As a cofounder and head of product for Gimme Radio, and before that VP of product for 8Tracks and Rhapsody, Jon Maples has amassed a ton of wisdom around building experiences for music fans. In his most recent role, he focused on not just any fans, but on diehards of specific genres. It was a different remit compared to those of the big players in streaming music, who focus on building products for the largest and broadest audiences possible. Here, he discusses how to identify a product opportunity, how to keep your own biases in check when making product decisions, and the approach he takes when determining if a new tech trend is mostly hype.
For someone who’s not from a tech background, how do you usually explain what a product manager does?
It's three things: It's creating a business case for a product, which means figuring out if it's something that the business can actually make money on. It’s defining what the product is, and a lot of times we talk about this as product-market fit. And the third thing is technically building it, and that's usually two parts. The first part is dealing with technical people who can define the right way to build it. And then it's the design side of it, to make it look and work as well as possible for users. What a product manager mostly does is try to influence people, from the user level all the way up to the CEO.
One of the things that I remember learning from you, that I believe is one of the main principles of product management, is: “You are not the customer.” Can you explain what that means?
Yes. So, it's extremely easy to be biased about product, because at the end of the day, we all use products. Why “You are not the customer” is important is because it makes you check your own biases about what you're building. If you are not the customer, then you have to go talk to the customers and gather evidence to figure out what they want.
Is it harder to keep your biases in check when you're a product manager for a music product, given that we all have such strong opinions about music?
Yeah, I mean, let's face it, the whole thing about “You are not the customer”—it's something we all aspire to as product managers, and you're never gonna do it. Everybody's gonna fail to a certain extent, because you're biased. So in music, yeah, it becomes more challenging. I don't know how many times I've heard from everybody, from a CEO to a designer to an engineer, “That's not the way I use it.” So if you have evidence of what's going to be successful or not, you're going to create a much better product than if you just simply rely on your own biases.
You’ve designed music products for a mass audience, but at Gimme you were very focused on creating an experience for this subset of music fans, which is the diehard audience, the true fans. What’s the difference between the two approaches?
I think there's a lot of authenticity that you can't really fake. Like one of the first things that we thought about was basically throwing out the playbook on how we design a product and thinking about the culture that we wanted to reach from the beginning, and letting that drive everything. We started with metal, and actually not all metal music, but specific genres of metal that don't get as much exposure, like death metal, black metal, a lot of thrash metal. We really tried to focus on speaking directly to those fans and embracing the culture around them from the beginning.
You led product at Gimme for about six years. How did your vision for the service change over time?
I think we saw ourselves much more like a streaming service at the beginning, and much less like a fan service. The thing that we really changed over time was focusing on what fans want and how they help the midlevel artists—not top-level, but midlevel artists—make a living, which was through engagement with their most important fans.
Gimme once did an NFT promotion with Deicide. We’re a couple years into the hype cycle around NFTs. What’s your view on them here in 2023?
I think in music, we’re still trying to figure out exactly what the value is. For NFTs across the board, there are going to be some very interesting approaches. A lot of people are talking about music rights and NFTs: You buy an NFT and you get a share of publishing for a song. That shows promise. But for us, we were really focused on physical merch more than digital merch. So what we wanted to explore was whether we could find ways to match and extend the value of physical merch through NFTs. So we did it for the Deicide box set. And what we were trying to do is test the demand for NFTs to see how many fans actually see value in them.
As a product person, you have a lot of experience encountering new trends and trying to figure out when something is legit versus when it’s just hype. How do you think through that when it comes to things like the blockchain and AI and these new shiny tech trends?
Yeah, that's a trap. It really is. Because when you're building products in the digital world, people expect you to be all over [trends]. I think there's a couple of things that have to happen. The first thing is going through the basic product approach, where you figure out when it's valuable enough for users. I pretty much try to put the brakes on everything like that from the beginning. And something our CEO and I talked about all the time was when was the right time to do it. There is pressure, not just because it's the new shiny thing, but because investors are expecting you to have an answer for a lot of these things. But it's also extremely valuable to wait and to experiment. It doesn't mean you are against these new trends. It's just that you have to wait to see if the demand develops.
Do all the developments in AI make you uneasy?
I think it's a fool's errand for anyone to try to fool anyone with AI. People can spot the lack of authenticity, and they don't want something that's fake. Everything needs to be tuned by a human. AI at its best is going to work when it's a tool for other people to use. People say, “Oh AI is gonna take over the world. And we're gonna be able to fire name-your-profession.” I don't think that's the case at all. What I think is it’s going to become a very powerful tool for people who know how to tune it, who know how to use it to accomplish things that would otherwise take a lot of time and a lot of effort.