For Twitter, it’s about creating an effective Discover tab — for #Music

For Twitter, crafting the perfect Discover tab that immediately surfaces relevant content for users has always been a struggle. And with the launch of the company’s new music app on Thursday, it has become more pressing than ever for the company to solve its discovery challenge.

If Twitter succeeds in building a smart music discovery tool with the #Music app — one that tells me what to listen to based on my past listening data and personal suggestions — it could define social music discovery for the mobile user in a way no one else really has. And that would open up a whole new source of revenue for the company.

twitter music now playingBut these are still really big if’s.

Twitter #Music is a social discovery filter laid on top of paid internet radio. You can log into Twitter Music on either iOS(s appl) or through a desktop browser, and you’re immediately greeted with four tabs: Popular (Pitbull, David Guetta, and the like), Emerging Artists (random, lesser-known artists), Suggested (artists the app thinks you might like), and #NowPlaying (which displays what your Twitter graph is listening to, with corresponding Twitter avatars.) Under each tab is a grid of songs by different artists, and you can tap individual songs to play them. You have to log into Spotify or Rdio or purchase songs on iTunes to listen to the full tracks.

From a design perspective, the app is beautiful. It’s easy to scroll through music previews and tap to play them, and it doesn’t look like every other Facebook-esque feed app out there. You can see the artist’s image, and follow artists you’re interested in.

But there are several reasons why building this new app an effective music discovery tool will be an uphill battle.

It’s a discovery app, not a listening app

Twitter #Music dramatically and intentionally limits the music that you can listen to in full. The app requires either a paid Spotify or Rdio subscription, or telling a user to download songs via iTunes; it seems most users won’t be listening to full tracks on the app.

A Nielsen study of American listening habits in August 2012 found that 64 percent of teenagers listen to music through YouTube, which is free — but it’s not a listening option on Twitter #Music. And neither is Soundcloud, another free streaming option. Of American adults, only seven percent said they listen to music through Spotify. And of Spotify’s 24 million registered users, only 6 million pay for the service. In other words, we’re not talking about a significant number of Twitter’s 200 million monthly active users.

Twitter friends doesn’t mean music friends

While Twitter’s premise is that you can listen to music your friends are listening to and get music suggestions from people you follow, there’s absolutely no guarantee that my Twitter graph and my ideal social music graph would intersect. Right now, when I open the app and tap on the #NowPlaying tab to see what my Twitter friends are listening to, it’s obvious that while they might have witty 140 character insights, I wouldn’t necessarily attend concerts with them.

The Twitter social graph might be vaguely useful as a rough starting point for Twitter to build on, but it won’t suffice as a long-term solution for the app. Twitter will need time to collect data on the music I’m listening to and previewing through the app to determine which parts of my friends’ musical selections I do like, and the type of music I appear to hate. Then the company will need to serve up a new algorithm for me in the Suggested tab, essentially using cues from me to create the perfect suggestions. Until then, I’ll continue to get suggestions to listen to Hilary Duff, and I’ll have no reason to check out the app. Plus, competitors like Pandora have been working to perfect the perfect music suggestions for years, and remain strong alternatives if I want to stream music while I’m on my computer at work.

Why it could work

Hot Chip concert pictureHowever, while I’m a pretty lazy person when it comes to music discovery, I like to know what songs are cool right now. So if Twitter improved the quality of suggestions on the app, and it could actually serve as an app that told me about popular songs, it could be better than anything else out there for average users who aren’t curating Spotify playlists.

Right now, 48 percent of Americans still discover music through the radio, and ten percent discover it through family and friends, according to Nielsen. And while only about 16 percent of internet users are on Twitter, this will undoubtedly grow.

And for Twitter itself? If the move works out, it could be genius from a business perspective.

As the company noted in its press release, music artists are some of the most popular users on Twitter right now, catering to their rabid fans who want information on the artist’s every move. The monetization opportuntiies are almost endless: concerts, tickets, music-specific advertising, deals with Spotify or Rdio, and more.

But the key to this success lies with discovery — the app has to surface good enough suggestions to keep me coming back. And back. And back.