“Institutional Isomorphism”

Outstanding article by Cherie Hu, published February 2020. I just think the most interesting part is buried deep in the text and I wanted to bring it to the fore: “the sociological explanation” for why music streaming services all look & feel the same.

Read it to understand how institutional isomorphism can happen when “structural uncertainty of the industry encourages imitation among companies” and “centralization of resources (the dependency on major labels) encourages imitation by outside coercion”. 

That’s a mouthful!

An explanation from sociology

Another explanation for the homogenization of music streaming comes from a decades-old concept in sociology known as institutional isomorphism.

Sociology professors Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell first laid out their theory of isomorphism in a 1983 paper for the American Sociological Review — aiming to understand why organizations in a given industry tend to become more and more homogenous “in structure, culture, and output” over time, due to a mix of both external and internal forces.

I won’t dive too deeply into the theory here, but wanted to point out two of their key hypotheses that have a direct connection to the current state of music streaming, nearly 40 years later.

One is the power of uncertainty in encouraging imitation among companies within an industry. “When goals are ambiguous, or when the environment creates symbolic uncertainty … organizations tend to model themselves after similar organizations in their field that they perceive to be more legitimate or successful,” write DiMaggio and Powell.

There are multiple examples of this mimetic behavior in the tech industry in general — most notably when Instagram outright copied Snapchat’s Stories feature, which ended up eating into the latter’s market share and whose format has since been replicated across a number of apps, including Facebook, YouTube and Spotify.

I hypothesize that a similar dynamic happened in music streaming, whereby successful early movers like Pandora and Spotify brought forth new, innovative ways of curating and presenting content to music fans, after which all the corporate-subsidized late movers (Apple Music, Amazon Music, YouTube Music, etc.) had to mimic what tens of millions of people around the world had already become familiar with in order to even have a chance of getting their value proposition across.

A second key argument in the theory of institutional isomorphism is that centralization of resources encourages imitation by outside coercion. “The greater the extent to which an organizational field is dependent upon a single (or several similar) source [sic] of support for vital resources, the higher the level of isomorphism,” write the authors.

This concept is especially relevant to the world of recorded music, where 65% of “vital resources” for streaming services — i.e. the most desirable and most popular artists and their catalogs — are concentrated within just three major labels. As a result, competing services will go to those few labels to get their most valuable inventory, and, as part of licensing negotiations, will likely prioritize those artists in their marketing and curation, resulting in a somewhat homogenized content experience across platforms.

The design hypotheses is compelling too.

The Years of Quiet

The atmosphere inside Apple must have been quite intense in those years:

Product Update released in the month of Days until another update
iPad Oct/12 1610
Mac Pro Dec/13 2182
13” Mac Book Pro Jul/14 821
Mac Mini Oct/14 1475
15” Mac Book Pro Jan/15 527
MacBook Air Mar/15 891
iMac Oct/15 601
iPad mini Sep/16 922
iPad Air Sep/16 922
iMac Jun/17 652
iMac Pro Dec/17 925 and counting

Data: MacRumours

Timeline of Spotify Features

Inspired by this graph from Goodwater Capital I decided to list a timeline of major updates and new features to Spotify:

  • 2006 04 Founded
  • 2008 10 Product launched
  • 2009 09 Mobile app
  • 2011 11 Spotify Apps (Discontinued 2014 10)
  • 2012 11 Web-based player
  • 2012 12 “Follow”,  “Discover”, “Collection”
  • 2014 03 Acquired The Echo Nest
  • 2014 03 Student, Family plans
  • 2014 04 Moved away from P2P
  • 2014 11 Integration with Algoriddim DJay ap. Ends 2020 07.
  • 2015 05 Spotify Running. Removed 2018 03.
  • 2015 05 “Home” tab with recommendations
  • 2015 07 Discover Weekly
  • 2015 12 First Year-end review (Spotify Wrapped)
  • 2016 01 Genius Partnership
  • 2016 08 Release Radar
  • 2016 09 Daily Mixes
  • 2017 02 Inbox and Messaging are removed (were available as far back as 2011)
  • 2018 03 Podcasts!
  • 2019 01 Canvas
  • 2019 10 Spotify Kids app
  • 2020 04 10,000 song size limit for libraries is lifted
  • 2020 05 Group Sessions

The Sound of Music

Horace Dediu, upon the release of the hotly anticipated HomePod* by Apple, writing beautifully:

Even when it comes to original video content it rolls out a Karaoke show, of all things. It still maintains an app called GarageBand. It goes and buys Shazam, and paid $3 billion for Beats and still makes AirPods and is about to launch a speaker. Yes, a loudspeaker called HomePod.

How quaint.

But all the cynicism around music is tone deaf to the sheer emotion that music can create. Music touches people like nothing else. I’ve seen young and old cry and burst with joy listening to music. For its low bandwidth, music delivers enormous emotional bandwidth. It always has and always will. It’s not obsolete and will never be. Music imprints itself in hearts and remains there for a lifetime.

It’s poetry for the senses.

Business models for music will come and go but music consumption is increasing. Access to the long tail has meant genres proliferated and production has spread to everyone who cares to try to make music.

* Horace ends the article expecting that “HomePod will surprise not because it will be a better at chatting. It will surprise because it will cause you to sit down and listen in awe.”

I guess that it has been less a surprise (or a success) than expected. 

For me its remarkable how the HomePod trajectory so far resembles that of previous speaker released by Apple, the “made for iPod” Apple Hifi: it was heavily hyped, a bit expensive, sounded good but not great. What concerns me most from the Hifi story is that after releasing it, Apple never released a follow-up product. The HomePod is now two and half years old, and there has been no updates so far. It would have been encouraging if Apple released an update or new version (larger, smaller, soundbar shaped etc.) ever since.

“Hide Weekly”

This tweet is worth recording here:

Music is Archival

(From June 2015) Ann Powers wrote a very interesting article about the internet as a music archive, but it’s most important (and perfectly articulated) insight is buried in the middle:

When most people talk about streaming, they’re thinking about new work by current artists — how Katy Perry’s chart position is affected by Spotify or whether independents artists are getting paid enough for their latest releases. But the truth is, most music available on the Web is archival, whether that term refers to Justin Timberlake B-sides or the very first sound recordings. Have you made an ultimate soft rock playlist? Explored Eurodisco? Decided one day that you really need to learn about the Gershwins? You’re participating in the reimagining of the musical past.

This point should be more central in any discussion in the future of music and the evolution of digital services. Beyond the top hits and latest releases, music is archival. The better we can archive it, the more we will enjoy it.

To highlight one point: which is the right, or best, version of a particular song? There can be so many candidates. The original album release. The single release. The radio edit. The version used in the videoclip or as a movie soundtrack. Even the version on a videogame. The live version (either album released, radio broadcasted or fan recorded). An alternate mix released as bonus track/B-side. An alternate take. A remix that gained much more traction later on. A particular remaster. A particular rerelease. A particular rerecording by the original artist. Can our music services handle all this diversity?

Spotify Field Research

This is wild: eye tracking glasses to really observe real-world use of Spotify throughout the day. Let’s hope all this work yields useful innovations…

We were most curious about how listeners interact with Spotify while they’re listening across contexts, like studying, cooking, exercising, or commuting. What draws people back to the app? What prevents listeners from interacting? While “let’s seek to understand how people interact with technology across different environments” may sound like a typical research objective, we were focused on observing the smallest details, the minutiae, of each interaction.

This research required a highly naturalistic setup. As the Hawthorne effect explains, hovering over people’s shoulders to observe what they are doing would likely influence their behavior in unnatural ways, thus compromising the research. We decided that eye-tracking would be the most observational and non-intrusive method.

The eye-tracking glasses used in this research look a lot like normal reading eyeglasses, but they’re equipped with several small cameras: one on the bridge of the nose, that captures the view in front of the participant, and one in each lens, capturing what their eyes are focusing on. Despite being laden with technology, it feels like wearing an ordinary pair of eyeglasses, providing freedom of movement and the ability to go about daily activities with ease.

via  Spotify Design

A Quick Manifesto

Welcome to Streaming Machinery, a personal blog dedicated to music streaming software and related subjects.

Believe it or not, this is a topic I find very interesting!

Both because a) the idea of having dozens of millions of songs readily available on a internet connection for a monthly fee is an amazing thing and b) I personally feel that this is just the very beginning of music streaming tech. The good stuff is yet to be invented.

I am sure that in a a few years we will look back to the current crop of streaming apps and wonder how we could live with such crude tools.

So, instead of just waiting for the future to arrive, I want to use this space to register and celebrate all the improvements coming along the way. Because any improvement that help people enjoy music more is something very very worthy.

PS: The inspiration for the name of blog (via Fred Jacobs via Platform & Stream):