June 22, 2012 at 11:27 am

Interview: How ‘Band of the Day’ Became Apple’s Favorite Music App

bandoftheday_japandroidsMany successful apps tend to encourage little bursts of activity, for when you’re waiting for the bus, the doctor, the coffee, whatever. Maybe that’s why Apple chose Band of the Day, a free iOS app that brings you one undiscovered, up-and-coming band each day, as its iPhone App of the Year Runner-Up of 2011,behind Instagram. Even Robert Scoble loves it.

Launched in September, this user-friendly number from 955 Dreams (makers of History of Jazz and On the Way to Woodstock), offers a nice interface for exploring the featured band (as well as past featured bands) with exclusive editorial content, and free streams of full-length songs. You can read reviews and Q&A’s; view the artist’s biography and discography; and watch video content as well. If you’re stuck in a musical rut, Band of the Day could be just the thing.

If you like a song, you can buy it from within the app via iTunes, or share a full-length version with friends using just about anything: Facebook, Twitter, email, or even a text message. And it all happens within the fluid interface of a magazine especially formatted for mobile, which 955 Dreams claims had never been done before.

Within three months of launching, Band of the Day had already garnered much attention and was named iPhone App of the Year Runner-Up of 2011 by Apple behind Instagram. The app recently added a new advertising structure that purports to enhance, not intrude, the user experience. We caught up with 955 Dreams founder and CEO Kiran Bellubbi, co-founder and CDO T.J. Zark, and CMO Mark Hanson to hear more about this fascinating app (edited for length and clarity).

Denise Lu, Evolver.fm: The first thing I’m wondering about is how are the bands chosen. How do you decide who to feature on a specific day?

Kiran Bellubbi, 955 Dreams: We have music editors on staff, so we’re not scraping content from other websites and spitting them into our app. We’re actually diligently working with record labels; we have hundreds of record labels signed up, and tons of artists for us to choose from. Our music editors essentially select the bands they like.

Evolver.fm: In terms of the app itself, did you run into any technical or creative pitfalls in building it?

T.J. Zark, 955 Dreams: We really work hard to think from the user-first perspective, and we’re music lovers, which made that easy. You can get a Pandora subscription, or Spotify, and there’s this all-you-can-eat content, but it doesn’t help you discover new bands. Part of the principal that we set for ourselves was: How do we help create an intimate relationship between you and another band? We felt like all-you-can-eat was the wrong approach. It took a lot of courage to single it down to a single band.

We said, “What is the most powerful experience that we can build on your phone that’s going to live in our pocket, that can deliver these bands to you every day, where you can really enjoy this really rich content no matter where you are in your life, right out of your pocket?” So we made the very first mobile magazine built for the iPhone, ever. All the other kind of magazines have been in existence before, and they kind of try to retro-fit them onto these devices. We started with the phone, and then we built the iPad. It’s really the first magazine to be made exclusively for these devices.

Evolver.fm: How do you think this app compares with print magazines and blogs?

Zark: We think we set a template for the future of what magazines will look like.

Bellubbi: Content needs to reach the users in a timely manner, and the world is moving at a really fast pace. To wait for the magazine to arrive and then read it sort of defeats the purpose of being connected in the first place. What we did was — the content itself is bite-sized. It’s one band a day, and it’s perfect for the mobile device. Content needs to more adequately fit the purpose of a user’s life — not the other way around, where content dictates that you stop what you’re doing and you sit down and you read for the next five hours. That’s what mobile allows us to do really well. As for the music side of things, every day being able to feature one band, we’re sort of cutting out the noise. There’s also a perspective here. It’s not an algorithm spitting out the choices for you; it’s actually real people saying, “Based on a lot of different stuff that we listen to, we think you should give this a listen.”

Evolver.fm: What do you think is the future of music discovery? How do you think an app like this will change the way people find out about bands, and how they listen?

Bellubbi: I think the collecting of music is under question. Are you feasibly interested in purchasing something and adequately putting it into a database of any sort, whether it be physical LPs, CDs, or in iTunes, and storing it somewhere, and managing your collection? Or do we really just enjoy finding new artists, new bands and sort of enjoying the music? If you ask me personally, what I believe is that there will always be the collectors of music. They’re very passionate, and I think that will always remain. But, when you have 19.2 million tracks available to you on Spotify at any given moment, the question of music discovery becomes even more [ambiguous]. How do you surface top talent? How do you find undiscovered talent and how do you show it to users? I think that’s where Band of the Day comes in.

Zark: There’s a phrase that I’ve heard before: “I recognize balance every time I swing past it.” The extreme in the last few years has been this algorithm-driven music discovery. We’re on the other side of that in this hand-rolled curation. I think that there’s a point where the cloud, the internet, all these devices being in all our pockets every day–the idea that everything is at our fingertips all the time is going to become devalued, and the idea of tastemakers is going to swing back in value. There will come a time when it’ll swing back in the other direction again, but right now I believe that pendulum is swinging toward this idea of tastemakers and “I want somebody to help me get through the noise. I’m tired of wasting my time on food with no calories.

Evolver.fm: Do you work with labels or individual artists to get the music?

Bellubbi: Both labels as well as the artists. We have 300 record labels already, most of them indie. Primarily right now we’re in the indie rock space. and we’re getting more and more artists in the other genres as well.

Zark: We feel like a lot of app companies and some of these music-streaming companies, they’ve been really renegade and they haven’t signed contracts. We wanted a different relationship with bands and labels. We wanted to be very transparent: “This is what we’re doing, we want you to be on-board because you want to be on-board, we want you to see how it benefits the artists.” And it has been a big benefit to artists; they’ve gotten a lot of exposure and have been really happy with the kind of social engagement that they’ve gotten. We really came through the front door with labels and bands. We felt like we’re in this for the long haul; we just wanted a good, healthy relationship with the labels.

Evolver.fm: Do you include artists without labels?

Bellubbi: Yes, but not all the time. We’ve got a lot of the big indie record labels as well, that are actually timing the rights for us to stream the music with full-play songs. They’ve actually given publishing rights as well as the recording rights.

Zark: The cool thing about the social features in this new release is that when we talk to users, one of the things that we heard over and over was just how there’s never any way to share a full-play song with somebody. So we made a variety of ways for that to happen: You can email that song, you can send it directly to them on Facebook, you can post it on their wall. You can even SMS it, which is really kind of a sexy and fun way to share a song. And they can listen to the full thing without the artist being in jeopardy of that song ending up just kind of out in the wild. It’s a contained environment for the artist, but it’s a real gift from a user to another user. So it’s a way to really turn somebody on to a band that you like or song that you really care about, videos as well.

Mark Hanson, 955 Dreams: And you don’t have to have downloaded the application in order to receive and listen to a song.

Evolver.fm: Can you elaborate on your new advertising structure?

Hanson: We’ve been primarily focused on developing the best user experience inside the application, but when we look at the platforms for monetizing out there in terms of mobile advertising, they really fall short of the experience that we’re creating. What we did was we took an approach and basically said, “From the ground up, how can we create the best ad experience inside our application that complements or even enhances to the overall experience that we’ve built?” We just launched the app that now has these interstitial full-screen beautiful ads in them. We feel that taking advantage of all of the high-gloss impact that those advertisements can afford in a way that isn’t interruptive or intrusive on the user is a great experience.

It’s one that we see in magazines. If you look at a Rolling Stone or Vogue, if you were to take all the ads out of that magazines, it might not as good an experience, because the ads are not only visually engaging but really contextually relevant to the content that’s being discussed in the editorial. So that’s the type of experience that we try to recreate inside the mobile app. We did it basically on our own because we couldn’t find a platform out there that could really deliver the experience.

Bellubbi: We’ve launched with Red Bull and [an as-yet-unannounced major fashion brand]. In mobile ads, traditionally, you can introduce a library of some sort into the product as a publisher. You have very little fine-grain control over what kind of advertisements are being displayed contextually. With our ad engine, we’ve created a travel-sized engine that our app currently talks to and it has two vectors.

The first is the basic user demographic information: age, gender, location, the kind of app that you’re using, and the kind of device you’re using it on. The second vector is behavioral characteristics, and this defines all the things you’re doing within the app: what kind of content are you reading? Are you reading more about a specific type of band in this genre, or are you reading the editorials? Based on your usage within the app, we target specific types of ads that gets rendered in a stream for you. The goal for this ad engine is basically to optimize the user experience. The entire user experience that we worked so hard to create — we don’t want to dilute that at all. We want the introduction of ads to be a good thing, something that the users actually want.

Evolver.fm: Can you tell me about your iPhone App of the Year Runner-Up award? What does this award mean for the team and what’s in the future for 955 Dreams?

Bellubbi: The award is a pretty big deal for us. We launched the app at the end of September. The app was picked up in two, three months and deemed App of the Year Runner-Up to Instagram, which has been around for a lot longer. We focused on the user experience and Apple naming us App of the Year Runner-Up was pretty gratifying. It also tells us that what we’re doing is important. We’re sort of leading the way in creating the mobile experiences of the future.

Download Band of the Day for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad