Sharing Music: Rewind & Fast Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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


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 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.

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.

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*.

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.

Soundtracking 9/11

This piece originally appeared on Huffington Post on 11th September 2011.

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.


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.