Robots vs. pop stars: Who is better at curating your music?

The Apple rumor mill is getting its groove on these days as new details appear about a revamped streaming service slated to be launched in the coming months. 9to5Mac reported last week that Apple is working on a new music service that uses some of Beats Music’s technology, but is going to be deeply integrated into iTunes and iOS.

Business Insider followed up with another report Monday, suggesting that the project will feature curated streams from well-known musicians. [company]Apple[/company] also recently hired BBC Radio DJ Zane Lowe, and is looking for music journalists who could be writing copy for the new service. All of this suggests that the company is looking to keep Beats Music’s focus on human curation and build a more radio-like experience, possibly with help from many music celebrities.

The question is: Do music fans really want this? Do musicians make for good DJs, and do well-known names help to unlock the 30-plus million song catalog of a music streaming service?

Or would algorithms simply do a better job?

Musicologists and trillions of data points

The debate over human versus automated curation is almost as old as online music itself. [company]Pandora[/company] was one of the first services to embrace the idea of human curation in a personalized streaming environment when it built its Music Genome Project back in 1999.

The idea at the time was to not simply play songs because algorithms deemed them as a logical choice based on the behavior of other users, but actually figure out how each song sounds, which instruments it features and which tempo it uses. Pandora hired dozens of curators to catalog more than one million songs based on up to 450 musical criteria, and its website describes these curators like this:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]“The typical music analyst working on the Music Genome Project has a four-year degree in music theory, composition or performance, has passed through a selective screening process and has completed intensive training in the Music Genome’s rigorous and precise methodology. To qualify for the work, analysts must have a firm grounding in music theory, including familiarity with a wide range of styles and sounds.”[/blockquote]

Today, Pandora still relies on the Music Genome Project, but it is also using algorithms and data to make its playlists work.

Others took a different approach and ditched the human expert altogether, instead relying on the wisdom of the crowds and big data analysis to generate that perfect playlist. [company]The Echo Nest[/company], for example, which was acquired by Spotify a year ago, is using close to 1.2 trillion data points on more than 36 million songs to automatically generate playlists for Spotify and other services. The Echo Nest co-founder Brian Whitman will be at our Structure Data conference in New York next month to tell us how he wants to use all that data to reinvent the music industry.

Park rangers, not gatekeepers

Lately, the pendulum has swung back to human curation, with Beats putting a heavy emphasis on its expert curators, and Slacker building a radio-like experience around YouTube stars and other personalities. The reports about Apple’s plans now seem to suggest that the company wants to go further down that road, embracing stars to become both brand ambassadors and actual curators of your music.

However, not everyone is convinced that this is a good idea. Online music industry veteran Tim Quirk, who used to head music programming for pioneering streaming service Rhapsody and then did the same thing for Google Play Music, took to Twitter today to object to the idea that musicians make good curators. Here are some highlights of his arguments:

[pullquote person=”” attribution=”” id=”917022″]Will the future of music look like Sirius XM or like Netflix?[/pullquote]

Of course, many will argue that there is value to expertise, and point to great radio DJs, so of which even are musicians. That’s why I asked Quirk what it takes to bring this kind of personality-driven curation to streaming services. His answer:

“Subtract the personalities. Seriously. They need curation that doesn’t brag about itself.”

In the end, this may all come down to the question what music services want to be, and how they plan to appeal to millions of consumers who have thus far shied away from music subscriptions. Do they want to be more like traditional radio and guide listeners through a catalog of millions of songs? Or do they want to be the celestial jukebox that brings millions of songs to your fingertips, ready for you to go on your own adventure?

In other words: Will the future of music look like Sirius XM or like Netflix? The first company to find a compelling answer to that question may be able to really take music subscriptions mainstream — with or without celebrity DJs.

Grammys are latest forum for fight over music payments

Last night’s Grammy Awards served up the usual hoopla and back-patting. But a policy plea from singer Jennifer Hudson also underscored how 2015 is likely to be the year when a long-brewing fight comes to a head over how — and how much — musicians should be paid.

At the show, Hudson announced the launch of an artist group called the”Grammy Creators Alliance” that will advise the government on royalty issues, while One Republic singer Ryan Tedder told the audience “music activism is coming at exactly the right time. From the Turtles to Taylor Swift, longtime established and new generations are speaking out.”

While the speeches were short on specifics, a website for the group echoes recent rhetoric from the recording industry, and appears intended to pressure Congress into passing bills like last year’s proposed “Respect Act,” which called for awarding a windfall to older musicians.

The Grammys plea also comes after the Copyright Office last week published a 245-page report that suggests dramatic changes to the music royalty system in the U.S. These could include removing consent decrees that set a cap on how much radio stations, streaming services and cover bands must pay songwriters to play their works.

The combination of industry lobbying and Grammy-style star power means the music industry is likely to get at least some of what it wants. But many of the proposed measures could also means higher prices for consumers, and new uncertainty for popular digital music services like Pandora and Spotify.

Currently, the digital services pay a far higher percentage of their revenue for royalties than do traditional AM/FM outlets, and are struggling to make money. Nonetheless, the services are regularly vilified by the music industry, which is calling on them to pay even more.

Meanwhile, the debate over what digital radio services should pay is also before the courts, in major cases concerning songwriter royalty rates. Members of the band The Turtles are leading class action cases that demand new money for old recordings.

Underlying all of the disputes is the ongoing economic disruption confronting the music industry over lost CD sales. Meanwhile, all sides appear in favor of simplifying the current mishmash of royalty regulations that draw major distinctions between digital and non-digital services.

Sneak peek: This is Samsung’s Milk Music on the web

Samsung will bring its Milk Music service to Samsung TVs as well as the web, it announced at CES in Las Vegas this week. The TV version is already available on existing Samsung TVs and will be on 2015 models when they start to ship as well, but Milk’s foray to the web is arguably a lot more significant: It’s the first time the service, which offers personalized radio streams similar to Pandora, will be available to users who don’t own a Samsung phone.

So what will these users get? Samsung gave a small group of journalists a preview of the web app Wednesday. Here’s a quick video of the app, which won’t be released for at least a few more weeks:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6dSjyxoMP8]

Milk Music on the web features the same color navigation bar as the mobile version as well as the TV app that Samsung just launched, allowing users to quickly navigate through stations. It also introduces an effect similar to Apple’s Cover Flow  to visualize the changing stations, and it will let users fine tune stations, just like the mobile version of Milk Music.

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Samsung hasn’t announced yet what other changes it is going to introduce, but it’s all but inevitable that the web version of Milk Music will feature ads. Currently, streaming with Milk Music is ad-free, and users of the free tier are allowed to skip up to six songs per hour.

Users who elect to pay $3.99 per month are getting unlimited skips and better audio quality, but essentially, Samsung is subsidizing free listening in order to make its devices more attractive. One shouldn’t expect the company to also do the same for web streams, which will be available to users of other devices as well.

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Spotify could have browser-based version coming soon

Apps are old-school: on the desktop anyway. Launching a browser-based version of its popular music service could let Spotify reach more users and allow people to access its services from multiple locations.

Yandex bets on iPhone to get Russia paying for music

Moscow-based search engine Yandex (s yndx) is hoping to steal a march on international rivals with a new music subscription app for the iPhone (s aapl) — but it’s gambling that users will be ready to stump up cash for the service in a country where paid-for digital music is rare.
With major music services like Spotify and Rdio yet to launch in Russia, Yandex plans to announce the iOS app later on Wednesday, offering users the chance to tap into its Yandex Music service and pay for the right to stream direct to their handsets or iPods.
But while the subscription proposition is fairly common among international services, it’s not the norm everywhere — and that could prove tricky.
Most music services in Russia are free, including the web-based version of Yandex Music, which launched in 2009. In order to take that service mobile, however, the company is asking people to pay 199 roubles each month (around $6) for the right stream a library of music that currently holds more than 3 million tracks by 80,000 artists over the air to their phone.
There are subscription services available locally, including Zvooq.ru, which charges $5 a month for mobile and offline access — but, like Yandex, it still offers a free web player.
Yandex Logo, from handoutYandex, which owns around two-thirds of the Russian search market, is clearly hoping it can covert some of its 5 million monthly web listeners to go the mobile route. But even it can convince them, just 2 percent of Russians use iPhones and — perhaps more importantly — the Russian music market is relatively undeveloped, with total sales across all formats of less than $100 million for 2011.
Turning profit in a market that is heavily reliant on piracy is tough — but could prove a significant bonus for the first company to really crack the problem, as Zvooq’s founders told the Financial Times last year:

“Some people see piracy as a threat, but we see it as a ready market with tens of millions of people consuming music online. It’s an opportunity,” says Simon Dunlop, one half of the duo behind Zvooq.ru, the online music service (whose name reflects Russian zvuk “sound”).
“If you have an established pirate market, it forces you to be that much better because you are competing with the free stuff,” he says.

Still, most potential entrants are steering clear for now. While our map of the worldwide market shows that there are 13 digital music services available locally, most international players have stayed out. Only Deezer and YouTube (s goog) could really be considered global services: Spotify, for example, has no outpost in the region, despite taking a large slice of funding from the Moscow investment group Digital Sky Technologies.