Tag Archives: radio

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.

Radio’s Suffocating Security Blanket

It can be tempting to shrug off terrestrial radio as a quaint reminder of years’ past, nostalgically nestled between the cassette and the CD on history’s shelf.  But despite the tech transformation of the past decade, old school FM radio remains by far our most popular source of music.

The real surprise is what has happened within radio during this same decade.  Beset by competitive threats, radio has responded by becoming dramatically narrower in their focus on what’s most familiar.  As evidenced in the chart below from the Wall Street Journal, radio played the biggest hits of 2013 nearly twice as much as the top songs of 2003.


As evidenced by the endless stream of superheroes in our cineplexes, a greater reliance on fewer blockbusters is an increasingly popular strategy for entertainment companies.  When a handful of smash hits account for the lion’s share of your profits for the entire year, it can be good business to big on a select few (if you would like for a HBS professor to repeat this sentence over and over again, there is a book that you might like).

Seeing themselves in an escalating fight for listener attention, radio has placed their bets on the belief that their consumers are likely to continue listening when they hear something familiar and turn the channel (or turn the radio off altogether) when they hear something they don’t know.  From this, radio surmised that they should just shut up and play the hit. Continue reading

Day 19: A Song that You Wish You Heard on the Radio

I’ve been hyping J. Cole on this blog for a while now, and his rapid rise continues to be a bit of a live case study on how to create a music superstar in 2010.  Even though I rarely listen to the radio and haven’t watched MTV in months, seldom does a week go by in which I’m not hit by another bit of original content by or about Jermaine.  And at the heart of this prominence is a blindingly-simple secret to contemporary marketing: make stuff.

Music blogs, much like any other contemporary democratized media outlet, don’t (often) write about an artist because someone pays them or because someone calls them up and convinces them to do so.  Rather, they cover content; their currency is the new.  So, if you’re a brand like J. Cole and want to stay front and center, make stuff.  Lots of stuff.  Freestyles, mixtapes, interviews, concert clips, leaked tracks, make it all.  Focus your energy on being prolific, not on being perfect.  For reasons like those mentioned in the above mini-interview with Just Blaze (awesome producer), don’t be too protective of your content or your brand.  Let other people see you playing around, and let others play around with your content.  But if you’re a contemporary brand, don’t spend so much time talking about yourself.  Just go make stuff.

If I hadn’t been up to 3am playing cards (yes I did win, thanks), I would more formally sketch out the J. Cole case study.  But for now, enjoy his new single (that dropped about a month ago, which means that it will have been released probably four months prior to commercial release), and also enjoy a re-mix no doubt carefully-crafted as Just Blaze described.  Be forewarned: the beat is hot and the lyrics dirty.  I’ll share some softer stuff for my folkier fans in the days to come.

Who Dat, J. Cole

And the hilariously-freestyled Joell Ortiz re-mix, hitting up everyone from Brett Favre to the Energizer Bunny to the Wizard of Oz.

Joell Ortiz – Who Dat (DIRTY)

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