Think of the last album you bought, and compare it to the your first record. If you’re like me the first album you bought was a favorite from the radio (The Simpsons Sing The Blues), whereas the last album I bought (Bitte Orca by The Dirty Projectors) was a recommendation from a friend. It’s not just the music formats that have changed, but what we listen to and the experience with music that is transforming.
In the past the music industry has relied on taste makers such as DJs, critics, and marketers to help introduce new music to would be record buyers (or downloaders). However over the last decade opinion leaders, those most influential individuals in your social network, have played the most important role; think of these people as your friend who is usually the first to introduce you to a band that you go on to love.
Online these opinion leaders have started popular music blogs, their influence measured by their expertise within genres and their appeal within their blogging audience. Offline these taste-makers usually have the largest music collection among your friends, and they make frequent recommendations that are catered to your own tastes. Opinion leaders are the arbiters of new music in a marketplace no longer limited by the label-centered distribution, and serve agenda-setting roles with their personalized recommendations which mirrors the shift from mass-media driven popular music (radio, Rolling Stone, MTV) to online distribution meant for niche fans and private listening (iPods and YouTube).
As our experience with music increasingly takes place in social media, the relationship between opinion leaders and their social networks shifts significantly. While I’m still taking recommendations from my friends, chances are you’ve tried using a peer-recommendation website of your own, such as Last.fm or Pandora. The former, Last.fm is a service I’ve been using for over 4 years (then known as Audioscrobbler), has tracked over 20,000 songs played on my computer and iPod. In return for music listening data CBS (who owns this social network) can use, I get personalized recommendations from my friends and musical “neighbors” along with occasional suggestions from Last.fm . This hybrid of the opinion leader model with the narrowcast of media distribution is actually quite seamless, if not organic at the consumer level.
On the other hand is the model of Pandora, the popular free* streaming music service which uses analytics and social ranking to make its music recommendations. Pandora remains extremely popular service**, although I should admit that I am relatively new to the experience of tuning into user created “stations”, in which individuals do not control playlists but can configure them through a thumbs up/down rating system. Many users rave of the recommendations this analytic system can provide, and I must admit I have been turned on to some music that was outside my sphere of influence otherwise. However Pandora doesn’t always provide the high quality recommendations one might expect from an opinion leader; although the site offers the ability to skip songs you don’t like, it limits the number skipped tunes before it forces users to listen through the entire song.
Opinion leaders play the most significant role in sharing music outside these two social networks, where music sharing is changing as quickly as the rest of social media. Leading the charge are sites like Blip.fm and 8tracks that allow these opinion leaders become would be DJs for their friends, publishing playlists and sharing individual tracks with friends on Twitter and other social networks. Meanwhile Myspace remains a significant place for new bands to break their music to a wide audience, albeit opinion leaders sharing music through their own profile page cater to a much smaller social network than earlier.
This list of music sharing services is hardly definitive, since music tastes are as diverse as the communities of fans who listen to them. Although it’s hard to predict exactly how people will listen to music or using what online services, it is clear that opinion leaders will continue to play their significant role in influencing their network of friends.* – on July 7, 2009 Pandora announced it had settled negotiations for royalty fees, and would offer only the first 40 hours (ie the work week) for free, with an additional fee of $0.99 to offer unlimited streaming music.
** – Pandora is only available in the United States, in part since royalty costs made international service prohibitive since 2008