Music vs Video Streaming

It might be fun to make a brief comparisons between music and video streaming services.

If only for the reason that, since each video service has an unique content library, its users are much more used to use (!) several different services almost at same time. So, between Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+ and, in the U.S., Disney +, Hulu, HBO Max and Peacock) there is a lot of room to explore different user interfaces, features and even design philosophies.

In the music area, on the other hand, all services have basically the same libraries, basic functionalities and pricing plans, so there is much less incentive to subscribe to more than one service. And user libraries and listening histories grow over time, serving as a barrier to discourage people from switching.

A very recent article by Alan Sepinwall articulates frustrations with video streaming as of July 2020:

“The part of the streaming shell game that I’ve never been able to fully understand — and that has somehow gotten worse with each passing year and each new service debut — is just how bad the user experience is on all of them. It’s been 13 years since Netflix began offering streaming content, with Hulu and others soon to follow, yet the user interfaces consistently seem designed to make finding what you want to see — whether continuing a binge or discovering something new — a Herculean effort.”

“Simply put, there are a lot of basic practices that all streamers should be following, and that most of them don’t seem to understand in the slightest. Here’s our four-point plan to optimize user experience.”

Here are his four points:

1. Always make it easy to resume a binge.
2. But don’t make it too hard to go back and re-watch when necessary.
3. Give the customer more control of the browsing process, and a layout that makes sense.
4. Make searches easy.

For our purposes, item 3 is particularly interesting:

Each (dis)organization strategy is serving a different master, and that causes different problems. Netflix has sworn undying allegiance to its algorithm, believing the computer knows what you want to see better than you do. You can’t customize which genres or subgenres (“Witty Workplace Comedies,” et. al.) are displayed on the home screen, because the algorithm is doing the work for you. But the algorithm easily gets confused (my “Because you watched Star Trek” bar is full of foreign-language drama series, few of them with even a hint of science fiction), or takes the wrong lessons from what you’ve already watched — as in the case of a friend who can’t stop getting true crime recommendations because he enjoyed American Vandal, which existed to make fun of those kinds of shows. Netflix, like so many of the others, goes out of its way to make it impossible to find new movies or shows, since “new” is defined as “newly-added to this service.” So, actual fresh releases like Old Guard and EuroVision will be listed right alongside the 2010 box-office flop How Do You Know. Trying to skim by genre is useless, both because the algorithm picks what you see first, and because the same content keeps popping up from genre to genre. (As I write this, the original Alyssa Milano version of Charmed is listed as a TV Comedy, among other things.)

Netflix is an interesting case because this is a company, unlike all its competitors, integrally committed to a single service and its related user experience. They sweat over every detail, and deemphasising category browsing is a calculated decision. I wonder how much Spotify thinks similarly about balancing recommendation and browsing efforts…

Then again, there are differences. A video streaming library may be comprised of some 50 thousand titles, while music libraries have more than 50 millions songs. Similarly, video watchers need one or two good recommendations per day/session and music listeners can easily need dozens of good songs for the same period.

Another point is that there are two companies that are major players in both markets: Apple and Amazon. So it is interesting to observe how their video services are evolving. About Amazon Prime Video, Sepinwall writes:

“Why in the world does Prime Video still separate shows by season, so that you have to add them one at a time to your Watchlist?”

“Amazon has both the best bonus feature of any streamer — X-Ray, where pausing a scene gives you the name of every actor and character in that scene, the name of any songs playing, and other details — and one of the hardest interfaces to navigate, befitting a service that’s an afterthought in a much larger business empire.”

For Apple TV+, I quote Lucas Shaw writing for Bloomberg:

Apple TV+
What’s gone right: A buzzy show out of the gate in “The Morning Show,” endless cash reserves and a willingness to buy movies that studios can’t release in theaters.
What’s gone wrong: The service hasn’t been able to sustain its early momentum, and is still looking for an actual programming strategy or target audience.
Verdict: When’s the last time someone asked you about a show on Apple TV+? The service is something of an afterthought — not as big a misfire as the Arcade gaming service or Apple News +, but not a clear hit like Apple Music. In the end, that may not matter all that much. Apple Inc.’s push into services looks good in an earnings release, where the company has reported booming revenue and proven to Wall Street that its growth isn’t done.

(By the way, this description of Apple TV by Dustin Curtis is just brilliant.)

Besides Apple and Amazon, there is Google, which finds itself in an odd position. Youtube is a leader in music and video, but not when subscriptions are involved. As Wikipedia summarises, their subscription strategy has been convoluted so far:

YouTube Premium (formerly YouTube Red) is a subscription service offered by the video platform YouTube. The service provides ad-free access to content across the service, as well as access to premium YouTube Originals programming produced in collaboration with the site’s creators, downloading videos and background playback of videos on mobile devices, and access to the YouTube Music music streaming service.[5]

The service was originally launched in November 2014 as Music Key, offering only advertisement-free streaming of music videos from participating labels on YouTube and Google Play Music.[6][7][8] The service was then revised and relaunched as YouTube Red on October 31, 2015, expanding its scope to offer advertisement-free access to all YouTube videos, as opposed to just music.[9]

YouTube announced the rebranding of the service as YouTube Premium on May 17, 2018, alongside the return of a separate, YouTube Music subscription service.[10][11] Later in the year, it was reported that YouTube was planning to make some of the original content associated with the service available on an ad-supported basis.

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