Born Skippy: Radio That (Intentionally) Misses A Beat

“The first track we’re gonna play for you – well, you can press play on it if you want – is off the new Tame Impala album …”

Is this how radio will sound in the future? Depending on your definition of radio, it already does. That’s Jungle introducing the first track on their ‘In Residence’ playlist for Spotify, a new series that’s been referred to as the latter’s ‘own take on original, artist-driven radio’, possibly as a response to Apple’s Beats 1 live radio offering from the likes of Joshua Homme and St. Vincent.

This kind of self-referential pronouncement – “you can press play if you want” – is likely to become a more frequent feature of radio that knows itself to be non-linear, on-demand, skippable, and integrated with (nearly) all of the world’s music. Broadcast radio and streaming services edge one step closer to one another like nervous teenagers across the dance floor at a high school prom.

Sensibly Spotify appears to be launching its ‘In Residence’ series quietly, having elected to put up the first four ‘shows’ in the series – Jungle are joined by Steve Jones, Big Narstie and Tonga – without fanfare. It’s an interesting approach to the human touch conundrum that streaming services increasingly find themselves competing around, and of course it’s nothing new.

Slacker John LegendSlacker Radio has been doing hosted, skippable radio for years, and they’ve gotten pretty good at it. Spotify’s ‘In Residence’ series is essentially Slacker’s ‘I Am The DJ’ franchise by another name and, as Annika Walsh points out, Blinkbox (then We7) was doing similar stuff back in 2011.

But it goes back much further than that. This type of hosted playlist – essentially presenter links (or breaks, as US readers know them) recorded in isolation and assembled between songs – is much closer to linear radio than you might think. Since at least the 1970s, FM radio has leaned on ‘voice-tracking’, in which a host records links that are then played out in sequence by a studio automation system, as a cost-cutting measure.

Making radio this way means you can pre-record a 3-hour show in less than 20 minutes, allowing cash-strapped stations to do more with less. If you listen to local commercial radio, where the breakfast show host is very likely the head of music as well as the programme director, there’s a good chance that much of what you’re hearing is voice-tracked. It’s not pretty, but sometimes needs must.

It’s this space that streaming services are moving into. By inviting the listener to press play ‘if you want to’ (or, as I heard Jungle say about a Loyle Carner track in a later link, “it’s not on Spotify unfortunately but check it out”), hosted playlists are arguably more honest than voice-tracked linear radio.

Josh-Homme-Beats-1-Radio-560x560Apple has taken the fully ‘live’ approach to the human touch in the form of Beats 1, but even they don’t pretend that every single show is truly live, repeating each of Zane Lowe, Ebro Darden and Julie Adenuga’s shows once per day.

And when you’re broadcasting globally across multiple time zones, as Beats 1 is, just how important is it to be truly live? When traditional radio dayparts – breakfast, drive, overnights and so on – no longer apply, it’s impossible to create time-specific features like ‘sunset moments’ or wake-up songs that weave themselves into the life of the listener.

So Spotify doesn’t try, at least not in its hosted output, leaving its ‘Now’ feature to supply the time- and context-specific stuff that traditional radio does so well. For now it appears content to add the human element only at the discovery end of spectrum – as Beats 1 does, being an almost 100% unfamiliar listen by traditional radio standards. Whether we eventually hear presenters announcing Spotify’s ‘Global Top 50’ – or a more musically familiar Beats 2 from Apple perhaps – remains to be seen.

But what about the response from traditional radio? We’re already seeing the first stirrings of interactivity from some broadcast quarters. The BBC has announced its ambitions to enter the streaming space by offering a Pandora-style evolution to its Playlister product, and ‘skippability’ – to judge by the number of times it comes up in conversation with my own broadcast clients at least – is increasingly on the agenda.

Recast+fmLabs.fm, a Cape Town-based radio technology incubator I have an advisory role with, is already working with broadcasters and streaming services to bring skippability to the linear listening experience using its Recast technology. And if the rumours of hastily negotiated label licensing terms are true, Global plans to launch something similar – an app offering a live radio experience with skips – this very week.

Update: Global have now launched a new app for Capital Xtra which, as rumoured, features skippable linear radio. It’s pretty nifty – here’s a video:

It might be a while before we hear Radio X’s Chris Moyles announcing: “This is the new Mumfords tune; we love it, but if you’re not a fan just skip it and we’ll see you back here in a few minutes”; but that appears to be the direction of travel, and there are smart people working hard on making it a reality. The likelihood is, given that there’s no presenter ego to get past, that we’ll see this kind of functionality on non-hosted, era-based digital channels like Absolute’s ‘decades’ stations first.

But why would linear radio want listeners to skip songs? Surely, having invested all that time and effort curating such delightful sweeps of music, letting people hit ‘skip’ demonstrates a lack of confidence in their own programming? Well, perhaps, but currently the broadcast radio listener has two options when they hear a song they don’t like – put up with it or tune out. A skip functionality holds the listener for longer, allowing stations to serve up more of their own content, branding and – of course – advertising.

And all that skip data adds up to valuable analytics that can feed back into a linear programming strategy. Capital Xtra’s head of music now has a valuable tool that other stations don’t have: for every track in their library they will know how often, where in the song (duration-wise) and when in the song’s life-cycle people are skipping. Having seen the skip analytics behind Recast, I can tell you – as a former head of music myself – that it’s powerful information, making traditional research music research look like a blunt tool by comparison.

So streaming services have interactivity nailed and are making progress with human curation. Radio on the other hand has had the ‘human’ part down for decades and is making strides in interactivity. It makes for a pretty crowded and angst-ridden dancefloor, as if the band could stop playing at any minute before planting that first kiss. But I for one – working on both sides of it – am enjoying playing match-maker in the mean time.

*Thanks to Spotify’s Matt Ogle for the snappy title.

Is Apple About to Teach Us the True Monetary Value of Music?

How much is one listen, of one song, by one pair of ears actually worth? It’s a debate that’s raged in one form or another for years. Whether it’s the huge disparity in per-stream rates paid to repertoire owners by streaming services, the challenge of computing Album Equivalent Sales in a chart that now includes streams, or Pandora’s legal wrangling over broadcast vs. internet radio royalties, it has always been notoriously difficult to establish a level playing field. How many streams equal one radio play? Or one download? What role does context play?

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.

Beats 1 Listen NowAvailable 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?

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.