What Happens When Music Apps Die?

The column is going up a little late this week because I’ve spent the last few days up in Boston with my partner in podcasting, Kyle Bylin. We’ve been sitting in on and presenting at the Berklee Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship (ICE) Summer Camp for International High School Students, as well as drinking beer and spitballing about the future of the music business. We spent quite a bit of time chatting about apps, given that streaming music and other apps tend to be seen as the “future” of the music biz.

But as Panos Panay, who runs Berklee ICE, pointed out on a panel we did, apps are terrible. They’re clunky, and there are too many of them, and they all only do one thing. I have my music app, and my yoga studio class booking app, and my app that I use to record my expenses, among many, many others. None of them communicate with each other. My music app can’t look at the my maps app and serve me songs based on my destination. Kindle doesn’t communicate with Netflix and suggest further reading based on documentaries I’ve watched. Instagram doesn’t talk to Yelp to note where I’m taking pictures and suggest places to eat based on that location. And on and on.

I’m not the first person to complain about how siloed apps are, and I won’t be the last. Already more and more apps are being baked into one another — Google Maps and Waze being a perfect example. It’s not far-fetched to think that a few years down the road, Apple Music will incorporate data from my social feeds, my health feeds, and any other information I might provide it, and provide music curated just for me.

I’m still having conversations about Apple Music and hearing the same thing from most of the people I consider to be casual music fans — the service is too damn complicated. Sure, it provides you with a ton of curated options — but even sorting through the curated options can seem like a lot of work. One of the reasons people tell me they like Pandora is that it’s pretty idiot-proof — type in the name of an artist and hit start.

Imagine if you didn’t even have to do that. Imagine if your device just scanned every input, all the time, and delivered you music based on all that — and all you had to do was press the play button. It would basically be radio, except customized entirely for you. Obviously, some people would opt out of this due to privacy concerns and other issues — but given how much information we share freely right now, I think many people would just shrug and listen to music.

This is where we’re going — but what exactly does it mean? For one, it means the death of many music apps, since we don’t really need them. Why do we need a music discovery app when another entity can just do the discovering for us, and base it on the data versus guessing what we might like? If we can integrate our calendar function, it can tell us exactly when bands we like are coming to town — and if it further integrates with payment apps, just take care of buying the tickets for us. Instead of having to follow blogs or artists’ social feeds, you’d simply get a message that a band you liked was coming to town, and push yes to automatically buy tickets and have it show up on your schedule.

This is also the development that gets everyone using all of these services. Ever deal with a relative who resembles a goose honking and flapping about because the phone is just too confusing? This makes the promise of the internet and smartphones really and truly available to everyone. If you can turn on a TV or the radio, then you can be served custom content on your device.

The big change for the content industry is this — what happens when there is no more popular content? If we make it so easy to consume via web-connected devices that everyone comes on board, then why would we need channels at all? Or critics? Or any of the other current organizing principles for content? Why would you want to create any sort of hit, when you know it would be recommended to a handful of people?

Obviously, we wouldn’t give up agency about our cultural choices altogether — if a friend whose taste I trust recommends something, I’m likely to search it out, even if it might not be in my wheelhouse. I discovered the Last Alaskans, a show about people living in the middle of nowhere in Alaska, because a TV critic I like praised it, even though on its face it doesn’t sound like something I’d enjoy. But if we are generally enjoying a steady stream of good content, we’re probably less likely to seek other things out.

We’ve certainly already seen a big decline in mass culture — it is very unlikely a pop star will ever be as big as Michael Jackson was in his prime, or a TV event as widely watched and commented on as Roots was. But the full and deep integration of everything we consider the function of an app today could break that down much more quickly.

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

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