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Penny Fractions: Episode 25 - Alexa Play Some Bops

Hello, I hope y’all are doing well this week. I ended up sick most of my vacation which was lovely. A
Penny Fractions
Penny Fractions: Episode 25 - Alexa Play Some Bops
By David Turner • Issue #26 • View online
Hello, I hope y’all are doing well this week. I ended up sick most of my vacation which was lovely. A few changes that you may have noticed is that Penny Fractions is no longer on TinyLetter. Last week I moved to Revue partly because it offered a few new features (scheduled emails!) and people asked for an easier way to access previous issues, which you can now do at my new profile page. I also wanted to thank everyone who sent survey feedback. As always, if you wanna to reach out to me shoot an email to pennyfractions@gmail.com.

One quick programming note. Billboard just announced their changes to the Hot 100 and Top 200 charts. I’ll write more about this in the coming weeks; I just wanted to flag this story because the initial story was an early spark for this newsletter so it feels like sentimental. Until then, let’s talk about voice.
History
Last month Amazon coyly revealed that their number of Amazon Music Unlimited subscribers doubled over the last six months. Now the company didn’t give an exact number of subscribers to their music only service, but Steve Boom, Amazon’s Music VP, told Billboard that it equals around “tens of millions.” The last reported number was around 16 million in 2016 and so my imprecise ballpark estimate is somewhere over 20 million and probably under 40 million. Certainly not too bad for what is essentially an accessory to Amazon’s social tax on physical goods, also known as Amazon Prime, or a few extra bucks every month if one already owns an Alexa device.
Even though Amazon was shy about providing specific data, I’ve been waiting for those headlines about the “surprise” rise of Amazon in the music stream space for a while. Only, because while in western markets Spotify and Apple Music continue to fight on mobile devices, voice is Amazon’s newly established domain. That’s why it’s not surprising that Amazon’s impact on the music industry is in space, which didn’t even exist five years ago.
This newsletter is focused on music streaming and whatever tendrils out of that, but I wanted to give a little background on voice assistants and admit a little bias before getting too deep.
The only voice assistance I’ve used is Siri on my iPhone, because I don’t own any Amazon product or a Google Home. Unsurprisingly I’m the kind of person that finds the impreciseness of voice recognition frustrating enough that I’d rather just never use the product than experience that layer of friction.
Clearly based on how people are using these devices for music, basic to-do lists, and other household tasks I’m beginning to appear as an outlier. One last bit of throat clearing is that personally I do think these devices on the whole are giant security risks and willfully allowing a corporation to record all of one’s most personal moments is fucking ridiculous, but I digress.
Amazon initially introduced the Amazon Echo powered by its voice assistant Alexa to Amazon Prime users on November 6th, 2014. The following year it would go on sale to the general public and by late fall 2016 when Google introduced their own voice assisted products (Google Home), sales for Amazon were estimated to be over 10 million. While specific sales numbers of all these devices are a bit iffy, reports said 25 million were sold in 2017. Earlier this year Apple released their own smart speaker with the Homepod and though still early in its life, sales aren’t looking too good. Still, the rapid growth in this market along with the slow stagnation of smartphone sales shows in the next decade a lot of potential movement in this space.
So...About the Music
Last December right after Christmas I was looking at the iPhone App store and noticed that in the music section the top app wasn’t Spotify, but Amazon Alexa—currently the voice assistant app is #10, while Amazon Music is at #5. The post-holiday surge showed that this market for voice assisted music is certainly increasing.
Voice assistants are still just entering the mainstream and most coverage of them in a music context is centered on marketing and how these home devices offer up a new potential market of music subscribers. Both are good reasons: An audio first medium breaks down the last sixty years of music marketing from album covers, music videos, live shows, etc are all heavily visual ways of communication that are lost in a voice-first medium. And more subscribers means more money, so win-win.
That’s why I really enjoyed this quote from Kara Mukerjee, the head of digital at RCA UK, at a panel hosted by Music Ally earlier this year:
I don’t think it can be overhyped. We’re fundamentally decoupling music consumption from every single element of it that’s tangible. There is absolutely no experience of physicality or visibility, or even seeing the artist title or the name… This is really significant, I’d say.
I always love a bit of hyperbole. Now to ground that a little bit, last year Cherie Hu at Billboard wrote about how Spotify is trying to connect with the country music industry, but was already lagging behind a couple other streaming platforms.
While country artists would be lucky to land even one single on the top hits playlists for Apple and Spotify, country regularly accounts for over 20 percent of the top 50 most-streamed songs on Amazon Music, and is Pandora’s second-largest genre audience with 60 million listeners and counting (second only to hip-hop). In fact, major labels are already focusing on Amazon Music as a home base for country music fans, due to Amazon’s unique positioning as a bridge between physical and digital music products in a single online marketplace.
Amazon Music’s charts are notorious, well to me and probably digital markers, because it’s the one streaming charts where country music outperforms the competition. Now someone can easily correct this, but what do Pandora and Amazon Music have in common? Strong voice presence. As I was told in an email by Pandora’s PR team last week (hi!) from 2016 to 2017 the company’s voice prompts increased by 141%. Big increase!
What’s interesting to me is that while Spotify pushes lean back listening at least in the voice space services like Amazon Music and Pandora are already beating it to the punch in home passive listening. Part of me thinks back to Paul Weston’s 1940s albums with titles like Music for Dreaming, Music for Romancing, Music for Reflection, which rose to popularity with the rise of LP and commercialized home audio listening. For decades there was an idea of home listening equating to moods rather than specific artists or names. That’s why persistent rumors of Spotify making their own home speaker sound reasonable, because the home is a place where music can offer friction-less existence.
Earlier this year it was reported that Spotify is implementing their own voice controls to bypass Siri. Casey Newton at the Verge wrote about it earlier this year back in March and when rumors of a Spotify car device started swirling people went back to these newly shown off voice commands. While Amazon, Google, and Apple essentially are fighting for a post-smartphone world by pushing consumers into a consumerist surveillance state. Spotify with voice is fighting a different war of users frustrated with Siri, but obviously are going to continue to use Spotify on their iPhones.
I’ve wanted to write about voice for a minute, because similar to when I wrote about Twitch in March, even before Drake hopped on Fortnite if I wanna be smug. What is most interesting to me about this new medium is that while streaming is making it appear that music is consolidating, the amount of emerging formats reveals more fragmentation in the market.
Not only am I interested in how playlists translate for these devices—read Kieron Donoghue’s blog about Spinnin’ Records attempt at voice first playlists if you want a good primer in that. I wanna know how teenager will game these devices so instead of getting a new Drake song you’re getting some Oakland teenager and his friends. An audio first medium for music contains so many possibilities that even if it exists solely to get you buy shit off Amazon, I wonder what boundaries can be pushed. I guess if one of the future of music is engaging with an always on surveillance device at least tell me they’ll be more fun stuff than saying “Alexa play RapCaviar”.
6 Links 2 Read
I’m keeping the commentary a bit light this week only because I want to be cheeky and because a number of these links are not directly music related. This one really isn’t music related, but video games are often leaders in digital trends and loot boxes are certainly one that I’d expect the music industry to adopt whenever streaming stop providing the same money flow.
Even though this week was about voice, I always wanna include as much information about YouTube not having a single clue about how their platform works and promising to fix it anyway.
I know this is being snarky, but there is something really frustrating when I see how much attention is placed on views and play count, when people who are native and built their careers on these platforms quickly dismiss relying on such a shaky metric.
I don’t have a great music connection for this story except maybe that judging an artist or anything by their followers or even the number of likes might not be the best idea. Someone is always gaming whatever system they’re placed within.
$$$$$
An level-headed perspective on AI and how it’ll effect the music industry. Wild.

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David Turner

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