Facebook's 'Music Guy' Ime Archibong on Where They're Headed Next -- Think Fewer Buttons, More Apps (Q&A)

Ime Archibong, director of strategic partnerships at Facebook.

Ime Archibong has been at Facebook before and through its massive IPO, (the night previous to which the company held a hackathon, Archibong told us, which was as much about centering the company's values as it was breaking down code to its elemental promises), as well as myriad tweaks and foibles and successes (such as hitting a billion users in the Fall of 2012, or causing headaches for publishers with 'black-boxed' News Feed tweaks).

The biggest question for Facebook these days is how it will maintain its growth -- much like the music industry, the company is depending on emerging markets like China and India -- as well as maintain its streamlined utility for the average user in the face of exponentially multiplying mountains of data. Basically: Imagine the Facebook of the future as a mosaic of apps and outlets, not one blue button.

We spoke to Archibong in Austin, in a room off the breezy downtown Austin deck that Facebook had rented out for SXSW.

Andrew Flanagan, Billboard: So you've been at Facebook for four years -- and I was wondering if you could tell me one big success you think Facebook's had in that time, specific to music if possible.
Ime Archbong, director of strategic partnerships, Facebook: One of the two product [questions] that I would say the folks [at Facebook] that are focused on music right now is: 'How do we reduce the friction to allow people to share stories and add music as a piece of context to the story they're trying to share?' The story I always tell is that early last year my sister got married, the whole family was out in Nigeria for the wedding and there was a great moment where she was dancing with my father. I was able to take a picture, I was able to tell everyone via text what was going on but I wasn't able to share that song with everyone that was back in the States and trying to follow along with me. [The 'How are you feeling?' button] is now giving me the ability to share that full story along with the context, including the music, of course which delivers the majority of the emotion.

Did that moment contribute to your work on that?
Absolutely, there has been a steady drum beat I think from a lot of folks. I think for the longest time we knew -- music is a form of communication, right? It brings a lot of that emotion and fills out a lot of the missing pieces when you're sharing a story on Facebook. So: How to do that in a way that's appropriate both for Facebook's product but that also worked for the partnerships we were forming? This is something we've always been trying to crack. It may be [version one], but it's a step in the right direction.

You mentioned the partnerships -- I'm wondering how you navigate them between competing companies. If you have deals with Beats or Spotify or record labels...
It's the beautiful thing about taking a platform approach to the majority of our partnerships and the products that we end up building. If you think about the big products that we've built that have touched the music ecosystem thus far, it's a tool that everyone can use. At the end of the day, all I'm doing is providing best practices to a Beats or a Spotify or a MOG or an Rdio or Pandora, showing them to use the tools correctly, but we designed this stuff purposefully so that it can be extended via a platform, that it can be extended to a point where someone who's a developer, an 11-year-old kid who has a music app, can use the same tools that Ian Rogers and the Beats team are trying to use as well.

I imagine they all lobby you for preferential treatment or access.
They wouldn't be doing their job if they weren't! [Laughs]

And your job is to try to keep it agnostic.
Yeah. At the end of the day we love to play Switzerland -- be the platform that anyone [can build on] and leverage. So at the end of the day, we're trying to provide the tools for people to tell stories. Not everyone is on Beats, not everyone is on Pandora, not everyone is on Spotify and so on down the line, so if we're trying to extend this stuff for the billion-point-two-five people that are on Facebook right now, I gotta work with the folks that are here in the US. I gotta work with people that are in India, Brazil, Russia...

Are there any music platforms or products in emerging markets like India or China that stick out to you as promising?
The folks that we've worked with to do the Open Graph integration, there's a company called Saavn. [Saavn is a digital market for music originating in India's film industry.]There's a billion people in that country and Facebook has good penetration but, as more and more people (especially in India) come online? That's hundreds of millions of people. We don't just want to build products for the U.S. or Europe.

The mainstream music industry is going to be depending on mobile users and smartphone penetration in China, India and Africa.
I've been impressed with Deezer's strategy, more so maybe than some of the other folks. Making sure you're going in and launching in a market alongside a mobile carrier -- that's where the consumption's coming from and that's where the focus should be.

A lot of flak gets thrown around about changes to Facebook's News Feed algorithm, specifically on the topic of music. How could it be improved, specifically regarding music?
There's two parts to that. The one thing I'd say is as far as News Feed and the algorithm -- I have empathy for folks that struggle with trying to make sense of the News Feed algorithm because it is somewhat of a black box, but if you think about what that black box is trying to solve? The complexities of that problem are difficult. At any given moment when you fire up that mobile application, thousands of thousands of different stories have to be sorted through to say that this one is the most important for Andrew to see right now. So the problem is difficult to solve and as a result it changes and it varies. If you are a person that owns content and are publishing content inside the Facebook ecosystem, being along for that ride can be hard to wrap your head around. It's not as deterministic as [publishers] would hope it to be. Also, the fact that we're always trying to do what's best for people -- there's gotta be good alignment there between what we're doing and what people who are publishing are bringing.

For music specifically -- I know I'm one of the "music" guys at Facebook, I've been tremendously bullish on it. Music, [as I said], is a form of communication. Facebook is in the business of facilitating communication between two people. There's no reason why this overlap isn't going to continue happening. It's been happening for the last decade on the platform. If anything, the products, the way it shows up, the way it actually happens has continued to grow up and evolve as a business and will continue, to use a business term, "up and to the right." So I'm personally not worried about how music and Facebook end up overlapping. I think it's a long-term game that we're going to figure out together. We love the industry. We have relationships with artists, we have relationships with the music service providers, and we have good relationships with the labels.

You were talking earlier about wanting to post that song -- it's not as easy as maybe it could be to post from whatever music service.
As these things get smarter --


A terrifying prospect.
[Laughs]. The ability for these things to tell a powerful and robust story continues to increase. That's what we're hyper-focused on right now.

The place where it gets exciting is on the consumption experience. After someone's telling you that story, what can we do with that thought to present it to hundreds of people in a way that's delightful, that's engaging that they get utility from, that will lead to a consumption experience (possibly).

I imagine Rdio or Deezer or whoever would love to have those conversations.
Everyone in the entire ecosystem, there's clear value to each of those stakeholders and we want to make sure we're driving value for each of them.

It's been a while since Facebook had a dramatic product release -- the Paper app is a fresh interface for the News Feed -- is there anything on the immediate horizon?
Always. I would say the way to think about Facebook in the future, and you've seen this a little bit with the tactical things we've done recently -- the Paper launch, the acquisition of Instagram, the acquisition of WhatsApp?, breaking out Messenger from a Facebook-only app to a standalone app -- there's a lot going inside the Facebook application right now to the point where a lot of these great, innovative features... Groups. Mark called out Groups in our earnings call. Half a billion people are using Groups. Do you know how many clicks it takes to get to Groups right now?

My guess is... too many?
So the question is, if you starting taking these experiences that are being leveraged by hundreds of millions of people and start breaking them out into standalone apps where they have room to breathe and to grow and to innovate and push boundaries outside of Facebook's confines, I think you're going to see a tremendous amount of innovations brewing in that world for us. Facebook is Facebook, it's a blue app on your mobile device, but it's not just that.

One last, easy question -- what have you been listening to?
I don't know if this is an 'official' genre yet, but on SoundCloud there's this alternative R&B, a lot of '90s and '80s R&B tracks that are being remixed and infused with a little modern electronic dance. Not so much a specific producer, but that's caught my interest.