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Guest post: Mobile Music Beyond the App

By Mark Mulligan

Mobile Music has had more than its fair share of false dawns, largely because of wrongly set expectations. The App revolution appears to have finally kicked mobile music into market maturity, though in actual fact it is just one more step on the journey.

The Three Ages of Mobile Music

The history of mobile music to date can be broken down into three key stages (see figure): Stores, Apps, Access.

Mistakes Were Made A Plenty In the First Era of Mobile Music

A lot of consumer got burned in that first stage of mobile music stores, finding themselves subjected to poor quality experiences that paled in comparison even to the supremely average contemporary online stores. The main mistake made was to expect too much from the rudimentary technology that was available: handset memory and screens were both too small and connectivity was far too slow and patchy. WAP 1.0 and GPRS simply weren’t music delivery technologies. When leading stores had sections called ‘My Interrupted Downloads’ you knew you had a problem. Mobile music downloads cost the same (sometimes more) than PC downloads, took longer to download, were poor audio quality. Add to that abysmal navigation and discovery. The first stage of mobile music development failed because mobile tried to be a ‘mini-me’ PC music and was doomed to never stand up to the test.

Apps Let Mobile Music Off the Leash

One of the key reasons apps have been such a runaway success (Apple just announced its 25th billion App download) is because they play to the unique characteristics and strengths of mobile as a channel. They deliver fun and convenient experiences that are typically also social, location sensitive and instantaneous. All integral parts of the mobile phone’s DNA.

App ecosystems combined with booming smartphone adoption and better and faster network connectivity have enabled music services to make mobile a genuine extension of their music experiences. Instead of viewing mobile in a silo, services like Spotify and stores like 7Digital have looked to how mobile can deliver value to the user that the PC cannot. Artists too have been quick to adopt mobile, building apps either with labels or with direct-to-fan providers like Mobile Roadie and TopSpin, recognising the ability of mobile to pull them closer to their fans.

All of which is great of course, but there is a risk that the current infatuation with Apps is a focus on form over function. Apps may have driven a paradigm shift in mobile behaviour but they are in the end just software. They play just the same role as software does for the PC. The reason why it feels so different for Apps is because of the channel strategy, namely App stores. There’s just one place to go and get every type of software you could want, all of course with the same billing details and some guarantee of quality of experience. A far cry from the PC experience of searching the web for the right software, reading reviews and creating a new user profile on yet another online store, hoping that the retailer is safe and secure.

Apps Are the Tools for the Next Stage in Mobile Music, they are Not the Endgame

The wave of the current App boom has lots of force left in it yet. But when it finally does subside, the marketplace is going to be left realizing that Apps are the tool not the endgame. The next stage of mobile music will be putting into practice what the app revolution has taught us about what mobile should be, what role it should play and where it should sit. In a future where music experiences will increasingly depend upon the cloud, the future of mobile is indeed bright. Though of course the rise of tablets has the double effect of accelerating mobile in a broader sense, but also weakening some of the positioning of mobile phones. The simple fact is that tablet’s larger screens deliver PC-like discovery and navigation, coupled with the connected mobility of phones. The reason I raise this point is to highlight that mobile music cannot rest on its laurels, and instead it most continue to ask questions of itself.

Whether you are developing for an artist, a label or a music service, now is the time to start planning for the next era of mobile music experiences. And as you build towards this brave new world, ground your vision in these three learnings from the last two stages of mobile music:

  • Play to the strengths of the channel
  • Identify where mobile can add something new, not just another user experience entry point
  • Really know what music fans want and then exceed their expectations

Mark Mulligan is an independent music analyst and consultant and maintains the leading music industry blog aptly named Music Industry Blog. Mark will be speaking at the Music 4.5 Mobile Music event.