Popularity Contest: New Music That Sounds Like Old Music II

Since posting ‘Solving The Discovery Problem: New Music That Sounds Like Old Music’ on Friday (worth going there first before reading on if you haven’t already), a couple of things drifted through my transom that seemed worth sharing.

On Monday a chap named Brian Hazard followed me on Twitter. Intrigued by the juxtaposition of such a conventional first name with the more thrusting derring-do of his last, I took a peek at his profile. Turns out Brian is an EDM artist who performs under the name Color Theory; he has 1.9m Twitter followers and describes his music as “80’s synthpop = EDM + piano for fans of Depeche Mode”.

Brian Hazard Twitter ProfileGiven the particular suburb of the discovery landscape I’ve mentally inhabited the past week or so, the specificity of his description piqued my interest. On the one hand: as a popular artist that directly references both a decade and a heritage act as major influences in their Twitter profile, Color Theory seemed ripe for the same analysis to which I subjected Daniel Romano and others in the original article.

On the other: if you have two million followers on Twitter, perhaps you’ve reached the point where you don’t need to describe the sound of your music to potential new followers. (Although it’s worth pointing out that Hazard follows more than a million people as well. I’m not suggesting foul play; just that popularity on Twitter and Spotify are two very different things.)

All of this got me thinking more about the true nature of ‘popularity’ in the streaming space, and in particular the Spotify popularity index I overlooked in the first piece. To judge from a selection of Color Theory’s biggest songs, there is indeed a resemblance in sound to Depeche Mode, so I pulled both artists’ numbers – just as I had for Romano and Simpson in the original article:

Depeche Mode & Color Theory on Spotify

To deal first with their release windows, Color Theory’s first album Sketches In Grey came out in 1994, while his most recent came out this year. His related artists have an average release era of 2002 to 2011. Depeche Mode’s seminal synthpop debut Speak & Spell came out in 1981, their most recent in 2013, while their related artists’ average 1983 to 2012. So Mr. Hazard has been releasing music almost as long as his heroes Depeche Mode. He even released a full-length covers album in 2003: Color Theory presents Depeche Mode.

Things get more interesting when you look at popularity. Color Theory has 916 followers on Spotify and a popularity score of 17 out of 100. His related artists have an average of 270 followers and a mean popularity of 10, so he slightly outranks his peers. Depeche Mode have 612,544 followers and a popularity index of 72, contrasted with 111,045 and 56 respectively for their similar artists. It’s worth noting that, as with the artists in the first article, neither Color Theory nor Depeche Mode appear in each other’s related artist lists.

Spotify describes popularity thusly:

The popularity of a track is a value between 0 and 100, with 100 being the most popular. The popularity is calculated by algorithm and is based, in the most part, on the total number of plays the track has had and how recent those plays are. Generally speaking, songs that are being played a lot now will have a higher popularity than songs that were played a lot in the past. Artist and album popularity is derived mathematically from track popularity.

SpotifySo Color Theory’s much lower popularity score of 10, compared to 72 for Depeche Mode, is a reflection not just of the fact that his music is played less than theirs, but that it’s being played less now. Probably Spotify’s related artist algorithms are a blend of both recording era and popularity. (If anyone from Spotify would like to confirm, feel free.) By way of comparison, Adele – whose new album 25 isn’t streaming on Spotify – has a popularity ranking of 92.

It makes sense that Spotify would want to factor in currency as a determiner of popularity. But as I pointed out in the original article, it does leave New Music That Sounds Like Old Music out on a limb somewhat, confining similar/related artists more to comparable consumption cycles (e.g. early adopters vs. laggards) than proximity of sound. There’s a downside to this for both the artist and the listener I think.

Of course not every new artist that thinks they sound a bit like an older, bigger one has a God-given right to a chunk of the latter’s audience. Some of them just might not be very good. (Some services disagree on this; a smart radio provider I worked with several years ago offered labels and artists paid-for ‘power plays’ allowing them to define which artists their music appeared alongside in radio streams. The practice made me distinctly uneasy; payola by another name.)

So if neither algorithms nor cold, hard cash can be relied upon to determine similar artist accuracy, I guess that brings us back to humans. How about a system whereby new artists themselves suggest a handful of possible related artists, which genre experts at the services have the final word on? Or maybe use the wisdom of the crowd and get listeners to do (or help with) that? Perhaps this happens already – I’d be similarly happy to hear from you if it does.

Daniel Romano Album Cover

The second thing that happened in response to the first article this week is that I heard from Daniel Romano’s PR in the UK, Del Day of Ark PR. With his permission I’m publishing the main points of his email unedited below:

“The PR plot for the new album was a huge success at press and radio with a lot of online site support too. I think this is down to a few factors – the fact the record is undeniably brilliant, the fact that Daniel is an ever-evolving musician that isn’t always easy to label which helps pitch him across a few different genres, and good old word of mouth. (Obviously I worked my socks off as well which helps..) :) 

Daniel RomanoI’m intrigued by your piece and, although I can see your points regards Daniel and Spotify and Pandora, I also think internet radio, especially the shows based here in the UK have done loads to help you find his music. We had massive support right across the board on the album from all the key roots/country shows.

As a publicist working almost entirely with country/roots acts, we got as much coverage we could for Daniel. I honestly don’t think we could have got any more. Reviews in five broadsheets, all the key music magazines, a six page feature in CMP arguably our only dedicated country magazine, numerous plays on Bob Harris Country, and reviews/plays on all the relevant country press/radio. I think a hell of a lot of people still ‘find’ artists this way.” 

We may have been talking slightly as cross-purposes about ‘internet radio’; Del seems to be talking about webcast linear radio – i.e. with shows – whereas I was using the phrase in the sense of non-linear, ‘smart’ services like Pandora.

But his comments are interesting nonetheless, and not just because they reveal that I somehow managed to miss what sounds like a stellar PR campaign. It’s linear radio, press and online still doing all the heavy lifting for new artists like Daniel. Radio still outranks all other media, including YouTube, for music discovery; streaming will have to do better if it really wants to increase its share of ear.

Edison Research - Share of Ear
Edison Research – Share of Ear

Solving The Discovery Problem: New Music That Sounds Like Old Music

They say there are three subjects you should never bring up in polite company: politics, religion and money. I’d like to offer a fourth – country music.

A taste for twang is a tiny taboo. Fellow fans will surely recognise the awkward silence that follows a declaration of love for country – a silence sometimes accompanied by a look of disgust that makes you wonder if you haven’t mistakenly just confessed to a fondness for sexual congress with kittens.

Which is a problem for me, because one of the few things I love as much as country music is talking about country music. Spreading the word. I love to talk about about country so much that I once dragged my friend Joe Harland 2,500 miles across America trying to make him love Gram Parsons.

So I always feel compelled to fill that conversational cul-de-sac with a qualification: “Only real country, you understand. Waylon, Willie, Gram, Johnny – obviously I hate Garth Brooks and Dierks Bentley.” There then follows a sigh of relief on the part of your interlocutor, who jokingly declares that you can indeed remain friends.

Daniel Romano Album Cover

Daniel Romano, a young Juno-nominated singer from Canada, is real country. My friend Matt turned me onto him a month or so ago (via Facebook private message, discovery fans), and his album If I’ve Only One Time Askin’ has been on repeat ever since. If you like your country rhinestone-studded, swathed in swooning pedal steel and drenched in Wichita Lineman-esque strings, chances are you will too.

Digging into his catalogue on Spotify I was equal parts overjoyed and dismayed to learn that If I’ve Only One Time Askin’ is Romano’s fourth LP. What joy, to find a new obsession with a full four albums’ worth of discovery to look forward to. But why hadn’t I heard of him before? I’m a super-streamer, passionate countryphile, and flatter myself to think I’m an early adopter musically.

What’s more, I use artist and genre radio frequently, mainly on Spotify and Pandora. If they were doing their job, surely I’d have bumped into Daniel Romano years ago? As similar artists go, he’s like triangulating on three cornerstones of my record collection: a vocal spit for Willie Nelson who writes like Gram and arranges like Glen Campbell.

But take a look at Romano’s similar artists on Spotify – in fact on almost any streaming service you care to mention – and you won’t see them. Fans of Willie Nelson, Gram Parsons and Glen Campbell would love Daniel Romano if he could reach them. But for now he must rely on ‘old’ radio and the press to do that, because streaming services apparently aren’t beating a discovery path to his door.

Metamodern SoundsLikewise Sturgill Simpson, whose incredible second album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music has been described as an “exemplar of what the country mainstream isn’t,” draws on many of the sixties and seventies outlaw influences mentioned above. Simpson’s insistence that, while “I’ll never get tired of being told I sound like Waylon Jennings, […] I don’t hear it myself’ just goes to prove that the only person not hearing the true sound of a voice is the person using it. But scan his similar artists on, say, Apple Music, and Waylon is nowhere to be found.

And there’s an interesting corollary in soul. Leon Bridges and Curtis Harding, frequently grouped together as ‘new stars of classic soul’, are advanced students both of the sound and the era. You might say they are to Otis Redding and Sam Cooke as Romano and Simpson are to Willie and Waylon. But you’ll struggle to find these obvious classic soul influences in their similar artist lists.

All of which highlights the challenge of discovering New Music That Sounds Like Old Music. Most streaming services, with the notable exception of Pandora, extrapolate artist similarity based on a statistically significant overlap between listener groups, not unlike Amazon’s ‘other people also bought’ recommendations. If a lot of people who listen to artist X also listen to artist Y, then artists X and Y are similar.

But listener groups don’t coalesce neatly around genres or similarity of sound. As broadcast radio knows, listeners also lie along another spectrum; early adopters listen to stuff that more ‘contented’ listeners haven’t yet been turned onto. So the similar artists of new acts on Spotify – and in this context I’m talking about artists whose entire repertoire falls into the 21st century – will overlap only with other relative newcomers.

SpotifyTo see what was going on, I decided to look at the numbers. Starting with Spotify, I determined the comparative ‘newness’ – or recording era – of an artist by pulling the release year of the first and most recent albums for every act in the related artists lists for our vintage-sounding new acts Romano, Simpson, Bridges and Harding. (The Spotify API also outputs an artist ‘popularity index’, which seems to be based partly on the ‘currency’ of plays, i.e. songs and artists played a lot now are more popular than those played a long time ago, but since it’s not clearly defined in their API documentation I ignored it. UPDATE: I didn’t ignore it. Go here for a slightly deeper dive in Part 2.)

Daniel Romano’s related artists – Robert Ellis, The Deep Dark Woods and Lydia Loveless, to pick a handful – are all relatively new, with an average debut release year of 2008. Sturgill Simpson’s related artists, which do include some more well-established names like Justin Townes Earle and Drive-By Truckers among many, many newer artists (and crucially not Waylon Jennings), have an average debut release year of 2007.

Conversely, Willie Nelson’s related artists have an average release span of 1975 to 2013, Gram Parsons’ of 1980 to 2009, Waylon Jennings’ of 1977 to 2014, and Glen Campbell’s of 1976 to 2014. But of course they don’t include Daniel Romano or Sturgill Simpson. The related artists of nu-soul acts Leon Bridges and Curtis Harding have release spans of 2013 to 2014 and 2011 to 2014 respectively, while Sam Cooke and Otis Redding both run mid-sixties to 2012.

Which suggests that Spotify’s related artists are pulling heavily – perhaps only – on acts with comparable release windows, explaining the absence of those plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face-alikes from thirty and forty years prior. (It’s significant that Spotify uses the word ‘related’ rather than ‘similar’ here – ever so slightly letting them off the hook, although I still question the user experience.)

Discovering New Music 2

A glance at Deezer suggests they fare slightly better. Their similar artists tab for Romano also returns mostly new acts but, being five times longer than Spotify’s, does manage to pull in Townes Van Zandt and The Jayhawks – just not Willie, Gram or Glen. Sam Cooke does appear on the similar artists list for Leon Bridges, but so do a litany of artists without the slightest connection to soul music – Courtney Barnett, Ryan Adams and Beach House to name a few.

Apple Music’s six similar artists for Daniel Romano are a curious hotchpotch, the most well known among them being Jason Isbell. They do much better with Leon Bridges, surfacing Curtis Harding, Alabama Shakes and Charles Bradley, and even call out Otis Redding and Sam Cooke separately as influences. (Apple Music and All Music appear to be the only services that do this – more please.)

Pandora is different, and not just because it’s a pure play radio service. Its recommendations are a blend of algorithms and human, musicological analysis examining up to 450 song attributes – the so-called Music Genome Project on which Pandora is built. They don’t display many similar artists publicly, but credit to them for surfacing The Flying Burrito Brothers among the five listed for Romano.

Pandora_alt_mirrorUnable to make a direct comparison with the all-you-can-eat services, I decided simply to listen to Willie Nelson radio for a couple of hours and see what artists came up, and how their release spans compared. The similar artists rotated were all heritage acts – Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, The Highwaymen, Kris Kristofferson etc., with an average release span of 1971 to 2010. Not much hope for Daniel Romano there.

(Note that I was listening to Pandora on the web, which as far as I can tell doesn’t have a ‘fine tune’ functionality, as some internet radio services do, allowing the user to adjust the familiarity level of their chosen station. Note also that, as with my previous radio comparison, I elected not to skip or ‘thumb’ any tracks.)

None of the foregoing is intended to be a dig at any particular service, just serve as an illustration of the peculiar challenge of surfacing New Music That Sounds Like Old Music. And it’s a problem, I think, that streaming services could profitably spend time trying to solve. The debate over whether streaming – and in particular internet radio – is promotional or substitutional rages on.

Pandora commissioned a study on precisely this last year, hoping that proof of the ‘Pandora Effect’ would positively impact the statutory rate it pays to SoundExchange for recordings. With global ambitions and thawing relationships with repertoire owners, I can’t help thinking Pandora and services like it would benefit from being able to demonstrate a promotional effect not just for heritage artists, but for new ones that sound like them too.

Put another way, is internet radio doing everything it can to help Daniel Romano find his audience? As a streaming evangelist I’m optimistic about the possibilities for new artists. But as a fan I don’t yet feel confident enough to hand the discovery reins completely to my streaming providers. I won’t be giving up ‘old’ radio, the music press, or my Facebook inbox any time soon.

Read a post-script to this piece: Popularity Contest: New Music That Sounds Like Old Music II.

It’s Beginning To Sound A Lot Less Like Christmas …

We’re all familiar with the banality of evil (shout out to my Hannah Arendt crew!), but less well known perhaps is the ‘evil of banality’. An example of this might be starting a blog with the observation that Christmas seems to come earlier every year, and calling it: “It’s Beginning To Sound A Lot Like Christmas”.

Thankfully for me, for weak puns, and for the sanity of listeners everywhere, Christmas actually seems to be arriving later, musically speaking, and apparently we have streaming to thank for that – or data anyway.

Over the years I’ve managed Christmas music programming for radio, TV and streaming, and it’s fascinating to note how the differing levels of listening data for each lead to strikingly variant levels of sanity with respect to when Christmas actually begins.

MTV xmasMy tenure as Head of Music at MTV spanned three holidays. The custom, when I took over the music programming team in 2006, was to start playing Christmas videos around mid-November. Another fun, seasonal tradition was an unspoken battle of wills with our main competitor, Bauer TV (owners of Magic, Smash Hits, 4Music, Kiss TV and others), as to who would cave first and go full-blown festive across the board.

That first year, Bauer went a week early and trounced us in the ratings. I had come from Radio 1, where playing Christmas songs before December was considered a cardinal sin, but I soon learned my TV lesson and brought Christmas forward yet another week the following year, turning the tables on Bauer and enjoying a week of seasonally boosted BARB.

In the third year, going yet another week early would have meant playing Christmas videos in late October. We considered it (we really did), but in the end I put my foot down, insisting that playing ‘Last Christmas’ before Halloween was getting a tiny bit ridiculous.

That was a mistake. Bauer went before us – yes, in the last week of October – and their ratings went through the roof. If you’ve ever wondered why Christmas music seems to creep forward every year, it’s because it works.

Another name for BARB ratings in TV-world is ‘overnights’, so called because they are measured electronically and updated overnight. Coming from radio, which in the UK measures itself using the quarterly diary method, the frequency and accuracy of overnight ratings were a blessing and a curse.

A blessing because finding out each morning how the previous day’s programming performed meant being able to make schedule adjustments on the fly. VH1 Classic down this week? No problem! More power ballads. A curse because knee-jerk reactions were common. New host not performing? Get rid.


UK radio, by contrast, finds out how its Christmas programming went down some time the following spring, which is to say it never really finds out at all – things have moved on by then. Faced with a comparative lack of data, sanity seemed to prevail somewhat.

At Radio 1 we would rotate a smattering of Christmas music in early December and then gradually ramp things up over the course of the month until Christmas Day, which would be almost entirely seasonal music. On Boxing Day, Christmas died.

hickey-feature-christmassongs-1sub (1)Things are different in the US, where radio ‘flips the switch’ much earlier as a rule and where, interestingly, PPM measurement more closely resembles BARB. This excellent Five Thirty Eight article and the graph to the right show just how crazy things are getting there too.

So what about streaming? Well, streaming services have one challenge that programmers for radio and TV do not – making sure people don’t hear Christmas music for about 11 months of the year. You don’t need me to tell you how loathsome it is hearing Jingle Bells piped into a department store in October; hearing it on an algorithmically programmed radio station in March is even worse.

But with respect to the start of Christmas, does even more data – the deep, granular, real-time listening analytics available to streaming services – lead to even higher levels of seasonal insanity or less? Mostly less.

At Last.fm we did a great data visualisation each year called ‘Is it Christmas yet?’ that calculated the level of actual Christmas music listening as a factor of its peak volume. (Remember Last.fm is scrobbling data from all digital music services.) Each day you could check in and see that it was 20, 30, 70 per cent Christmas, like a kind of data-driven advent calendar.

‘Is it Christmas yet?’ grew out of on a 2011 study showing that, musically speaking, Christmas seemed to be getting later and later each year. ‘50 per cent Christmas’, calculated as a 7-day rolling average of listening to the Top 10 seasonal songs and expressed as a percentage of their Christmas Eve peak, seemed to move from November 30 in 2005 to December 6 in 2011:


More recent data from Spotify For Brands – I’ve grabbed a section of their data vis. below – suggests likewise, with Christmas listening hitting ‘consistent heights’ around November 28 (for some reason the time-based graphs in their data visualisation seem to run right to left), and that ‘Last Christmas’ by Wham! is the most listened-to song during that period. We don’t, of course, know the extent to which this is affected by Christmas programming appearing in Browse.

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 19.36.31

At the time of writing (November 11), none of the major streaming services are featuring Christmas playlists in their frontline curation – nothing on Spotify, Deezer, Rdio or Apple Music, though of course Christmas music is available on-demand all year round. Last.fm, though something of a footnote in the space these days, is probably still the best reflection of actual demand for Christmas being almost completely devoid of editorial. (Not for lack of trying by me, it must be said.)

TV pushes ahead, albeit returning to somewhat saner waters than in 2008. According to its schedule, MTV is counting down to a pop-up channel called MTV Xmas, launching on November 14 and featuring wall-to-wall Christmas videos. MTV’s current head of music tells me that when it premiered in 2013, MTV Xmas delivered the channel’s highest December ratings in eight years.

All of which is a very roundabout way of saying that no data at all (as for radio) might actually be preferable to some (as for TV) and on a par with loads (as for streaming). I will say this though: linear radio doesn’t need a Spotify data vis. to discover that ‘Last Christmas’ by Wham! is the most popular Christmas song. It has known this for years.

Born Skippy: Radio That (Intentionally) Misses A Beat

“The first track we’re gonna play for you – well, you can press play on it if you want – is off the new Tame Impala album …”

Is this how radio will sound in the future? Depending on your definition of radio, it already does. That’s Jungle introducing the first track on their ‘In Residence’ playlist for Spotify, a new series that’s been referred to as the latter’s ‘own take on original, artist-driven radio’, possibly as a response to Apple’s Beats 1 live radio offering from the likes of Joshua Homme and St. Vincent.

This kind of self-referential pronouncement – “you can press play if you want” – is likely to become a more frequent feature of radio that knows itself to be non-linear, on-demand, skippable, and integrated with (nearly) all of the world’s music. Broadcast radio and streaming services edge one step closer to one another like nervous teenagers across the dance floor at a high school prom.

Sensibly Spotify appears to be launching its ‘In Residence’ series quietly, having elected to put up the first four ‘shows’ in the series – Jungle are joined by Steve Jones, Big Narstie and Tonga – without fanfare. It’s an interesting approach to the human touch conundrum that streaming services increasingly find themselves competing around, and of course it’s nothing new.

Slacker John LegendSlacker Radio has been doing hosted, skippable radio for years, and they’ve gotten pretty good at it. Spotify’s ‘In Residence’ series is essentially Slacker’s ‘I Am The DJ’ franchise by another name and, as Annika Walsh points out, Blinkbox (then We7) was doing similar stuff back in 2011.

But it goes back much further than that. This type of hosted playlist – essentially presenter links (or breaks, as US readers know them) recorded in isolation and assembled between songs – is much closer to linear radio than you might think. Since at least the 1970s, FM radio has leaned on ‘voice-tracking’, in which a host records links that are then played out in sequence by a studio automation system, as a cost-cutting measure.

Making radio this way means you can pre-record a 3-hour show in less than 20 minutes, allowing cash-strapped stations to do more with less. If you listen to local commercial radio, where the breakfast show host is very likely the head of music as well as the programme director, there’s a good chance that much of what you’re hearing is voice-tracked. It’s not pretty, but sometimes needs must.

It’s this space that streaming services are moving into. By inviting the listener to press play ‘if you want to’ (or, as I heard Jungle say about a Loyle Carner track in a later link, “it’s not on Spotify unfortunately but check it out”), hosted playlists are arguably more honest than voice-tracked linear radio.

Josh-Homme-Beats-1-Radio-560x560Apple has taken the fully ‘live’ approach to the human touch in the form of Beats 1, but even they don’t pretend that every single show is truly live, repeating each of Zane Lowe, Ebro Darden and Julie Adenuga’s shows once per day.

And when you’re broadcasting globally across multiple time zones, as Beats 1 is, just how important is it to be truly live? When traditional radio dayparts – breakfast, drive, overnights and so on – no longer apply, it’s impossible to create time-specific features like ‘sunset moments’ or wake-up songs that weave themselves into the life of the listener.

So Spotify doesn’t try, at least not in its hosted output, leaving its ‘Now’ feature to supply the time- and context-specific stuff that traditional radio does so well. For now it appears content to add the human element only at the discovery end of spectrum – as Beats 1 does, being an almost 100% unfamiliar listen by traditional radio standards. Whether we eventually hear presenters announcing Spotify’s ‘Global Top 50’ – or a more musically familiar Beats 2 from Apple perhaps – remains to be seen.

But what about the response from traditional radio? We’re already seeing the first stirrings of interactivity from some broadcast quarters. The BBC has announced its ambitions to enter the streaming space by offering a Pandora-style evolution to its Playlister product, and ‘skippability’ – to judge by the number of times it comes up in conversation with my own broadcast clients at least – is increasingly on the agenda.

Recast+fmLabs.fm, a Cape Town-based radio technology incubator I have an advisory role with, is already working with broadcasters and streaming services to bring skippability to the linear listening experience using its Recast technology. And if the rumours of hastily negotiated label licensing terms are true, Global plans to launch something similar – an app offering a live radio experience with skips – this very week.

Update: Global have now launched a new app for Capital Xtra which, as rumoured, features skippable linear radio. It’s pretty nifty – here’s a video:

It might be a while before we hear Radio X’s Chris Moyles announcing: “This is the new Mumfords tune; we love it, but if you’re not a fan just skip it and we’ll see you back here in a few minutes”; but that appears to be the direction of travel, and there are smart people working hard on making it a reality. The likelihood is, given that there’s no presenter ego to get past, that we’ll see this kind of functionality on non-hosted, era-based digital channels like Absolute’s ‘decades’ stations first.

But why would linear radio want listeners to skip songs? Surely, having invested all that time and effort curating such delightful sweeps of music, letting people hit ‘skip’ demonstrates a lack of confidence in their own programming? Well, perhaps, but currently the broadcast radio listener has two options when they hear a song they don’t like – put up with it or tune out. A skip functionality holds the listener for longer, allowing stations to serve up more of their own content, branding and – of course – advertising.

And all that skip data adds up to valuable analytics that can feed back into a linear programming strategy. Capital Xtra’s head of music now has a valuable tool that other stations don’t have: for every track in their library they will know how often, where in the song (duration-wise) and when in the song’s life-cycle people are skipping. Having seen the skip analytics behind Recast, I can tell you – as a former head of music myself – that it’s powerful information, making traditional research music research look like a blunt tool by comparison.

So streaming services have interactivity nailed and are making progress with human curation. Radio on the other hand has had the ‘human’ part down for decades and is making strides in interactivity. It makes for a pretty crowded and angst-ridden dancefloor, as if the band could stop playing at any minute before planting that first kiss. But I for one – working on both sides of it – am enjoying playing match-maker in the mean time.

*Thanks to Spotify’s Matt Ogle for the snappy title.

The Plague of Plagiarism

It’s a strange feeling to read someone else’s work and recognise it as your own. I’ve never been burgled, but friends that have describe the sense of violation as being worse than the loss of property. As of yesterday, I think I know how they feel.

A friend in the industry posted an article about programming new music for broadcast radio. I hadn’t heard of the author, a US-based consultant named Tracy Johnson, but followed the link because music discovery – as many of you that read my articles or attend conferences I speak at will know – is an area I’m very focused on. I like to stay up to date by reading as much commentary as possible.

Tracy has an impressive website, appears to run a small team of consultants, and has a few books in the market about personality radio. By contrast, I’m a one-man operation, have only written one book to date, and focus exclusively on music radio – broadcast and webcast, linear and personalised. But essentially we’re both in the same business – radio consultancy.

So it was pretty galling to read Tracy’s post, entitled “Programmers: Find The Right Rotation for New Music on Your Station”, and recognise not just the ideas, but much of the phrasing, as having been lifted wholesale from an article I wrote in February called After Zane Lowe: Five More Things Internet Radio Should Steal From Broadcast.

For example, this cluster of sentences in Tracy’s piece:

“Music discovery, meaning those people actively seeking new music on the radio, is in the minority. It’s not mainstream. It’s niche.”

Obviously derives from this sentence in my Zane Lowe article:

“Music discovery, by which I mean people actively seeking out new music, is a niche pastime almost by definition.”

And this, from Tracy’s blog:

“Mainstream audiences – you know, those listeners that deliver more quarter hours, higher ratings and increased ad revenues – know what they like, and they like what they know.”

Clearly comes from this sentence in mine:

“Mainstream audiences – which is to say large audiences, the kind that deliver advertising dollars worth writing home about – know what they like, and they like what they know.”

And, not to get boring about it:

“The challenge is to play the hits and keep your station sounding fresh and exciting.”

Has been lifted from my work:

“The challenge for the radio programmer is keeping your output sounding fresh whilst grappling with this rather inconvenient but unavoidable fact [that mainstream listeners like what they know].”

I’m sure you get the point by now. I receive no credit or attribution in Tracy’s article. Tracy does present other ideas about music discovery in his piece, many of which I agree with, but given the provenance of the work cited above, one has to wonder where Tracy’s other ideas come from.

Because that’s what it’s about in the end – ideas. As radio consultants, they’re a huge part of what we have to offer prospective clients. They’re our calling cards. I share some of my ideas in writing or at conferences in the hope of demonstrating to potential clients that “there’s plenty more where that came from”.

So when someone steals them, it feels like they’re stealing – or trying to steal – your business. I think that’s pretty underhanded, and I think you owe me an apology Tracy. Twitter is probably the best place for that.

Image: Brunel University

Speaking Engagements

This a rolling list of forthcoming and past speaking engagements, listed chronologically in reverse order. For video of previous talks head to the Speaking page. If you’re attending any of the events listed below, do give me a shout; always nice to make and renew connections.

29 Jan 2016: Indie-Con 2016, Glaziers Hall, London

AIM’s Indie-Con returns to take an in-depth look at all the key areas essential for running a successful independent music business.

I’ll be on a panel with Radio 1’s Head of Programmes Rhys Hughes, Radio X Head of Music Mike Walsh and more to discuss What’s Next For Radio?

7 Dec 2015: List For Life – What Next For Playlists? 6 – 9pm, Reed Smith, London

Sponsored by 7Digital, a Music Ally event about the growing importance of playlists in the streaming music market, and what that means for labels, artists and the industry.

I’ll be joining a panel with 7Digital’s Pete Downton, Cooking Vinyl’s Sammy Andrews and others to get to grips with the future of streaming curation.

12 Nov 2015: Music Futures 2015, Sage Gateshead

“Now in its fifth year, the Music Futures conference has developed a reputation as one of the most forward thinking and trend forecasting industry events in the UK.” 

Joined by the BBC’s Joe Harland, 7Digital CEO Simon Cole, Folded Wing founder Karen Pearson and one more guest TBC, I’ll be moderating a panel called The Rebirth of Radio.

9 Nov 2015: RAIN Summit Europe, Royal Institution, London

“RAIN Summit Europe is the largest meet-up of Internet radio and online audio professionals. Hosted by RAIN News Founder Kurt Hanson and CEO Jennifer Lane, RAIN Summits are the premiere educational and networking conferences for the digital audio industry.”

Presentation topic: The Discipline of Innovation – Better Music & Radio Ideas Every Day.

29 Sept – 1 Oct 2015: 2015 Public Radio Programming Conference, Pittsburgh.

“The 2015 PRPD Public Radio Programming Conference will do more than any other single conference to grow your knowledge, experience and success in radio.”

As ‘resident scholar’ (a title I could get used to), I’ll be bookending this year’s revitalised PRPD conference with talks entitled Better Ideas Every Day: Turn Your Station into a Creative Powerhouse and Collision Course Radio.

Photo: Rich Orris

Is Apple About to Teach Us the True Monetary Value of Music?

How much is one listen, of one song, by one pair of ears actually worth? It’s a debate that’s raged in one form or another for years. Whether it’s the huge disparity in per-stream rates paid to repertoire owners by streaming services, the challenge of computing Album Equivalent Sales in a chart that now includes streams, or Pandora’s legal wrangling over broadcast vs. internet radio royalties, it has always been notoriously difficult to establish a level playing field. How many streams equal one radio play? Or one download? What role does context play?

Well, now there’s an app for that. Announced on Monday, Apple Music is a streaming service, radio station (called Beats 1) and download store (iTunes) in one, all operated by a single, very powerful player. It is, as Trent Reznor describes it using language probably best left in the boardroom, “One complete thought around music”:

The announcement that Apple is entering linear radio, broadcasting globally 24 hours a day over the net in the form of Zane Lowe-fronted Beats 1, as well as getting into streaming with the launch of Apple Music, is the first time revenues from radio, streaming and downloads have all landed on the same balance sheet.

It’s also the first time linear radio has gone ‘full IP’, at least by a major player, and as such it represents a revolution in the measurability of radio listening. UK broadcast radio still measures itself using RAJAR’s outmoded diary method – the best defence of which usually runs along the lines of ‘imperfect, but imperfect for everybody’ – and Nielsen’s PPM (Portable People Meter) methodology, though slightly less dark ages, has done little to calm debate about radio ratings bias in the US.

Beats 1 Listen NowAvailable for free to iPhone and iPad users when it launches on June 30, Beats 1 radio will generate the kind of listening data that true broadcast radio can only dream of. Apple will be able to measure the reach, share and time spent listening to its own radio station, on its own platforms, more accurately than RAJAR or Nielsen could ever hope to. And with no broadcast output to muddy the waters, there should be no question about how many people Beats 1 is reaching, and for how long.

Then there’s remuneration. Unlike broadcast radio, which pays royalties to collection societies that negotiate and distribute those payments on behalf of artists and songwriters, Apple has direct deals (as far as we know) across all of its three properties. For recordings at least, it negotiates with – and directly remunerates – the same repertoire owners for radio plays, streams and downloads.

So Apple will know, with a level of accuracy and granularity previously unheard of in radio, exactly how many people have heard each play of every song played on Beats 1. It will also know the number of streams those same songs receive on Apple Music. Imagine Beats 1 radio reaches an audience of 10m. Does one play of ‘Mercy’ by Muse on Beats 1, heard by 10m people, generate the same revenue as 10m individual streams on Apple Music? What’s the download equivalent? Just ask Muse.

Are we finally about to learn how many streams a radio play is worth? And whether it makes a difference if you choose to stream a song or someone else streams it for you? Is Apple Music a kind of unintentional music-and-radio-listening valuation app? Are we, in short, about to discover the true monetary value of recorded music?

Three Bites at the Apple: What Broadcast Radio Should Steal From Webcast

Gratified by the response to After Zane Lowe: Five More Things Internet Radio Should Steal From Broadcast, I figured it was about time I did a Frankee and wrote my own answer song. Literally several people wondered about my thoughts on the reverse scenario – what broadcast radio should steal from webcast – with some offering useful additional feedback along the lines of “Shorter please.” So here are three bites that broadcast radio might take at the proverbial Apple.

apple_music_ap_1 eddy cueI’ll preface all this by saying that the debate isn’t nearly as binary as the who-stole-what-from-whom headlines (admittedly my own) make it sound. The modern listener isn’t faced with a choice between broadcast radio and streaming any more than they are between radio and TV. Except that in the case of ‘old’ and ‘new’ radio, true convergence is possible – probable even. But we’ll come to that.

Ultimately, all the noise created this week by Beats 1 and Apple Music is noise about radio, and that’s incontrovertibly A Good Thing. So if you’re a member of the broadcast bellyache brigade still moaning that Pandora isn’t ‘real’ radio, or a new-world pioneer lamenting the limitations of broadcast, you’d be well advised to get over it, quickly. Your medium just became the most exciting medium on the planet, and pretty soon the end user won’t see the difference anyway:

1. Hosting music

The internet ‘stole’ music radio’s hosts. Now broadcast radio should steal music hosting from the internet.

This might seem obvious. I might just have easily have used the words ‘streaming’, ‘personalisation’ or ‘interactivity’ here, but most radio stations already stream, albeit just a ones-and-zeroes encode of an FM signal, and radio was interactive before the net was so much as a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s work stack. Hosting music – and the metadata that goes along with it – is what makes all the ‘smart’ stuff possible in the first place.

For too long broadcast radio has been shy about offering a personalised or interactive version of its programmed music output on its own platforms. That could be down to the technical limitations – obvious and undeniable – of playout systems and transmitters, or simply an unwillingness to admit that allowing people to skip songs might suggest some of them weren’t that great in the first place.

Either way, Apple has beaten ‘old’ radio into linear programming before an equivalent broadcast player (including iHeartRadio) has achieved anything resembling meaningful personalisation over – or to the side of – the airwaves.

playlisterYes, the BBC did a fabulous job with Playlister, harnessing its unparalleled editorial clout and offering audiences a powerful jumping off point for deeper discovery on Spotify, Deezer, YouTube and iTunes. But as these latter partners begin to look more and more like traditional radio in terms of editorial and functionality, the Beeb is increasingly sending listeners away to the competition.

The BBC – in fact all broadcast radio – needs to find a way into hosting; hold the listener within the walls of its beautifully cultivated (curated) garden a little longer, all the better to cross-pollinate licensed music with originated content such as sessions, Live Lounges and – why not? – interviews, podcasts and documentaries. The case for a publicly funded streaming service, especially (and ironically) in the US, where there’s no licence fee to worry about, is stronger than you might think. Should Playlister become a streaming service?

As they start to resemble radio, streaming services like Spotify and Apple are becoming distribution platforms in their own right and, as they do so, broadcast radio must wake up to the possibilities of personalising the music it licenses, just as it does the content it originates. I can see a time – and quite soon – when not offering a personalised version of BBC Radio 1 or KCRW will be as unthinkable as not having a YouTube channel or Twitter presence.

And there’s one important respect in which broadcast has the edge over streamed radio. Don’t forget that both ‘sides’ of the broadcast/webcast divide (inverted commas because there really are no sides anymore, and the divide is narrowing quickly) are playing catch up here. But broadcast radio’s problem is one of infrastructure, which can be outsourced, whereas Apple’s is one of culture, and that takes time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABeats 1 might have poached the greatest music broadcaster on the planet, but that’s a far cry from commanding the kind of trusted music discovery cred that the BBC (who seem largely to have replaced Pandora in Apple’s crosshairs) has built up over decades. Put another way, Radio 1 could – with the help of a white-label streaming provider – switch on hosting and personalisation tomorrow if it wanted. Apple can’t simply switch on a fifty-year history of taste making from DJ’s in the league of John Peel, Pete Tong, Tim Westwood, Trevor Nelson, Annie Nightingale and Jo Whiley overnight.

2. Going mobile

Much has been made lately of Radio 1’s struggle to engage young listeners, and despite incredible strides in visual – such as the station’s YouTube channel hitting a million views per day – one thing it hasn’t done in a meaningful way is capture young people’s share of ear in the place where most of that attention is directed: on mobile. In this respect it has perhaps been hampered by its duty to the wider BBC.

Granted, all BBC radio is available on the iPlayer Radio app, but burying Radio 1 inside a generic BBC offering that serves up only originated, mostly longform content has always seemed a little perverse for a service aimed so squarely at young ears. When Apple Music lands on the next update of iOS – and arrives on Android in the autumn – it will be a revealing test of how engaged young people really are with radio when you put it right under their noses.

3. Atomising non-music content

My biggest question, watching Apple’s WWDC presentations on Monday, is whether Beats 1 – the live, linear, Zane Lowe-fronted global radio station ‘broadcasting’ 24/7 from three cities – will fully integrate with the Apple Music streaming service. Can I, for example, favourite or ban a track I hear on Beats 1 to inform the recommendations I receive in Apple Music/iTunes?

One has to assume that’s an ambition, and when it happens we can start talking about true convergence of linear and personalised radio, but until then Beats 1 and Radio 1 look much the same: large music brands streaming linear radio globally from multiple locations.

slacker-logo-blackAtomising non-music content like presenter links, news and sport is what makes the interactive radio experience truly personalised, local and – importantly – shareable. Which brings us onto Slacker Radio, whose welcome note can lay claim to being the most genuine and justified of all those issued yesterday. Human curation has been part of the Slacker DNA since day one, and until Beats 1 and Apple Music fully integrate, Slacker is arguably the only service to have successfully married curation with personalisation and presenters.

Today I can listen to a hosted countdown of the 55 Greatest Rock Songs of the Century on Slacker, skip the ones I don’t care for, favourite the ones I do (with the option to turn hosts, news and sport on or off) and, with a premium subscription, dive on-demand into the catalogue of the artists I like. It’s not perfect (or linear), but if Slacker has one advantage it’s that they’ve been quietly working on the solutions to these imperfections for longer than most.

This is a vision that broadcast radio can – and should – be working towards. Breaking down the division between licensed and originated content opens up possibilities that broadcast radio, with its ready-made portfolio of presenters, can take advantage of. Broadcast radio has already solved curation; its next challenge is to be mobile, personalised and global.

Storytelling Through Music: Broadcast Radio’s Secret Weapon

What can broadcast radio do that internet radio can’t? Tell stories.

Earlier this month I found myself between tenants at a flat I let in London and took the opportunity to redecorate. Staring down the wrong end of several days’ toil in an empty property, I noticed I was more appalled by the prospect of living without wi-fi than without furniture. Radio to the rescue.

Cerys in Wonderland, in which BBC 6Music’s Cerys Matthews celebrates the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s most famous work, came on just as I began the grim task, perched on top of a tottering step ladder, of ‘cutting in’ under the intricate cornice of a high-ceilinged bedroom. The music, ranging from Villagers to Marvin Gaye, Bowie to boss reggae, was inspired by – and interspersed with readings from – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Cerys P

It was three of the most absorbing hours of radio I have ever heard, impeccably programmed and transporting in a way that only broadcast radio can be. As I applied a second coat of Eau de Nil under the coving the following day, every brushstroke and indent teleported me back to Wonderland in the precise location I had been the previous day; Bobby Darin around the chimney breast, Horace Silver into an especially fiddly corner above the skirting board.

You must have experienced something like this. Perhaps you’ve made the same car journey twice in succession and found yourself retracing a radio show rather than a road. Or telling someone about a great programme you heard and being transported back to your precise location when it came on. Something about the narrative of broadcast radio, especially when accompanied by an actual journey (road or coving), offers the opportunity of losing yourself in it in a way that internet radio never could.

I find that it doesn’t happen with music alone, be that an album or a playlist, unless perhaps it’s a playlist specifically created for a specific journey. Is it the linearity of radio or the fact that it’s broadcast? Or presented? Or the fact that it’s a shared experience as well as a ‘live’ one? Whatever the reason, storytelling of this kind is hard to replicate online.

Slacker Radio’s exslackercellent jocked stations are probably leading the charge bringing some of broadcast radio’s intimacy to the web, offering US and Canadian listeners a taste of what Apple Music might be planning with the producers it poached from the BBC (and elsewhere in UK commercial radio, if the rumours are true).

But combining personalisation and on-demand with storytelling and narrative is tough. By offering audiences the opportunity to skip content, that content must by definition be packaged and atomised into units that invite you to lean forward, not back. Much as I loved Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks’ 66 Pretty Much Perfect Songs, I want to hear them uninterrupted by the silence that accompanies the loading of tracks and presenter links. And there’s a tension there: if you’re so sure they’re perfect, why let me skip them?

It seems to me that as broadcast radio increasingly finds its audiences – and its presenters – being targeted by tech giants with deep pockets, it would do well to remember that musical storytelling could well be its secret weapon.

At the time of writing there are 15 days left to listen to Cerys in Wonderland. Have a listen, and hit me up on Twitter if you have any thoughts.

Who Owns the Editorial Voice on Spotify?

Intrigued by Spotify’s quiet trumpeting of its hit-making credentials lately (chiefly Meghan Trainor and Mr. Probz), and also by the relatively new phenomenon of major record labels curating their own music directly on streaming services, I wanted to take a look at the extent to which repertoire owners can themselves affect consumption on the platforms they either part-own or license.

Since playlists are no respecters of international borders, it’s possible – as Trainor and Probz have shown – to smuggle hits between territories and, in Meghan’s case, to chart on the strength of streams alone. Theoretically, if you can strategically drop a track into enough playlists with enough followers, you might have the beginnings of a hit on your hands. Record labels know this of course, and we’re even now seeing the rise of independent promotions companies plugging the curators of influential playlists.

What follows is the more detailed analysis referred to in my Music Ally piece Jay-Z and the Turning Freemium Tide: Can Creators Be Curators. If you haven’t read Part 1, it’s worth heading there first for context, and then jumping back in here for the detail.

Topsify LogoLet’s start by taking a look at the relative size of the major labels’ Spotify followings. We need here to draw a distinction between following a profile on Spotify and following a playlist. For example, the main Topsify profile has 636k followers, while its biggest playlist – Topsify UK Top 40 – boasts 585k followers.

Starting with a comparison of profile followers:

Sony’s curation brand Filtr has 3.6m followers globally across 48 profiles, the vast majority of which are localised by country, but a handful of which relate to catalogue type (e.g. Filtr Legacy) or playlist theme type (e.g Filtr Workout). Add to that a further 285k followers to profiles branded either Sony or sub-labels such as Columbia, RCA and Epic, and in total that’s about 3.9m Sony/Filtr profile followers.

Digster LogoUniversal’s curation brand Digster counts 1.9m profile followers across 30 sub-brands, all of which are local territories. Universal also boasts an impressive 700k profile followers to its various Universal-branded territories and sub-label profiles like Polydor, Island, Def Jam etc., by far the biggest being Capitol with 285k followers. In all that’s about 2.6m Universal/Digster profile followers.

Warner Music, being the relative newcomer to own-brand curation, owns Topsify, which along with Playlists.net numbers just over 1m profile followers across 24 territories. Add to that a further 200k followers to playlists branded either Warner, Atlantic, Parlophone etc., and you have about 1.2m Warner/Topsify profile followers.

Looking now at playlist followers, the most effective metric is to compare the top 10 most-followed playlists by brand:

Major Label Curation Brands 2

Sony’s top 10 most-followed Filtr playlists have a total of 2.6m followers globally, ranging from 600k followers for Top of the Charts down to 130k at the bottom for Dancefloor Hits. On average, 72% per cent of the tracks in Filtr’s top 5 playlists are Sony repertoire.

Universal’s top 10 most-followed Digster playlists total 2.3m followers globally, ranging from 280k followers for Hits down to 166k for Digster Hits NU. On average, 71% per cent of the tracks in the Digster’s top 5 playlists are UMG repertoire.

Warner’s most-followed Topsify playlists attract a total of 1.6m followers globally, ranging from the Topsify UK Top 40 with 585k followers down to Love Songs on 44k. On average, 56% per cent of the tracks in Topsify’s top 5 playlists are Warner repertoire.

filtr-logo-badgeSo it looks as though Sony/Filtr is the market leader for both profile and playlist followers on Spotify.

However, all of this needs to be understood in the context of the wider Spotify editorial voice, which dwarfs that of the label-owned curation brands.

Of the Top 100 most-followed playlists in Browse, only five are curated by Digster, Filtr or Topsify*. Compare that with eight playlists in the Top 100 curated by Spotify users, albeit occupying the bottom half of the league table for the most part. Only one artist playlist, Armin Van Buuren’s State of Trance Radio, makes the Top 100, one is by BBC Playlister, and all the rest are curated by Spotify.

The biggest of the label-curated playlists, Top of the Charts from Filtr US, has just under 600k followers. By way of comparison, Spotify’s own largest curated playlist, Teen Party, has 1.1m followers.

Topsify Top 50Put another way, of the 41m people following the current Top 100 curated playlists in Browse, only 2.3m are following playlists curated by major record labels. This is the closest we can get to calculating a label-owned share of editorial voice, which hovers around 5.6% currently. You might think of this as roughly equivalent to Pete Tong playing his own records on specialist Radio 1 or Communion Records having their own show on Xfm (both of which, it goes without saying, being subject to strict Ofcom guidelines around conflicts of interest and undue prominence).

Based on an estimated 15% share of ownership by the major record labels, we needn’t worry too much about a disproportionate share of editorial voice just yet. By way of comparison, slightly less than 2.3m people are following Top 100-qualifying playlists curated by individual Spotify users (5.4%), which is to say labels have no more influence over what gets played on Spotify than the people paying to use it.

[*For the purposes of this comparison I am counting only curated playlists, which is to say I have excluded auto-generated charts such as Top 100 Tracks Currently on Spotify. Also bear in mind that, as playlists turn over from one day to the next, a comparison like this can only ever be a snapshot. Lastly, remember that the 5.6% share of voice figure is based only on playlists currently showcased in Browse. Since playlist followers receive notifications of newly-added tracks regardless of whether they are editorialised or not, the labels’ respective capacity for seeding tracks will vary by track.]

What do they sound like?

Filtr: Throwback ThursdayCuration on the whole is quite poor. Almost every playlist is front-loaded with repertoire from the owning label, the rationale presumably being that even short-stay listeners will generate some revenue while they’re there. This is short-sighted in my view. Increasing session length through effective curation would generate even more revenue.

Label-curated playlists suffer from many of the same issues as artist radio – poor flow, clustering, a lack of ‘recurrent-type’ categories to drive passion etc. I’ve detailed the solutions to this at length in an earlier piece Five More Things Internet Radio Should Steal From Broadcast, and also in a follow-up analysis of artist radio, so I won’t rehash them here.

The short answer to the question ‘Who owns the editorial voice on Spotify?’ seems reassuringly to be Spotify, or at least 89% of the curation that sits inside Browse at least. The major labels’ influencing power seems to be relatively limited at this stage, and given their 15 per cent stake in Spotify there’s even an argument – assuming they get better at curation – for increasing it.

In the end it could end up being academic; the irony of the apparent push to switch off freemium is that it will likely put all playlisting features behind a paywall, which would diminish the labels’ share of voice even further.