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Plugged In: Is Music Streaming Due for an Upgrade?

Over the past six years, music streaming apps have hardly changed at all and executives think users could lose interest if they don't evolve.

Welcome to Plugged In, a newsletter that features the unfiltered thoughts of the CEOs, decision makers and power players at the intersection of technology and music. I’m Micah Singleton, Billboard’s director of technology coverage, leading our reporting on the streaming music ecosystem and the startups that bridge the gap between two of America’s most important exports.

Is music streaming due for an upgrade? Executive insiders say yes.

While leading music streaming services have added Spatial Audio and Hi-Fi, podcasting and music videos over the past few years, when it comes to user experience not much has changed. Video apps, meanwhile, have kept innovating. (Netflix, for example, refreshed its user interface in 2018, 2020 and is currently testing its next update.) And new competitors like ByteDance’s Resso, which has gained popularity in India and Indonesia, are offering glimpses of what could come with more focus on the social experience, allowing listeners to share lyrics and comment on tracks in its bid to attract Gen Z listeners, especially those from its sister company TikTok. But expanding how listeners interact with music has seemingly been an afterthought for the major streaming services in recent years. Are they losing out?


“The onus is on the music services to continue to provide more value,” one senior executive says. “Listeners want to go deeper into the music, into the culture that surrounds music. They want the apps to be more immersive and richer. And that’s something we’ve been talking about for at least a couple of years internally.”

The senior executive continues, “I think of it as music streaming 1.0. It’s all about helping the listener find the next song to play. And that’s always going to be a really important role of the music streaming app. But I think increasingly in a 2.0 or 3.0 the role of the streaming services needs to evolve to be more than just helping the listener find the next song to play. I think there’s a big evolution coming, both in the UI and how you interact with the app, but also what you’re able to do with it. That’s what gets me and my team excited, we think that there’s just a ton of room for innovation as we look forward.”

“There’s a bit of a standstill,” another senior executive says on the evolution of streaming services. “There’s been very little movement, you can only really do very few things and everyone’s focused on either just getting subscribers or people are chasing podcasts.”

Others contest the idea that more features are necessary for growth, saying the value for streamers is in the content more than how users engage with it.

“In terms of like other things that you get for a $10 monthly subscription, I don’t know that they need to give more because I think you’re already getting tremendous value for the price,” one CEO says. “Just having access to almost every song ever created at your fingertips that can be manipulated for 10 bucks a month is a wonderful product, as it is. I think that the growth isn’t necessarily tied to them changing the offering.”

“Music streaming services still have the same goal today as they did in 2015 — to digitally deliver the music that a subscriber wants in a fast, easy and all-you-can-eat kind of way. The question is do those listeners want more? I think we’ve seen them try a lot of different things that it hasn’t connected. My instinct is what is going to be most important is that DSPs evolve in the way they think about the listening experience and how to enhance it. The notion of really enhancing the experience for the listener, particularly the listener who’s a super fan of a particular artist, is really where interesting things can happen.”

The subject brings up bigger questions for the streamers, too. If these are tech companies, where are they going?

“So far, they’ve only evolved in sound,” one chairperson says of music streaming services. “All the evolution in the platforms right now has been from high compression to Hi-Fi or low compression to spatial or 3D. But the next frontier that’s obvious is audio, visual, social and immersion. And right now, it seems like the music platforms have ceded to Facebook and the metaverse, at least in the first instance. Is Spotify just going to buy property in Facebook’s metaverse or are they going to get into immersive social and AV game? There are already hints that the platforms are going to take the next leap. So far, it’s been an evolution on the same path, and they haven’t jumped off the cliff into audio, visual, social or immersive. But that has to be where they’re going now.”

“If an artist can go live on Spotify like they can go live on Instagram and TikTok and they can in real-time, hit all those followers and direct them to their playlist and also be like, ‘here’s my merch,’ that can go so far,” one CEO says. “I think the platforms should be thinking about how to make it a one-stop-shop for the music industry.”