First Listen: What Beats Music Means For Broadcast Radio

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For the last several years, the Clear Channel talking point on Pandora, from Bob Pittman down, has been some variant on “it’s not radio, it’s a playlist generator.”

The broadcaster’s intent is to diminish its pureplay rival, but in many ways, Pandora is more radio than radio. Much of broadcast radio has been on a 30-year-mission to deliver “more music, less talk, and no bad songs.” Pandora is that, plus listeners decide for themselves what the bad songs are.  It doesn’t attempt to offer a bigger-than-life radio entertainment experience, but neither do many radio stations these days.

iTunes Radio, unveiled last September, offered numerous streaming “radio formats,” many of them showing the kind of musical creativity that the Infinite Dial is supposed to foster. But there was no attempt to offer a produced/hosted/real-time, radio-style shared experience, even though Apple has the resources to do so.

Beats Music, launched Jan. 21 amidst extensive fanfare, clearly has the resources to offer a radio-type experience as well. Its musical curators – – the service’s calling card – – are drawn from other music sites, the music blogs and radio, notably former KIIS Los Angeles APD/KYSR PD Julie Pilat. By now, you’ve read as many reviews of Beats as a music service as you want, but nobody has talked about where it fits in on the radio landscape.

Beats co-creator Jimmy Iovine is also chairman of Interscope Records, which has a pretty good relationship with radio — six out of the top 10 songs at mainstream top 40 this week. Like Apple, Beats Music has the resources to disrupt radio, but not the impetus. So while that term “playlist generator” would be particularly derisive to the Beats crew, playlists are their business and radio is not.

As reported extensively elsewhere, Beats Music’s calling cards are its wide variety of curated playlists, as well as the ability to create a customized “Right Now” stream by specifying usage, mood, etc. There is the Spotify-like ability to listen to a large percentage of the music currently in print, although that’s much less prominent here. There are whole albums to listen to — current and catalog – each meant to suggest a record store employee’s staff pick.

Unlike Pandora, iTunes, or even Spotify, what doesn’t exist is a continuous stream of recent hit music from major formats. And in the first few days, if you were looking for top 40 hits, there was relatively little overlap between Beats Music’s broadly defined pop genre and what plays on top 40 radio today.

On Tuesday, if you went to the genres tab and chose “pop,” the choices were creative but relatively eclectic–“Guest List: Rihanna Collaborations,” “Behind the Board: Max Martin”; “Best of Eurovision,” and “Pop Gems 2004” are just a few. For recent Top 40 hits, you had to go to KAMP (97.1 Amp Radio) Los Angeles’ playlists on the guest curators page, or Popcrush’s playlists.

My self-created pop playlist came out particularly broad. I asked the “Right Now” feature for pop music to drive to and got a few hits (Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” Maroon 5’s “Wake-Up Call,” Gwen Stefani’s “Rich Girl”) with an unusual assortment of others, none currents, ranging from Avril Lavigne’s “Nobody’s Home” to Drake’s “I’m Goin’ In” to Kylie Minogue’s “Better The Devil You Know,” a 1990 international hit to Sean Kingston & Justin Bieber’s “Eenie Meenie.”

That playlist notwithstanding, Beats Music in most other places lives up to its stated intention of being better curated than similar offerings. Even if there’s no intent, it’s also better programmed from a radio standpoint. A lot of other pureplays feel very random, especially when they venture outside alternative or current pop music, as if a 22-year-old was hurriedly loading in scores of albums with which they had only a passing familiarity. Listen to Beats Music for Country or Oldies and you’ll hear a mix of hits and lesser-known songs that have some importance to the genre.

Even among Tuesday’s eclectic choices, I also did manage to find the thing that most often motivates me to venture beyond broadcast radio — songs that should be CHR hits but aren’t yet – but through a weird back channel. The recommended “Katy Perry’s Tourmates” playlist was full of songs from the last few years that would sound great on mainstream top 40 from the likes of Ladyhawke, Robyn, and others, but weren’t on the format’s radar.

Finally, on Thursday, I went back to the pop genres tab and found two playlists that hadn’t existed or been easily findable on Tuesday. One was “Top 25: Pop,” mostly hits but with one should-be hit, Betty Who’s “Somebody Loves You.” The other playlist was the one I’d been looking for, “Trending Tracks: Pop,” with the new singles from Shakira & Rihanna, Christina Perri, Calvin Harris, Imagine Dragons, Naughty Boy, Dev, Mary Lambert, and eight songs I didn’t know. It was hard for me to imagine that somebody would hire Pilat and not let her pick the hits, but there they were finally.

Over the last year or two, an undeserved amount of energy has gone into speculating on whether Pandora and other pureplays cannibalize radio or listening to one’s own music collection. (The answer turned out to be “both, to some degree.”) On Tuesday, the apparent target audience was people who like at least a little more adventure than mainstream radio can offer. Broadcasters would probably be thrilled if Beats Music fragmented Pandora, or took the $10 a month that might have otherwise gone to a satellite radio subscription.

So far, it’s still easiest to see Beats emerging as a competitor to Spotify, whose most attractive features include its deep library and wide variety of playlists. While detractors harp on Pandora’s “machine-made” programming, it has in recent years emerged (likely with human help) as very hit-driven. Beats Music at the outset was staying well out of the battle between broadcast radio and Pandora to deliver more music, fewer interruptions, and no bad songs.

But no pureplay can steer away from broadcast radio entirely. Like Pandora or Spotify, you can’t listen to Beats Music and broadcast radio at the same time. Like any other pureplay, it will be another excuse for a certain type of 17-year-old to get music anywhere other than FM. And even those entities that begin by selling musical adventure, such as satellite radio or Pandora, gravitate to something more mass-appeal eventually. Maybe the top 25 playlists in pop, Country, and Alternative were always there. If they weren’t, it’s not hard to imagine user demand forcing their creation within 48 hours.

And even for radio’s sake, I’m not sure that Beats should steer clear of the pop mainstream. Pilat is probably the most qualified person to program a station that one step ahead of broadcast top 40. At a time when no more than a half-dozen CHR stations can be said to be actively looking for new music, would it not be useful, even to radio, to have another national platform that could break songs? Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” is the No. 1 selling song this week, and I have no doubt that its prominent showcases in the early days of iTunes Radio helped prime the pump.

Meanwhile, Beats Music’s debut is once again an opportunity for broadcasters to look at the “radio vs. playlist” characterization and ask if they are in fact doing the “radio” they espouse. No pureplay has yet chosen to be the medium where an unseen companion says something funny or insightful over a song intro that makes two people, separated by a hundred miles (or more, now) look up at the same time. Maybe the pureplays don’t see the value. Do broadcasters truly see it themselves?

5 replies
  1. Bill
    Bill says:

    Interesting analysis but judging from the amount of free music being shared, it’s tough to imagine any service catching on with a price tag. There are too many free sites for music discovery.
    Your last paragraph really nails it.

    Reply
  2. Keith Berman
    Keith Berman says:

    Sean, I’m interested to hear how you think Beats stacks up against Slacker, who has been offering the “curated-by-humans stations” option for a while, along with the build-your-own playlists and defintely seems to have made an effort over the past year to widen their offerings.

    Reply
  3. Sean Ross
    Sean Ross says:

    Beats and Slacker are trying to do a lot of the same things, Keith, and Slacker definitely deserves a mention. Slacker has a similar musical sensibility but more “radio” functionality. If Beats offered format streams and not just playlists, they would definitely be in the same neighborhood.

    Reply
  4. Sam
    Sam says:

    I was fortunate enough to be invited into Beats by Julie for an early sneak preview of the app last year. The product is dope, the staff is top notch and the potential is there.

    But Beats is not really about a unique listening experience. The difference between what Beats offers vs that of Spotify, Pandora, Rdio and Slacker is really nuance when you drill down on it. What Beats offers that none of those others offer is the Beats brand. It’s like what the iPhone was two years ago, the iPod was in 2005 and the Sony Walkman was in 1983.

    Beats will be catering to the 17-year olds in all of us who want to be a part of Beats culture. What will be interesting is to see if there’s enough of us who are willing to pay the $120/year so that, unlike its competitors, Beats internet radio service can enjoy the similar profitability Beats headphones does.

    Reply

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