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Curation: The Art of Getting Music Chosen for You


 

The reaction to Apple's grand reveal of their streaming service Apple Music was not as enthusiastic or assured as they hoped. They were called out by pop star Taylor Swift, backed by a flurry of frustrated musicians, after it was revealed that Apple would not pay out royalties to the proper copyright owners, during the service's free trial period for users. 

Not only that, their entrance marks a slightly late (although not unwelcome) entrance into an industry already dominated by burgeoning corporations located all over the world. Apple may be a tech giant but this is a field fiercely competitive and accelerating at an unprecedented speed to innovate new features and ease their way among grumbling sentiment of low royalty rates. 

None of that mattered when Apple Music was finally released to the public just last week, with people heaping praises to its extensive catalog and its radio service. When you have someone like St. Vincent playing a mixtape she made for an 11-year-old on the digital airwaves, it's a sure win (plus St. Vincent is awesome but that's for another time). Previously staunch anti-streaming artists like Thom Yorke and, yes, Taylor Swift featuring their catalog on its service and websites fawning over its many features, centered around a rich, vast interface that's both user-friendly and unquestionably sleek. 

At the heart of Apple Music's service is the idea of curation — the idea of having your music selected for you, so you don't have to. When you start up Apple Music on your phone, it immediately prompts you to divulge your music taste. You're required to select from a multitude of genres, gathered in a sea of multi-sized circle tags. When you're done, you'll have to do the same thing but with a crop of artist names in place. 

 

 

*selects Country and Dance* Can't wait for my Hoedown playlist.

 

Based on your picks, they would then suggest different playlists with either a scholastic approach like "Intro to Beach House" or a mood-setting collection of songs like "Alone and Turning Off My Phone". There's a strong emphasis on curation on Apple Music, adding on its Beats 1 Radio hosted by tastemaker and former BBC DJ Zane Lowe. 

The importance is how they approach curation. 

They're providing an experience where you have the choice to choose your own music, but they would rather help choose the music for you. This isn't new but Apple Music is using it to its strengths with a streamlined interface, star power and more to come. Not to mention a full integration into iTunes, still the most popular desktop app for digital downloads, although that hasn't worked out too well. The indirect artist endorsements in the form of radio segments with figures like St. Vincent, Drake, Dr. Dre, Ezra Koenig and even Run the Jewels aids the image of a direct connection to the artist that Apple Music wants to portray.

"Hello fellow young adult!"

As much as we would like total control over the kind of music we listen to, there are many of us who still want music served to us on a digital platter of customized playlists, with minimal efforts on our end to do some work and select what we want to listen to. We just want to personalize the Internet for ourselves, essentially designing our own version of the world wide web. 

 

As far as we can remember, music curation began with the radio, with DJs presenting a fine selection of music for the day, either if it's Top 40 hits or the latest alternative picks by John Peel. With MTV, it was the same thing but with music videos to keep audiences' eyes peeled on their CRT TVs. We could only do it ourselves once the power of cassette dubbing was granted upon us, allowing us to make what is eternally known as 'mixtapes', making personalised mixes for our friends or...uh, lovers.

 

Now, curation has become a service: through either careful selection by specialists or fancy, real-time algorithms. Spotify has had playlists specially put together by their staff or through playback analyzation, offering Top 50 playlists gathered from the listening habits of users worldwide and even one specially for Singaporeans. Deezer and Tidal offer specialized editorial content. Rdio allows you to access custom radio stations (aka an "artist station") of a huge variety of artists. Or as their CEO Anthony Bay puts it, "offering the industry’s most expansive array of computer generated and expertly curated stations customized for any mood, activity or genre." Even services offering vinyl curation have jumped into the game.

We're not so sure about this one though.

So why is there an intense focus on curation for music streaming services?

 

We know with the rise of vinyl record sales that more music fans are beginning to treasure the traditional album format, even if their presence is a whimper compared to the masses favoring digital downloads and streaming. With MixRadio, a new entrant in the local streaming market having existed under Nokia since 2007 and then acquired by Japanese smartphone developers LINE, curation is everything. They're also keen to strike the Asian market.

"You’ve got the options of curated playlists, where we’ve got ten thousand different playlists with international catalogues, local catalogues, so whether you like rock music in Singapore, or whether you like dangdut in Sumatra, we have the whole international and local catalogues." says Jamie Robertson, VP for MixRadio's Asia-Pacific region. 

MixRadio officially launched in Singapore last May, aiming to reach out to the music-loving public that's already been tuned in to Spotify, Rdio, Deezer, and very soon, Apple Music. What can they bring to the table that their competitors cannot? 

"The philosophy is, with listening to music and discovering music, you just want to make it personal yet very simple and that’s the key for us when we design this." says Dean Pattrick their self-styled Evangelist. "So, even when you download the app, it’s very important for the first time use because a lot of people download the app and have an expectation of 'it’s gonna do this', because it says there’s music on there. Then because of a bad UI (user interface) or UX (user experience), a lot of people drop the app and never come back."

 

Jazz favorites for only the most raging parties.

 

MixRadio promises a clean and exceptionally simple interface and it shows — enter in an artist and you're immediately prompted to enter in artists and genres you favour, instantly providing you a playlist of the familiar and the ones you've yet to discover. Simply 'heart' the ones you like and 'unheart' the ones you don't and you're presented with an even newer crop of varied artists. It's easy to access, fast, sleek. The most surprising part? It's free, even with the option of downloading mixes to play offline. Of course, like most free services, it comes with ads.

However, it doesn't look set to conquer or replace other players in the market, as you're unable to listen to full albums and you're only allowed to skip up to six songs in an hour on a single mix. In the grand scheme of things, MixRadio is less to do with Spotify and more in line with something like 8tracks. Its own service is unique and fuss-free for many listeners who simply want a new mix of songs on demand and on the go.

With Rdio, it takes the format of custom radio and puts it into the consumer's hands. Such a format has been around even with Last.fm and Spotify but with Rdio's vast catalog, it aims to reach a wider set of listeners. Even so with their new service Rdio Select, a $3.99 subscription tier for mobile users that allows access to an ad-free streaming radio with a limited set of songs available for on-demand access every day. 

"By introducing a piece of our on-demand subscription service along with access to ad-free stations for an entirely new and disruptive price, we are able to reach a wide audience of price sensitive music subscribers." says Bay. It's not yet available in Singapore but with the eventual growing presence of MixRadio, especially with the backing of its parent company LINE, a service like Rdio Select might give Rdio the upper hand for greater service variety. But of course, free is always good.

So where does that leave us, the music-obsessed consumer? For full albums without ad interruption, there's still plenty of room for that with what Apple Music, Spotify and Deezer can offer. But with the prominence and easy access of personalized curation, don't be surprised if you find yourself listening to playlist titled "Workout Twerkout" while playing the new Mortal Kombat. It really is lit.

 

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