Tag Archives: Pandora

Will Apple’s Anti-Algorithm Save Music?


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.

In Defense of the Familiar

When listening to the song “Candy” by The Men, I cannot help but think that it’s a jam session with The Replacements and The Velvet Underground.  But does this make the song happily familiar or depressingly derivative?

On one hand, familiarity is the compass by which we find new music.  Though new music discovery might seem somewhat magical, it really boils down to looking for a new take on what we know we like.  “Recommended if you like…” has driven discovery dating back to the days of sales clerks and CDs, and still today remains the simple fact behind the complex math of Pandora.

But familiarity can cut deep.  In their review of the album Open Your Heart, Time Out referred to the band as “Thurston Moore and The E Street Band.”  Short of slurs, calling out a band as such an obvious pastiche is about the meanest thing that a music critic can utter.

The thing is, it has been years since I’ve listened to The Replacements.  And though my pride is hesitant to admit it, my memory can muster only a few tracks from The Velvet Underground.  So if these guys from Brooklyn want to pay an homage to these (and several other) artists, does that make them any less artistic?

Though we might feel mighty smug saying that we were going to take a stand against the familiar, I think we’d end up doing so in silence.

Candy, The Men

The People-Powered Pandora

In case you don’t see me for the next several months, know that it’s because I’ve discovered Angry Birds for music lovers.

With merely a month under its belt, Turntable.fm is already being billed as “the most exciting social service of the year.”  Although it wasn’t announced to anyone, and it’s still in semi-closed beta mode, Turntable got 140,000 users in the first month.

Much like other exciting social services, the premise is “why-didn’t-someone-think-of-that-yet?” simple: you play music together.  The appeal lies in what has been dubbed “social listening”: it takes competition, reward points, socializing, and music discovery and mixes it all together to create a people-powered Pandora.

And here’s a new song that has been well-received in the Turntable rooms… though it’s not yet finished, it looks to be the makings of J. Cole’s first radio hit off of his upcoming album.

Cheer Up, J. Cole

A Soulful Sneak Attack into Our On Demand Lives

The last decade of entertainment technology has been dominated by the breathless pursuit of an on demand life.  With revolutionary zeal, we have been dying to declare our independence from the bastions of broadcast who for decades have told us what we’re going to enjoy and when.

And now, with our iPhone in one hand and our DVR remote in the other, we are totally and completely free.

But, sadly, often what we are free from is surprise.  With everything we listen to and watch sourced from carefully choreographed playlists, musical serendipity has been stripped down to wondering which slight riff on “anthemic British rockers with piano driven melodies” Pandora is going to source next from our musical genome.

And then, every once in a while, an itty bitty Belgian belle with a Jamaican flow comes out of nowhere to break us out of our rut and remind us that what’s least expected is often what’s most enjoyable.

Selah Sue has yet to make her way to the States yet, but with a collaboration with Cee-Lo and the groundwork being laid by Adele, I can’t think that her breakthrough is far from coming.  Here are two of her recent tracks, as well as a riveting take on the Bill Withers classic.

So, quick, let’s go add her to our playlist!

Black Part Love (Album Version), Selah Sue

This world, Selah Sue

The Artistic Threat of the Radio Edit

For the first four minutes of their debut, To Kill a King sound like cousins of Mumford and Sons.  Not a particularly bad career move given the commercial ascendance of British folk-rock, but sleepily familiar.
Or so I thought.  Four minutes in, out of nowhere, this track explodes into a fantastic flourish.  With horns, strings, drums, and countless other instruments, 60 seconds of harmonic bedlam take these guys from follower to front-runner.
Unless you’re listening to the radio.
No doubt scared off by a five-minute run time, some A&R idiot insisted on lopping off the defining heart of this song to create a radio edit.  The result is artistically neutered; yet another example of the gravitational pull to pop pabulum that pervades the radio industry as they squint to remember the days before Pandora.
Luckily, I can save us all from this commercial conservatism and give this promising band a fighting chance.
Fictional State, To Kill a King

Day 18: A Song that You Hear Often on the Radio

Is radio disappearing or re-appearing in a different form?  Is it bit of nostalgia or a needed antidote?  A lingering habit for aging baby boomers, or something ready to be seized by youth?  As I think about it, a bit of all of the above.

A music fan since my youth, I have more awesome radio-centric memories than I can recall.  As many did, I got my start with mixtapes mashed together from live radio recordings: the first few seconds always missing as you leapt across the room; the last few seconds always polluted by the inevitable DJ chatter.  I had my yearly ritual of counting down live the top songs of the past year, pen and list in hand as if I were documenting some sort of draft.  And, as I’ve documented, much of my college years were spent over a radio mic.  If anyone is cheering for radio, it’s me.

In a hasty bit of blogger research, I tracked down an Arbitron research study from last month on the future of radio.  The findings were largely what you’d expect: huge drops in the percentage of people who think of radio as the most essential medium (strange to think that there still are 14% who still view radio in that way); and massive drops in the percentage of people who turn to radio to learn about new music.  All of these stats had the demographic skews that you’d expect: if you followed the data out the window you’d ship radio off to the AARP and forget about it.

But as we think about radio’s future, the first step is to define what radio actually is today. Continue reading

The (Human) Music Genome Project

high_fidelityBack in the day, I worked in a music store.  And, though it was camouflaged as a homogenous chain store, a cadre of employees actually made it a pretty awesome place to randomly find yourself shopping for music (trust me, the only way you’d find yourself there would be randomly).  The group of us working there really knew our music, and the way that we liked to strut our stuff was to provide personalized music recommendations to customers.  More specifically, we’d ask for a customer to name a few songs or albums that they have liked, and we would in turn provide a few recommendations of things they had never heard but would probably like.  We were a collection of khaki-panted mini-pandoras.

Except any of you who have worked in retail know that’s not the entire story.  Because saying that we provided recommendations of music we thought they would like is not exactly the entire truth.  Full disclosure, we provided recommendations that were at the intersection of what we thought they would like and what we thought they should like.  We were mini-pandoras with not-so-mini agendas– and some (well, many) bands just didn’t make the list of said agenda.

But I think that our agenda-led recommendations created more serendipity and true discoveries than some “Pandora purist” if-y0u-liked-this-you’ll-like-this recommendations ever could. Continue reading