Can Mobile Messaging Lift Internet Radio? Q&A with Mark Wheatley, MixRadio's Head of Music Experiences

Brian Birzer/MixRadio via Getty Images

Carlos Islam of the United Nations, Cody Simpson, Cassie Flynn of the United Nations, and Mark Wheatley of MixRadio, celebrate International Day of Happiness at the United Nations and MixRadio global launch at SXSW at Easy Tiger Patio on March 20, 2015 in Austin, Texas. 

The music industry was intrigued when Microsoft announced in December it was selling MixRadio to Line Corporation, the Japanese company behind the massively popular mobile messaging service. Mobile messaging is obviously a social experience. Music streaming can be a social experience. Can messaging be a new opportunity for creators and rights holders? The answer could be years in the future. In the meantime, MixRadio made a public appearance at SXSW and strongly hinted it would soon be expanding beyond Windows Phone.

Launched in November 2013 by Nokia, and then acquired by Microsoft along with Nokia's devices business in April 2014, MixRadio was quickly sold to Line Corporation, the Japanese company behind the massively popular mobile messaging service, Line.

While WhatsApp dominates the United States and WeChat rules China, Line is the most popular messaging app in Japan. The service has 181 million monthly users -- most of them in Asia -- and the number of total users is expected to reach 700 million this year. That large user base is a new frontier for the music business -- but only if Line and MixRadio can figure out a way to merge messaging and Internet radio.

Minutes before a performance by Cody Simpson at Easy Tiger's creek-side courtyard, Billboard spoke to Mark Wheatley, head of music experiences for MixRadio, at SXSW party the company hosted with the United Nations to celebrate The International Day of Happiness.

Billboard: What has happened over the last 12 months?

Mark Wheatley: Over the 12 months, MixRadio has really been preparing itself for a life outside Microsoft. We were acquired, along with the Nokia device division, by Microsoft, and now we're taking a new, exciting journey as an independent company under the parentage of Line, which is a messaging app which is insanely popular around the world.

It's been a crazy kind of six months for us. Obviously kind of busy. We are currently exclusively availably on Windows Phone, as you would expect coming from Microsoft. And we'll continue to be pre-loaded on Windows Phone devices, which is a great partnership for us going forward. To have that kind of distribution channel for a music service is wonderful. That's going to continue to be a key partnership for us in the future.

But then there's enormous scope for expansion onto other platforms. There will be -- we're not announcing anything here today, but if you watch the space you will have some great news later in the year and exciting stuff for us. We feel like on one platform we have seen such a strong response from the customers that have been using the service. We just believe that's what we do to keep a very strong focus on the simplicity of the experience.

We don't believe consumers actually like music services. They like music. So we want to just get out of the way and get people to the music they love as quickly as possible. So that's kind of our ethos. That's how we work. We have some key functionality which differentiates us from some of the competitors.

Are you talking about curation and helping people find something? Are you talking about programming?

What we have is the ability to give offline functionality for free on mobile. This allows users to have a truly mobile experience. The idea that people are always connected is kind of a nice assumption in the world of 4G [mobile broadband] but it's not a reality. People always have to go offline.

How big is that for MixRadio?

It's huge. We have a mobile heritage. We come from the world of Nokia, originally. We effectively have spent the last eight years iterating and defining and perfecting what it means to have a viable, mobile music experience. Whereas other services have come from the desktop kind of environment -- home listening -- and translating into mobile. So we're coming from the other direction. Our experience is natively mobile. The whole product suite is set up to effectively service that mobile, music lifestyle -- which is really where the majority of music is consumed these days. People listen on their phones when they're out and about, when they're commuting, when they're in the car. Even when they get home they're often listening on their phone.

Isn't it a bit ironic that offline storage would be valued as there is greater access to mobile Internet?

It is an irony, but I think that's the reality of the world we live in. Of course, we are a global music service. We are launched in 31 countries. The availability and the prevalence of data is very patchy around the world in many countries. What we offer is a viable mobile music solution. A simple experience. And one that just gets people to the music they love quickly without maybe so much of the bells and whistles and the complexity maybe of some other applications.

We have enormously positive customer satisfaction from people who use the app. Huge satisfaction scoring. And there's a huge pent-up demand for our service on Android and iPhone. We've seen people very excited about the speculation that we'll be launching on other platforms. If that time comes at some stage in the future we think this is going to be something pretty major for music streaming.

You use the word "if" but you're suggesting "if" is going to be "when."

Yes. We're not talking about dates when we're going to launch. I'll just say watch this space. I'm being a little bit coy, of course. We do have technology previews and proof of concepts out there that people are testing and using for all sorts of platforms, because we won't be constrained in the future to just being on Windows [Phone]. So this year will be a very exciting year for us.

Talk about how Line works with MixRadio. What does Line bring?

Line has a similar heritage. They are a company which prides itself on being a mobile experience company. They have a whole range of applications, from Line Pay to an Uber-like taxi service, pretty much every aspect of people's mobile life. In many countries where they are very strong they have strong offerings. They are a hugely confident company. They have 200-odd million active users. [Billboard note: the latest publicly available figure is 181 million monthly users.] They're the number-one free app in 60 countries.

To have them standing behind us gives us great confidence. We had lots of different people interested in acquiring us when Microsoft decided to divest. They were by far the most compelling people to come in and talk to us. They have a great story. They were passionate about wanting us to be part of their product family.

So, we will see -- I hope -- innovation from us in the future, ways that we can integrate music and messaging together more closely to create a more social experience. That's something I would like to see happening. But it's early days. We are three days into the new company and new relationship. We'll I'm sure see stuff happening in the future to bring the companies closer together. But MixRadio is very much at this point an independent business and we continue executing the business strategy and the business plan we've been preparing for the last 12 months.

What would radio bring to messaging? How would that improve the service?

The first thing I like to say is they're the number-one and number-two use cases on mobile. So they are the two activities that consume the majority of people's existence when they're out and about. The other thing is they're both intrinsically social experiences, but in different ways. So nobody's really nailed this yet, exactly how this would work.

Clearly messaging is the ultimate social experience. Music is -- in the real world, non-digital, non-virtual environment -- the most social experience possibly out there. But nobody's managed to translate that digitally into an experience that kind of works. Maybe partnering with messaging gives us that ability to put that together. But I'd be speculating if I tried to imagine exactly how that would work.

What about expanding into more countries? MixRadio is not in as many countries as Line and their products are available, right?

We're in 31 territories. So it's pretty well-distributed for a music streaming company. We would love to expand into other countries. We are obviously very ambitious. We'd love to be available to every user in every territory. Music licensing is a slow business to get the rights to roll out in different countries. Some of the services have effectively gone global at the push of a button just by rolling out the same globalized service.

We believe very much that music is increasingly a very localized experience [with] people wanting very local content as well as the global stars we have in the service. So we want to put a lot of time into every territory we roll out in to make sure the experience is the best that it can be. So yes we will expand into more territories but maybe we won't be rushing ahead at the speed of some of our competitors.