What Does the End of the Information Firehose Mean for Music Apps?

Remember how exciting we thought it was that we had all the world’s information at our fingertips? Pages of search results! Millions of tracks! More hot takes than you could read in a lifetime! Now, it all just seems like too much. Twitter, the quintessential firehose of information, is planning on rolling out a new product that allows users to follow events rather than people — a way of narrowing the flow, albeit only slightly. Any major event, from the NBA playoffs to the horrific shooting in Charleston, will result in tons of often-repetitive posts. But it cuts of the jarring effect you see when you read five tweets about mass murder and then one about a funny cat.

This trend isn’t just limited to Twitter. A few days ago, Wired ran a piece called “Apple and Google Race to See Who Can Kill the App First.” With the launch of the Apple News feature, Apple effectively took out several new aggregation apps that were doing a fine job serving up content already — and heralded the beginning of the end of the information firehose. Pulse and Flipboard were both useful and widely used, but Apple News will come built in — a game changer. Now you can customize your news to suit exactly your tastes — no more digging through a newspaper or magazine (or their corresponding app) to find what you want to read.

Towards the end of the Wired piece, author John Pavlus wrote this: “But when it comes down to it, mobile users aren’t interested [whether something is an app or a service]. We’re more like the no-nonsense cartel kingpin in Miami Vice who coldly informs Crockett and Tubbs that “in this business, I do not buy a service. I buy a result.”

Me, too. I don’t want Yelp; I want to know where to eat. I don’t care about Google Calendar; I care about not missing appointments. I don’t buy iPhones; I buy best-in-class pictures of my kids. I’m loyal only to results, and I suspect you are, too.”

Exactly. While I like the New York Times, it wouldn’t be hard to me to read another news source that has better reporting on a topic I care about. I’ve been happy with Spotify, but I’ll probably make the switch to Apple Music once it launches — and if, say, Google rolls out a better product in a few years, I won’t think twice about moving over there.

Much of this has to do with the fact that most apps are totally de-personalized. I’d feel a little bad about not shopping at my local mom-and-pop if a megastore launched down the block, because I have some connection to the place in the form of a relationship with the owners. But it’s pretty rare to be connected to a team behind an app — and even if you are, there’s a decent chance that they’ll fold, or pivot, or just move on. Deleting an app is shockingly easy to do.

The other issue is that most apps just feel overwhelming. I don’t want a list of fifty places to eat, like Yelp gives me — I want one place that I know I’ll like, that I can afford, and that has a table for two in forty-five minutes. I recently needed to get my air conditioner serviced and tried some of the major home repair sites, and came away with nothing but a list of numbers I had to call myself. What’s the point of that? I want the best HVAC repair person at my door, today. A list of options is useless.

Some music services, to their credit, seem to learning and moving ahead of this. Spotify offers a number of contextual playlists, as does Songza; Spring offers playlists based on speed for athletes. But even that can be overwhelming — I just opened Spotify to find almost forty playlist tiles on the front page — and countless other tiles when I made my first choice. If I want to chill, do I want indie chill, rock chill, acoustic chill…? I don’t know. All I know is I don’t feel so chill anymore.

I interviewed a woman a while back about Tidal, and at one point asked her what her ideal music service would look like. She answered, “a big play button that I would tap once, and it would play me the exact right song.”

This is probably impossible, but if we start moving towards a world where all our apps can talk to each other, maybe it’s not as crazy as it seems. If my Apple News can tell that I’ve read ten stories about something depressing, maybe Apple Music serves me something happy to perk me up. If my socials are eventually absorbed into the background, perhaps it scans my posts and sees that I posted about an upcoming trip, and plays me music from that region. Or if I post about a movie I enjoyed, as I did last night, it could serve me music from that film.

There are plenty of downsides to all this close personalization. If I’m only being served things I’m likely to enjoy, I might get stuck in a comfort zone and miss out on learning opportunities. If an otherwise great track never seems like a perfect fit for my current mood, I’m unlikely to hear it. There is something to be said for taking a chance to a track, or a random film on Netflix, or reading an article on an unfamiliar topic.

But the firehose is already slowing to a stream, and as services and apps get smarter and communicate better, a manageable trickle. If music services take the hint and focus on the exact right song for the exact right moment, they’re likely to encourage users to stick around — and come out ahead.

Founder and CEO at Friends With Holograms. Adjunct at NYU. Bylines Billboard, Ad Week. Speaker. Ultrarunner in my spare time.

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