Branding and UI Matter
Spotify has the best UI. It looks great on both a computer and on mobile. Its easy to use, things do not feel hidden, and nothing feels missing. I give them an A for their UI.
In contrast, Pandora has an overly-simplistic user interface, that does not inspire confidence. Their previous one was not very good, and had aged quite a bit, but this one is worse. I don't see any reason for people to use Pandora anymore; Pandora is obsolete (read more here).
Apple is better than Pandora but not that impressive. Apple users are somewhat of a 'captive' audience; Apple is unique in this way. I feel that there is nothing compelling about Apple that will draw in many non-Apple users. Apple has potential to improve, however.
Google is another matter. Their three music services are confusing, and with no end in sight, and Google user interfaces do not impress; Google+ is an example of a an unimpressive user interface, far less capable than other social networks, like Facebook. I don't see Google making inroads on Spotify from a design point of view.
There are now over 200 music streaming services in the world. Many of the smaller ones were designed by 7Digital and some of those have very good user interfaces.
But Spotify is clearly the best. UI matters - a lot. Not everyone gets it right - and in fact, few do.
Everyone talks about the quality of music; comparing the CD to vinyl, different bit rates, and so on. As an old-school audio buff, I wish there was better quality digital music. Sadly, our world has such strong trends towards convenience over quality.
There is no single standard, or even language term, for high definition audio. its a complex subject. Standalone efforts at HD music like the Pono group have basically failed to get traction in the marketplace or even much investment. Thus, the resurgence of vinyl, its the only way to get HD music in a simple and cost-effective way that will also stand the test of time; the equipment and the content will always be available.
Tidal is the one music streaming service that has made an effort in quality, and I applaud them. Spotify is basically 'good enough', Tidal is better, and Pono is above that.
Long term, I believe that music streaming services like Tidal and Spotify are the path to a solution (more than new standalone startups) as they can start slowly in this area, with moderate investment, and improve it and grow it over time. The key factor really would be everyone working together.
But will these companies music companies work together? It seems unlikely. Apple, for example, launched their service at a lower bit rate than Spotify. That makes no sense at all - why go backwards? It suggests that Apple has no real commitment to HD music and this again comes down to the the usual situation with Apple, where the captive audience of Apple users being an easy to market to. Thus, Apple has no pressure to do much better.
Google has such huge size with their brand, and long reach with Youtube. But the confusion with having three services, and weak user interfaces, is matched by their lack of commitment to HD audio. If Google were really serious about HD audio they would have bought Tidal, invested in Pono, and done more for HD audio standards. Google is the one company that could really set the industry in motion toward an HD audio standard, if they were really committed to quality. But ultimately, Google's sheer size and high profits via search spoils them; and will hinder them from truly committing to other markets like music. My opinion is that they just "do stuff' and it kind of works, but not always very well, and thus they never really have that singular, deep focus that is needed to succeed. Google is not 'hungry' to succeed. Google is probably the most disappointing of anyone in the music market right now.
I again will start with praise for Spotify. The brand message is clear and consistent, and the entire image breeds confidence. They are #1 in music streaming and will continue to be so. They hit the 'sweet spot' in each area (UI, quality, and simplicity).
As mentioned above, Pandora has some significant problems and that affects their branding. They have a large customer base, but over time I expect that to erode, partly due to the unimpressive UI. The main value now for Pandora is to be acquired, to get more customers; that's it. For Apple, with their captive audience of Apple users, there is less pressure on Apple to do much more and I don't expect them to impress. They will make some noise about Curation and their playlists and other things that are basically just marketing tactics only - so it will not impress. The real measure for Apple would be their growth rate for non-Apple users.
Tidal's branding suffered from an uneven launch, but they have kept up steady progress and I am hopeful that Tidal will continue to grow and be effective in this industry. I am fan of Tidal and hope they commit to true HD audio in the future. Tidal is making an effort to support artists - unlike Google who is going the other way by hurting independent producers on Youtube.
I feel that Google is basically a mess. I don't personally know anyone who is impressed with Google music. The confusion of having three services hurts branding. The huge success of Youtube frustrates Google, I believe, because it is largely not monetized - but having a paid level of Youtube is just dumb. Teens will never pay for Youtube - plus, on the paid accounts the advertising is stripped away so all of those independent producers on Youtube get no income from such pages. This means that Google will hurt these producers. Finally, as many have pointed out, naming the paid-Youtube service "Youtube Red" is not good branding - just do a Google search for the very similar phrase 'red tube', for example and see what comes up.
What is ironic is that the enormous content of Youtube could be used in a productive way, to Google's benefit - but ONLY if they do it the right way. Here is exactly how Google should do its music branding:
In other words, Google could succeed if they made a consistent, funded, and effective effort, that had a very clear branded name (like MusicStreaming.com), a true membership program to reward loyal users, and a long term commitment to bring standardized HD music to the world. This could change the world of music.
Youtube music is a significant differentiator for Google. The URL MusicStreaming.com is another potential differentiator. Finally, deeply committing to HD audio is also a differentiator. Take all of this together, and with a good UI, means Google could become #1 in music.
NOTE: I have praised a few companies in this article (Spotify in particular) - so let me make clear, we are not investors in any of these companies nor beholden to them in any way.
Time Has Passed by Pandora
Pandora was the first music streaming service I ever used. Although the user interface was somewhat odd, it was easy to use and I liked Pandora. But as other services appeared, things changed. Pandora began to seem somehow a part of the past, and their struggles to become profitable reflect that. There does not seem to be a solution.
Is there any need for Pandora now? Does it make any sense for someone to acquire Pandora?
The five main services the market needs all exist now, and they are:
Beyond those five, what interests me is higher quality or what is called "higher definition" music. Tidal and Pono are examples, and there are others. Spotify offers a higher bit rate than Apple music; Tidal is better than Spotify, and Pono is better than Tidal. They are niche services that deserve to grow. (Hello, Google?).
Pandora does not fit into any of the niches described above. I find their current UI (User Interface) to be the most boring one I have seen. It has very few options, and diminishes the value of Pandora. If you think about it, every mainstream (Non HD) music streaming service has the same 'product' - the same catalog of music. So if you combine that thought with the weak UI, then it looks bad for Pandora. I think they had too much success early on and they just lost their focus.
In conclusion, there does not seem to be any reason for Pandora to exist. Which makes it a very risky acquisition target as well. Im fact, I think a company would have to be desperate, to acquire Pandora - regardless of the price. The only value Pandora represents is their user base.
Now, if someone were to combine Pandora's user base with the higher quality of Tidal and Pono, add a very clean UI like Spotify, and avoid branding mistakes - now that could be interesting.
Sharing Helps Everyone
Right now, Spotify knows about the listening habits of only their own users; just as Apple music knows the listening habits of only their own users. This means that playlists suffer, and marketing suffers, because data is hidden, instead of being shared. While this is common in business, we need to do a better job of it if we want music streaming to reach its full potential - both for users, and for having a financially successful industry.
The more knowledge there is about users, the better playlists can become, the more targeted advertising becomes, the deals on concert tickets can be brought to the right people, and merchandising improves.
We have the solution!
What the industry needs to do is simply 'anonymize' the data. No one really needs to know any specific users name, for example. We anonymize the data and then share listening habits. If you imagine a single, global database of anonymized user data, then here would be considerable, actionable data that everyone could work with. What users are listening to, what they want to hear, would be far better known, What products are being bought, what products do users want? What are the hot tickets right now? It could help the labels in many ways including projecting changes in user's listening habits and desires.
Anonymizing the data protects user's privacy.
Such global knowledge benefits everyone, and hurts no one. Even the largest music streaming companies, like Spotify, would benefit; advertisers would benefit; even the bands could get a better idea of what users want.
Consumers could then tailor their account settings with preferences by keyword (which is something every service ought to have), plus the particular service they are using can see their listening habits. Add it all together, and you have better solutions.
Music streaming is a new industry. It is an industry that is just forming, a new way of doing things, and is the future for music. So it ought to be built right, from the start.