The service design challenge for music discovery: A personal view

Sara Munday

How can designers rekindle music discovery in the world of digital music?

I was out for a Sunday morning jog with my iPod on shuffle when, appropriately enough, the Beatles’ ‘The Long and Winding Road’ came up, setting off a memory. I remembered sitting in the living room of my parents’ house, sometime in the late seventies when vinyl was still the music format of choice. Lying by the speakers of their ancient, cabinet-style record player, I’m singing along to records of nursery rhymes, the soundtrack from the Jungle Book, a recording of Danse Macabre (I loved the grisly cover art with ghoulish skeletons, although it scared me), and the odd pop gem.

This memory set me thinking about my early musical discoveries and how they have shaped my taste in music today. Sure, my parents’ collection left a lot to be desired, (Steeleye Span anyone?) but there were a couple of gems in there.

Fast forward a few years and a Beatles obsession had taken hold. My parents had original mono recordings of their early albums which had the additional charm of crackly, echoey, authentic sound and aged, browning sleeves. I listened to them obsessively throughout my childhood.

These memories, and the objects they link me to, raise some important questions for service design. How can we as service designers, elevate the tactile and motor memory serving aspects of experience, especially when connected to something as deeply fundamentally human as discovering and enjoying music? How are experiences connected to objects in our memories and daily lives?

The nineties was the decade of the CD, and I never quite got over the disappointment of their packaging. They seemed disposable, lacking in sensory value as objects, and with all the crackles digitally removed, lacked charm. CDs were followed by the dawn of the mp3 and I was one of the millions of hungry music fans, benefiting from the music pirates Napster and their ilk. I couldn’t believe it when I first discovered that almost any album or track I could think of would be mine immediately for free! The era was short-lived of course, but it paved the way for what was to come.

But it was also around this time that I rekindled my love of vinyl and elevated record buying to one of my favourite past times. As I was interviewing Emma Davidson aka lektrogirl, the Rephlex-signed micro musician for a music sine, we hatched the plot that would evolve into lektroLAB. The premise was to run some DJ workshops, throw a few parties and get anyone who wanted to give it a go up and running behind the decks.

lektroLAB was built on the concept of DIY: anyone can be a DJ. After all what is a mixer other than a glorified volume control? We realised that you don’t have to be able to beat-match to play a selection of records that will get a dance floor heaving. Now with regular DJ gigs, I found myself regularly scouring car boot sales for early rave 7 inches, spending lunch breaks nagging the people working in shops like Phonica for the latest electroclash releases and generally revelling in the joys of record buying. My set was as eclectic as my ever-growing music collection, with me happily playing Wings alongside Chicks on Speed and mixing The Rapture with ELO.

Again it seems relevant to the problems of service design: in an area when music has become a fully digitised experience, what can we do to emulate the experience of rifling through a sibling’s record collection, or discovering that long-lost Dolly Parton 7-inch at a car boot sale?

Eventually, I sold my decks to free up space and sold off most of the records that I used to play. And now that I have a Spotify premium account, I no longer buy mp3s either. But surely there are ways for the excitement and the tactile thrill of music consumption to be a part of our lives again.

A combination of these things is now fuelling the new digital wave. From that wave has emerged Spotify and various playlist websites. We’re even seeing designers starting to tackle how to create a physical representation of Spotify.

Yes, I love aweditorium, have dabbled with soundcloud and mixcloud and am still an avid listener to BBC 6 Music, but I know deep down that something is missing from these experiences.

The question is how can we use our service design skills to rekindle this missing aspect of music discovery? Digital design and technological developments have led to the creation of services that make the consumption of content such as music more convenient and immediate. As designers, we still have a strong DIY ethos, prototyping as we go, hooking things up, mashing things together and looking for ways to try things out. It’s up to service designers to ensure that serendipity and expertise are equally part of the discovery journey.

Some sites for reference:

Sara Munday

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