8tracks shuts down and another music service fades out

David Porter, writing on the 8tracks blog:

8tracks has had a long run and its day in the sun. We’re sad to announce, however, that the company and its streaming service will wind down with the end of the decade, on December 31st, 2019.

I haven’t used 8tracks in years but it was an cool service at the time. I followed a few people with remarkably better taste in music that me and that, along with a few forums I stumbled into, shaped the music I love today.

Without 8tracks, I might never have got into dance, soul, RnB, hip-hop and a whole lot more. And that’s good. A man can’t live on post-hardcore alone.

8tracks itself innovated in a few areas out of the gate [in 2008]: the playlist was the atomic unit of curation, sharing and consumption; each playlist was represented visually by its mix art, a couple of years before Instagram’s arrival; and DJs could apply freeform tags to describe a playlist by not only by genre or artist but also by activity, mood or other theme, introducing a novel, contextual approach to listening that Songza, Beats, Spotify and others would later emulate.

Hard to imagine our current streaming services without any of that.

Despite the innovations, 8tracks couldn’t keep the good times spinning. Royalty fees made it hard to keep the mixing board on and listenership dropped off thanks to competitors like Spotify.

Moreover, Spotify offers a complete music streaming experience, spanning on-demand and lean-back (radio) listening. Our bet was that most consumers, most of the time, would opt for highly tailored lean-back programming — because easy and relevant — and could pop out to an on-demand service once in a while when they wished to hear a particular track or artist. And we were right, in part. Executives at on-demand services note that, after a new user’s honeymoon period of building her on-demand library, she generally migrates to listening to her library (aka liked songs) on shuffle or to a lean-back program of music (playlist or station).

I know I’m the outlier here – that’s the polite term; the impolite term is “ancient curmudgeon” – but I don’t get the appeal of listening to music like this. Maybe it’s a function of my music library: throwing it on shuffle will just bounce between electro and death metal and classical and hip-hop and indie pop that’s too twee to live. No one wants that. And, if they do, I don’t want them in charge of my music.

But I still love albums. At their best, they’re powerful artistic statements that open up over repeated listens, constantly delivering new favourites.

At their most average, they’re a few great songs with some filler that still form a cohesive hole. At their worst, they’re not in my library.

This preference is why I drifted away from 8tracks and it’s focus on user-created playlists. But they still hold value. Some of the best music I’ve heard, often in genres I never would’ve tried, came from recommendations from people whose taste I trust. They can come from playlists.

But that trust comes with time and a sense of knowing who’s suggesting the music. That’s what 8tracks provided and where the playlists from Spotify and Apple Music falter.

Nonetheless, easy, on-demand access to any song has proven to be a must-have requirement; it’s what people are accustomed to in the “ownership” model, and periodic on-demand listening makes algorithmic lean-back selections ever better. The upshot is that the average music consumer wants all of his listening needs addressed “under one roof.”

This make sense from a consumer perspective: one app is easier to manage than two. And, unlike running multiple streaming services for TV, I don’t think most people consider music as culturally vital to juggle more than one service without a strong reason to do so.

Exclusive music might do it (and Soundcloud is making a case for that, if not the strongest one). But playlists? Not so much.

The main problem here is that providing access to all that music presents a barrier to entry for new players and thus competition. “40 million+ songs” is a lot of money to put on the table just to get in the game.

And that’s a shame:

We — the remaining team at 8tracks — all think it’s still to hard to find playlists with a “soul behind the music.” User programmed playlists on Spotify and YouTube are great, but they remain relatively hard to navigate to find the best ones for a particular person’s taste, time or place. And there’s not (as yet) an ecosystem to allow curators to flourish. There’s still work to be done.

No-one is knocking it out of the park in this space. Apple Music and Spotify remain just fine enough to do the job.

There’s room in music streaming to do something novel. It’s a pity 8tracks couldn’t get the money to keep trying.

© 2019 cory zanoni.