In the early days of the web, the technology space was flush with not only money, but a specific type of optimism: that this new medium would allow anybody to make whatever they wanted, and have the world see it (assuming it was any good). This was before Facebook, of course. If you wanted to put something out there, you sometimes had to make it yourself, with something called HTML.
Many of us whose jobs were to make stuff online back then thought the web would lead to an incredible diversity of ideas flourishing in an endless cyber-utopia, where any and every good idea stood a chance of taking off. If you read GeekCereal (to use one fairly random example), you probably remember that feeling. We were going to change the world.
We did — but not in the way some of us thought. A decade and a half (or so) in, signs are emerging that maybe the internet doesn’t want a near-infinite diversity of cultural movements and businesses. Maybe it just wants one of everything. Only the best.
Take on-demand music subscriptions. Liquid Audio was the first to try to launch something like that on a large scale, but it floundered (in part because its DRM that didn’t work with portable hardware). After that, we saw Rhapsody, Napster, Virgin Digital, Thumbplay, Sony, eMusic, Slacker, Rdio, MOG, mSpot, MTV Urge, Yahoo, Zune, Deezer, and others give it a shot.
Many of them went out of business. Others were acquired or consolidated. Today, we are left with the following on-demand subscriptions, more or less:
Spotify, which says it has over 15 million users (or over 22 million, depending on how you count them). Its latest official number was four million paying subscribers, but we’ve heard that number is now north of 4.5 million. It also has a successful app platform within its desktop player; powers at least 47 iOS apps (surely more by now); appears to be working on adding third-party apps to function within its own mobile apps; offers play buttons you can put anywhere for free; is reportedly working on a web version of its main player; partnered with Coca Cola to expand its reach globally; and says it wants to be “the OS of music.” Its current market valuation is said to be $4 billion.
Deezer has about 1.5 million paying subscribers, with over 20 million users overall, and is offered in many countries where the other players are not (not in the U.S.).
Rhapsody absorbed Napster, has over one million members, and no app platform.
Sony Music Unlimited says it has over one million active users.
Slacker offers a fairly popular radio service, but nobody seems to know that it also offers an on-demand music subscription.
Microsoft discontinued the Zune brand, and is still trying to make a go of its music subscription with Xbox Music.
Samsung Music Hub has a long list of cool features. Does anyone use it? We’re not sure.
The list goes on, but you get the point: Spotify is dominant, followed by a few other smaller players, and then there’s a big drop-off. In the mobile and tablet space, we have iOS and Android, and a bunch of also-rans (or soon-to-be also-rans). This is hardly the utopian vision in which any start-up can launch something and compete on a global level.
It’s like Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Coke has officially won the so-called “cola wars,” in the U.S., anyway. Pepsi pivoted, and is still doing well, but it’s not trying to win at selling more cola anymore. Imagine if Coke actually tasted better, the more people drank it. That’s how stuff on the internet works, which has been well-documented as “the network effect.” Something gets big, then more people hear about it, then it gets bigger, then it gets better because more people are using it, and so on, until there’s only room for one big winner and maybe a number two alternative plus a handful of tiny, niche players.
Another, grislier metaphor for this: sharks in utero. Some types of shark eat each other in the womb. Eventually, one gets big enough to eat all the others — and that’s before the things are even born.
The same thing is happening everywhere you look online. How many search engines are there? For most of us, there’s only one — and it makes major news headlines even for putting a cute design on its logo. How many general-purpose social networks do you use? Probably just one — or maybe you use them both, because technically, they actually do different things. Where do you crowdfund something? Duh. Where do you buy physical and now many digital objects? Mostly from here.
If the internet really does want there to be only one or maybe, in some cases, two of everything, what should, say, a band or start-up do?
Well, there is only one of each band. In addition to putting its music on all the various services (or at least the biggest two or three of each type), a band might double down on its own app in order to own its music all over the world.
As for start-ups, the strategy appears to be: Pivot until you are the only firm doing what you’re doing, or the biggest one, and then build a big lead over everyone else. There’s only one world, even though in the music industry, that world is sliced up by territory thanks to licensing practices, offering the chance to compete by going where nobody else wants to or can (see Deezer).
But there’s only one internet. From the looks of things, it doesn’t want multiple versions of the same thing.
Photo: Flickr/Umair Mohsin