Music for the Masses
By Peggy Anne Salz, Wed Jan 28 08:15:00 GMT 2004

More from MIDEM: This year mobile took center stage at the music industry trade show MIDEM for the first time ever. With mobile music ringing in the revenues, personalization could be next on the agenda. Ka-ching!

The proliferation of interactive voice response services such as song dedication and on-demand artist interviews, confirms that mobile music is the industry's next growth story.

But while much of the industry is mesmerized by the phenomenal success of ringtones (Jupiter Research estimates worldwide spending on ringtones and icons hit EUR505 million in 2003 and will rise to EUR3.7 billion in 2007), a more sober report from Juniper Research finds that the market for mobile ringtones has already peaked, and is now showing signs of saturation and weakness.

Both reports were debated at MIDEM, but smart companies aren't waiting to see the outcome. They're gearing up for the next big thing: mobile music personalization.

Up until now giving users a choice of music - in the form of ringtones, song snippets, or actual downloads - was the focus. "But going ahead services have to be intelligent and actually help pick the music," explains Svante Holm, head of music at Ericsson's global Competence Center for Media and Brands.

Ericsson was on hand at MIDEM to demonstrate new functionality packed into its M-USE mobile music service, which it offers as a white label solution to mobile operators. Holm revealed that the service now "effectively resembles" in that it can make suggestions based on the user's past choices.

Put simply, Ericsson has fine-tuned M-USE to pre-pick music according to users' personal preferences and profile. What's more, it allows users to pick "mood music," Holm says. "If you're in a romantic mood, you might want romantic ballads. If you're running, you might want dance music that's full of energy. Either way, the system picks titles it thinks you'll like and sends them to your phone."

Downloads are still a bit tedious in 2.5G - but Ericsson also showed a demo of the service running on 3G including full-length downloads of music and music videos. So far, the M-USE product (which was co-developed with Sony) features Sony titles, but Holm assures that "other major music labels will be signing in the next months." He also revealed that Swisscom is the newest operator to offer the white label service under its own brand.

Germany's Frauenhofer Institut Digitale Medientechnologie has a different approach. The research institute --which also came up with a song recognition technology similar to the commercially successful solution made popular by Shazam (but more scalable) - is working on new solutions that go beyond personalization. According to Markus Cremer, a researcher in charge of Audio and Multimedia at the institute, the technology will allow the service provider to "engage the user to interact with the music he likes best."

Cremer remained cryptic, but explained that operators could also use the technology for a new kind of mobile talent contest. "Users could pick the songs the system suggests and then sing them into the phone. The technology is designed to rate how well they sing and make quality judgments." It could, he joked, end up being the mobile answer to American Idol - and just as successful.

Sounds a bit far-fetched, but operators I surveyed during the show (who predictably refused to be identified) agreed personalization is the next step in music services. As one source puts it: "We have the deals. We could offer millions of ringtones and tunes in every form, but who wants to wade through that? The value we can add is to be smart and pre-select songs for the user."

Indeed, personalization has the potential to turn established mobile entertainment business models upside down. Operators can forget about "owning the customer" by offering exclusive content or cool apps. Moving ahead, it may be that the operator that learns the fastest from the customer - and makes the best suggestions -- wins.