songs from a handful of their favorite artists to build a Spotify playlist. The casual listener may fire up Pandora, select an artist station and click play, while the Indifferent music listener may passively listen to the music that is playing on the radio or in the background at the local Starbucks.

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The above chart shows why a music service like Pandora has been so successful. With its simple interface, Pandora is able to better engage the Casual listeners who don’t want to spend time organizing their listening session. A Pandora listener need only pick a station, and Pandora does all the work from there. This is why music subscription services hoping to attract more users are working hard to add Pandora-like features. In order to make their service appeal to the Casuals, they need to make it incredibly easy to have a good listening experience.

But what about those Indifferents? If 40% of people are indifferent to music, is this a lost market for music services? Is it impossible to reach people who can’t even be bothered to queue up some music on Pandora? I don’t think so. Over the last 75 years, terrestrial radio has shown that even the most indifferent music fan can be coaxed into simple, “lean back” listening. Even with all of the media distractions in the world today, 92% of Americans age 12 or older listen to the radio at least weekly, much the same as it was back in 2003 (94%).

So what does it take to capture the ears of Indifferents? First, we have to drive the out-of-pocket costs to the listener to zero. This is already being done via the Freemium model – Ad supported Internet radio (non-on-demand) is becoming the standard entry point for music services. Next, and perhaps more difficult, we have to drive the number of interactions required to listen to music to zero.

Thus my current project – Zero UI – building a music player that minimizes the interactions necessary to get good music to play – a music player that can capture the attention of even the musically indifferent.

Implicit signals and context
Perhaps the biggest challenge in creating a Zero UI music player is how to get enough information about the listener to make good music choices. If a Casual or Indifferent listener can’t be bothered to explicitly tell us what kind of music they like, we have to try to figure it out based upon implicit signals. Luckily, a listener gives us all kinds of implicit signals that we can use to understand their music taste. Every time a listener adjusts the volume on the player, every time they skip a song, every time they search for an artist, or whenever they abandon a listening session, they are telling us a little bit about their music taste. In addition to the information we can glean from a listener’s implicit actions, there’s another source of data that we can use to help us understand a music listener. That’s the listener’s music listening device – i.e. their phone.

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The mobile phone is now and will continue to be the primary way for people to interact with and experience music. My phone is connected to a music service with 25 million songs. It ‘knows’ in great detail what music I like and what I don’t like. It knows some basic info about me such as my age and sex. It knows where I am, and what I am doing – whether I’m working, driving, doing chores or just waking up. It knows my context – the time of day, the day of the week, today’s weather, and my schedule. It knows that I’m late for my upcoming lunch meeting and it even might even know the favorite music of the people I’m having lunch with.

Current music interfaces use very little of the extra context provided by the phone to aid in music exploration and discovery. In the Zero UI project, I’ll explore how all of this contextual information provided by the latest devices (and near future devices) can be incorporated into the music listening experience to help music listeners organize, explore, discover and manage their music listening. The goal is to create a music player that knows the best next song to play for you given your current context. No button pressing required.

There are lots of really interesting areas to explore:

  • Can we glean enough signal from the set of minimal listener inputs?

  • Which context types (user activity, location, time-of-day, etc.) are most important for scheduling music? Will we suffer from the curse of dimensionality with too many contexts?

  • What user demographic info is most useful for avoiding the cold start problem (age, sex, zip code)?

  • How can existing social data (Facebook likes, Twitter follows, social tags, existing playlists) be used to improve the listening experience?

  • How can we use information from new wearable devices such as the Jawbone’s Up, the Fitbit,  and the Pebble Smart Watch to establish context?

  • How do we balance knowing enough about a listener to give them good music playlists and knowing so much about a listener that they are creeped out about their ‘stalker music player’?

Over the next few months I’ll be making regular posts about Zero-UI. I’ll share ideas, prototypes and maybe even some code. Feel free to follow along.

Conceptual zero-ui player that maps music listening onto user activity (as tracked by moves-app )

Conceptual zero-ui player that maps music listening onto user activity (as tracked by moves-app )

  1. #1 by Darran on January 14, 2014 - 9:49 pm

    This is an intriguing idea. Are you going to be putting this on github too?

    • #2 by Paul on January 15, 2014 - 8:24 am

      Some bits will most certainly be on github

  2. #3 by Alex Cannon on January 15, 2014 - 7:15 pm

    “Every time a listener adjusts the volume on the player, every time they skip a song, every time they search for an artist, or whenever they abandon a listening session, they are telling us a little bit about their music taste”

    Don’t these kinds of implicit signals qualify as music “interactions” and therefore wouldn’t be performed by indifferent listeners? Isn’t a large part of the difficulty of building a Zero UI music player that appeals to these “indifferents” stem from the lack of signals like this? Or is the definition of “indifferent listeners” not as strict as I’m understanding it?

    All else aside, this sounds like a really cool project!

    • #4 by Paul on January 16, 2014 - 7:40 am

      The lines are not so clear cut. Even an indifferent listener may adjust the volume or abandon a session. I’m trying to look at all possible signals that might be available. A big part of this effort is also understanding which signals are likely to be there and which ones are not. We may find that a good fraction of indifferents listeners never adjust the volume of their music so it is not a good signal, or we may find that the converse is true. So first, we try to understand what the possible signals are, and then collect data about them to learn which ones matter and which ones don’t.

  3. #5 by Caleb on February 17, 2014 - 4:31 pm

    This is very interesting data. It can be used effectively for the development of new listening and streaming experiences.

  4. #6 by Nicolas on March 14, 2014 - 8:40 am

    It’s kind of what Beats music is trying to do now. Though you do have to make an input at the beginning. But imagine what could be made with a heart rate sensor as well. Music you like may make you move a little more, which will rise your heart rate. Then the “zero button” player will keep similar music coming to you.

    Maybe it’s not exactly how it would happen, but imagine a combination of monitoring the volume buttons, of a heart rate monitor, even adding a motion sensor in your headphones (which measures how hard do you “headbang” to a song), would be a powerful tool to get there.

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