Creators vs. Curators: Who Are The Real Hit Makers in 2015?

Recent events, not least the announcement that Radio 1 will move the Official Chart to Friday night, have had me pondering the question of who the real hit makers are in 2015, and in particular the effect that an apparently turning freemium tide might have on the major players in streaming and radio.

Late last year at the Music Futures conference in Gateshead I chaired a panel entitled Playlists vs. The Album about the diminishing interest in bodies of work from individual artists compared with the rising popularity of pick-and-mix playlists.

Meghan-Trainor_All-About-That-Bass_video-snapWhat seemed like a fairly open-and-shut session – there are about 1.5m albums on Spotify and 1.5bn playlists, for example – had come about largely in response to a minor Twitterstorm whipped up by one of its panellists, Radio 1’s head of music George Ergatoudis, who earlier that year had declared the album close to extinction. The balance of power seemed to be shifting from creators to curators.

A month later I attended the BBC’s On The Beat conference, where Spotify’s director of economics Will Page gave a fascinating presentation entitled The Anatomy of a Hit, comparing the differing growth curves of Meghan Trainor’s All About That Bass in the US versus the UK.

Anatomy of a Hit – Meghan Trainor (Spotify)

His central point – that in an age of instant gratification, windowing represents a risk of demand going unmet by supply – seemed less important, to this ex-broadcast guy anyway, than the fact that radio airplay peaks last after Shazam tags, streams and downloads. That’s a major shift from the established hit-making dynamic. Since early uptake for All About That Bass arose from its curated Browse playlists, one has to ask: is Spotify becoming a hit maker?

Then last week I found myself moderating another panel – this time on ‘Fifty Years of DJ Culture’ – for Mixcloud’s conference series at Convergence Festival in London. In a wide-ranging conversation taking in the shifting artistry, technology and geography of DJ culture, one thing seemed certain: in a world where neither owning records nor being able to mix are considered prerequisites for success as a DJ, all roads lead back to the one thing technology can’t replicate: curation.

filtr-logo-badgeNone of this is news to the tech giants of course. Google paid a rumoured $39m for human recommendation service Songza last year, and Apple has just snapped up king-of-curators Zane Lowe. Nor is it news to the labels. Universal, Sony and now Warner Music all have their own ‘independent’ curation brands – in Digster, Filtr and Topsify respectively – sitting on Spotify and Deezer.

So Wired editor Kevin Kelly has been proved right. In his seminal 2008 piece Better Than Free, he noted that since the internet is essentially a giant copying machine, those copies are rendered worthless by increasing abundance. Kelly predicted the subsequent rise of what he called ‘generatives’ – qualities such as trust, immediacy, personalisation, interpretation and authenticity – that can’t be replicated, and therefore increase in value relative to those worthless copies.

Looked at in this context, curation is more than just a solution to the tyranny of choice, it’s a kind of ‘super-generative’ ticking almost every box on that checklist of value-driving qualities above. For music recommendation Zane Lowe embodies trust, immediacy, authenticity and interpretation; no wonder Apple poached him. The gravitational pull of the people and products that exemplify these qualities is understandable and, for Wired readers at least, nothing new.

What is new is the number and nature of the players now muscling in on the curation game, and the extent to which all parties can influence the value chain right down to the point of consumption. It used to be that labels did the creating, while publishers – in the broadest sense of radio, TV and press – did the curating. And that worked very well for a long time.

digster 3Now all that has changed. Radio stations have been originating music content since at least the mid-nineties – Global Radio’s publishing and management arms being the most obvious UK example – and, in the form of Digster, Filtr et al, now record labels are curating it. The question is whether it’s possible to be good at both, and the extent to which being a content creator compromises your ability to curate, and vice versa.

The labels own about 15 per cent of Spotify, but do they control more than 15 per cent of its editorial voice? How well do they do editorial anyway? In Part 2 you’ll find an in-depth analysis of the major-label curation brands’ share of voice on Spotify.

‘On-air/on sale’, where tracks are released for download and streaming as soon as they are serviced to radio, was a turning point in this shifting dynamic. UK radio was largely behind the change in 2011, as was MTV, and as ammunition in the fight against piracy it was hard to argue with.

But even at a time when streaming services were viewed more as retail – that is, as a threat to à la carte or bricks and mortar rather than to broadcast radio – I could never shake the nagging feeling that radio was sleepwalking away from the de facto six-week exclusive it had enjoyed for decades. As streaming services start to take on more of the features of broadcast radio, the latter’s early enthusiasm for on-air/on sale is starting to look like folly.

BBC Playlister

Likewise the BBC’s fabulous Playlister service, which allows audiences to tag tracks to a playlist later exported to Spotify, Deezer, YouTube or iTunes, probably needs to evolve. As with iPlayer, only the BBC could build a service simultaneously so market-fair and editorially effective – we should be thankful for their ingenuity. But increasingly it seems like the Beeb is sending audiences away to the competition.

As Will Page pointed out in his presentation, when the traditional ‘label to radio to retail’ supply chain is disrupted by services like Spotify and Playlister, it starts to resemble a circular cell reference in an Excel spreadsheet, with radio DJs driving consumption, which drives chart positions, which in turn drive consumption, which drives airplay. The same might be said of Shazam, which these days is both a reflection and a driver of editorial decision-making.

SpotifyFor now it seems Spotify’s hit-making capabilities are limited to trafficking home-grown hits between territories, be that Meghan Trainor from the US to the UK or Mr. Probz in the other direction. Whether, through its curated Browse playlists, it can rise to the ranks of true hit maker depends on scale. And that depends on having a free tier.

If we are seeing the beginning of the end for freemium, that’s probably a good thing, editorially speaking, for broadcast radio and radio-like services such as Pandora, Blinkbox Music and MixRadio, whose music selections (and selectors) increase in value just as Kevin Kelly’s generative theory predicted.

A world in which programmed music is free and on-demand consumption is not – one in which playlisting features presumably remain behind a paywall – is one that starts to look a lot more like the ‘old world’ hit-making dynamic where creators create and curators curate. And given the labels’ track record curating their own content, that might not be such a bad thing for audiences either.

For a more in-depth analysis of the major labels’ share and tone of voice on Spotify, head to my website New Slang Media for Part 2 of this article.

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 Creators vs. Curators: Who Are The Hit Makers in 2015?. 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.

Genesis of a Radio Masterpiece

Emotional scenes on the 8th floor of Broadcasting House last night for Zane Lowe’s last ever show on BBC Radio 1. Every producer he worked with over twelve years at the station came back to the studio to be part of it, each bringing a handful of their biggest tunes from their time on the show, programmed by Zane on the fly according to the mood in the room. Zane himself brought precisely one record with him – A Song For The Dead by Queens of the Stoneage, his last ever on Radio 1. The selection policy was a powerful reminder that, fearless and peerless broadcaster though Zane is, quality music radio is always a product of many great minds, and many of the greatest were in the room last night.

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Chris on the banks of Wolf River. Memphis, Tennessee

It had me reminiscing about the birth of Zane’s ‘Masterpieces’ series, which had taken place on the banks of Wolf River in Memphis, Tennessee. Actually ‘conception’ might be a better word – the birthing part came later after a long gestation period and with the help of an experienced midwife . I was in Memphis with Joe Harland, a preposterously talented radio exec, old friend and extraordinary human being. He’s also the man responsible for bringing Zane to Radio 1, a fact about which his seemingly infinite humility prevents him from shouting, so allow me to shout on his behalf. Joe is one of my heroes.

Memphis was the midpoint of a coast-to-coast road trip marking, among many other things, the death-a-versaries of rock and roll heroes who had lived fast and died young in America. (Though we didn’t know it at the time, that journey would later become a book, imaginatively entitled Live Fast, Die Young: Misadventures in Rock & Roll America, incidentally available in fine book stores everywhere.) Wolf River was the scene of the untimely demise in 1997 of one Scott ‘Scottie’ Moorhead, better known to his legions of fans as Jeff Buckley.

Live Fast Die Young CoverSitting there in the dank, uninviting environs of riverside industrial Memphis, we reflected on the perfectness of the only album that Buckley released during his tragically short life, Grace. In the twelve or so years since it had come out, Grace had broken my heart, fixed it and then broken it again so many times it was hard to remember a journey, relationship or break-up soundtracked by anything else. I remarked to Joe that it was a body of work so perfect you could play it front to back on national radio, uninterrupted and complete with gaps between the tracks, and it would stand up alongside even the best programmed output.

Joe’s eyes lit up in that slightly demonic way that they do when an idea is being born. “You know, that’s a great idea for a show,” he said. “That’s a fabulous idea for a show,” I said. I can’t remember, but it’s very possible we high-fived. I do recall that we marked the moment by going for a beer at Hooters, which seemed appropriate given that Jeff was, as Joe put it, such a notorious tit man*.

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The original Zane Lowe dream team: Rob Lewis, Annie Mac, Joe Harland

Back at Radio 1 we fed the idea through an enormous supercomputer known as The Colossal Brain of Rob Lewis –Rob was producing Zane by now – and out popped ‘Zane Lowe’s Masterpieces’, a unique series of specials celebrating classic albums from all eras and genres. The first half of each show examined the cultural impact of each album through in-depth interviews and archive material, while in the second half the full, unabridged album played out in its entirety, complete with gaps and no censorship.

Seven series and 28 albums later, Masterpieces represents a high watermark of creativity in music radio, having celebrated albums as diverse as Nevermind, Back To Black, Ill Communication, Original Pirate Material and Appetite For Destruction. It combines the power and intimacy of broadcast radio with the depth and breadth of the best music journalism, showing what can be achieved when creative people work together. Not only that, it breathes a new lease of life into the albums it celebrates, typically generating a sales uplift in the range of 1000%.

And of course Zane Lowe’s Masterpieces wouldn’t be what it is without the secret sauce that makes it possible in the first place – Zane Lowe. In anyone else’s hands the format would likely fall flat, but with Zane’s inimitable blend of passion, reverence and unparalleled music knowledge it truly comes alive.

I have just one tiny little gripe though, one which sadly – tragically, given Zane’s departure for iTunes – may never now be fixed. From the list of 28 classic albums given the Masterpieces seal of approval over the years, one very important one – important to me anyway – is missing: Jeff Buckley’s masterpiece Grace. #ThanksZane

*For the record Jeff wasn’t, as far as we know, a notorious tit man.

Slave To The Algorithm (Part 2): Marathon Foo Fight

What follows is the more detailed artist radio comparison on which my Music Ally piece Slave To The Algorithm (Part 1): Five More Things Internet Radio Should Steal From Broadcast was based. If you haven’t read Part 1, it’s worth heading over there first for context, and then jumping back into the detail if you want to go deeper.

This listening exercise was about eliminating confirmation bias and levelling the playing field between the services. I’ve been a heavy user and/or occasional employee of all them over the years, but laboratory conditions are essential for any comparison that claims to be fair and controlled. (For the record, Spotify was my mainstay for on-demand listening going into this exercise, Last.fm for radio. I’ll be switching to another service for radio as a result of this analysis – find out which below.)

FoosI listened to thirty songs of ‘Foo Fighters Radio’ on all the major services, thirty being roughly equivalent to two hours of broadcast radio, which is the minimum output window I would review when working with a new broadcast client.

Why Foo Fighters?

First of all I chose the genre I’m strongest in – alternative rock – in order to take some of the heavy lifting out of judging whether a general audience would consider each song familiar or unfamiliar. I chose Foo Fighters in particular for three reasons. One, they’re known to a general audience, and it’s mainstream listeners who will, in the end, decide whether smart radio emerges from the margins or remains a niche pastime outside the US. Two, I’m a fan, and when you’re staring down the wrong end of twenty hours’ similar-artist listening you need to be. And lastly, they’re an ‘in the middle’ band for their genre; there’s a good stock of popular-but-more-alternative stuff to the left of Foo Fighters, e.g. Queens of the Stoneage, but plenty of room to the right, e.g. Nickelback. I was interested to note which way each service would swing.

Methodology

The aim was to listen with a radio programmer’s ear. I was listening out for general flow, property clustering and sound clash, artist separation and some version of clock programming. Important point to note here: I made accommodations for the fact that this is (a) artist radio and (b) webcast. Internet and broadcast radio aren’t the same thing – nor should they be – and there’s little point judging the former by the more rigorous standards of the latter. For example, ‘same artist separation’ of ten positions would be considered a cardinal sin by even the most tightly programmed commercial station, but you can afford to be a little more forgiving with personalised streams. (After a few hours listening I opted to accept 8 positions’ artist separation, or 4 positions for Foo Fighters, i.e. the starter artist.)

As I would for a broadcast client, I noted every ‘event’ in the stream – songs and ads – to get a sense of structure. I considered first whether the song was popular on the service itself – in the Top 10 songs by that artist, where this information was available – in order to ascertain whether familiarity was a factor in song selection and placement. Next, I asked whether the song was a radio hit in the territory I was listening from (the UK), to get a sense of whether it would be known to a general audience.

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Then I noted whether I knew the song myself, and whether I liked it – this is personalised radio after all – before making a judgement about whether the selection and placement of that event would be considered good programming (with accommodations) by broadcast standards. This allowed me to give marks out of 30 for each service and rank them all accordingly for flow, deducting two points from the final score for poor artist range. The tables and my detailed comments for each service are available on request. 

In all cases I listened on a free tier where there is one, on a brand new account set to the UK. This was to simulate the experience, as far as possible, of someone trying out internet radio for the first time. I elected not to skip or rate the tracks, which might seem counterintuitive at first – why ignore precisely the features that make smart radio so smart? – but for this first exercise I wanted to recreate the lean-back experience of broadcast radio. Where an option existed to scale music selections between, say, ‘artist only’ and ‘adventurous’, I set this to the middle. In future analyses I’ll compare these features of each service. Note also that I concern myself here only with music flow; an in-depth look at the overall UX of each service will likewise have to wait for future reports.

Overview

The most immediately striking thing is that American services are much better at artist radio than their non-US competitors. Pandora, iHeartRadio and iTunes Radio all scored more than 20 out of 30, while the UK’s Blinkbox – recently acquired by Guvera – was the only non-US service to do so. Disappointingly, almost all played streams made up entirely of American music, the exceptions (ironically) being US services Pandora and iTunes Radio.

Fig. 1: Artist Range Comparison

Artist Range TE4

In terms of artist scope, the range was huge; the most diverse service played an impressive 27 artists over thirty songs, the least diverse a paltry nine (see Fig. 1 above). Incredibly, only Napster appeared to include Foo Fighters’ influences in its artist radio feature, making them the only service to serve up gifts like The Replacements, Dinosaur Jr. and Husker Du. Interestingly, The Pixies didn’t get played once in 22 hours of listening, despite the fact they’re listed – and linked to – in the Rovi bio that almost all services use.

None of the services appeared to have any category that resembled recurrents – any categories at all in fact – which to my mind is the real opportunity for hoisting internet radio out of the margins and into the mainstream (see number 2 of Five More Things Internet Radio Should Steal From Broadcast). Some services – Pandora, iTunes Radio, Blinkbox – were better than others at using familiarity to attract and hold listeners, but recurrents (songs which generate passion and delight the listener) were nowhere to be seen.

Delving deeper into the familiarity vs. discovery question, there was a huge range across the services. Have a look at the chart below; the green column denotes the number of songs out of 30 that are popular on the service itself, while the orange line shows how many would be known to a general rock audience. (Blinkbox, iHeart and Pandora don’t give this information, but where it was available I went with Top 10 by artist, i.e. if ‘Monkey Wrench’ is in the Foo Fighters’ Top 10, it gets a Yes for ‘Popular on Service’.)

Fig 2: Familiarity vs. Discovery

Fam vs Disc TE5

At one end of the scale you have Tidal playing almost exclusively songs that are popular on Tidal but unknown to a general rock audience. iTunes Radio on the other hand is playing songs which are both popular on iTunes and, for the most part, known to a general audience. Neither one approach is ‘better’ than the other necessarily; Tidal will be a more satisfying listen to the aficionado looking to go deeper into album tracks and less well-known songs, whereas iTunes Radio will appeal more to the mainstream listener, which is exactly where it should be. Deezer and Spotify, however, are playing songs that are neither popular on their own service nor known to a general rock audience. Fail.

Property scheduling (see point 5 of Five More Things) was pretty non-existent across the board, giving rise to frequent tempo and texture clashes, mood clustering, poor artist separation and virtually no female voices at all. But it wasn’t all bad. Two services in particular led the charge for flow, familiarity, discovery and diversity. Read on to find out who they were.

(Note: Beats Music has no artist radio feature currently and is unlikely ever to have one. When iTunes re-launches later this year, the artist radio feature will remain with iTunes Radio, while Beats – or whatever it ends up being branded – will also be integrated into iTunes as its premium-only on-demand offering.)

Artist Radio Comparison

spotify_transparent_logo (1)

A disappointing start from Spotify. Intrigued to know whether services would swing to the left of Foo Fighters (QOTSA) or to the right (Nickelback), I hadn’t anticipated a ‘down’. With the odd exception such as Smashing Pumpkins, Spotify’s entire Foo Fighters radio stream consisted of nineties modern rock dirge such as Stone Temple Pilots, Bush, Creed and Candlebox, highlighting precisely internet radio’s biggest challenge – that it’s just as easy to offend as to delight.

Foo Fighters fans – and I think I can speak for every single one of them – are probably more likely to be appalled by mainstream acts from their ‘own’ genre than by harder-edged artists from others. Put another way, The Prodigy is less likely to offend on Foo Fighters radio than Evanescence.

Developers may well retort that collaborative filtering doesn’t work if users don’t actively take part in rating content, but it doesn’t change the fact that other services, as you’ll see below, do a better job of serving up a more diverse range of artists, bigger hits and more satisfying flow with no interaction at all. Spotify was also one of only three services – the others being Rdio and Napster – to play the same song twice in the 30-song session.

Spotify did do a pretty good job of spacing ads, leaving a minimum of three songs between breaks and never playing more than one spot at a time. Songs out of the ads, however, were nearly always weak, even by the standards of Spotify’s own popularity indicator – a missed opportunity.

Spotify  12 out of 30

Rdio-Logo-Gradient

By a country mile Rdio was the least diverse in terms of artist range (see Fig 1 above), with just nine – yes, nine – artists played across thirty songs, all of them from the Creedbox Chili Pilots end of the spectrum. (UK service Blinkbox was the most diverse with 27 artists across 30 songs.) Artist separation was extremely poor as a result, with many acts additionally being locally irrelevant to the UK.

Rdio was also one of only three services – the others being Spotify and Napster – to play the same song twice during the 30-song session. It played the most ads of all the services – 13 in total; after opening with an ad-free sweep of five songs (all of them outside the Top 10 most popular by artist), the spots came in thick and fast, with some gaps being as small as one position. Playing fewer artists than ads does beg the question whether Rdio’s ‘artist radio’ feature might better be described as ‘ad radio’. Overall, a deeply unsatisfying listen. 

Rdio – 13 out of 30

Pandora_alt_mirrorBravo, Pandora! A smart radio provider unafraid to play hits – unsurprising perhaps, given that it’s a radio-first service, and Pandora’s much smaller library puts it closer to broadcast radio in terms of programming philosophy. Whatever you think of Pandora, it definitely understands radio audiences, a fact reflected by its massive user numbers.

After Blinkbox and Napster, Pandora tied with iTunes Radio for diversity, with a total of 23 artists played over 30 songs, and it was the first service of the eleven I reviewed to play non-US artists – Muse and Franz Ferdinand. What, you might ask, do these two artists – Franz especially – have in common with Foo Fighters? Importantly, they have hits, and more importantly still, Pandora played them. Play ‘Take Me Out’ by Franz Ferdinand – a band only tangentially related to Foos – over ‘Weathered’ by Creed any day. Other than these British bands though, Third Eye Temple Peppers abounded.

Pandora played only 9 ads over the 30-song session, my only complaint being a spot placed after the very first song. Songs out of ads were almost always hits (based on US chart performance as Pandora isn’t available in the UK). Barring a few quibbles over artist separation, artist radio on Pandora was an engaging listen, with a good ratio of discovery to familiarity. Impressive. 

Pandora – 27 out of 30

logo_deezerDeezer was musically much the same as Spotify, i.e. exclusively US modern rock. After opening with ‘Congregation’ by Foo Fighters we had two funereally slow and sparse ballads from QOTSA and then Smashing Pumpkins, which property scheduling on broadcast radio would never allow, especially so early in a stream.

Credit to Deezer for being the first to play a female-fronted band after nearly eight hours of cock rock, highlighting just how bad all services are at balancing gender – even allowing for the fact that this is a very macho genre. Deezer’s recommender seemed to have a particular penchant for Stone Temple Pilots, at one point playing three songs in a four-song sweep that were either STP or Scott Weiland.

Other than that, artist separation was pretty good on the whole. But as with Spotify, in all but one case Deezer followed ad breaks with songs that were unpopular even by the standards of their own users, offering listeners a great reason to tune out.

Deezer – 13 out of 30

404px-ITunes_Radio_Logo.svgWhat a breath of fresh air iTunes Radio was after eight hours of Everbush Audio Chains. iTunes Radio was the first service to venture into territory occupied by The Killers, The White Stripes, The Black Keys and other US alternative rock – precisely where Foo Fighters radio ought to be in my view – as well as the first to really weigh in on British acts like Oasis, Snow Patrol and Led Zeppelin. We even got a little Guns ‘N’ Roses and Van Halen, the novelty of which was almost too much to bear. With 22 separate artists in the 30-song stream, iTunes tied with Pandora for second-most diverse service after Blinkbox and Napster (27 artists apiece).

At the ‘discovery’ end of the spectrum things got a little weirder. Veridia were unknown to me and not at all up my street, but props to iTunes for spinning at least two female-fronted songs, even if they were both by the same artist. Only two tracks in the 30-song stream weren’t in that artist’s Top 10 most popular tracks, which meant that both ads and unfamiliar music were always cushioned by familiarity.

Just a couple of quibbles: the volume level on ‘The Pretender’ by Foo Fighters was almost inaudible for some reason, and song 28 inexplicably took us on a brief excursion into House music with a track by Matisse & Sadko. I’ll overlook both slip-ups on account of iTunes Radio being the only service to spin Sweet Child O’ Mine – possibly the highlight of over 20 hours’ listening.

iTunes Radio – 26 out of 30

lastfmAs a former employee I had always bought into the received wisdom that, for all its failings, Last.fm’s recommendations are the best in the business. I’m not so sure anymore. It’s not that Last.fm’s are awful, just that other services (in radio anyway) are better. Having killed off subscription radio and effectively outsourced playback to YouTube and Spotify, Last.fm’s recommendations have to be good, because scrobbles and big data are now its USP.

The artist mix came half from Pearl Green Sour Peppers and half from more progressive stuff like Wolfmother, Probot and Muse. I had thought, given Last.fm’s choice of YouTube for radio playout, that selections might be a little less ‘out there’ than previously, but exactly half of them were unpopular (at least not Top 10) even with Last.fm’s own scrobblers.

Last.fm has never claimed to be mainstream – quite the opposite in fact – so making a direct comparison with Pandora, iTunes Radio or Blinkbox is probably unfair. But listening to it up against these other services does bring its woes sharply into focus; like many services, Last.fm’s business model depends on scale, but its core value proposition – discovery – is niche by definition (see the first of Five More Things Internet Radio Should Steal From Broadcast. As a ‘universal music wiki’, however, it is still second to none, and one wonders whether this might be its future.

Last.fm – 17 out of 30 

bb-music-3-1024x585Another impressive listen. Blinkbox Music’s ambition to go after the ‘passive massive’ is strongly in evidence here, with an engaging, mostly hit-driven playlist aimed at the mainstream. After two big openers from Foo Fighters – nice touch – we heard acts as broad-ranging as Kings of Leon, Skunk Anansie, Weezer, Aerosmith and 30 Seconds To Mars. Blinkbox tied with Napster for diversity, with 27 artists across 30 songs, tempered only by a special fondness for a dreary wankrock act named Adelitas Way. It was also probably the best at mixing the old with the new.

Blinkbox doesn’t give track popularity info, but to judge from UK chart performance approximately 17 out of the 30 tracks were hits. This seemed slightly below par for a service so avowedly committed to reaching mainstream listeners. One WTF?? moment came in the form of ‘Psychotech’ by eighties one-hit wonders Westworld (remember ‘Sonic Boom Boy’?), which stuck out like a sore thumb at a hand model convention.

With such a broad range of artists, Blinkbox suffered from none of the separation issues that plagued most of the other services. Other than a single spot for upgrading to Blinkbox Music More, there were no ads at all in the stream, even though I was listening on the free tier. (I have previously used the iPhone app, which featured quite a few ads). As the best music flow from a non-US service, Blinkbox Music would appear to be a canny acquisition by Guvera.

Blinkbox Music – 22 out of 30

TidalI’ll make no comment here about the sound quality of the world’s ‘first high-fidelity streaming service’ – there’s plenty of debate about that elsewhere. I’m focussing here on music flow. While Tidal should be applauded for playing almost exclusively popular songs (as judged by its own users), note that the only two that weren’t popular were the opening tracks – ‘Where The Story Ends’ by The Fray and ‘Everything To Everyone’ by Everclear, a double fail given that the next two songs were by The Fray and Everclear.

Tidal was the second-least diverse in terms of artist range with a paltry eleven acts across thirty songs, beaten only by Rdio’s nine. Artist separation was accordingly very poor, with frequent instances of back-to-backs by the same artist (Pearl Jam, Everclear, Eve 6, Screaming Trees). In broadcast radio this is known as a ‘twofer’, and as a feature with presenter set-up it adds flavour, but I’m not convinced it works on internet radio.

A dreary and uninspiring listen for the most part, one that had me wondering more than once whether I had selected The Fray as my starter artist rather than Foo Fighters.

Tidal – 15 out of 30

IHRiHeartRadio served up another 30 songs by Candlebush Blind Dog, disappointingly after iTunes Radio and Blinkbox, but in all other respects a well ‘programmed’ two hours. As with Pandora, I was listening with the help of a VPN, and since no popularity indicator is offered here either, my programming and familiarity judgements were based on US chart performance.

To my surprise I heard no ads at all, making it impossible to judge programming in and out of them, so iHeart’s score of 26 out of 30 might be slightly inflated. The only thumbs down arose from occasionally poor artist separation. Solid but pedestrian.

iHeartRadio – 24 out of 30 

Google Play Music All AccessOddly, Google Play was the first service to spin Rage Against The Machine, a novelty in itself after 18 hours of Red Audio Templebox. With no free tier on offer, there were no ads, so as with iHeart Radio all programming judgements were based purely on properties, flow and popularity. So many of the tracks in the stream were unpopular and/or unknown on the service that familiarity was a serious issue. An uninspiring listen over all, and not just because of tired ears toward the end of a marathon listening session.

Google Play / YouTube Music Key – 13 out of 30

napster_01A curious but refreshing mix from Napster, ranging from Royal Blood and Brendan Benson at one end to Nickelback and Evanescence at the other, again highlighting precisely internet radio’s problem – that it’s just as easy to offend as to delight.

Props to Napster though for being the only service to include influences in artist radio streams, resulting in a welcome detour into territory occupied by The Replacements, Husker Du and Dinosaur Jr. (I’m reliably informed by AllMusic that their artist radio feature also features influences, but since I can’t get it to actually work I’m unable to corroborate.) That only Napster played these artists probably says more about all the other services than it does about Napster, namely that they are missing a golden opportunity to improve both recommendations and familiarity in one go.

Credit to Napster too for pushing the limit as far as Lana Del Rey and First Aid Kit in the search for female voices that, while a stretch in terms of similarity, balanced the gender scales somewhat. All in all, Napster was a diverse and surprising listen with just enough familiarity to keep the listener hooked in. 

Napster  19 out of 30

Prog Qual 5

Conclusions

So, for music flow, artist range and programming quality, Pandora wins by a nose with an impressive 27 points out of 30. iTunes Radio comes second on 26, although my sense is that if I had factored in UX as well as music selections, iTunes would have nudged ahead. (Arguably iTunes also has to work a lot harder to filter radio selections from its huge catalogue, several times larger than Pandora’s.)

Internet radio still has a lot of growing up to do from a programming perspective, but Pandora and iTunes are leading the way, followed by iHeartRadio which, possibly on account of being a broadcast/webcast hybrid to begin with, gives the impression of having been built by radio programmers who understand mainstream audiences.

I mentioned that this listening exercise has caused me to reconsider my allegiance to Last.fm for radio. As it’s unlikely Pandora will have another crack at the UK any time soon, I’ll be switching to Blinkbox Music in the short term, and when iTunes relaunches in the UK I’ll be glad to make iTunes Radio my mainstay, assuming UX and flow are on a par with the US service. If Beats can compete with Spotify for on-demand, I might even consider switching wholesale to iTunes.

So watch out Pandora, you have a serious competitor in radio for the first time – one that, integrated free into iOS, will achieve massive scale overnight, and now has the world’s greatest music recommender – Zane Lowe – on board. Spotify – you’re a long way behind the pack.

Slave To The Algorithm: Five More Things Internet Radio Should Steal From Broadcast

So Zane Lowe has announced he’s leaving BBC Radio 1 to join Apple. If we were looking for a sign that the worlds of music streaming and broadcast radio are converging, then a move by iTunes to inject the one thing internet radio has always lacked – presenters – is surely it. And this being Apple, they’ve started by poaching the greatest music broadcaster on the planet. At first sight it looks very much as if internet radio, which turns thirteen this year, might be growing up.

But in many other respects it’s still acting its age. Like a recalcitrant teenager locked in its bedroom with headphones on full volume, personalised radio, to judge from the quality of its music flow anyway, has actually learned very little from its broadcast parent. Slaves to the algorithm, most streaming services are stuck on shuffle, either ignoring or flat-out rejecting anything that smacks of programming as a deviation from the personalisation mantra. Which is a shame, because broadcast music radio, with its sixty-plus years’ experience finessing format and flow that scream ‘Don’t touch that dial’, could teach webcast a thing or two about optimising reach, share, session length and ad revenue.

The science of programming music for broadcast radio – of rotating songs in categories, developing recurrents and golds, of clock building and property scheduling to name just a handful of innovations from its long history engaging large audiences – puts it streets ahead of its so-called smarter progeny, which appears to be fixated on similarity over separation, randomness over structure, discovery over familiarity. Not to sound too much like your evil stepdad, internet radio, but it’s really time you grew up and started thinking about other people.

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To briefly address the who-the-hell-I-am-to-be-telling-you-this question, I’ve seen something of both sides of the broadcast/webcast divide. For the first twelve years of my career I programmed music for broadcast media, first at BBC Radio 1 and then as Head of Music for MTV, both of which offered the opportunity of seeing first-hand the preacher-like passion that makes Zane Lowe such a peerless broadcaster. Later I transitioned into internet radio as Head of Music at Last.fm, and as a consultant I’ve advised both broadcast and streaming clients. Whereas at radio stations I usually work alongside broadcasters and music programmers, in streaming those programmers tend to be of the ‘data scientist’ variety, and the difference between the two is marked.

Don’t get me wrong; data scientists are incredibly smart people, standing proof of Arthur C. Clarke’s assertion that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Data scientists understand things like Python and Hadoop, collaborative filtering, matrix factorisation and – you were probably wondering when this was going to come up – canonical correlation analysis. Their great achievement using these tools has been to make the personal global and the global personal, and they deserve huge credit for it.

But their huge brains have been less exercised, I think, by the universals of music flow such as mood, gender, texture and familiarity that engage the mainstream listener over long sweeps of songs – that’s what radio programmers are great at. My hope is to bring the two types of programming closer together, with the aim of making internet radio more engaging, stickier and just, well, better.

So here are five things – among many, many more – that internet radio can learn from its broadcast elder. It’s a general list based on my overall perceptions of the various services available, radio flow among which ranges from terrible to slightly above mediocre. For a detailed analysis of each service, ranked and rated with a programmer’s ear, check out Part 2.

1. Familiarity trumps discovery at scale

taylor-swift-shake-it-off-music-video-051Let’s get something straight right at the outset: music discovery, by which I mean people actively seeking out new music, is a niche pastime almost by definition. As any broadcast radio programmer will tell you, most listeners tune in not to hear new music, but to delight in lovingly crafted sweeps of (mostly) familiar songs. 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.

The challenge for the radio programmer is keeping your output sounding fresh whilst grappling with this rather inconvenient but unavoidable fact. Even new music networks like BBC Radio 1, whose obligation to expose emerging artists is enshrined in its service licence, know that without solid golds and recurrents to underpin their daytime music strategy, there will likely be no audience to expose those new artists to.

Streaming services, especially all-you-can-eat providers, have become so fixated on solving the ‘discovery problem’ that they have, with a handful of notable exceptions, forgotten to fill their recommendations engines with the fuel that drives discovery in the first place – familiarity. Despite its occasional protestations to the contrary, internet radio is no different from broadcast in this respect. Among the numerous ingenious ways of creating stations on Last.fm, for example – Artist Radio, Tag Radio, Friends’ Libraries and so on – by far the most popular is Your Library, or ‘music you know and love’. If streaming services expended as much energy on familiarity as they do on discovery, they would have bigger audiences, listening for longer.

2. Recurrents build audience and sell advertising

This point follows on from the first. Recurrents, and their sexier-sounding friends ‘hot recurrents’ and ‘power recurrents’, are the backbone of all contemporary music radio. They’re the songs that generate audience passion, keeping mainstream listeners coming back and – crucially – selling advertising. If you’re rotating records at all – and sometimes even broadcast programmers forget this – you’re doing it to develop recurrents, period.

radio old 2Categorising songs in this way is relatively manageable when your library stretches to no more than a few thousand songs, as is the case for most broadcast music radio. But when your dataset runs to the tens of millions, manual housekeeping obviously isn’t possible. It is possible, however, to auto-generate categories that might inform radio flow – I’ve seen it done. Using these ideas, in 2012 one Last.fm developer built an auto-categoriser that used chart data to determine popularity and ‘endurance’ metrics for bucketing tracks – a project sadly stymied by staff churn from developing beyond a creative hack.

3. Presentation is everything

Just as a great chef doesn’t just throw his ingredients haphazardly onto a plate and send it to the table, presentation in radio is everything. Great recommendations and similar artist accuracy simply aren’t enough. Internet radio sometimes gives the impression of having nailed the discovery problem and then retired to the Prince Arthur to celebrate a job well done. That’s approximately equivalent to Radio 1 loading its playlist additions onto an iPod and hitting shuffle. It’s not good enough.

pgold_clocks

Clock programming gives your output structure – and your listeners reasons to keep listening. Reward them for staying tuned through challenging content and they’ll thank you in spades. By ‘reward’ I’m referring to recurrents, by ‘spades’ I mean increased session length, and by ‘challenging content’ I’m talking about anything from sponsorship announcements and presenter links to trails, commercials or – the most challenging content of all – unfamiliar music.

Most broadcast radio stations conduct music research to test which songs work best with their audience segments – male/female, younger/older, even daypart by daypart – in order to be sure they’re making smart recurrent choices. Internet radio doesn’t need to do this; it generates usage, satisfaction and demographic data every time someone hits play, skip or like. And yet some of them – I’m looking at you Spotify, Deezer and Rdio – are failing to cushion the effects of challenging content with songs that are popular even on their own service. To collect all this data and then not use it to inform music flow is a missed opportunity.

US internet radio giant Pandora, which comes out pretty well in my detailed comparison, averages 20 hours’ listening per user per month. Contrast that with BBC Radio 2, the UK’s national pop music behemoth with over 15 million listeners, which is averaging nearly 12 hours per listener per week. That’s what good scheduling delivers. If Spotify wants to truly compete with Pandora in the US – maybe even take a bite at the broadcast pie – it’s going to have to get a lot better at radio. Learning from broadcast programming techniques is one way to do that.

4. Think nationally, programme locally

This one is – or should be – very straightforward. It almost goes without saying that not all songs (or artists) that are hits at home are hits overseas. Broadcast radio knows this, but personalised radio seems to forget it sometimes. It’s the reason, even though I can advise radio clients from Serbia to Santa Monica on music strategy, I couldn’t programme a Belgrade pop station if my life depended on it – I just don’t have the local knowledge.

Foo FightersIn an effort to eliminate any confirmation bias from my streaming service comparison, I listened to 20 hours of Foo Fighters radio – two hours on each of the ten biggest services. I made sure that, with the exception of services not available here, my location was set to the UK in all cases.

So why, Spotify, Deezer and Rdio, did I hear an uninterrupted stream of US modern rock staples like Bush, Creed, Incubus, Everclear and Candlebox, who are mostly unknown (and frequently unloved) in the UK? Play ‘Swallowed’ for British listeners or play nothing by Bush at all. (As an experiment, I changed my location to L.A. and played Foo Fighters radio on all three of these services from the US with the help of a VPN, and – yep – almost identical recommendations.) If Foo Fighters radio sounds exactly the same in London as it does in LA, then it’s not personalised, and it certainly isn’t smart.

5. Property scheduling gives you the edge

The kind of metadata that broadcast radio programmers use falls broadly into two categories. The first is objectively true information such as artist, title, duration and so on – the kind of metadata that streaming services receive every day in XML’s from labels and aggregators. But broadcast radio adds a whole load more subjective data to each song such as gender, mood, tempo, texture and others, usually referred to as ‘properties’.

Properties are used mainly to eliminate clustering – of several very sad songs in a row for example, or too many male voices – as well as sound clash, such as very thin textures running into full textures over a segue. Music intelligence companies like The Echo Nest do a pretty good job of machine learning and assigning these properties, but it’s how you use them that matters. Poor or non-existent property scheduling is the reason I had been listening to Foo Fighters radio for a full eight hours across four different services before hearing a female voice – poor even allowing for the macho genre selected – and why one four-song sweep of maudlin modern rock had me ready to give up on smart radio forever.

I won’t give up on it though, because I strongly believe that, judiciously selected, some elements of broadcast music programming philosophy can be brought to bear on algorithm-driven music streams. I’m interested in working with data scientists, developers, music intelligence experts, streaming services and music scheduling software companies who share my conviction that internet radio can better. If that’s you, let’s talk.

Soundtracking 9/11

If you ever hear Haunted Dancehall (Nursery Remix) by Sabres of Paradise on daytime Radio 1, turn the TV on. Something terrible has just happened, possibly involving the death of the queen or an untold number of her subjects. If you’re a fan of ambient and chill-out music, try watching the rolling news with subtitles on and the radio turned up – you may never hear Chris Moyles play so perfect a selection of Ibiza sunset moments ever again.

Radio stations, especially big ones like the BBC’s national pop network Radio 1, are prepared for bad stuff happening: it’s called ‘obit procedure’. When a catastrophic news story breaks, such as the death of a royal family member, each network has an audience-appropriate mix of obituary music on standby that will ‘reflect the mood of the nation’, as the internal BBC documentation has it. As Music Programmer for six years in the early noughties, my job at Radio 1 involved selecting the station playlist and programming music for the daytime shows – Scott Mills, Sara Cox, Jo Whiley, Mark & Lard and Chris Moyles. In times of crisis this meant finding music that young people like, but which won’t be too noisy, upbeat or just plain offensive when something awful happens. It’s harder than it sounds.

The Sabres Of Paradise - Haunted DancehallChill-out music is failsafe because it tends not to have lyrics to trip up on before you’re even out of the blocks. As long as the mood is sombre and vaguely reflective-sounding, you can be confident with an instrumental piece about not offending anyone – for example by failing to consider that line ‘catch you when you fall’, just as news arrives of Prince Andrew’s demise in a horrific helicopter accident. (Every music programmer has a horror story about playing a ‘howler’ like this. Mine came in 2002 when, scanning artists and titles in the music logs immediately following the Potters Bar rail disaster, I deemed Overload by the Sugababes sufficiently inoffensive to be played out of the news. My forehead hit the desk just as the chorus chimed in: “Train comes, I don’t know its destination. It’s a one-way ticket to a madman situation.”) While the terrace at Pacha might seem like an odd vibe to recreate during times of national tragedy, having a good hour’s worth of harmless, lyric-free tunes to hand buys you time while you work out what to do next.

But nothing could have prepared us for 9/11. During advance obit preparations I had scrupulously considered every lyric of every song, rejecting any and all references – literal or metaphorical – to death, crashes, explosions and natural disasters, before settling on the final list. Even the most innocuous lyric takes on a sinister undertone heard in obit mode. Dido’s insipid and cheerless pop ballads make her perfect obit fodder, right up to the point when you realise White Flag – “I will go down with this ship” – might sound a tad insensitive in the wake of a ferry disaster. So how exactly do you prepare for the world’s worst terrorist atrocity? How, to coin a phrase, do you imagine the unimaginable? You don’t.

Shortly after 2pm London time on September 11th 2001, I received an email from a friend instructing me, and presumably everyone else in his pre-Twitter address book, to “turn the TV on. NOW.” I flipped to BBC News 24 as TV sets blinked on in unison around the open-plan office, and watched in dismay as the second plane hit the South Tower. Mark Radcliffe was on air from Manchester at that time – a relief under the circumstances because, though the Mark & Lard staple was toilet humour and unbridled sexual innuendo, Radcliffe was a radio veteran who could switch into serious broadcaster mode at the drop of a hat. In the 2.30 news, an audibly shaken Claire Bradley reported that two airplanes had hit the Twin Towers, with a BBC commentator speculating that it could be a terrorist attack.

The song we played out of that first news bulletin is now lost in the ensuing frenzy; I’m not sure I even want to know. But I can be mercifully certain, since we had not yet received instructions to go into obit procedure, that it wasn’t Haunted Dancehall; given what we now know about the martyrdom aspirations of the 9/11 hi-jackers, Sabres of Paradise might be the most inappropriate artist we could possibly have marked the moment with. What became abundantly clear within moments of the story breaking was that our carefully laid obit plans were hopelessly inadequate. This wasn’t a national tragedy or royal death; it was bigger and more terrible by several orders of magnitude. The radio response, somewhat perversely given the dreadful scenes already being repeated on television, demanded a lightness of touch, not mawkishness or mourning.

1998 CHRIS MOYLESAt 3pm, just as the full horror of the atrocities was beginning to unfold, Radio 1’s most talkative presenter went into the studio with nothing to say. Chris Moyles, then entertaining millions in the afternoon drivetime slot with a daily repertoire of bum gags and fart jokes, rightly took the view that today called for a different kind of show: “Let’s just play music and I’ll throw to the news between songs.” Under any other circumstances this would literally have been music to my ears; programming for a personality jock like Chris is a kind of tug-of-war: at one end of the rope, a presenter who wants more talk and less music; at the other end, a Music Producer loudly pleading from the production office upstairs that he “play a fucking record” whenever a link (talky bit) entered its eleventh minute. By this process of attrition, the ‘clock’ for Moyles’ show – a kind of template by which all radio programmes structure each hour – had come to contain far fewer songs than those of other presenters.

Generally music logs are delivered to programme teams around 24 to 48 hours in advance of broadcast, allowing producers time to write any relevant editorial content into their scripts. Suddenly, just minutes before he was due on air, Chris needed twice the number of songs he normally played, every one of them screened to account for the sensitivities of the unfolding catastrophe. The first thing was to remove all songs that hit the wrong tone musically. Out went anything too jiggy, too banging, too edgy or too poppy, which didn’t leave much to play with – this was Radio 1 after all. Next, lyrics: Let Me Blow Ya Mind by Eve – out. Castles in the Sky by Ian Van Dahl – out. U2’s Elevation – out. Within fifteen minutes of going to air, Moyles had played every song in what remained of his first hour.

By now Alex Donelly, my boss and Radio 1’s Head of Music, had come down from his upstairs office to manage the music response and lend a hand with the programming. A Dunkirk spirit emerged as the search for suitable music became more frenzied. We would interrogate the database for any ‘Mood 1 or 2′ songs (all music is graded in this way for radio, from very sad to very happy, in order to create an evenness of sound), feeding minidiscs into two hi-fi stereos in tandem as a final check before they went downstairs. Suddenly that throwaway lyric – ‘catch you when you fall’ – became menacing and real when people were literally falling out of the New York skyline, and nothing like it could go to air – even if it meant playing Zero 7 for the third time this hour. At one point we were delivering playlists with only one or two songs cued up in the studio, with a lot of air still to fill.

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That evening, slightly stunned to find that it was still going ahead, a handful of us attended the Mercury Music Prize, in which PJ Harvey collected the first of her two awards, for Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. Improbably, she was on tour in Washington DC at the time. Holed up in her hotel room, she accepted the award by telephone; we leaned in close as Zoe Ball presented the award, the better to make out Polly’s soft, West Country lilt haunting the dancehall of the Dorchester Hotel: “It’s been a very surreal day. We can see the Pentagon from our window.” Chillers of free wine and champagne sat untouched on the tables in front of us.

It went on for days. Hitting the right tone was the toughest challenge, as much for presenters and producers as for us, the music team. Even the next morning it was difficult to judge the mood of the nation, as the guidelines demanded we do, so we took our cues from the talent, who had a direct line to the listeners. Just when do you get back to ‘normal’ after something like this, and what role should Radio 1 play in making that happen? When do phone-ins, competitions and knob gags go back in the script? When is Bootylicious fair game again, and when does Have A Nice Day by Stereophonics not sound just plain wrong? Musically we needed a kind of intermediary stage, one that would gently lift the national mood rather than yank the listener out of the doldrums and demand they feel fine again. We needed uplifting, anthemic guitar songs with shiny production and contemplative but hopeful lyrics that would bridge a gap between chill out and jiggy. We needed Yellow, Trouble and Don’t Panic. The days following September 11th 2001 may be the only time I have said this, but thank God for Coldplay.