A little over a month ago, Twitter launched #Music, its take on what a truly social music discovery service might look like. It was strategic, leveraging Twitter's enormous user base and vast amount of data, and thanks to a well-timed acquisition, saw some of the best product design the company has ever produced. When it launched, the press flocked to it as the second coming of Vine, a polished way for Twitter to shake up a new space and create an extra source for ad revenue in the bargain. If nothing else, this was bound to shake up the world of mobile music-streaming.
Can #Music survive in one of the hottest spaces in the industry?
By now, that buzz is a distant memory. Last week #Music fell out of iOS's top 100 free music apps; it currently sits at #113, shoulder-to-shoulder with Last.fm. (Twitter, for their part, did not respond to requests for comment.) Even worse, for a natively social company like Twitter, is the deafening silence. If people are using it, they're staying very quiet about it. Failure is hardly a taboo in the startup world, but coming this soon after a much-feted launch, it raises the obvious question: can #Music survive in one of the hottest, most competitive spaces in the industry?
If the outlook seems worse in recent weeks, it's largely because of All Access, Google's play for the same space, but All Access is just the latest entry in an already-crowded field of streaming music services, each one with their own secret weapon. Spotify has the strongest social game, Rdio has the best design, Vevo has video, MySpace has Timberlake — the list goes on and on. And that's without mentioning actual radio up-and-comers like Sirius, or Apple’s iTunes and Amazon's chokehold on music downloads. Facing all that, what can #Music do that no one else can do better?
It's especially problematic because #Music is doing so much less than those services. #Music relies on Spotify and Rdio to provide anything longer than a preview snippet — they're the ones with the label deals, after all — so it's often competing on interface. It's a good interface, a zero-negative-space wall of sound that feels genuinely new, but it's not enough on its own. If it catches on, there'll be nothing to stop Spotify from lifting the look for its own product.
The recommendations come from a faceless algorithm
What's left is the data, and the recommendations it powers. That puts #Music in an editorial space, competing more with Pitchfork and Rolling Stone than Google. That's not a bad place to be, potentially. Spotify proved a good recommendation could be built on top of Facebook's network, so why not build one on top of Twitter's? But paradoxically, #Music cares more about data than it does about people. The most promising element, which allows users to track what a particular artist is listening to, is buried under so many menus that most users never found it. Instead, the recommendations mostly come from faceless algorithms, so there's no sense of who's recommending anything — whether it's my friend Dave, People Who Follow @Horse_ebooks, or that one Vice writer I follow. In the case of music recommendations, that's the whole game, and hiding the human element behind a recommendation engine only clouds the issue.
All of which is to say, it doesn't quite work — but it may be more interesting for what it says about Twitter than what it says about music. Even if #Music was a disappointment, it was a cheap one — a one-inch punch that Twitter could toss into the world and let succeed or fail on its own terms. It's the kind of thing giants like Google and Facebook do all the time, but Twitter has only recently come around to. Coming on the heels of Vine, it could be a sign of a new, more product-oriented Twitter. Sometimes, that will mean cracking open a hard problem like shareable web video. Other times, it'll mean a swing and a miss.