Solving The Discovery Problem: New Music That Sounds Like Old Music

They say there are three subjects you should never bring up in polite company: politics, religion and money. I’d like to offer a fourth – country music.

A taste for twang is a tiny taboo. Fellow fans will surely recognise the awkward silence that follows a declaration of love for country – a silence sometimes accompanied by a look of disgust that makes you wonder if you haven’t mistakenly just confessed to a fondness for sexual congress with kittens.

Which is a problem for me, because one of the few things I love as much as country music is talking about country music. Spreading the word. I love to talk about about country so much that I once dragged my friend Joe Harland 2,500 miles across America trying to make him love Gram Parsons.

So I always feel compelled to fill that conversational cul-de-sac with a qualification: “Only real country, you understand. Waylon, Willie, Gram, Johnny – obviously I hate Garth Brooks and Dierks Bentley.” There then follows a sigh of relief on the part of your interlocutor, who jokingly declares that you can indeed remain friends.

Daniel Romano Album Cover

Daniel Romano, a young Juno-nominated singer from Canada, is real country. My friend Matt turned me onto him a month or so ago (via Facebook private message, discovery fans), and his album If I’ve Only One Time Askin’ has been on repeat ever since. If you like your country rhinestone-studded, swathed in swooning pedal steel and drenched in Wichita Lineman-esque strings, chances are you will too.

Digging into his catalogue on Spotify I was equal parts overjoyed and dismayed to learn that If I’ve Only One Time Askin’ is Romano’s fourth LP. What joy, to find a new obsession with a full four albums’ worth of discovery to look forward to. But why hadn’t I heard of him before? I’m a super-streamer, passionate countryphile, and flatter myself to think I’m an early adopter musically.

What’s more, I use artist and genre radio frequently, mainly on Spotify and Pandora. If they were doing their job, surely I’d have bumped into Daniel Romano years ago? As similar artists go, he’s like triangulating on three cornerstones of my record collection: a vocal spit for Willie Nelson who writes like Gram and arranges like Glen Campbell.

But take a look at Romano’s similar artists on Spotify – in fact on almost any streaming service you care to mention – and you won’t see them. Fans of Willie Nelson, Gram Parsons and Glen Campbell would love Daniel Romano if he could reach them. But for now he must rely on ‘old’ radio and the press to do that, because streaming services apparently aren’t beating a discovery path to his door.

Metamodern SoundsLikewise Sturgill Simpson, whose incredible second album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music has been described as an “exemplar of what the country mainstream isn’t,” draws on many of the sixties and seventies outlaw influences mentioned above. Simpson’s insistence that, while “I’ll never get tired of being told I sound like Waylon Jennings, […] I don’t hear it myself’ just goes to prove that the only person not hearing the true sound of a voice is the person using it. But scan his similar artists on, say, Apple Music, and Waylon is nowhere to be found.

And there’s an interesting corollary in soul. Leon Bridges and Curtis Harding, frequently grouped together as ‘new stars of classic soul’, are advanced students both of the sound and the era. You might say they are to Otis Redding and Sam Cooke as Romano and Simpson are to Willie and Waylon. But you’ll struggle to find these obvious classic soul influences in their similar artist lists.

All of which highlights the challenge of discovering New Music That Sounds Like Old Music. Most streaming services, with the notable exception of Pandora, extrapolate artist similarity based on a statistically significant overlap between listener groups, not unlike Amazon’s ‘other people also bought’ recommendations. If a lot of people who listen to artist X also listen to artist Y, then artists X and Y are similar.

But listener groups don’t coalesce neatly around genres or similarity of sound. As broadcast radio knows, listeners also lie along another spectrum; early adopters listen to stuff that more ‘contented’ listeners haven’t yet been turned onto. So the similar artists of new acts on Spotify – and in this context I’m talking about artists whose entire repertoire falls into the 21st century – will overlap only with other relative newcomers.

SpotifyTo see what was going on, I decided to look at the numbers. Starting with Spotify, I determined the comparative ‘newness’ – or recording era – of an artist by pulling the release year of the first and most recent albums for every act in the related artists lists for our vintage-sounding new acts Romano, Simpson, Bridges and Harding. (The Spotify API also outputs an artist ‘popularity index’, which seems to be based partly on the ‘currency’ of plays, i.e. songs and artists played a lot now are more popular than those played a long time ago, but since it’s not clearly defined in their API documentation I ignored it. UPDATE: I didn’t ignore it. Go here for a slightly deeper dive in Part 2.)

Daniel Romano’s related artists – Robert Ellis, The Deep Dark Woods and Lydia Loveless, to pick a handful – are all relatively new, with an average debut release year of 2008. Sturgill Simpson’s related artists, which do include some more well-established names like Justin Townes Earle and Drive-By Truckers among many, many newer artists (and crucially not Waylon Jennings), have an average debut release year of 2007.

Conversely, Willie Nelson’s related artists have an average release span of 1975 to 2013, Gram Parsons’ of 1980 to 2009, Waylon Jennings’ of 1977 to 2014, and Glen Campbell’s of 1976 to 2014. But of course they don’t include Daniel Romano or Sturgill Simpson. The related artists of nu-soul acts Leon Bridges and Curtis Harding have release spans of 2013 to 2014 and 2011 to 2014 respectively, while Sam Cooke and Otis Redding both run mid-sixties to 2012.

Which suggests that Spotify’s related artists are pulling heavily – perhaps only – on acts with comparable release windows, explaining the absence of those plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face-alikes from thirty and forty years prior. (It’s significant that Spotify uses the word ‘related’ rather than ‘similar’ here – ever so slightly letting them off the hook, although I still question the user experience.)

Discovering New Music 2

A glance at Deezer suggests they fare slightly better. Their similar artists tab for Romano also returns mostly new acts but, being five times longer than Spotify’s, does manage to pull in Townes Van Zandt and The Jayhawks – just not Willie, Gram or Glen. Sam Cooke does appear on the similar artists list for Leon Bridges, but so do a litany of artists without the slightest connection to soul music – Courtney Barnett, Ryan Adams and Beach House to name a few.

Apple Music’s six similar artists for Daniel Romano are a curious hotchpotch, the most well known among them being Jason Isbell. They do much better with Leon Bridges, surfacing Curtis Harding, Alabama Shakes and Charles Bradley, and even call out Otis Redding and Sam Cooke separately as influences. (Apple Music and All Music appear to be the only services that do this – more please.)

Pandora is different, and not just because it’s a pure play radio service. Its recommendations are a blend of algorithms and human, musicological analysis examining up to 450 song attributes – the so-called Music Genome Project on which Pandora is built. They don’t display many similar artists publicly, but credit to them for surfacing The Flying Burrito Brothers among the five listed for Romano.

Pandora_alt_mirrorUnable to make a direct comparison with the all-you-can-eat services, I decided simply to listen to Willie Nelson radio for a couple of hours and see what artists came up, and how their release spans compared. The similar artists rotated were all heritage acts – Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, The Highwaymen, Kris Kristofferson etc. – with an average release span of 1971 to 2010. Not much hope for Daniel Romano there.

(Note that I was listening to Pandora on the web, which as far as I can tell doesn’t have a ‘fine tune’ functionality, as some internet radio services do, allowing the user to adjust the familiarity level of their chosen station. Note also that, as with my previous radio comparison, I elected not to skip or ‘thumb’ any tracks.)

None of the foregoing is intended to be a dig at any particular service, just serve as an illustration of the peculiar challenge of surfacing New Music That Sounds Like Old Music. And it’s a problem, I think, that streaming services could profitably spend time trying to solve. The debate over whether streaming – and in particular internet radio – is promotional or substitutional rages on.

Pandora commissioned a study on precisely this last year, hoping that proof of the ‘Pandora Effect’ would positively impact the statutory rate it pays to SoundExchange for recordings. With global ambitions and thawing relationships with repertoire owners, I can’t help thinking Pandora and services like it would benefit from being able to demonstrate a promotional effect not just for heritage artists, but for new ones that sound like them too.

Put another way, is internet radio doing everything it can to help Daniel Romano find his audience? As a streaming evangelist I’m optimistic about the possibilities for new artists. But as a fan I don’t yet feel confident enough to hand the discovery reins completely to my streaming providers. I won’t be giving up ‘old’ radio, the music press, or my Facebook inbox any time soon.

Read a post-script to this piece, including a response from Daniel Romano’s PR: Popularity Contest: New Music That Sounds Like Old Music II.

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.

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.