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Why did the Instagram of music fail?

Why did the Instagram of music fail?

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

We’re chugging along with Why’d You Push That Button. We’ve got a few more episodes left in the season, and today’s is about music social networks. Kaitlyn loves stalking her friends’ Spotify feeds, whereas I keep my account hidden from everyone. I just want to listen to Britney Spears in peace. I can’t have Kaitlyn texting me every time I listen, you know? Spotify used to let people direct message tracks, but it has since removed that feature, which just leaves us with the friend feed. Why isn’t Spotify building out its social features? Does the company hate us?

We brought Jordan McMahon, a social music fan, as well as The Verge’s own Micah Singleton onto the show to discuss why they like seeing their friends’ activity. Then we talk to Charlie Kaplan, the CEO of Cymbal, a social music app, about why his company is shutting down and why it’s so hard to make a sticky social music experience.

You can listen to the episode here or anywhere else you find podcasts, like Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle Play Music, and our RSS feed. Also, read the transcript with Charlie below!

Kaitlyn: Cool. We’re here with Charlie Kaplan, CEO of Cymbal, which is a social music app, the Instagram of music.

Charlie Kaplan: You got it.

Kaitlyn: You want to explain it better than I did?

No, that was actually perfect.

Kaitlyn: Was it?

Was it, yes. That’s how I do it in every meeting. Cymbal is a music social network for iOS and Android devices. We’ve been covered in the press. We’ve been called Instagram for music. If you have the app, then you can see why. You follow your friends or your favorite artists or record labels you like, and then your feed, much like an Instagram feed, turns into a constantly updating playlist of the songs that matter to the people who matter to you. There’s some kind of cool technology behind it also.

The world of streaming music, which is now the way folks basically listen to music in America, is super fractured, so there’s Apple Music and there’s SoundCloud and there’s Spotify. The technology behind Cymbal is, we wrote an algorithm that matched together all of those libraries. Kaitlyn, if you share an Anderson Paak song from Apple Music, and I hit play on it, and I’m a Spotify user, it just plays from Spotify for me. That kind of speaks to the larger vision of what Cymbal’s really about, which is, help folks connect over songs regardless of what else might be dividing them.

Ashley: We’ve talked a lot about because that was just so big.

I still use it.

Ashley: Oh, you do?


Ashley: Yeah, for me in college that was the thing that we used. Back then, you downloaded a lot of free stuff. Streaming wasn’t a thing, so scrobbling was relatively easy because you had just your library on your computer or whatever. Whereas now it’s not as easy because, like you mentioned, the fractured streaming services. So that’s cool that you guys have done that.

For sure. This is such a boring statement to make, but music has changed so fundamentally in the last 20 years, and it’s gone through so many specific changes. It went from being a physical object, something that you needed to drive to Tower Records and buy, to being data that was largely pirated and then broken up into all these different streams. In one case, it’s specific files. In one case, it’s a radio stream. To now, where it’s essentially something that you don’t even own, you just pay for access to. There’s still a integration into Spotify, but you’re right, now that we’re not based on a file system anymore, where folks have locally stored music, how’s scrobbling supposed to work? I loved it, though. I liked the “Check My Page” and stuff.

Ashley: I know. I met people through


Ashley: Yeah. Actually, a lot of my friends met other people through, too.

That is so cool.

Kaitlyn: We’re talking in this episode specifically about the friend feed in Spotify, which is so fun for me. I get all of my music recommendations without having to ask for them, and then I also get to troll people and be like, “What the fuck are you doing, why are you...” Like my friend James will text me at a random hour and be like, “Still bumping that Jack’s Mannequin album,” or something. It’s fun. It’s fun to be able to snoop on people in that way. I talked to a girl who refused to be interviewed on the podcast due to anxiety, but she was like, “Anytime my friends are going through a breakup I just watch the sidebar and then steal their breakup playlists.”

So she’s a hoarder of breakup playlists?

Kaitlyn: Yeah, she just takes them from people without their knowledge.

That’s amazing.

Kaitlyn: It’s sad that that’s the only social aspect of Spotify now.

Yeah, and, in fact, if you look at Spotify, they’ve scrolled back so much of what they’ve done in terms of building social features. You remember a year or so ago they had a DM tool, which is just gone now. It’s a really interesting problem, and I think it’s the kind of problem that they’re going to revisit. I think they have to. If you look at, just from a business standpoint, it used to be that these streaming services were differentiated based on their libraries, so Apple Music had The Beatles, and Taylor Swift was very selective about where she would put her stuff, Prince and Beyoncé and Jay Z only on Tidal. But the last few years, we’ve approached parity. The more money is in streaming, the more artists are like, “Our music has to be everywhere.” These services can’t compete based on what they have any more. It’s not like Netflix and Hulu and HBO Go, and I don’t know that it’ll ever be.

Kaitlyn: We were talking about Spotify going back to social stuff. How do you think they should do that?

This is my big theory picture about the streaming business: I think that the more people buy streaming subscriptions, the more money basically that’s in the streaming industry, the more artists are going to realize that their music has to be everywhere. Why miss out on the millions of people who use Spotify and just be on Apple Music? Also, this is a footnote to that: the payouts that go out to artists are to some extent a function of the size of the pot. How many people are paying into these streaming services. I think they’re going to kind of be like grocery stores: buy Frosted Flakes at Duane Reade, and you can buy Frosted Flakes at Whole Foods. I know Duane Reade isn’t a grocery store, but.

Ashley: They sell Frosted Flakes.

Kaitlyn: Yeah, totes.

There you go, that’s the point. I think that, like it’s always been, it’s not going to be about the inventory. It’s going to be about the experience. If the goal is to be a monopolistic streaming service — which, we can question the merits of that goal — but if the goal is that, look around and think about what companies on the internet have succeeded in becoming monopolies. My theory is that Facebook is a pretty interesting company to look at. Why is there no more Friendster, or why is there not really any more Myspace? I kind of think about it like, if you were going out on a Friday night and a hundred of your friends were at one party, and like four of them were at another party, you’d probably go to the one where a hundred of your friends were at.

I think, inherently, social tools create kind of a monoculture. Spotify has this interesting head start. They have more subscribers than Apple Music, at least for now. For a brief period of time, they can make the case that, if you feel like most of your friends are on Spotify and you’re on Apple Music, if there’s a social experience that’s like, your friends are talking to one another there, and it’s producing memes or whatever, and interesting funny stuff is happening, and celebrities are talking, you might leave the other party and go to the Spotify party.

Ashley: It’s interesting because we did an episode about Venmo and their social feed.

Oh yeah, I listened to that episode.

Ashley: Yeah, and their whole thing was like, “Well we actually created the social feed because it helped us market.” If you see your friends using Venmo you instinctively think, “My friends use Venmo. I should be on Venmo.” So you feel like this social feed is actually good from a marketing standpoint for Spotify, that’s why they should invest in it?

For sure. I think it’s almost like anything. Not to be too self-referential, but I loved your guys’ episode about Instagram. Why is there only one Instagram? It’s not like it’s an idea that couldn’t be replicated, but why should it be replicated? Everybody’s there already. Why make another one? The thing that makes Instagram great is that everybody’s there. It’s not necessarily that there’s something magical about how the likes work, or how you upload the photos. I’m sure that helped get a head start, but it’s because that’s where stuff’s happening. I honestly think it wouldn’t even be that hard to build. Spotify right now opens up to this feature section. It’s like, “This is the record that’s out today, and here’s our recommendation for a playlist for you,” and all of that. Why does that matter to you? It matters to you because, I listen to the Dixie Chicks, and they said I should listen to another record by the Dixie Chicks. That’s a one-to-one nice personal recommendation, but it doesn’t have any of the power of being like, “All my friends are checking this thing out.” You talk about the social feed, right?

Kaitlyn: Yeah.

It’s such a powerful way, and I think it’s sort of an undercooked, underrealized way, to have that other thing. I remember when the Kendrick Lamar record, Untitled Unmastered came out. Do you guys remember that? I think it was 2016 also. We were opening Cymbal up that morning and started to scroll through my feed. Everything was green.

Kaitlyn: That really ugly army green.

I was in bed, and I remember thinking, “I have to listen to this before I get to the office because otherwise, I’m going to feel like an idiot.” My friends will all be talking about it, and it’s clearly important. It clearly matters. That peer pressure. That social power is nowhere on Spotify. I personally think that’s what’s going to win streaming.

Ashley: Do you think users want this?

Great question. If you think about the history of “social music,” it’s littered with companies that didn’t figure it out. Cymbal, right? This Is My Jam, perfect example. Twitter, #music, perfect example. People have tried this question again and again: how do you build an experience around sharing music? On one hand, you can look at this question and you can say, “This must mean it’s not going to work.” But on the other hand, if you go to the trending topics at Twitter at any time, guaranteed a third of them are music-related. It’s like, happy birthday Harry Styles, it’s the BBMAs, always something. If you look at the list of the top hundred followed people on Instagram, such a sizable percentage of those people are musicians. If you go to your Instagram stories, your Snapchat stories, at any given time, guaranteed they’re just screenshots of what people are now playing in it constantly. Music actually is everywhere in social networking. I just think that there hasn’t quite been the combination of a really fun experience, where people feel excited to share what they’re really digging on, that’s also listenable. I think that combination of things, in my opinion, could crack the nut there.

Kaitlyn: So Spotify does this thing now where if you take a screenshot it automatically is like, “Are you trying to share this?”

Ashley: This is really going back to what you were saying, where Spotify knows people care about sharing music, but they also realize that you’re not all on the same app. Like I don’t use Messenger, but Messenger is wildly popular, so people are on it. It’s offering you the places you could want to share that isn’t just a text message or something.

Kaitlyn: Did they ever explain why they got rid of the DM feature?

Well, the people I’ve spoken to at Spotify have had kind of mixed responses to that question. Some of them said that they felt like this was a problem that Spotify didn’t need to solve, that messaging was being solved by other companies, and that they should just integrate with other folks. But I think kind of a larger point that I’ve heard from folks in there is that they’re not sure what the social experience for that company should be. They want to build something. They want something to work. They just don’t know what will work. Again, it’s this odd thing, where if you look around at folks who have tried to build dedicated social music experiences, there’s no 60 million user app out there. But in the same breath, if you look at any successful social network, so much of what’s going on there is music. I think they just don’t know what the strategy is really.

Ashley: Do you just feel like it’s the design of these products that doesn’t make them work? What have you learned from your experiences? What do you think is something that people need to realize about designing products like this?

That’s a great question. I’ve learned a lot about it, and I can offer some ideas that are kind of critiques about how Spotify’s experience is, but I also have, I think, a larger idea, which I think is really important. Let me start with the second one, just because I think it’s going to underpin some of my opinions about this. Again, going back to some of the historical view of music. Until 2016, which was the first year where streaming services were the number one way that Americans paid for music, there was never a time where it was easy and legal to send someone a song. I could make you a mix tape, but that doesn’t work for hundreds of millions, billions of people. Or, once I got MP3s, they were DRM-protected, and I’d buy it on iTunes, and I’d need to put in my iTunes password for it, or I’d have to rip it from somewhere, and I was illegally sending someone a song, and no one would sanction that.

It wasn’t until 2016 where it started to be the case that most people were paying for these streaming services. The problem still was, though, that streaming is a plurality. At the end of 2016, sorry my numbers are a little bit older, but at the end of 2016 there were like 100 million global streaming subscribers, and I think like 43 percent of them were on Spotify. That was the biggest share. The biggest streaming company in the world had a minority share of all subscribers. What does that mean? If Beyoncé wants to release a new single, and she goes onto her Twitter, and she’s got like 100 million Twitter followers, there’s no streaming option that she can choose where all of her followers can listen to that song. Even if she chooses YouTube, that’s like the worst option in terms of her getting paid. I think until there is either one service that most people use, or that there is sort of a way to bridge across services, I just don’t think that social music will really be feasible at a global scale. It’d be like if we spoke three different languages, the three of us. We couldn’t socialize. I think that’s a really important thing. I think if it’s not reliable to share songs with people then people won’t share songs exactly in that way, or they’ll find kind of a janky workaround.

In terms of Spotify in particular, I think that you talking about the feed on the side of the thing, isn’t it so silly that I can’t even hit like?

Kaitlyn: Yeah, that’s true.

But think about it from Spotify’s perspective. If everybody on Spotify was just hitting like, and I was getting a notification on my phone that Kaitlyn liked my song, I would open Spotify up, and then we’d talk about something.

Kaitlyn: Right, yeah. It also doesn’t feel social, it feels creepy. If I see a friend listening to an album and I’m like, “I meant to check that out,” I don’t want to start listening to it right away because I don’t want them to see.

Yeah, like you’re creeping on them or something.

Kaitlyn: Yeah, so I’m like, I got to remember to go back to that and listen to that tomorrow or something. It doesn’t feel like a social activity.

Yeah. I think that’s just fundamental to that experience. I just think that there are ways that you can rework that, and kind of change the experience a little bit, to make people a little bit more aware that listening is sharing. Because they’ve already done that with that feed. Then make cool ways for folks to notify one another of what’s going on. And you can take it deeper than that.

I also think one of the coolest things is, again, that example of opening up Cymbal and seeing everybody listening to Kendrick. That was so powerful for me. Or again, like a record comes out everywhere, To Pimp A Butterfly came out.

I remember it came out, and then I was on Twitter, and then the album, the runtime of the album is like 70 minutes or something. And less than 70 minutes after the album came out people were like, “It’s a classic. It’s a perfect album.” You’re not even done with the album yet. But the collective listening experience drove so many people to socialize around it. I think the proof is just in the pudding with that, that maybe there isn’t a great outlet for them yet, but people are driven to talk about that.

Kaitlyn: Listening parties are definitely a huge thing in Tumblr fan communities, like Harry Styles listening parties, and whatever, Justin Bieber listening parties. Which are usually just people trying to boost things, because they’re like, “I love Harry. I need him to get a number one single.” Which he hasn’t yet, sorry. That’s I guess what you were talking about with, music is always on Twitter.

Ashley: Cymbal was streaming service agnostic, so why do you think it didn’t work?

You face sort of a multitude of challenges when you start a new social network, especially in 2018. One of the big ones is that the business proposition of Facebook is that it is the social network. Everybody’s there already. Two billion people are there. It’s not necessarily competitive to start with the premise of, “We’re going to build a social network.” That already exists. And yet, the value that a social network has, in my opinion, again, is from who’s on it. Instagram is great because everybody’s there. We face these interesting dynamics where we were able to build this fabulous community of people who wanted to get to a place where they could share their favorite songs and connect with people who liked similar stuff, but kind of scaling past that and getting folks who were maybe more casually interested in music proved to be really challenging. I think in a lot of cases either they were not as deeply passionate about music to download a new app, or on the other hand, perhaps they kind of felt like, “Why do I need a new social graph in my life”.

I would say that I truly believe that somebody’s going to fix this problem, and it’s only going to be a matter of time. As more of us buy these subscriptions and they continue to be built with services that have open APIs, I think either a big company like Twitter or Facebook will make an amazing share song integration and then those services will be the social networks for music, or the streaming services themselves will build incredible social experiences.

The advice that I would give to the next person who works on this is, every great app, every great tool, has to start from a place of real need. What’s the thing I have to do? In Cymbal’s case, the thing that pushed us toward the successes that we had was the feeling of, “I just heard a song that I love and I need to share it.” I think we would’ve been a lot more successful if the people that you need to share with, that group of people were maybe a little bit larger. That’s like a chicken and the egg type problem, right?

Ashley: Yeah. I’m thinking through this because I’m like all right, back when scrobbling was a big thing, let’s say before streaming era, I feel like scrobbling was such a big deal because the way that you discovered music, at least personally, was like Pitchfork, for example. Then blogs, like music blogs. It was work, and Kaitlyn has written a lot about this, but it was work to find these recommendations. I feel like the social function did give you a need. It filled a need, where you were like, “I need to learn about new things, because I literally don’t know.” Now the algorithm fills that need. Where now, you’re bringing up Kendrick, and it’s like yeah, Kendrick is the discussion, Beyoncé is the discussion. There are these artists that are the discussion, and then there’s everyone else, who maybe you feel like the algorithm fills the need to discover them.

Right. I think that’s so true. I think for so many people, music is just like a part of their life. It’s what they do while they cook or while they work or something. They have music they love, but music discovery as a concept maybe isn’t so central. It’s not a core problem to their lives. That being said, I think everybody is thrilled by the experience of hearing something new that they love. I also think that, again, there is this sort of cultural vector to music, which is, it’s so relevant. It’s so important to what people talk about, and how people connect with one another. I totally agree with you. The algorithm has made it a lot easier to consume music, but I don’t necessarily know that it has made music itself more important in people’s lives. I think that’s what the power of social music really is. It sort of describes why you care. Not whether you like it, but why it matters.