A look into the magic of the first global college radio station
Beats 1 Radio is the most contrarian bet in the music world right now. And that’s exactly why it’s exciting.
The progress in the music + tech space in recent years (if you can call it progress) has been dominated by an obsession with algorithms. The promise has been that algorithms, if properly developed and fed with data, would be able to offer infinite personalization that would make bigger music fans of us all.
But it hasn’t really worked out that way. Despite the best efforts of the bots, having an infinite supply of music at our fingertips has made our music listening more provincial… not less. Our biological hard wiring to favor the familiar leaves us with little immediate affection for anonymous recommendations, and the vast majority of music listeners have little appetite to put in the effort associated with finding new music. To this challenge, most technologists reply by saying that the algorithms just need more: more data inputs, more technological honing, more time.
Apple seems to believe that we’ve been approaching this thing wrong all along. And so, with Beats 1, the biggest technology company on the planet has introduced the ultimate anti-algorithm. And I think this radically contrarian bet is one of the biggest reasons to be excited about music’s future.
I find Beats 1 so exciting for three reasons.
It’s College Radio Manned by Megawatt Celebrities
One of the most surprising aspects of Beats 1 is how incredibly and endearingly unpolished it is. The unscripted spontaneity of nearly every show gives the station the handcrafted vibe of a late night on college radio. There are genuine jokes and honest technical mistakes, songs stopped mid-stream and interviews where truly nobody knows what’s going to be said next.
But here’s the rub: the DJs on this ramshackle college radio broadcast are a collection of the biggest stars in the music world. Beats 1 features everyone from Eminem to Elton John to Dr. Dre and Drake… and that’s just in the first week. But when these superstars leave their PR people behind and open up through music, the result is the most honest into these individuals that I’ve ever heard. It’s addictive, irresistibly shareable stuff, and has led some to look at Beats 1 as the future of Twitter.
It’s Simultaneously Global and Local
Much has been made of the fact that Beats 1 broadcasts live to 100 countries simultaneously (well, at least when it’s not on replay). But, while conceptually interesting, the fact that Beats 1 is broadcasting to 99 other countries doesn’t in and of itself have much value to your average listener.
But what makes the global nature of Beats 1 interesting is the degree to which the DJs are repping their cities: Ebro does a show that is of NYC, not just from it. And when Julie Adenuga says “this is London,” she actually delivers on it. While this local aspect is just a glimmer right now, it holds promise for a truly exciting vision of what it could mean to be a global radio station. Benedict Evans has said that Apple Music reminds him of Google Maps as it provides “manual curation at scale.” With Beats 1, we can take the analogy of Google Maps one step further, as it holds the promise of allowing anyone, anywhere to peek into another part of the globe and appreciate it in a new way. Powerful stuff.
It’s Actively Passive
The fatal flaw made by so many in the music streaming space is that they massively over-estimate the amount of effort your average listener is interested in expending. They create services for their 25 year-old music nerd selves, and lose track of the fact that the continued dominance of FM radio and the enormously broad appeal of Pandora is rooted in the incomparable ease of these two services (oh, and they’re free).
Beats 1 not only eliminates complication, it prevents it. The only things you can do with it are turn it on and turn it off. But the hyperactive curation built into the broadcasts makes Beats 1 feel like a very active experience though it requires absolutely nothing from the user. It’s as effortless as FM radio, yet often as exciting as a mixtape discovery.
These three reasons makes Beats 1 an incredibly massive experiment in what radio and digital music can be. About a year and half ago, I wrote that “Radio has to radically re-think what it needs to be.” At that time, it was more of a lament than an actual statement of hope. But now, with Beats 1, Apple has given us reason to think that good old fashioned radio might help pave the way into the future of music.