March 11, 2012 at 7:43 pm

SpotON Radio Talks Spotify Apps, the Wisdom of Slow Launches, and Money (Part 1)

spoton radio sxsw peter blom

SpotON Radio co-founder Peter Blom easily has the coolest watch at SXSW 2012.

When Spotify announced that Spotify users had listened to over 1,500 years of music within the past three months, the company jokingly expressed envy about one of those apps: SpotON Radio, which lets you listen to artist-based radio stations on your iPhone, if you subscribe to Spotify Premium (a prerequisite for playing any Spotify music on a non-computer).

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Eliot Van Buskirk, Evolver.fm: Who are the people behind SpotON Radio?

Peter Blom, co-founder, SpotON Radio: SpotON Radio is a project managed by our company, Rebel and Bird, and Kristofer Sommestad from Springworks, a tech developer with about 12 people, and we’re a two-person design agency.

Evolver.fm: And everybody’s from Malmö?

Blom: Stockholm.

Evolver.fm: I thought everybody was from Malmö, when it comes to music apps.

Blom: But then you have Spotify in Stockholm.

Evolver.fm: True. What other stuff have you guys done — was SpotON Radio the first product from this partnership?

Blom: No, we worked together for 2-3 years, and we’ve been doing apps on the side for about a year and a half. We started out with an app for the UEFA championships: Vuvuzela Whacker, where you could whack Vuvuzela players. It was a weekend hack — we sketched out the idea on Friday and launched it on Monday. It was a fun thing, but you can’t really create a game with good mechanics over a weekend. Then we created a backgammon game for iPad based on a vision I had and still have that the iPad permits more freeform play than other platforms. You don’t need to have one joystick per player; it can be ten people playing flight control, or Angry Birds, or whatever. We created a freeform board where you can make up your own rules, just like a physical board.

Evolver.fm: That’s neat — so it doesn’t even track who’s winning — it’s just like an actual board. That’s a cool concept.

Blom: We just focused on making it as beautiful and great as possible, and it became the top app overall in Sweden for a while. We made a couple of other Mac Apps, and Kristopher made a Spotify app called Spotiseek, a web-based Spotify app. In the end of August, Spotify announced their API for iOS. What we’ve done with SpotON Radio is something that I’ve been wanting to do for like five or six years — just make it much easier to get music with a one-click experience, leveraging all the tech that’s out there, but not presenting it to the user, sort of like what eBay is doing with its search algorithm.

When you look at a lot of the music tech companies, they put it all out there — all the functionality, all the sliders and everything is out there, and that’s not the future of music.

Evolver.fm: Were you surprised that SpotON Radio took off the way it did?

Blom: It’s always a nice surprise when something takes off, of course, but we’ve been developing a lot of products and services and trying different approaches. With SpotON Radio, we wanted to take the whole “lean” thing to the next level. We had testers on it from the second week, and that got us a lot of good feedback. We had the first version feature-complete after about a month and a half, and felt, like, “this is awesome.” We had fiddled around with Last.fm recommendations before, but the results were sort of mediocre, so one big thing was definitely when we implemented The Echo Nest and saw that the results were great [this was unsolicited praise for The Echo Nest, publisher of Evolver.fm]. When you start a station and get a stream of really awesome songs, you know you have something.

But we felt that we weren’t going to push the first version out there. We all feel like if you push it out too soon, you start iterating on too low a level. To take that jump to the next level is hard, when the app is out there, so we spent another month and a half just polishing everything and getting the user experience up to a level we felt proud of. We had high hopes, but it really took off, and we hadn’t expected that.

Evolver.fm: What numbers can you share with us?

Blom: We got to the sixth spot overall in Sweden, and to the 22nd in music in the U.S. Now we have a bit over 2o percent of the theoretical market in Sweden, based on the number of Spotify Premium users and the number of iPhone users. We have 5/5 and 4.5/5 ratings, and the only reason it’s not 5 is that we don’t have a setting for AirPlay in the app yet [see below].

Evolver.fm: Spotify recently used the phrase “the music OS of the internet” in describing its app platform. Do you think that’s how it’s going to play out?

Blom: Definitely. What’s going to happen is that music will become a commodity, just like mobile data, where there will be a lot of players in the field handling different niche segments, like Verizon and AT&T. There will be Spotify and most likely Apple and other players as well, doing the same thing, but all of them being platforms, providing music just like AT&T is providing mobile data. Then there will be services and applications built on top of that, which the end user will use. The music service you have will be less and less important, just like you probably chose AT&T because they were first out with the iPhone. It will be the same thing — like, I choose Spotify because they have all of Lady Gaga’s music or something, but other than that, it doesn’t really matter. Just like you don’t care which mobile provider you use as long as Evernote exists for the phone I use, and I just want to make sure SpotON exists for the platform I use.

Evolver.fm: Yesterday, I met with Rhapsody’s head of product and asked him the same thing. I was surprised by his answer, because he said, basically, that they’re not looking at becoming an app platform so much — maybe for some curation apps, like the way that you can overlay Pitchfork and Rolling Stone over Spotify, but he said he wants to control the experience, and that they can present this music better than third-party app developers can.

Blom: Every company wants to own everything, and then they realize they can’t. Very few companies manage to have that big area to cover, and for the music platforms, they have to spend a lot of time on the rights management and server management and everything. For them to also deliver the end experience and be innovative, and push it forward — some of them might be able to do it, but I think it’s better to focus on being the platform.

Evolver.fm: Rdio has an open API. Do you have plans to roll SpotON Radio out to users of other services? I know Spotify’s number one and you’re in Sweden, where nobody probably uses anything else, but do you have plans to expand to other platforms?

Blom: We are looking at every way possible to grow — more platforms and services, definitely. Right now we are working with Spotify because they have a really evolved API that is easy to develop for, and we have a really good relationship with them, but yeah, we haven’t looked that much at Rdio, but their API, as far as I understand, isn’t as developed yet. But sure, why not?

Evolver.fm: What about the pricing issue? It’s free, but I’ve seen a crossed-out price listed too.

Blom: It’s free — that was sort of a way of keeping our backs clean and not going out there with something free and then charging for it as a surprise. Now we’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that the app should remain free. We want to get a big uptake, and we’re looking at other ways of creating a revenue stream.

Evolver.fm: I heard that Spotify is trying to work out some commercial terms for app developers. It should work, with Spotify and the developer splitting revenue or something.

Blom: Yeah, and then it’s all about reaching an agreement that everyone’s happy with, of course. So far, there’s no commercial option at all. We’re talking about a range of different ways of setting that up. It’s a good discussion; of course it’s taking more time than we’d like, but understandably, it’s a difficult process, getting all the labels onboard and everything.

Part two of this interview is now online.

The latest version of the app, which Blom says will be released as soon as Apple approves it, adds the following improvements to SpotON Radio:

  • What you listen to is now automatically saved as playlists in Spotify (look for the special SpotON folder).
  • Liking a track now also stars it in Spotify. (can be switched off in the app settings)
  • Access AirPlay and Bluetooth audio device controls directly in the app settings.
  • Sound quality over 3G can be changed to “audiophile”. (we are maxing out Spotify)
  • Music matching improvements, including playing the source artist more often.