[This post originally appeared at HBR on 3rd July 2012]

Music publishers have long realized that consumers need help with finding new music. Radio played this role, and it was a source of revenue too. The placement of songs in movies and other media also fueled demand. The music video evolved from television shows to become a dedicated set of channels. The video migrated in its modern versions to YouTube and various artist sites. At the heart of all of these ways of sharing music was the social aspect of music discovery: referrals from friends.

Music publishers have never really tapped into friend referral as an active way of promoting discovery. Their various legal pushes, in fact, suggest just the opposite. From proclaiming that recording mix tapes violated the law to suing consumers directly when they started making digital copies, the music industry has sought to isolate rather than socialize the music experience. They even go to great lengths to extract payments from the playing of music in public without ever acknowledging that playing a song at a gym or night club might boost sales.

The advent of file sharing has only fortified music publishers’ resolve toward individual control. They want to be the only ones able to say whether we can listen to music or not.

But to get to the step of initiating a potential music purchase, music discovery has to be efficient. Beyond the music industry, this fact has been seen as self-evident. Facebook, alongside its recent collaboration with Spotify, has realized that music referrals can come from friends. Even Skype allows you to let others know what music you are listening to. And two years ago Apple launched its version of a ‘social network’ with Ping, which broadcast to the world the music you had purchased and might be listening to.

In an abstract way, these moves make sense. But you may not want your tastes discovered so easily. Perhaps, in fact, they are not actually your tastes. In 2010, the day it came out, I enthusiastically signed up to Ping and broadcast my music tastes to the world. Then I realized that the world may have an interesting view of my seemingly unhealthy obsession with Hannah Montana. Ping was tied to my iTunes account. Except I don’t have an iTunes account. My family has one. So Ping was broadcasting, in my name, my children’s music preferences. From that moment, I knew that Ping was doomed. (It has taken a couple of years but all the indications are that Apple will kill the service shortly.)

Even if Ping had broadcast my own tastes instead of my children’s, it may not have mattered. Just because I happened to listen to or buy something does not mean that I’d recommend it. Referring music to friends, on the other hand, allows us to create a “brand image,” which may constrain what we’re willing to promote. Equally important is the reliability of the referrals. Does so-and-so suggest music that I actually end up liking? Filtering for quality is at the core of the process of discovery.

These two factors mean that automation cannot work for music discovery. It pollutes the process and subverts the very thing it is suppose to achieve — a recommendation that will lead to a purchase. The sharing of music tastes needs to be an active process.

That’s just not how the current version of sharing works. If you recommend a song to someone, they have to buy it to hear it. That might yield to a satisfied customer. But there is also a risk that it won’t — and you just caused your friend a monetary loss.

Some people use YouTube to avoid this dynamic, sending friends a link to watch and listen to a song for free. But this is far from efficient: the curmudgeon in me still rankles at all of that extra bandwidth. Instead, what would be nice is to recommend a song on a social network and allow people to listen to it without having to pay. And not just some snippet — the whole thing. It may cost them time but it does not cost them money. This would turn friends into marketers (something they have always been).

There are signs the music industry may be about to embrace such a system. The newest version of iTunes may have sharing built in. Ping, as probably no one has noticed, now has options for active sharing of song tastes (rather than automation), but it doesn’t currently give people the right to listen to the whole song.

But we could take sharing even farther. As I suggested some time ago with respect to books, you should be able to pay an amount to gift songs to friends too. With music, you could purchase a song from iTunes for $1.29, and if you like it you could buy an extra for, say, $1, to gift it to a few friends. And perhaps the amount you paid would go down if it turned out your friends were more likely to buy whole albums based on your song recommendations. Regardless, music publishers could deploy the power of sharing in the all-important market for consumer attention.

Consumers will undoubtedly continue to tap into social networks to share the music (and other products) they like. Publishers will have to decide just how much sharing appeals, since giving consumers incentives to make sharing easier will mean lowering the incentives that pay publishers directly.

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