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Interview with Peter Blom co-Founder of SpotOn Radio

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Spoton Radio combines Spotify’s rich api with Echonest’s music intelligence platform to create one of the most powerful
music applications on the market. The app, which allows you to create artist based radio stations has been compared to Pandora focuses on moving streaming music beyond the current “playlist era” stage that we are currently cemented in. Here is a recent interview that I had with the start-ups co-Founde Peter Blom.

Where did the concept for SpotOn Radio come from?

I’ve had the idea and concept for it for many years, but had trouble finding a kick ass recommendation service, and a functional music provider. Pandora Radio ran their own recommendation thing “Music Genome Project”, but that’s not open for others to use. LastFM has a recommendation engine which we had tried out earlier, e.g. for www.spotiseek.com. But the recommendations from there just weren’t good enough.

For me, music is at the core of my life. I was a DJ in college, have done some art music stuff, hang out at festivals and concerts year round, and am always the guy who sets the soundtrack for parties and events. Music nerd I may be, but not even I have time to curate exquisite playlists every day. There are many times, like when I’m at work that I need to find something fast that’ll be a good listening experience for a couple of hours. I couldn’t be bothered with commercial radio which is too flat and uninspired, so I was at a loss for a solution.

Last fall we started playing around with the recommendation engine from The Echonest, and we quickly found it would live up to our standards. After a few weeks of tweaking and adding our own magic we started getting a lot of musical wow moments. Then Spotify released their iOS platform, which gave us the final piece of the puzzle.

We started working on SpotON Radio the day after Spotify’s announcement last of august, and we had a feature complete version about a month and a half later. We got testers onboard after only two weeks, including some journalists, which was great. Instead of going live with the first version, we wanted to push up the bar on the experience – once you go live big changes are hard to make – so we spent an additional month polishing. Then, we went live with a bang early January.

Why do you think SpotOn-Radio has become one of the more popular iOS apps in such a short time?

We are actually *the* most popular on our platform (iOS) in many countries we’re in. One factor is that we’ve taken the user experience seriously, and that we have created a product that both works and that feels really responsive. I believe in good design as a value proposition. Seeing Apple’s success over the years has reaffirmed that belief. It’s not enough to say “hey, it runs without crashing for five minutes, let’s launch it”. You need to ask yourself “will the user understand how to use this?” and then “will the user be engaged by this?”. Then you have something that will fly.

Product quality is however only a part of being successful. You need to address a market that’s interested in your offer, in a format that they’re willing to respond to. We’ve found a good product/market fit, with an offer that’s in line with how music is mostly enjoyed: a small effort by the user, and lots of great music as a result. Ordinary radio is still the number one way that people enjoy music. Around 96% of the US population is reached by radio, every week.

Everyone is comparing SpotOn to Pandora. In your opinion how true is that statement?

The reason we’re in this game is to define the way music will be listened to in this next decade. We’ve seen the transition from the music cassette technology, where Sony defined the user experience with the Walkman, to the MP3 technology where Apple did the same, and now we’re in the era of streaming music technology. The user experience so far is limited to playlists as the new thing, but we feel this isn’t “it” for streaming. We’re hard at work making it even easier to get started listening. Our vision is actually a no click experience. There’s so much information out there on the user and on the situation that isn’t used today. That’s where we’ll move music listening to a new era. It will feel like magic.

What we’ve created in the first version of our service is a personal radio player which adds all the music you hear to playlists which you can access and playback as many times as you want. There are similarities to Pandora Radio. Their offer is more limited – you can only skip songs so many times, and there is no way to play back songs you’ve found at your convenience. We offer a higher audio quality setting, as well (320 kbps). We also make our recommendations differently, and we have different setups for how much we play new music, music from the source artist, etc. Many of our users report that they like our way better, but I’m sure you’d find as many who think the other way around. Music taste is very subjective :-)

Why do you think people like artists based radio stations so much?

It’s fairly easy to think of a favorite artist (we also suggest a couple based on your listening habits when you start using the app, to make it even easier). Thinking of a genre is even easier, but genre stations are often – almost always – too broad. I, for example, am a big fan of hip hop and jazz. But if I start a hip hop station, I’d likely get a lot of R&B which I do not like, and a lot of top list acts that hurt my ears :-P. With SpotON, I instead say “play songs that are similar to the style of Mos Def”, which gives me exactly the kind of hip hop I like. A few thumbs up and down later I have an epic station of hip hop according to my liking.

With that said, we realize that artist based stations isn’t the ultimate solution. Our ambition is to use as much technology as possible with as little user involvement as possible. We have concepts for solutions that will require even less user input, and give even better results.

What role do you see app developers playing in the future of the music business?

Good question! The music industry, like the fashion industry, has a certain degree of innovation built into its core. New genres and styles are embraced, but there’s also an overarching structure where innovation is less appreciated. As an industry, they’re focused on optimizing costs and revenue. As long as there’s revenue, big changes will be seen as too expensive and risky. Hollywood works the same way. As long as DVDs are making money, that’s the model they’ll be defending.

It makes sense within that structure, but for consumers it’s making less and less sense. Innovations like peer to peer sharing and online self-published music had to come from other players, like Napster, Bittorrent and Myspace. Great user experiences like the iPod could never have been created by the music giants. The music companies are also about music, creating and maintaining products isn’t what their organizations are built for. With that said, some may adapt. We’re seeing that happening here and there, which is interesting.

Still, most innovation will happen elsewhere. I used to work in the game industry, and we had a similar situation. The games got ever more expensive to make, but the market didn’t grow enough. So, many gaming companies sought new revenue streams. Gambling became one that many ended up exploring, sadly. It didn’t help grow the gaming industry; if anything it grew the gambling industry, and boosted poker. Then Zynga came in from nowhere and redefined everything – they showed that micro transactions and freemium was a possible model, and they exploded the gaming market from niche to mainstream.

That’s what’s the music industry needs today – a new revenue model for a larger market.