Interview by Simon Glickman 

In the first installment of our new series of conversations with leaders in the digital music space, we interrupt the work-from-home flow of Amazon Music’s Steve Boom, who wished he could ask Alexa to make us go away.

So how are you faring amid this insanity?
Well, it depends when you ask. It’s gone on long enough that I’m starting to forget what it used to be like; I’m not thrilled about that, but humans are creatures of habit and it becomes a routine. We’ve been working from home for six-and-a-half months now; that’s a long time, and we’re going to be doing it for another three-and-a-half, minimum. They told us after the new year’s break that we should be working from home. I don’t know what’s gonna happen then. But I’m okay.

Streaming has remained strong even in this period of confinement and economic challenge.
I don’t think that’s too surprising. When the lockdown first hit, consumption overall was down by low double-digits, with the loss of commute time and so on. Interestingly, that wasn’t Amazon’s experience; we have more balance in our listenership. That obviously includes a very strong position in the home with Echo devices, as well as with people out and about on their phones. So while we did see a comparable decrease in mobile listening, the growth at home was more than enough to offset that.

It’s not surprising that subscriptions remain strong. For 10 bucks a month, what you get is remarkable. Music has just played such an important part of people’s lives and in a time of such anxiety and stress, I’m not that surprised that people would want to hold onto the things that give them comfort—and music is probably the best value in town.

It seems like the consumption numbers rebounded industry-wide; some people have gone back to work, and we saw those mobile consumption numbers heading back up. I think everything’s growing again.

What have you observed about how patterns of consumption have changed in the last six months?
At first you saw a move to what I’d call feel-good music—more oldies and comfort-food music. Of course, there was less new music being released. I don’t want to read too much into the psychology of what people are doing, but I don’t think there’s a material difference between listening today and pre-pandemic.

One thing I’m seeing as a listener is that in certain genres, you’re seeing more covers come out and less original music. I listen to a lot of alternative rock and there’s some great new stuff, but when I look at the playlist on Amazon, I see more covers of classic-rock songs than I recall seeing in the past. It’s probably easier to do a cover right now than to collaborate with people on a brand-new song.

Amazon has figured prominently in country and been a big mover in that genre. Would you say that that’s still a major part of the current music that that’s being consumed by Amazon users, as compared to other services?
That hasn’t changed; it continues to be a strength of ours. But you’ve also seen a real expansion. Country, pop and rock were all really strong for us. Two areas of rapid growth for us were hip-hop and Latin. We’ve essentially relaunched our Latin strategy with huge new programming and a dedicated team. They’re doing an amazing job. We’ve seen ginormous growth of Latin streams on our service, far outpacing industry growth in the last year and a half. The same thing is happening in hip-hop.

So yes, country continues to be a strength, but what I think we’re most proud of at Amazon has been always the diversity of listening. We want to be a great service, whatever genre is your genre. We want you to come to Amazon music and not only feel welcome but to feel like it was designed for you.

Do you attribute the rapid growth of hip-hop and Latin consumption simply on the service to the expansion of the user base? Or is it something specific
I think it’s a couple of things. It’s the expansion of the user base, as well as a focus on our part in terms of programming, working directly with artists and labels to bring original content. That could be songs, mini-documentaries in the hip-hop space. With our recent launch of podcasts, we announced that we’re going to have exclusive shows with DJ Khaled, Becky G and Will Smith. So you can see in our selection of content that we there’s a concerted effort to make our service more appealing and to lead in those genres. They feed into each other.

Some people I’ve spoken with have expressed the idea that that for the music world, podcasts can be seen as a kind of rival rather than a platform that can assist in more music listening—that it can be just another thing to take people away from music.
I find that to be a pretty myopic, zero-sum mentality, quite frankly. We’re in this subscription business; every month people need to decide whether they want to continue to pay $10 a month. Like I said, I think it’s a great value, but people always expect more and more. Giving them more things to listen to keeps them in the service longer. That’s good for everybody who gets paid from subscription revenue. I think it’s also notable that our initial focus in original or exclusive podcasts is music-oriented. Users can get deeper into music culture; it goes beyond just listening to recorded music.

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Now we’ve got this opportunity for people to deepen their connection with artists. Either you’re a fan of DJ Khaled or you’re a fan of the people he’s interviewing. You develop a different kind of connection. You’re probably more likely to listen to their music—and conveniently, it’s right here in the same service. As with live streaming, there are ways to increase the richness of the music culture within a streaming app—so that app is not just a music store. It’s much richer, and that’s good for everybody who makes money on subscriptions.

The more people are engaged with these apps, the longer they’ll retain their subscriptions—and keep their listening inside of that app. We already know that consumers are listening to lots of different things. They don’t listen to Spotify or Amazon Music or Apple Music exclusively. They listen to the radio, to music they purchased, to a podcast, whatever. So why wouldn’t you want more of that happening in one service where you’re getting paid, and they’re more likely to turn around and listen to your songs. It’s clearly meant to be a flywheel to grow overall consumption within our service. I’m sure if you asked the other guys, they would say a similar thing. There’s a lot of listening happening outside of our services already. Why wouldn’t we want to bring some of that in-house, so to speak, where people are getting paid?

It does seem that all the DSPs are seeking ways to put storytelling in service of music discovery and exploration.
Yes, otherwise it’s just algorithms recommending stuff and people making playlists. Those are amazing, but giving more context to people is one of our jobs.

Podcasting and live streaming bring a different dimension. When I see an artist live—particularly in an intimate setting, but really in any venue—my relationship with that artist and the artist’s music changes forever, most often positively. Now I’ve become a deeper fan; now, and I’m listening to the recorded music, it sparks memories of the show.

Now we’re in a world where there is obviously not a whole lot of in-person live music. We can bring interesting performances into the streaming world, where we know that you either already like this artist—from your listening on Amazon music—or that you’re likely to start, based on other people with similar listening behaviors. We can put that live stream in front of you, and hopefully that will forever change your relationship with the artists in a positive way. And again, with podcasting, we can just close the loop immediately to that artist’s catalog of music, because it’s right there in our service.

For example, Keith Urban recently did a huge live stream inside of Amazon Music. I’m a fan, and I follow Keith on our service. And then I get notified by Amazon that he’s about to go live. That’s just killer. I just tap on that notification, and next thing I know, I’m inside my music app and watching Keith perform his latest album for the first time. Now I’ve seen it live; the songs mean more to me now than if I heard a DJ play them or I pressed play in a streaming service. They feel more personal, and I’m way more likely to listen to that record now.

We see live streaming as a huge way for artists to reach out to fans, certainly—but not necessarily—when they’re releasing new music.

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Amazon is unique in having Amazon Prime Music as an ad-free introductory tier; how, if at all, is the process of migrating people to Unlimited evolving at present?
I don’t know that the pandemic has necessarily changed anything in this respect. Prime acts as as a sort of steppingstone for people. Everyone likes it and it drives a lot of subscriptions into Amazon Music Unlimited. Let’s say you want to listen to the song on your Echo that isn’t available in Prime, which has a great catalog but doesn’t have everything. Alexa will say, “That song is not available on Prime Music, but it’s available in Amazon Music Unlimited, along with 60 other million songs. Would you like to start a free trial?” Because you’re an Amazon customer and we have your credit card, all you have to do is say yes—one word—and she’ll say, “Great, starting your free trial now.” And then the music that you requested starts playing. It’s beautiful, a seamless experience—and very, very effective.

Voice really is a transformative piece of this whole conversation. The last time we spoke, you referenced people who have Echos who don’t even realize that they’re using a streaming service.
Very true. And in the case of podcasting, it’s been around for a long time and has experienced significant growth recently, but it’s still not a right smack in mainstream listening behaviors. And much like we did with music streaming a few years ago, we look forward to growing the overall market segment for podcasting by expanding the audience. Echo is a great way to do that, because the technology is so transparent to the end user that it just opens the doors to different people, including those who don’t like technology or don’t live on their mobile phones.

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Let’s talk about the integration of Twitch into the platform and some implications of that development.
Like everybody else, we saw what happened at the beginning of the pandemic with live streaming taking off; artists were flocking to various platforms, including Twitch, and we got involved. Twitch did this great charity benefit, Stream Aid, on 3/28, at the beginning of the national lockdown. We were deeply involved in that, helping to book the talent, given our relationships. And we saw the opportunity that I was describing to you before; we’ve long had this vision of making streaming services more interactive and fostering different and deeper connections between artists and fans—and how that can tie back to consumption of their recorded music.

All of that accelerated as live streaming went from being kind of a thing to being a giant thing. So we work with Twitch. If you’re an artist, you have an Amazon Music account, because we have an Amazon Music for Artists app where you can see your streaming activity on our service. You basically just connect your Twitch ID to your Amazon Music artist ID. And then when you stream on Twitch, your stuff will appear within Amazon music. On the Amazon Music side, we’re actively working with top-tier artists. So we’ve had Keith Urban, Alicia Keys, Snoop Dogg, Moby, Logic.

For the most part the artists are playing live music, but there are other features. During the pandemic, we had 5 Seconds of Summer on, and they did a Q&A with the four guys in different locations. It was like a Zoom with different tiles, and they were just talking, having fun and responding to user questions. Again, the whole point, if you’re a fan, is how differently you view them after that kind of experience. They’re no longer just voices or produced images—they’re actually human beings, and you can see their personalities.

Along with the music-related podcasts, it all creates a very virtuous circle.

Any new developments in terms of your team?
Raymond Roker joined us in August as our global head of editorial. We’re really excited about him joining and helping us to create storytelling opportunities and develop those deeper connections between artists and fans. He has so much credibility in this space. Kirdis Postelle came aboard in the spring, in the middle of that. So we’ve added two really great people right in the middle of pandemic. I got to know Kirdis through being on the board of MusiCares. As Global Head of Artist Marketing, she’s been really deeply involved in all these live streaming efforts. As you can see, we’re making investments not just in the tech, but in the people who bring music to life. And that’s exciting.



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