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How do you get people to pay for music?

The outlines of this problem are familiar: People were able to get music for free, did so, and many are stubbornly resistant to the idea they should pay for it again– even if they agree in theory that it’s a good thing for musicians to get paid. In Britain we’re seeing a fascinating cocktail of initiatives to tackle this problem, which are typical of approaches worldwide. There is the top-down legal threat– a broad range of internet suspension and cancellation powers which could wipe out public wi-fi access if strictly applied. There is the appeal to one’s better angels– a series of short animated films in which musicians inform the public that “Music Matters,” while said public shift awkwardly in their seats. And finally there’s the behavioral economics stuff, which is mostly being left to innovative start-ups like London’s Mflow.

Mflow works on classic nudgey lines: Rather than punish bad behavior, it’s designed to reward the good, coaxing the web-savvy into doing stuff they reputedly don’t like (paying for music) by encouraging stuff they do (sharing it). As on a social network, you have followers. You share “flows”– songs or albums– with them, and they do the same for you. When you see one you like, you can buy it, and 20% of what you pay goes to whoever shared it with you in the first place. It’s an elegant system, particularly as the 20% is actually a surcharge on the standard iTunes or Amazon pricing. So in effect what Mflow are doing is encouraging you to buy music exactly as you would from those stores, except with a tip to a friend of yours thrown in. The gamble is that the sharing and discovery part of the deal is valuable and enjoyable enough for you to absorb the higher costs, at least until your sharing starts to pay off.

The behavior around sharing and buying music is an obvious area for start-ups and labels to explore– but what about simply listening to music? How might web services start to shape people’s listening patterns? Venture capitalist Tim Chang might have found an answer. Chang was quoted last month talking about a “Foursquare for music”– not that he’s funding one himself, but that he expects to see it happen before too long. Foursquare, the location-based social network which was the toast of the SXSW Interactive festival, works by letting users “check-in” to locations and broadcasting that fact to their network. So presumably Chang’s mooted musical equivalent would work on a similar system, with you checking in to the band or album you’re listening to.

But there are already services which do this– most prominently last.fm but also iLike and many others. Why does Chang think another one might work? What makes Foursquare so addictive isn’t just its utility– it’s that the service turns your traveling and social life into a game. Become the most loyal patron of an establishment and you are appointed its “mayor”; complete a particular task (like going out several times a week, or exploring your locality) and you collect “badges” to prove it.

And it’s this aspect that so excites the marketers and investors around Foursquare. A lot of clever people are talking about the “gameification of everyday life” right now– applications like Foursquare, which turn ordinary activities into something more gamelike. Turning music listening into a game is an obvious test case for this. Some have already tried– a service called thesixtyone.com launched last year, which, in amongst the sharing and voting, includes “quests” that work roughly like Foursquare badges.

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