Music startup 8tracks just released a major new version of its iPhone app. The 3.0 version comes with a completely redesigned interface, a simpler user experience and a new advertising strategy. At its core, it remains a laid-back radio service like Pandora or Songza, but with human-generated playlists.
After launching the app, the music experience is slightly different. You are presented with a horizontal timeline of human-curated playlists. If you swipe right, you see your playlist history and you can listen once again to a playlist that you liked. If you swipe left, you can see what’s coming up based on your current music search. It’s a beautiful design.
One of 8tracks’ core features remains the ‘Explore’ screen. Every playlist comes with multiple tags. These tags can be a mood (happy, love, etc.), an activity (workout, study, sleep), and of course a music genre. You can combine these tags together to find the perfect playlist. For example, you could do a search for “study + indie + summer”.
I’ve used the service for a few years. After a while, you tend to use the same tag combinations because you know that they work well together. That’s why you now get shortcuts to play trending playlists with these tag combinations.
“If you think about what’s different about 8tracks is that it’s fundamentally a community,” founder and CEO David Porter told me in a phone interview. This is the service’s key strength and weakness.
Overall, 8tracks has suffered from being to complicated. Compared to Pandora, you actually have to think about what you want to listen to. You can’t just hit a play button. Yet, you can see that the 8 million monthly active users who get it enjoy the service a lot more than Pandora. A Twitter search for 8tracks and Pandora confirms that.
In the coming months, the company will focus on simplifying the user experience. The new tag shortcuts are a good first step. But it’s still not dumbed down enough for mainstream adoption.
Moreover, when people tend to write about digital music, they often forget 8tracks. Yet, the startups has been around since 2008, and is bigger than Songza, Rdio and other press darlings. “We’re three times the size of Rdio,” Porter said.
On the revenue front, the company raised $1.2 million in 2011 and has been profitable since July 2012. It will now get into direct advertising sales. “We hired our first ad sale person in October. We’ve been stepping up our game,” Porter said. The company recently signed its first advertising deal with Victoria’s Secret.
The new app will also help on that front. Brands will be able to sponsor playlists, or purchase more traditional ad units. All mobile ads will now be native. When you search for a genre, you will see in-feed ads like on Twitter or Facebook. When you swipe horizontally to skip a playlist, the app will also show an interstitial ad from time to time.
These are the three challenges right now for 8tracks: getting the word out, simplifying the service to boost growth, and ramping up direct ad sales. In that regard, the 3.0 version, which will come to Android in the coming weeks, is not just an app update — it builds the foundation for a more efficient service.