A Call for Curation – Part 2 of 2

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What does curation mean for ecommerce?  Well, let’s look at it both ways. From a retailer’s perspective, there’s a struggle to merchandise in sophisticated, scalable ways, and in the process, implementing very costly recommendation engines to do so.  On the consumer side of things, you have users both overwhelmed by sifting through the content delivered by social networks, word-of-mouth, and the recommendations that engines deliver. Yet at the same time there are those consumers who are yet underwhelmed by the quality this content.  Do retailers really get how difficult it is to choose what artists to buy?  What new tracks you should listen to?  Or where you should even begin your quest?  Whose tastes do you trust?

It seems like in the rush to automate and get online, companies neglected to study and model offline user behaviors and then translate this online. Furthermore, on the consumer side the role and respect for expert curators has almost disappeared.  

And so we find ourselves in strange world where music discovery sites like Mixcloud deliver up interesting content, but fails to provide a consistent or easy way to buy the music you like; iTunes or even Bandcamp makes it easy to buy but challenging to discover the new; indie, boutique labels like Domino try their best but have limited product (and budget); and record labels like Sony Music lack an ecommerce presence altogether.  In the meantime, consumers often cobble together their friend’s recommendations with these services, sites and stores to create their own music discovery and buying experiences. 

Thank you, but no.  I really think the experience should surpass cobbled.

The music market is ripe for a fusion between the human and the machine.  Online music retailers should start thinking more holistically about the end-to-end experience rather than focusing solely on the sale at the end of the chain.  They should instead start thinking more like radio content producers or DJs who introduce new music and delicately balance “safe” choices with those tracks that push the bar.  DJs are the ultimate curators of user experience, unafraid of crossing genres and introducing something random into the mix.  They are humble enough to study, understand and react to their audience.

Music retailers would do well to model themselves after other digital publishers by supporting four key activities:

  1. Make it easy (& enjoyable!) for consumers to discover new music
  2.  Help artists reach new audiences ((or create an audience if the artist is still undiscovered)
  3. Make it easy for fans to connect with artists (and vice versa)
  4. And lastly…Make it easy to buy music

Both #2 and #3 point to the human element which has gone MIA in our collaboratively filtered, recommendations engine powered online world.  There’s still a place for the hand-picked, merchandised lists that don’t fit data models—whether it’s general, featured content on a homepage; curating interesting themed lists; or publishing semi-personalized newsletters.  Whether this is leveraging the content produced by ‘expert’ users/curators, or producing this content in-house, there’s certainly a gap in the music industry.  And it’s not just music: gaming, books, film, even music apps (yikes, just try navigating that list of “popular apps”!) are all in the same boat.  

Is the answer something like a magazine  + music discovery fusion like Spin Play, but curated for different tastes?  Or is that just another puzzle piece to add to the disjointed, cobbled experience?  Only the behaviors of time-strapped music aficionados will really tell.

For now, I’ll take my lo-fi newsletter any day over fiddling with Pandora or tweaking last.fm.  I know where the owners of indies like M-Theory are coming from and what to expect—my goodwill, trust and respect has been built up from store visits and 6+ years of solid recommendations through their newsletters.  I can’t say the same for machine learning.

Music and content services, it’s time for you to up your game.


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