Zune Social – Music as a social network: Lessons from the Apple Fall Music Event Part 1


The Apple fall music event came and went and with it, the IOS platform, through the freshly minted iTunes 10, introduced a “magical” social component called Ping. The conference room was filled with tech bloggers and journalist but from all the cheering and clapping during several occasions by the audience as Mr. Jobs introduced yet another new feature or device to the platform, one had to wonder what kind of objectivity they would have when time came to write articles about the event. Setting that aside, the introduction of Ping validated Microsoft’s effort with the social aspects of the Zune ecosystem and shows that Apple is paying attention and perhaps a little worried of what WP7 will bring to Zune as a whole.

On November 13, 2006, Microsoft unveiled the Zune with the tagline, “Welcome to the Social”

As Microsoft launches Zune this week, the goal is not to manufacture another digital music player but to create a shared, social experience that will be shaped by the collective imagination of consumers and will inspire discovery of new music and artists.

When you read articles about the Ping service, you will be hard pressed to find one (although cnet does in this article) that mentions that the “un-innovative” Microsoft had a social music feature almost 4 years ago! After the initial fanfare about Apple’s social aspirations, most people are finding out and writing that it is basically a dud as it now stands and needs a huge upgrade for it to be of any relevance at all in the future. That Microsoft’s press release for the Zune four years back went on to say this

Zune features wireless technology that enables friends to spontaneously share full-length sample tracks of select songs, homemade recordings, playlists or pictures among their Zune devices. The full tracks of these songs can be listened to up to three times over three days, and, if the recipient enjoys the song she hears and wishes to buy it, she can flag it on her device and easily purchase it from the Zune Marketplace, which features over 2 million songs. A consumer has the choice between downloading individual songs and "Zune Pass" subscription plans. This is especially attractive for the MySpace generation, who frequently use the power of community to share common interests and promote social networking.

Very prescient words in the light of last week’s developments I must say! This however does not mean that the Zune team needs to seat on its laurels. In fact, it should act as a catalyst and elicit a sense of urgency for them to build and improve on the already great foundation with competition now nipping at their heels. I recently proposed a deeper integration with Facebook  together with ability to purchase tickets and event notifications. However, I would like to delve deeper into music discovery and local bands/artists promotion for this post.

The Zune marketplace now boasts over 7 million songs but it still nowhere as big as the iTunes store. The promotion of unsigned artist and local bands would go a long way in providing more unique content without having to deal with expensive licensing terms from music labels. A few years back, I had the privilege of living in Wilmington, a small charming town on the coast of North Carolina for a short time. During my stay there, I got my introduction to  the bluegrass/folk/americana genre of music by bands that played live events at downtown restaurants during dinner hours. Being from a big city up North, I had never really listened to this kind of music but, I got hooked and fell in love with the acoustic and raw nature of the arrangements. The music offered such a deep contrast to the glut of commercially produced music which often dominate the airwaves. These bands had a small group of loyal followers and often struggled to gain exposure by playing from bar to bar or the local festival circuits because their music is not what is considered mainstream.

During the aforementioned Zune event Microsoft’s Matt Jubelirer explained

Music comes from social places. But over the years, it started to become an isolated experience – people would listen with their headphones but not talk to the people around them. We wanted to add the social back into entertainment.

The Zune social experience would have been a great method to share these experiences with my circle of friends not exposed to such music in a way that is superior to just word of mouth, via the artist pages that consist of tracks , videos, bios, (*lyrics-not yet available) related artists e.t.c. I have since moved but having the artists available on the Zune would also make it easy for me to keep track and stay in touch with them in one central place instead of having to go to MySpace for example. As an added bonus, I would like a see a better location aware intelligence so that let say I’m in a new town, I can easily browse local live events featuring my favorite genres of music or artist but even better yet, a listing of my friends (who lived in that town) favorite local bands that may diverge from my everyday taste! To top it all off, the Zune client provides the most elegant, polished and clean interface that puts iTunes and MySpace music to shame.

In order for all this to happen, Microsoft needs to invest in people who will go and discover these local bands and also provide a way for the bands to painlessly establish their pages on the Zune network and all the related content. An easy, concise set of guidelines should  be implemented to prevent the marketplace from being flooded with subpar content. The addition of a new location aware listing also doubles as a way to narrow down the artists a user may be interested in at any given time.

A few things to note. The song sharing feature only works for songs available in your collection(if you don’t have a Zune Pass) AND also in the marketplace as far as I know. I’m not also sure about the home recordings, picture, and playlist sharing because this is a device to device feature of which I don’t own one. I would like our readers with Zune devices to enlighten us on those points.

If you are curious about the bands that so enamored me during my stay in Wilmington, they are, Woodwork Roadshow, L Shape Lot and The Root Soul Project. From there, I went on to discover the music of Avett brothers and the Old Crow Medicine  among many others. I bet a majority of our readers have a few favorite local bands of yet unknown artists that you would like to find a way to easily share with your friends, in an environment a little more specialized than Facebook. The Zune Social with a little more improvement could be the answer. I will now end with a video from the Avett brothers. Enjoy!

Part two of the Lessons learned from the Apple fall music event will be coming soon.

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