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

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

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

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

1. Hosting music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Going mobile

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

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

3. Atomising non-music content

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

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

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

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

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

Who Owns the Editorial Voice on Spotify?

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

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

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

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

Starting with a comparison of profile followers:

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

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

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

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

Major Label Curation Brands 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do they sound like?

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

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

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

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

Jay Z and the Turning Freemium Tide: Can Creators Be Curators?

So musicians are taking music streaming back. Jay Z has been joined by a consortium of big-name artists including Coldplay, Rihanna, Daft Punk, Calvin Harris, Madonna, Kanye West and – rather more predictably – Beyoncé as co-owners of his recently acquired Tidal streaming service, offering ‘high-quality sound, video and exclusive editorial’.

Jay Z isn’t the first artist to launch a high-fidelity music streaming service – that prize goes to Neil Young. And he isn’t the first, to borrow from the Tidal sales pitch, to offer ‘expertly curated editorial’ (there’s that word again) either. Just ask Armin Van Buuren, the only artist in Spotify’s Top 100 curated Browse playlists, or Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, Guy Garvey or countless other artists that programme and present wonderful radio shows.

TIDAL_2No, artists have always been very adept, more so than their labels it must be said, at curating music. If George Ergatoudis is right that albums are, with very few exceptions, edging closer to extinction, we probably shouldn’t be surprised that the artist and label community is getting in on the curation game. What’s new about Jay-Z’s new venture is scale and ownership.

This and recent other events, not least the inclusion of streaming data in the official UK chart last year, have had me pondering the rapidly shifting hit-maker power dynamic in 2015, in particular the effect that an apparently turning freemium tide might have on the major players in streaming and radio.

Late last year I chaired a panel at the Music Futures conference in Gateshead 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 BassWhat seemed like a fairly open-and-shut session – there are, for example, about 1.5m albums on Spotify and 1.5bn playlists – 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 made the declaration about the demise of the album format. 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 comparing the differing growth curves of Meghan Trainor’s ‘All About That Bass’ in the US versus the UK. 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:

Anatomy of a Hit - Meghan Trainor

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 had to ask: is Spotify becoming a hit maker? Can streaming services more generally editorialise their way into the chart?

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, Apple has just snapped up king-of-curators Zane Lowe and now, in something of a reverse takeover, Jay Z and friends are owner-curators of Tidal.

Nor is it news to the labels. Universal, Sony and Warner Music have their own ‘independent’ curation brands in Digster, Filtr and Topsify respectively, all sitting directly on Spotify and Deezer. Apparently curation, not content, is king.

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 content copying machine, that content is effectively rendered worthless by ever-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 and Jay Z embody trust, immediacy, authenticity and interpretation. 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 and artists 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? Read Part 2 of this article for an in-depth analysis of the major-label curation brands’ share of voice on Spotify.

‘On-air/on sale’, the new label release strategy by which new tracks are made available 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 over 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 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.

(Likewise the BBC’s excellent Playlister, which allows audiences to save music they have heard on the BBC and then export it to Spotify, Deezer, YouTube and iTunes, probably needs to evolve. As these latter partner services look more and more like traditional radio in terms of functionality and editorial, the BBC is increasingly sending its audiences away to the competition.)

SpotifyAs Will Page pointed out in his presentation, when the traditional ‘label to radio to retail’ supply chain is disrupted by services like Spotify and the BBC’s Playlister – or by a consortium of artists in direct control of their publishing platform – it starts to resemble a circular cell reference in an Excel spreadsheet. Radio DJs drive consumption, which drives chart positions, which in turn drive consumption, which drives airplay. The same might be said of Shazam, these days both a reflection and a driver of editorial decision-making.

For 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 Spotify et al, through curated playlists, can rise to the ranks of true hit-makers 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 like Kevin Kelly’s generative theory predicted.

Ironically, given the new owners of Tidal, a world in which programmed music is free and on-demand consumption is not – one in which playlisting features presumably remain behind a paywall as well – is one that looks a lot more like the ‘old world’ hit-making dynamic in which 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 read Part 2 of this article.