As voice-activation technology from Amazon, Google and Apple goes mainstream, labels are looking to adapt to -- and capitalize on -- the latest frontier.
Recently, Sony Music Entertainment assembled a six-person squad to crack what is shaping up to be one of the biggest challenges and opportunities for the music industry in decades. The task: getting voice-activated speakers to play certain tunes when living-room listeners call out anything from the name of their favorite band, to more nebulous requests that Amazon has fielded recently from its Echo users, such as "dog music," "drinking music," "pop music for yoga" or "Bruce."
"You've got to think about the way people would be requesting things," a Sony executive says, adding that a command to "play Bruce" raises the question of whether the speaker will produce the more popular Bruce (Springsteen), or perhaps Bruce Hornsby, who, Amazon reps say, could potentially elbow Springsteen out of the way if he dropped a hot new track. The Sony executive says the musical asks now emanating from Amazon's estimated 11 million Echo speaker owners include a lot of "curveballs and things none of us could have anticipated."
The Echo, along with Google Home and Apple's just-announced HomePod, are promising to supercharge the music industry's nascent growth, which until now has been fueled by such fast-expanding streaming services as Spotify and Apple Music. While Amazon Music Unlimited, Amazon's paid subscription service tied to its Echo speakers, has likely racked up only a few million paying subscribers since it launched in October, according to MusicWatch analyst Russ Crupnick, label executives say the voice-activated speaker explosion is radically changing consumption behavior. Fans are listening to music in their homes again with speakers as opposed to using headphones or earbuds, while older listeners are firing up streaming services without having to fumble for their reading glasses to search their phones. Amazon Music Unlimited, which is less than half the price of Spotify and Apple Music when bundled with an Echo, serves an older generation that the industry is keen on converting to paid streaming, given its comfort with paying for music. And voice-activated speakers in cars will make it easier to use on-demand music services on the road, potentially revving up further subscriptions.