Well, now there’s an app for that. Announced on Monday, Apple Music is a streaming service, radio station (called Beats 1) and download store (iTunes) in one, all operated by a single, very powerful player. It is, as Trent Reznor describes it using language probably best left in the boardroom, “One complete thought around music”:
The announcement that Apple is entering linear radio, broadcasting globally 24 hours a day over the net in the form of Zane Lowe-fronted Beats 1, as well as getting into streaming with the launch of Apple Music, is the first time revenues from radio, streaming and downloads have all landed on the same balance sheet.
It’s also the first time linear radio has gone ‘full IP’, at least by a major player, and as such it represents a revolution in the measurability of radio listening. UK broadcast radio still measures itself using RAJAR’s outmoded diary method – the best defence of which usually runs along the lines of ‘imperfect, but imperfect for everybody’ – and Nielsen’s PPM (Portable People Meter) methodology, though slightly less dark ages, has done little to calm debate about radio ratings bias in the US.
Available for free to iPhone and iPad users when it launches on June 30, Beats 1 radio will generate the kind of listening data that true broadcast radio can only dream of. Apple will be able to measure the reach, share and time spent listening to its own radio station, on its own platforms, more accurately than RAJAR or Nielsen could ever hope to. And with no broadcast output to muddy the waters, there should be no question about how many people Beats 1 is reaching, and for how long.
Then there’s remuneration. Unlike broadcast radio, which pays royalties to collection societies that negotiate and distribute those payments on behalf of artists and songwriters, Apple has direct deals (as far as we know) across all of its three properties. For recordings at least, it negotiates with – and directly remunerates – the same repertoire owners for radio plays, streams and downloads.
So Apple will know, with a level of accuracy and granularity previously unheard of in radio, exactly how many people have heard each play of every song played on Beats 1. It will also know the number of streams those same songs receive on Apple Music. Imagine Beats 1 radio reaches an audience of 10m. Does one play of ‘Mercy’ by Muse on Beats 1, heard by 10m people, generate the same revenue as 10m individual streams on Apple Music? What’s the download equivalent? Just ask Muse.
Are we finally about to learn how many streams a radio play is worth? And whether it makes a difference if you choose to stream a song or someone else streams it for you? Is Apple Music a kind of unintentional music-and-radio-listening valuation app? Are we, in short, about to discover the true monetary value of recorded music?
Gratified by the response to After Zane Lowe: Five More Things Internet Radio Should Steal From Broadcast, I figured it was about time I did a Frankee and wrote my own answer song. Literally several people wondered about my thoughts on the reverse scenario – what broadcast radio should steal from webcast – with some offering useful additional feedback along the lines of “Shorter please.” So here are three bites that broadcast radio might take at the proverbial Apple.
I’ll preface all this by saying that the debate isn’t nearly as binary as the who-stole-what-from-whom headlines (admittedly my own) make it sound. The modern listener isn’t faced with a choice between broadcast radio and streaming any more than they are between radio and TV. Except that in the case of ‘old’ and ‘new’ radio, true convergence is possible – probable even. But we’ll come to that.
Ultimately, all the noise created this week by Beats 1 and Apple Music is noise about radio, and that’s incontrovertibly A Good Thing. So if you’re a member of the broadcast bellyache brigade still moaning that Pandora isn’t ‘real’ radio, or a new-world pioneer lamenting the limitations of broadcast, you’d be well advised to get over it, quickly. Your medium just became the most exciting medium on the planet, and pretty soon the end user won’t see the difference anyway:
1. Hosting music
The internet ‘stole’ music radio’s hosts. Now broadcast radio should steal music hosting from the internet.
This might seem obvious. I might just have easily have used the words ‘streaming’, ‘personalisation’ or ‘interactivity’ here, but most radio stations already stream, albeit just a ones-and-zeroes encode of an FM signal, and radio was interactive before the net was so much as a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s work stack. Hosting music – and the metadata that goes along with it – is what makes all the ‘smart’ stuff possible in the first place.
For too long broadcast radio has been shy about offering a personalised or interactive version of its programmed music output on its own platforms. That could be down to the technical limitations – obvious and undeniable – of playout systems and transmitters, or simply an unwillingness to admit that allowing people to skip songs might suggest some of them weren’t that great in the first place.
Either way, Apple has beaten ‘old’ radio into linear programming before an equivalent broadcast player (including iHeartRadio) has achieved anything resembling meaningful personalisation over – or to the side of – the airwaves.
Yes, the BBC did a fabulous job with Playlister, harnessing its unparalleled editorial clout and offering audiences a powerful jumping off point for deeper discovery on Spotify, Deezer, YouTube and iTunes. But as these latter partners begin to look more and more like traditional radio in terms of editorial and functionality, the Beeb is increasingly sending listeners away to the competition.
The BBC – in fact all broadcast radio – needs to find a way into hosting; hold the listener within the walls of its beautifully cultivated (curated) garden a little longer, all the better to cross-pollinate licensed music with originated content such as sessions, Live Lounges and – why not? – interviews, podcasts and documentaries. The case for a publicly funded streaming service, especially (and ironically) in the US, where there’s no licence fee to worry about, is stronger than you might think. Should Playlister become a streaming service?
As they start to resemble radio, streaming services like Spotify and Apple are becoming distribution platforms in their own right and, as they do so, broadcast radio must wake up to the possibilities of personalising the music it licenses, just as it does the content it originates. I can see a time – and quite soon – when not offering a personalised version of BBC Radio 1 or KCRW will be as unthinkable as not having a YouTube channel or Twitter presence.
And there’s one important respect in which broadcast has the edge over streamed radio. Don’t forget that both ‘sides’ of the broadcast/webcast divide (inverted commas because there really are no sides anymore, and the divide is narrowing quickly) are playing catch up here. But broadcast radio’s problem is one of infrastructure, which can be outsourced, whereas Apple’s is one of culture, and that takes time.
Beats 1 might have poached the greatest music broadcaster on the planet, but that’s a far cry from commanding the kind of trusted music discovery cred that the BBC (who seem largely to have replaced Pandora in Apple’s crosshairs) has built up over decades. Put another way, Radio 1 could – with the help of a white-label streaming provider – switch on hosting and personalisation tomorrow if it wanted. Apple can’t simply switch on a fifty-year history of taste making from DJ’s in the league of John Peel, Pete Tong, Tim Westwood, Trevor Nelson, Annie Nightingale and Jo Whiley overnight.
2. Going mobile
Much has been made lately of Radio 1’s struggle to engage young listeners, and despite incredible strides in visual – such as the station’s YouTube channel hitting a million views per day – one thing it hasn’t done in a meaningful way is capture young people’s share of ear in the place where most of that attention is directed: on mobile. In this respect it has perhaps been hampered by its duty to the wider BBC.
Granted, all BBC radio is available on the iPlayer Radio app, but burying Radio 1 inside a generic BBC offering that serves up only originated, mostly longform content has always seemed a little perverse for a service aimed so squarely at young ears. When Apple Music lands on the next update of iOS – and arrives on Android in the autumn – it will be a revealing test of how engaged young people really are with radio when you put it right under their noses.
3. Atomising non-music content
My biggest question, watching Apple’s WWDC presentations on Monday, is whether Beats 1 – the live, linear, Zane Lowe-fronted global radio station ‘broadcasting’ 24/7 from three cities – will fully integrate with the Apple Music streaming service. Can I, for example, favourite or ban a track I hear on Beats 1 to inform the recommendations I receive in Apple Music/iTunes?
One has to assume that’s an ambition, and when it happens we can start talking about true convergence of linear and personalised radio, but until then Beats 1 and Radio 1 look much the same: large music brands streaming linear radio globally from multiple locations.
Atomising non-music content like presenter links, news and sport is what makes the interactive radio experience truly personalised, local and – importantly – shareable. Which brings us onto Slacker Radio, whose welcome note can lay claim to being the most genuine and justified of all those issued yesterday. Human curation has been part of the Slacker DNA since day one, and until Beats 1 and Apple Music fully integrate, Slacker is arguably the only service to have successfully married curation with personalisation and presenters.
Today I can listen to a hosted countdown of the 55 Greatest Rock Songs of the Century on Slacker, skip the ones I don’t care for, favourite the ones I do (with the option to turn hosts, news and sport on or off) and, with a premium subscription, dive on-demand into the catalogue of the artists I like. It’s not perfect (or linear), but if Slacker has one advantage it’s that they’ve been quietly working on the solutions to these imperfections for longer than most.
This is a vision that broadcast radio can – and should – be working towards. Breaking down the division between licensed and originated content opens up possibilities that broadcast radio, with its ready-made portfolio of presenters, can take advantage of. Broadcast radio has already solved curation; its next challenge is to be mobile, personalised and global.
What can broadcast radio do that internet radio can’t? Tell stories.
Earlier this month I found myself between tenants at a flat I let in London and took the opportunity to redecorate. Staring down the wrong end of several days’ toil in an empty property, I noticed I was more appalled by the prospect of living without wi-fi than without furniture. Radio to the rescue.
Cerys in Wonderland, in which BBC 6Music’s Cerys Matthews celebrates the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s most famous work, came on just as I began the grim task, perched on top of a tottering step ladder, of ‘cutting in’ under the intricate cornice of a high-ceilinged bedroom. The music, ranging from Villagers to Marvin Gaye, Bowie to boss reggae, was inspired by – and interspersed with readings from – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
It was three of the most absorbing hours of radio I have ever heard, impeccably programmed and transporting in a way that only broadcast radio can be. As I applied a second coat of Eau de Nil under the coving the following day, every brushstroke and indent teleported me back to Wonderland in the precise location I had been the previous day; Bobby Darin around the chimney breast, Horace Silver into an especially fiddly corner above the skirting board.
You must have experienced something like this. Perhaps you’ve made the same car journey twice in succession and found yourself retracing a radio show rather than a road. Or telling someone about a great programme you heard and being transported back to your precise location when it came on. Something about the narrative of broadcast radio, especially when accompanied by an actual journey (road or coving), offers the opportunity of losing yourself in it in a way that internet radio never could.
I find that it doesn’t happen with music alone, be that an album or a playlist, unless perhaps it’s a playlist specifically created for a specific journey. Is it the linearity of radio or the fact that it’s broadcast? Or presented? Or the fact that it’s a shared experience as well as a ‘live’ one? Whatever the reason, storytelling of this kind is hard to replicate online.
Slacker Radio’s excellent jocked stations are probably leading the charge bringing some of broadcast radio’s intimacy to the web, offering US and Canadian listeners a taste of what Apple Music might be planning with the producers it poached from the BBC (and elsewhere in UK commercial radio, if the rumours are true).
But combining personalisation and on-demand with storytelling and narrative is tough. By offering audiences the opportunity to skip content, that content must by definition be packaged and atomised into units that invite you to lean forward, not back. Much as I loved Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks’ 66 Pretty Much Perfect Songs, I want to hear them uninterrupted by the silence that accompanies the loading of tracks and presenter links. And there’s a tension there: if you’re so sure they’re perfect, why let me skip them?
It seems to me that as broadcast radio increasingly finds its audiences – and its presenters – being targeted by tech giants with deep pockets, it would do well to remember that musical storytelling could well be its secret weapon.