Why Most Music Apps Fail
Why Most Music Apps Fail

"If I love a music app, it's the kiss of death," says one music fanatic turned top-level digital music executive, who asked to remain anonymous. "No normal person will use it."

In other words, if a music fanatic finds a "music problem" interesting enough to solve, it doesn't mean that the solution will be a workable business, or that anyone beyond a few other music fanatics has this problem to begin with.

And yet, new music apps get released every week. Many make a huge splash, become the talk of technology blogs and are never heard from again. The truth is that most music apps fail -- fail to live up to their initial hype, fail to generate profit, and fail to become "the next Pandora."

While such popularity is not everyone's goal, the task of fixing the music industry is not short of hands, as it still captivates many young, bright minds. Trouble is, many of these would-be saviors are technologists in search of a problem-and oftentimes they solve ones that no "real" person has.

Concert-listings site Songkick recently released an app. Once installed, it scans your music library and syncs the artists you like with those that are touring in your area, creating a calendar of upcoming shows. In the first two weeks, the app surpassed 100,000 downloads. While tracking concerts is a relatively a "music fanatic" activity, it's a behavior that could translate over to the mainstream market.

Music-ID app Shazam also falls in this practical-use category; it enables fans to identify what song is playing on the radio or TV. While it likely started as a "techie solution" to a music-fanatic problem, it caught on-in part-because it solves a real-world dilemma. Since, a "Shazam Friends" feature has been added; it connects the app to Facebook and lets users share what music is discovered.

A similar app is Soundtracking; it identifies songs too, but it goes a step further, allowing them attach a location, photo, or written description. As Soundtracking CEO Steve Jang puts it, the app lets fans share their "musical moments." This difference, while small, matters. New users are attracted to Shazam based on their interest in identifying songs, and a byproduct of that-if they so choose-is self-expression.

So while these apps relate in functionality, their user incentives couldn't be more different. Given that Shazam boasts nearly 150 million users, it's clear the app has crossed over and entered the mainstream market. But Soundtracking is still a new app -- will it be as successful? And if not, why? What makes Soundtracking a great lens to explore the success and failure of apps through is that it sits at the border of a fanatic interest and human desire.

Those most compelled to express themselves through music-by nature-are fanatics. Thus, it makes sense to develop an app that targets them. But still, the practical use of Soundtracking may elude the mainstream market. It's unclear if casual fans seek an app to share their "musical moments" with. And herein lies the trouble with most music apps nowadays: It's doubtful that casual fans would want to use them because they're overly specialized and offer a solution to a problem they don't actually have.

In developing new music apps, technologists often underestimate the vastness of the chasm between themselves and real people because they're unable to see past their fanaticism. This "music bias" causes them to "make the flawed assumption that the way [they] consume, discover, enjoy and communicate about music is the same way everybody else does," says Stephen Purdham, CEO and founder of the music service we7. Techies and fanatics "project what they love and want into a belief that it is what everyone else will want and that everyone is at the same level of understanding and passion."

Initially, the enthusiasm of technology writers suggests that this app is the next big thing… and then, nothing. Instead, the "chasm" swallows the app-as author Geoffrey Moore famously explained-and the mainstream market never emerges.

In his book "Crossing the Chasm," Moore advises high-technology companies to target a very specific niche market, force out any competitors, and then "use it as a base for broader operations." This tactic may work well for Apple, but an app is not an iPod. Developers often take the niche market approach with music apps-and here's the key part-not realizing that they're in a niche market to begin with. An app often starts as a shared interest between techies and fanatics-i.e. the early adopters. And then, in isolation-away from real people-it gets developed. To "cross the chasm" between the early adopter and the mainstream market, as Moore wrote, companies often must make new technology more practical in use. Otherwise, the app, in this case, may not catch on if casual fans see no benefit in using it.

"Everyone is chasing the music fanatic with discovery and social music, rather than the listener who loves music but wants their music being played easily without barriers and without effort," Purdham adds. The problem is that techies and fanatics often interact with each other within specialized domains. This, in turn, creates a mindless feedback loop.

"With respect to music in particular it is important to remember that the majority of fans are passionate only about the music," says Kevin Leflar, CEO and President of officialCOMMUNITY. "Listening to their favorite music may be an entirely personal experience for some. They don't care what other people think about the music they listen to any more than they wish to share their own experience with it." This water, while cold, gets poured on new developers sooner than later: the majority of people love music, but that's it.

Pandora, in contrast, succeeds because it ignores the needs of music fanatics. It doesn't do too much. Users have little control over stations and the music can be repetitious-with too few skips. But to a casual fan, that's fine. They're not upset if Pandora repeats a song. They don't notice when the playlist meanders. And most of all, they don't want more settings: Pandora just works, and that's what they like about it.

Initially, Pandora attracted fanatics, but it sought to serve casual fans. It solves a problem they have. In a busy world-with less free time to discover music-they look to Pandora to expose them to new artists. All other functions are hidden or excluded from the app. This simplicity may frustrate fanatics-who always want more-causing them to move on. But it pleases most people. As Pandora deepens its stake in the car market, it will grow an ever more mainstream base.

Another custom radio app that's posed to become popular is Jelli. It lets users take control of web and broadcast radio stations in real-time, sharing the experience together. In short, the app lets users vote for their favorite songs to be played using "Rockets" and to blast lesser songs out of the playlist using "Bombs." Given that the desire to get ones songs played on radio is as old as radio itself, it's clear that Jelli taps into an emotion shared by fanatic and casual fans. In June, two broadcast radio stations in Las Vegas handed all of their programming over to Jelli-for the first time. Starting out, fanatics will likely be a driving force in app use, with casual fans lurking right behind. As word of mouth spreads and the app catches on though, Jelli may even conquer the chasm, but doing so is not everyone's end goal.

"Much of innovation happens through failure," says Hypebot founder Bruce Houghton. "Many music apps never reach the iPods of casual fans, but the ideas behind them are often built into others that do, which pushes the music-tech space forward." He believes that, "learning to create and embrace chaos [in the music industry] is better than fighting it."

This mindset of "embracing the chaos" is shared by Dave Haynes, the VP of Business Development for SoundCloud and founder of the music technology event Music Hack Day. At the event, a motley crew of developers, music geeks, designers, and hackers gather to build apps, mobile, software, hardware, and art in a twenty-four hour period-anything goes as long as it's related to music-tech.

"New possibilities and ideas can be explored quickly and affordably," says Haynes. "Huge infrastructure and setup costs are no longer a consideration, with little upfront investment or capital outlays required." So while a majority of the "hacks" that emerge out of the event may only appeal to a niche market, having the ideas interjected into the music industry is often better than not. Later on, the synthesis of several music fanatic "hacks" may turn into an app that becomes "the next Pandora" in terms of mass-market use.

But, as Houghton succinctly summed up: "Few niche music products create profitable markets."