I’m back in the States after spending the last week in Melbourne, where I gave a TED-style talk at the inaugural CHANGES
festival about the implications of voice and smart speakers for the music industry.
The experience was incredible not just because Melbourne’s music scene is virtually bottomless (CHANGES playlist here
), but also because the conference delegates consisted largely of local indie/DIY artists, managers, label heads, promoters and other professionals just starting to cut their teeth in the industry—in contrast to the corporate-level interests that tend to take center stage and fill most of the audience seats at many other music conferences (let alone during panel discussions about smart speakers).
Not coincidentally, Amazon Music’s talk immediately followed my own—and today’s newsletter will dive into what I learned from that juxtaposition.
I broke down the core argument of my talk into two parts. Firstly, tech companies and music services have actually conditioned us to be “voice-ready” for years
—in the sense of making our immediate contexts, rather than a given genre or artist, the primary curation force behind music consumption
. Look at how Spotify actively promotes its mood- and activity-inspired playlists; or how Google, Amazon and Apple are giving ever more attention to the idea of a “smart home,” bundling entertainment options with a whole suite of connected hardware devices; or how music companies are striking an increasing number of deals with fitness apps (Aaptiv x Warner Music Group
, ClassPass x HFA/Rumblefish
, Peloton x Neurotic Media
, Feed.fm’s new white-label offering Fitness.fm
), positioning music as a “performance enhancer” for other activities.
Second, despite the fact that we’re ready for voice, music-industry stakeholders—particularly those on the outskirts of the corporate bubble—are still grappling with some key debates:
- Is artist-centric marketing possible in an age of screen-less ambiance where context controls the steering wheel?
- In an airtight consumer environment where “Alexa, play me upbeat music” is the primary purchasing funnel, what do lean-in persuasion and discovery mechanisms really look like, especially for artists who might not fit a contextual mold?
- More importantly for the CHANGES audience: do indie artists really benefit from the “lack of friction” that smart speakers allegedly provide to the consumer?
Regarding that last point: Ryan Redington, director at Amazon Music, told me
earlier this year that removing friction will drive up music consumption across the board, even for “those artists who feel like they haven’t been benefiting as much from the streaming era yet.“
But to me, smart speakers remove the friction required to activate the first stream, not necessarily the friction required to achieve long-tail content discovery.
In an era where Spotify has the power to emblazon
Drake’s face atop dozens of its playlists—many of which have no alignment with his brand or catalog whatsoever (hello, "Best of British”)—some members of the indie community are understandably concerned about getting fair access to that coveted “first-stream” real estate for voice.
After my talk, Dave Ray, the head of Amazon Music’s ANZ team, took the stage to walk the audience through the various possibilities for music consumption and marketing on Amazon’s voice and music platforms—whether through brand-new types of commands and searches (e.g. “play the new Beyoncé album” or “wake me up at 8am to Adele”) or through exclusive content and curation from artists (e.g. Amazon Originals
and Song of the Day
). He also made a few nods to Australian music trends, including a clarification that Amazon Music has no intention to compete with local radio mainstays like Triple J
, which “plays a central role in what the local music community is all about.”
As with any other corporate presentation at an industry conference, however, Dave’s talk was clean and sales-y, and left the CHANGES audience more skeptical than convinced about their own place within Amazon Music’s long-term roadmap.
For instance, the vast majority of the examples Dave shared around Amazon Music’s role in artist marketing were from the major-label world: Shania Twain starring in an Echo commercial, Miguel guest-hosting Song of the Day, Australian country star Morgan Evans making it onto Amazon’s Country Heat
playlist. This is a stark contrast to Spotify’s communications strategy, which features artists with much smaller followings (e.g. Garrett T. Capps
), rather than already-mainstream stars, as emblems of the platform’s marketing potential.
When a CHANGES audience member raised the question of how indie and DIY artists and music companies—the majority of the conference audience—could get access to the same types of voice campaign opportunities as the Miguels and Morgan Evans of the world, Dave’s response was vague and inconclusive.
To me, this is no surprise: I have heard an Amazon Music team member say in the past that the service is akin to a “Walmart for music.” That phrase is open-ended enough to suggest vast ambitions and fat wallets, but also references a very specific type of marketplace: one that arguably rewards and prioritizes mass consumer taste (vs. aggregation of niches, as Spotify and Netflix have nailed), and that gives entertainment a tiny amount of shelf space and investment compared to the vast swath of other retail verticals in the metaphorical room. The fact that shelf space is virtually absent from the voice-driven purchasing funnel altogether—i.e. the voice command is the shelf—only causes even more concern for the long tail.
Hence, despite the excitement around its cutting-edge technology, an Amazon Music sales pitch understandably resonated less with a DIY-artist audience than the other presentations later that afternoon at CHANGES. Joseph Edward Keyes from Bandcamp gave a great talk about the importance of covering music beyond the mainstream (and introduced the audience to dungeon synth
), while Matthew Hessler from Vinyl Me, Please discussed the quirks of collector culture and the art & science behind music superfandom.
This is not to say that Amazon Music has gotten rid of DIY sensibilities altogether: the Alexa Skills Kit
enables any developer or designer to build their own voice experiences, and labels are already developing Alexa Skills around album releases
in a matter of a few weeks (whether those Skills actually drive meaningful traction and fan acquisition/engagement is another question). Plus, given the “Walmart-for-music” descriptor, Amazon Music is actually a digital boon for genres that are still seeing strong CD sales from Walmart
but might be relatively behind on streaming—i.e. country, rock, soundtracks and even baby records.
Nonetheless, at least according to the feedback that I heard in the aftermath of CHANGES, indie and emerging artists are struggling to find a sense of belonging in Amazon Music’s voice-driven future. To them, asking Amazon Music to get involved in one of their signature voice-marketing campaigns is like a mom-and-pop shop asking Walmart for a separate, designated booth in their stores: it’s a classic case of misalignment.
What do you all think? Am I and/or the CHANGES audience underestimating the power of Amazon Music and voice to elevate the long tail? How, if at all, are you navigating artist-centric marketing in the age of context? If you’re an indie artist, how do you understand Amazon Music’s role (or lack thereof) in your career? I’d love to hear from you!