What The Music Business Must Learn from Pokemon GO


What got music here is not ultimately what will get it to where it’s going. And where it’s going is anyone’s guess. As soon as downloads and MP3’s appeared to be the new paradigm, streaming services soon took over. And just when everyone was ready to declare the physical format for music dead, a vinyl resurgence has presses mothballed for 35 years coming back on line to help fill robust worldwide demand.

It’s that yearning for something material in the digital age, yet enhancing the material with the digital that has given rise to Pokemon GO, and made it one of the most significant cultural phenomena in recent memory. What does this have to do with music? We may not know exactly for weeks or months, but it will have a musical impact, and has already. And ultimately, the impact of Pokemon GO on music will be huge. Whatever it is. When you have just as many Android users now using Pokemon GO as the social network Twitter, you have a widespread cultural immersion that is going to have very real economic and cultural ramifications on everything else.

Instead of having joggers running through parks listening to Spotify playlists, they’re now chasing down pocket monsters with their smartphones. Instead of consumers keeping up with their favorite bands and artists on social media, they’re engaging in Pokemon business in a virtual world. Undoubtedly it’s a craze that will level off at some point, or will be replaced by something even more immersive, or will possibly continue if Nintendo is able to add features to keep users engaged. And everything else people use to recreate will get squeezed, including, if not especially, music: made vulnerable by the medium’s move to the smartphone, and putting it in direct competition with things like super-viral gaming apps that enthrall the entire world out of the blue.

Yet the enchantment the world has found with Pokemon Go could give the folks in the music delivery business some important insight on how to keep consumers engaged moving forward. For too long the factors of time and location have been missing from the music curation experience. They used to be there, when local DJ’s would piggy-back off the local weather or news events to pick the right song for the moment. Today with syndication, nationalized playlists, and the implosion of radio, that’s mostly gone. Pokemon GO knows what time of day it is and where you are in relation to your environment. If you’re by the water, water Pokemon appear. If you’re in the forest, woodland Pokemon appear.

Why should searching for music be any different? Services like Spotify and Apple Music give listeners access to massive archives of music, but that has proven to be just as much of a problem as it is a solution. It’s the aching question when you pull up your music listening app and find yourself staring at the search bar: “What do I want to listen to?” This used to not be a problem because you listened to whatever you had, or whatever they played on the radio. Now we’re burdened by choice.

Playlists are good place to start, but they still operate on a “One Size Fits All” approach. What if your music app used GPS to figure out where you, used your clock to figure out when you are there, imported your preferences from previous interfaces with the app, and delivered the appropriate song for the appropriate time and place, just like the Pokemon popping up in front of you?

Forget searching for and finding fictitious pocket monsters, how about finding the perfect song to help get us through those everyday moments we all must slog through, or enhance those moments we set aside to enjoy life and our surroundings? Imagine a playlist that starts to play as soon as you enter a city park, custom curated to your preferences of genre and era, and perfectly timed for the trail you’re looking to traverse. What about a road trip enhanced by the perfect songs timed to coincide with significant landmarks, and synced up to your location and progress via GPS?

Imagine the chills you’d experience if your streaming app knew you were on the New Jersey Turnpike, and pulled up Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” suddenly, or played Waylon Jennings’ “Luckenbach, TX” as you neared the legendary town on U.S. 290, or dialed up Eddie Rabbitt’s “I Love A Rainy Night,” or Tom Waits’ “Diamonds On My Windshield” right as wet stuff starts falling from the sky on a dark, autumn evening? These are the possibilities that Pokemon GO could open up for music as technology continues to solve problems that years ago we didn’t even know we had.

Perhaps music should be embarrassed that a gaming company figured this out before they did, especially with the rampant competition in the streaming space. But it’s coming. All of this is coming to music, and coming soon. It has to. Because otherwise, folks will be running around all of God’s creation looking for fictitious monsters, while music, which for thousands of years has proven to be the perfect and most universal thing to enhance the human experience and foster escapism, goes forgotten.

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