With yesterday’s Apple Music announcement, some expected things happened: they announced a streaming service (a whole 7 years after Spotify launched), some celebrities were involved in a cringeworthy manner (sticking-it-to-the-man is officially dead), and nobody received a U2 album. But what wasn’t on everyone’s betting slip was Beats 1. The biggest tech company in the world, a pioneer of musical consumption innovation, was launching a good old fashioned radio station. Huh?
I’m torn. As a radio lover who misspent his degree doing unpaid internships and ridiculous volunteer hours at a mixture of stations across the South-East, it’s heartening to see radio taking centre stage in the cultural discussion. But at the same time, I’m a realist. I’ve seen stations crumble after storming out of the blocks with money, an inspirational vision, and enough gung-ho bluster to make a Texas oil baron blush. Sure, none on a scale anywhere near Beats 1, but does anyone actually want another internet radio station?
Consider me corrected. So, Beats1 is a linear radio station of the type that is DYING in all countries. Ho hum. https://t.co/qC1UVFiLDs— James Cridland (@JamesCridland) June 8, 2015
Its promise about new music will get it some cultural goodwill points, but pretty much every new specialist station in the world promises that. More fail than succeed. We have this weird tendency with credible cultural experiences in that we generally want to encourage them, but our tone often changes when it’s time to pay up, turn up, or shut up. Culturally forward-thinking magazines, media organisations, music websites *ahem* may start with pure, admirable intentions but many will either close down or alter their output to survive.
So how does Beats 1 avoid becoming the Google+ of major radio stations? A me too service that works just fine, but nobody really needed or wanted. A project that serves the grand visions of its creators but not the desires of its audience. Here’s where we think it needs to deliver:
1. Have A Better Plan Than Just Big Names
I get the importance of selling an ideal, but we still haven't been told much about what this service will offer other than it being live 24/7 and that they've hooked in some big DJs. But if you think Zane Lowe and some rhetoric about music is enough to drive a critical mass of users, you’ve clearly forgotten (or never heard of) MFlow. The music service he championed back in 2010, where you could buy tracks but also stream it for free if someone else sent it to you, and you could also make money if they bought it but in credits and it was only 20% or something and... hmmm. If that sounds a bit odd, that’s because it was, and the service shut down in 2012. While Zane didn’t have an on-air presence there, it showed that nobody is flocking to your platform just because of some high-profile curators. Search "from:ZaneLowe mflow" on Twitter and you'll see how heavily he was trying to push this product back in 2010.
I am now up and on @mflow. Its a brand new music site where you can buy and recommend music. They are calling it itunes meets Twitter.— Zane Lowe (@zanelowe) March 25, 2010
Hands up all who are paying for Tidal… yeah, there’s my point about big names. Turns out we love familiar faces and celebrities in spaces where we're already present, but getting us to change core habits without offering something infinitely better can be a step too far. Switching from carrying 12-track CDs to 20,000 track MP3 players, massive bonus (audiophiles aside). Spotify to Tidal, why? It's a hassle. Switching to a new internet radio station instead of doing all other possible things? Show us the benefits!
2. Regular, MASSIVE Content
Now I'm going to backtrack slightly and say that the service will still need a level of access to these major names that's unrivalled anywhere in entertainment. They will have a place, and they can be key to getting people to stick around while some of the less familiar music plays. Beats 1 will need to be producing must-listen content on a level of Zane's big one-on-one interviews on a monthly, if not weekly basis. To merit its desired place as THE number one 'proper' music station on the planet, it needs to be playing the big names that everyone else might be playing, but using them on a level that nobody else is able to.
Get this right, and it's a win-win for everyone. The listener will get in-depth insight into some of the best creative minds of our time, the big acts can cement their place at the top of the cultural pillar without having to act like a clown on social media, and the emerging acts can benefit by being exposed to the audience that it brings. For example, I specifically remember tuning into Zane's show for a Lower Than Atlantis session (not a MASSIVE act, but I was there to hear them, roll with it) a few years back and being stunned by this one from EVILALIEN, who were totally unknown.
WARNING: This video has female nipples in. So don't watch it if you're in a church.
3. Be A BBC Station For The World
Branded radio stations aren’t a new thing. In fact, the station that I listen to the most times a week is probably Co-Op Radio (a real thing), and I once applied for a job at Subway Radio*. They’re an interesting concept, by owning their own media channel, the crippling needs of a commercial station to appease advertisers vanishes. Sure, they need to occasionally shill frozen peas, meal deals, or 2-for-1 on semi-skimmed milk, but they don’t have to fret about audience figures and can thus create the exact experience they want to in order to appeal to their audience. They can take risks with emerging artists, even if the store workers hate it. Similar to the BBC, where Zane went from a cult figure to a global musical authority.
Beats 1, like Radio 1, will probably never have to worry about making enough money to keep the lights on. This means they can experiment, innovate, and have failures that other stations simply can’t risk. If they don't take full advantage of this situation then digital media as a whole was a waste of time.
*I didn't get it. Still bitter about that one.
4. 'Johnny Rotten-To-The-Core'
They need to have a punk show, with that title. Because apples have cores, get it? That's all.
5. Work Out The Cultural Equation
Beats 1 will be actively broadcasting to over 100 countries. Given that the Internet is a global thing (trust me, it's a big deal), this doesn't exactly differentiate it from any of the other bajillion internet radio stations out there that you already can't be bothered to listen to. But the fact is, it's aiming for a relatively mainstream audience on a global level. There is not a single broadcaster that has done this successfully in the past using a 'live' format like Beats 1 (as opposed to an on-demand service like Nutflux.)
Working out a way to make a station - or even a wider brand with multiple stations - that drives listeners in major markets on every continent is going to be a game changer. It's more than just language and picking local celebrities, it's understanding what connects the hipster in Shoreditch with the tech-savvy teen in Seoul, the Indian with her first smart phone, and generally all of the people depicted in that video I shared at the beginning of the article. What is something which will resonate with all of them?
If you say 'music' or 'Apple' to that question then I will cry. If the answer was that simple then I would've thought of it a long time ago, and some of those unpaid internships I mentioned would've been paid ones with very rapid promotions.
[Dear Tim Cook, if the answer really is 'Apple' or 'music' then drop me a line. We need to talk about this great idea I have involving 'Apple' and 'music'.]
Andy is a Supajam writer who has had music-based roles at numerous Commerical, BBC and Student radio stations over the last 8 years. He put on shows with bands you've probably heard of for about 5 years. He is currently typing in third-person. You can tweet abuse at him if you fancy letting off some steam.