This Finicky Music Curator Will Spin Gold by Upgrading Your Playlist

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There's something wrong with your online music playlist. It starts with the fact that you probably haven't built it yourself -- these aren't 200 of your favorite songs winnowed down from your massive CD collection that took you weeks to upload.

More likely, you're listening to what an algorithm thinks you want to listen to, which is why you now have "Pandora fatigue" -- that exhausting sensation that the Internet only wants you to listen to the same handful of songs, over and over again.

No matter what genre you enjoy, the perils of "playing out" a song -- long the bane of Top 40 radio, which be nature tends to repeat the same songs until we're sick of them -- are now inescapable. Sure, music algorithms can get better over time, getting to know your listening habits, drawing from ever-larger databases, delving into ever more finely subdivided categories of tunes.

There's just one problem: Too much variety affords just as painfully dissatisfying a listening experience as too little.

Tuning In and Tuned Out

Below the flashy surface of a service like Spotify, there's an ocean of obscure, mediocre and downright bad tracks. A new app dramatizes the problem: Forgotify, which is dedicated to playing only the millions of tracks that haven't received a single play on Spotify.

While the kill-'em-with-content approach might lure in some new customers, it won't hold their interest or their loyalty.

Music is all about getting people excited about a scene. That's why Pandora (P), with 76 million streaming its content, is continuing to spend aggressively to grow its audience. For the personal touch, Sirius XM (SIRI) stations sometimes turn over big blocks of airtime to DJs and bloggers who curate artists with all the tastemaking care of the format's golden age.

Users are starting to remember (or realize for the first time) that algorithms don't create scenes -- people do. There's not much business sense in trying to build a better algorithm with an avalanche of music nobody listens to.

Enter Beats Music.

Marching to a Different Beat

Instead of building its online service on an all-consuming algorithm or a vast database of duds, Beats Music harks back to the content-filtering system that made radio great. Beats isn't out to reinvent this wheel. But it is changing the game by operationalizing two big assumptions:
  • Even the Internet needs humans to create great listening experiences.
  • Less is more -- less being fewer tracks in the database, and bigger pros than your Facebook friends to put new music in front of your ears.
Beats, with its old-school curation by trusted tastemakers (radio DJs gatekeeping and breaking bands they actually know their audience will like) is the true alternative to Spotify, Pandora and the algorithm model. Its model brings a massive value that algorithms almost never deliver -- not just in terms of music satisfaction, but in terms of the human satisfaction listeners get out of developing a relationship with quality tastemakers. And then there's the enjoyment of the more personal relationships they develop with fellow listeners, fans, and musicians.

Beats is gambling that there's a way to hit this sweet spot between a machine-produced long-term listening experience and an expertly, idiosyncratically curated one. And seizing on this business opportunity isn't just a win for Beats. It's a win for music online and off.

Can You Hear Me Now?

Cutting down the catalog and upping the human element isn't just a way of "fixing" what's wrong with algorithm-driven, playlist-crazy music online. It's a way of guiding fans and industry leaders alike toward the realization that the vast majority of us want to listen to a pretty small, but very excellent, body of musical work.

Sure, it might hurt the huge percentage of "loser" acts who never make a dime, never build a following and vanish into the digital abyss. But the open secret of the music industry is that they're already hurting now.

If people are honest about what they want out of music (Beats is already starting to advertise in a way that hopefully guides people to that kind of honesty), Beats will very likely be a success. Free trials of the service are available.

Let's Get Down to Business

Looking at the competition, you'll find that Spotify has an edge in several ways. Because it was incubated in Sweden, Spotify enjoyed plentiful bandwidth, first-mover advantage and hype-free development from the get-go. Spotify boasts some 24 million users, a quarter of whom subscribe to the service.

With its 65 percent market share in headphones, Beats has shown it knows a thing or two about profit. At the same time, Beats understands the stakes and that the weak, stagnant and desperate music industry is begging for innovations that can make it a ton of money. Now it's time to show industry executives that the music industry won't be profitable unless it starts building a secure, lasting foundation.

It's not a new model, but it's a proven one: Incubate and sustain superstar acts that truly connect with people on a human level. That's what allows great music and great bands to endure -- not just until the next awards season, but year after year.

James Poulos is a Motley Fool contributing writer. You can follow him on Twitter at @jamespoulos. He has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Pandora Media. The Motley Fool owns shares of Sirius XM Radio. Try any of our newsletter services free for 30 days.‚Äč

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