REDMOND, Wash., Nov. 12, 2007 — When Jeff Turton was growing up in Columbus, Ohio, during the 1960s and 1970s, he could never get his fill of music. He would spend hours each day “just twisting the dial” on his transistor radio in search of new artists and new styles of music. In school, his circle of friends evolved along with his musical tastes. He gravitated toward people who had the same love of music and found friends who could broaden his musical knowledge by introducing him to new bands.
Microsoft built flexibility and multiple discovery options into Zune Social to give every type of music lover the ability to create and cultivate their own desired Zune Social experience.
Today, Turton is still passionate about discovering and sharing music, as well as cultivating the social bonds created by these exchanges. But with millions of people listening to music through headphones on portable music players and isolated from the world around them, the 55-year-old radio programmer wonders if music is as social as it once was.
Turton also worries about the hindrances to discovering new music in a world of heavily formatted radio stations, chain electronics stores with clerks who know more about the newest flat-screen TV than the latest Jimi Hendrix re-issue, and social networking sites where anonymous recommendations are rarely worth the 30 seconds necessary to sample the song.
To help redefine the digital music experience, the Microsoft Zune team has developed a new way for anyone with an Internet connection and an interest in music to simultaneously expand their listening and social frontiers. This week, Microsoft introduced a beta version of Zune Social, a new online community Web site designed to connect people through music, by helping them share their music tastes, knowledge and experiences. Microsoft also launched a new line of Zune portable media players, as well upgraded software and online store.
“Music is about discovery,” says Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates. “You should be able to have a conversation about the music you like. Tell somebody you disagree with what they like. Find things serendipitously.”
According to Gates, Zune Social is the first online service to use the “magic of software to create a social experience around music.”
Unlimited music discovery
Growing up, Turton’s circle of friends and his ability to discover new music were limited by the geography of his home town and the quality of his fake I.D., which he often used to sneak into over-age music clubs to hear the R&B and blues artists who often passed through Columbus.
“Since I was a kid, I have jumped from one kind of music to another – and still do,” Turton says.
Turton and his friends constantly traded homemade mix tapes to show off the songs and artists that they’d discovered, to turn each other onto new music. The desire to share his favorite music led Turton to become a local DJ on a commercial jazz station in Boston. But even Turton admits that his radio show, which he has hosted for the past 25 years, has limitations. He can’t stray from the jazz music format, the station has a limited broadcast signal, and radio is ultimately a one-way medium.
Zune Social eliminates some of the barriers that make discovering new music more difficult in a market saturated with choices. With Zune Social, music fans can easily discover new music by listening to sample tracks displayed upon Zune Card profiles posted by community members, send recommendations of favorite songs to friends, and even meet people with similar musical tastes. The best recommendations are usually word-of-mouth – from friends, family and tastemakers. Zune Social was designed with all of that in mind.
“We looked at today’s social networks; they don’t necessarily sell music. Then we looked at the digital download services; they don’t necessarily harness community,” said Chris Stephenson, general manager of global marketing for the Entertainment and Business Division at Microsoft. “There has been something missing for music fans who want to connect with other music fans – or simply find something new to listen to when they’re at the gym. Zune Social fills the gap between social and traditional transaction models.”
The customizable Zune Card is updated automatically to display the music a user has listened to recently on their Zune device or Zune software on their PC.
Zune Social complements the upgraded Zune software, easily accessed by clicking on the “Social” tab located on the main screen of Zune Marketplace. Once inside, visitors can view friends’ Zune Cards or review charts of the most popular artists, songs and albums, as ranked by the Zune Social music community. The community consists of music fans who register for a Zune Card at no charge, but is not limited to only owners of Zune players. The customizable Zune Card is updated automatically to display the music a user has listened to recently on their Zune device or Zune software on their PC.
Terry Farrell, senior product manager for Zune software and services, compares Zune Cards to the mix tapes that he used to share with a pen pal in high school. They trusted each other’s taste. Each knew and liked most of the songs on the other’s compilations long before they popped the tape into a player. “But there were always a few songs in each mix that I’d never heard before,” Farrell says. “Those songs introduced me to some great new bands.”
He expects the same will happen when friends view each other’s Zune Cards. Through Zune Social, it’s easy to develop a music discovery network by browsing other Zune Cards and user profile pages to find other listeners with similar music tastes. Zune community members can send song recommendations, post comments, or even sample 30-second music clips of what other people are listening to.
“We’re trying to blow people’s minds with Zune Social by giving them new ways to discover and share music that they haven’t even thought about,” says Farrell.
Expanding musical horizons
Since graduating from college several years ago, Nick Paschal has relied on an old roommate and a handful of other friends to introduce him to music. The only problem is most of them are spread throughout the United States, making it difficult to connect often.
The 28 year-old insurance underwriter from Austin, Texas, talks about expanding his circle of music friends since his wife and other family members are considerably less passionate about music. They do not share his joy of discovering a new favorite band.
“It’s not all the time you run across someone that you connect with musically,” says Paschal, who is intrigued to see if Zune Social will make it easier for him to make some of these new connections. “Maybe this is what I need.”
Zune Social members can control who can view their profile page, whether it’s a small group of friends or anyone in the community. Eventually, Zune Cards can be posted to personal blog sites and other popular social networking sites, Farrell says.
Microsoft built flexibility and multiple discovery options into Zune Social, not only to satiate avid fans like Paschal and Turton, but also to give every type of music lover the ability to create and cultivate their own desired Zune Social experience.
“You don’t have to be a music diehard or invest a ton of time maintaining your card,” says Clinton Fowler, Zune program manager at Microsoft. “You can be a casual listener who doesn’t sign up for a card — or an occasional visitor who only comes to the site for inspiration when you get tired of the music on your player. There are ways for every type of listener to take advantage of Zune Social.”
Creating new tastemakers
Over the years, Turton has used his radio show to introduce listeners to emerging artists. Leading jazz artists like Pat Metheny and Patricia Barber and bands like Medeski Martin and Wood are great examples of how Turton played a role in their recognition and success.
“I’ve been there to help build those artists’ identities,” says Turton, who has noticed record sales go up in local shops after he plays artists. “I’m privileged that people feel I do a good enough job to pay attention.”
Microsoft expects Zune Social to connect and enlarge the music tastemaker community. Zune Social also provides artists and music labels new ways of reaching out to fans and finding out what fans want.
Top-selling R&B artist Ne-Yo instantly recognized these possibilities when Farrell demonstrated Zune Social to him recently. The singer-songwriter was excited about the ability to see his own community of fans and check out what they are saying about his music.
Farrell expects that artists will eventually play a more active role on their own Zune Social pages by creating their own Zune Cards to communicate with their biggest fans, make music recommendations, or even create exclusive song previews.
“The possibilities are endless with Zune Social,” Farrell says. “Using the site, music lovers can discover new music and artists and labels can promote their work.”