Listomania: Justin Bieber & The Self-Perpetuating Upward Spiral

New Slang is excited to announce the publication of Part 2 in the Listomania playlist report series. Free to subscribersJustin Bieber and the Self-Perpetuating Upward Spiral follows Part 1 – Winners & Losers in the Battle for Spotify Playlist Supremacy – published last week.

listomania-2What might sound like a canny commercial tie-up by Scooter Braun and JK Rowling is in fact a forensic and far-reaching examination of the underlying causes of the music industry ‘One Per Cent’ – in particular how a mutually reinforcing interplay of streamed and radio playlists weights dramatically in favour of superstar artists. (When you subscribe to New Slang, Listomania Part 1 will be sent to you automatically. Part 2 will be sent on shortly afterwards.)

Findings include:

1. The initial sales and airplay success of Bieber’s album track Love Yourself can be largely attributed to a mathematical streaming quirk in its early life on Spotify.

2. By some margin, the most playlisted artist on Spotify-curated playlists currently is also Justin Bieber, with more than twice the number of total playlist appearances than the number two act Ed Sheeran.

Listomania-Justin-Bieber-Self-Perpetuating-Upward-Spiral3. In a mutually reinforcing interplay of streamed and broadcast music media, Justin Bieber’s current ownership of the UK and US charts is both a cause and an effect of his Spotify playlist dominance.

4. Of the most featured artists on Spotify-curated playlists, Universal claims the lion’s share of repertoire with 12 acts in the Top 20, followed by Sony on 4 and Warner on 3. XL (Adele) is the only indie label in the Top 20.

5. Owing to the colossal power of streaming playlists, combined with a host of external factors such as ‘on-air/on-sale’ and streaming chart eligibility, radio is increasingly lagging behind in the hit-maker power stakes.

Part 1 in the Listomania series – Winners & Losers in the Battle for Spotify Playlist Supremacy – is available for free here.

Sharing Music: Rewind & Fast Forward

I really wanted the featured image for this post to be one of the hundreds of mixtapes I made for friends throughout the eighties and nineties. But of course those tapes are all in their bins collections now, not mine, so what you see above is an hour-and-a-half of “Top Rockin’ Choons” from my friend Ted in (I think) the early nineties, when I was feeling starved of new UK music at university in Germany.

Live Fast Die Young: Misadventures in Rock & Roll AmericaSharing music has been a part of my life for so long I can’t really remember not doing it. Aside from being the glue that holds together all of my most important relationships, it has been central to every job I have ever taken, from record label marketing and distribution roles to radio programming and editorial for streaming services, as well as to the formation of my own music strategy consultancy New Slang. It was even the inspiration for a book I co-wrote with Joe Harland a few years back.

So when Radio 1 and 1Xtra’s Ben Cooper offered me the greatest music discovery job on the planet two weeks ago, as creative and editorial lead for the world’s most influential playlists, I considered the prospect of sharing new music with 12.5m listeners for — ooh, about no seconds at all — before biting his hand off. I start there as Head of Music in a few weeks.

It does mean I’ll be winding down New Slang for a while, possibly for good. Over the past few years I’ve had the privilege of helping shape music strategy for some of the world’s most iconic radio, TV and streaming brands; this post is a thank you to them, and to everyone who has read and shared my writing. I’m hoping to keep up the music tech commentary here and elsewhere, but I’ll probably go quiet for a while as I get my feet under the table at Radio 1.

Radio 1 Staff Photo, 2002
Radio 1 Staff Photo, 2002

This career move is a slight rewind in that I programmed Radio 1 for six years in the early noughties and made many friends there. But it’s mostly a fast-forward in that I take up the Head of Music post as radio — that most shapeshifting of all media — transforms itself beyond recognition in the streaming age. To play a part in shaping the digital future of the world’s most innovative radio stations — and get to share some amazing new music along the way — is both a personal and professional highpoint.

Onward!

List & Shout: Beatles vs. Bieber

In case it had somehow escaped your notice, The Beatles are streaming. After a bumper-but-bumpy year in which high-profile holdouts such as Adele and Taylor have threatened to take the wind out of streaming’s sails, endorsement by the world’s most famous band was just the vote of confidence it needed.

As I clicked on the Beatles banner emblazoned across Spotify this morning, eager to stream Revolver through my Sonos speakers for the first time, one thing struck me more than anything. At the top of the dedicated Beatles page sitting behind it, it’s Spotify’s own curated playlists, not those thirteen cosmos-transforming studio albums, that feature most prominently.

‘Come Together’ is ‘The best of The Beatles, all in one playlist’. ‘The Long & Winding Road’ tells the story of the band’s journey from playing small clubs through to Beatlemania. ‘Twist & Shout’ is ‘the ultimate Beatles party playlist’. Scroll down from here to ‘Share A Song’, and then down some more – we’re below the line now – for the albums. Playlists, social, albums – in that order.

Screen Shot 2015-12-24 at 14.35.46

I’ve written at length about this apparently unstoppable new unit of consumption. I’ve spoken on more panels than I can remember this year about whether playlists will kill the album, or radio, or both. Spotify downgrading The Beatles’ albums below their own take on the music – admittedly an exciting new way to (re)discover it – speaks more volumes than there are Beatles albums.

In Listomania, a series of white papers published this week about the power of the playlist (get your free copy here), I noted that the most featured artist on Spotify-curated playlists currently is Justin Bieber – and by a country mile, with twice as many features as the number two most-playlisted act Ed Sheeran. Bieber had a ‘Playlist Feature Count’ (PFC) of 616. Sheeran’s was 299.

He’s just been toppled from his throne. As of this morning, The Beatles’ PFC (defined as ‘the total number of times all tracks by this artist appear across all Spotify-curated playlists’) is 633. Bieber has been reduced to 420, with Coldplay coming third on 241. The most playlisted Beatles song today is Norwegian Wood, featuring on 10 playlists. A total of 277 Beatles songs have been included in Spotify-curated lists.

Most featured Beatles songs on Spotify-curated playlists:

  1. Norwegian Wood
  2. Ticket To Ride
  3. Yesterday
  4. Hard Day’s Night
  5. You’ve Got To hide Your Love Away

Including the ‘red and blue’ collections, Past Masters Vols. 1 and 2 and the ‘1’ anthology, there are a total of seventeen ‘studio’ albums on Spotify. Contrast that with eleven Beatles-only playlists so far created under the main Spotify profile, and a further 277 Beatles songs added to a total of 633 playlists, and the direction of travel is clear.

We know from research carried out by Universal that fewer than 10% of free users on Spotify listen to complete albums. But if we needed a further reminder that playlists are fast outpacing albums as the default mode of digital music consumption – and of streaming’s pivotal role in bringing that about – then Spotify’s demotion below playlists of arguably the most famous album collection in the world would be it.

Listomania: Winners & Losers in the Battle for Spotify Playlist Supremacy and Justin Bieber & The Self-Perpetuating Upward Spiral are available free here. Thanks as always to Labs.fm’s Rich Oakley for his help pulling the data.

Listomania: Winners & Losers in the Battle for Playlist Supremacy

New Slang is excited to announce the publication of an important new report. Free to subscribersListomania: Winners & Losers in the Battle for Spotify Playlist Supremacy is the first in a series of two powerful and broad-ranging white papers on streaming playlist strategy.

BACK listomania-Winners-Losers-Battle-Spotify-Playlist-SupremacyListomania examines, down to the level of the artist and curator, the winners and losers in the battle for playlist pre-eminence on the world’s most popular streaming service; what Spotify’s most powerful curators are doing to influence outcomes; and the impact of those strategies in the wider music ecosystem. It is the most comprehensive attempt so far to quantify the growing influence of the streaming playlist. Subscribe to New Slang to receive your free copy.

Key findings include:

1. In a mutually reinforcing interplay of streamed and broadcast music media, Justin Bieber’s current ownership of the UK and US charts is both a cause and effect of his Spotify playlist dominance.

2. Owing to the colossal power of streaming playlists, combined with a host of external factors such as ‘on-air/on-sale’ and streaming chart eligibility, radio is increasingly lagging behind in the hit-maker power stakes.

Listomania Page 103. Of the most featured artists on Spotify-curated playlists, Universal claims the lion’s share of repertoire with 12 acts in the Top 20, followed by Sony on 4 and Warner on 3. XL (Adele) is the only indie label in the Top 20.

4. Looking at the main curation brands on the service, Spotify commands approximately 97% of playlist impact by feature and follower count, with label-owned Digster/HITS on 1.5%, Filtr on 0.8% and Topsify on 0.2%.

5. The major label-owned curation brands have strikingly different strategies with regard to playlist turnover, as well as to weighting for genre, own vs. other-label repertoire, and new vs. heritage acts.

Look out for part two in the Listomania series, Justin Bieber & The Self-Perpetuating Upward Spiral, a forensic and far-reaching examination of the music industry ‘One Per Cent’ (including Love Yourself and the Curious Case of the Accidental Hit), which will also be published here soon.

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 the release era of their related artists averages 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 17, 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, including a response from Daniel Romano’s PR: 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.

wham-last-christmas--1340295600-article-0

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:

Last_fm_is_christmas_getting_later

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 going to any of the events listed below, give me a shout; always nice to make and renew connections. Photo: Rich Orris

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 others tbc 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.