Adapted from a talk at the #futuretuned Radio Days Africa conference (5-7 July 2017).
The music industry has always been at the forefront of disruption in technology and, in some ways, it seems as if there isn’t a corner of it left untouched.
A year ago at Radio Days Africa, a guy from one of the labels told the audience that they didn’t need radio anymore. He justified this by saying that subscription services are now freely available and that people can listen to what they like, without having to listen to radio’s advertising or DJs. Having spent 10 years at a major label, I know for sure is that it’s the other way around — it’s radio that doesn’t need labels.
Over the last 15 years, music consumption has changed dramatically, and the power dynamic has shifted as a result. The music is better, but it’s less valuable because it’s available everywhere (and, often, for free).
Consumers now have direct access to all the new music they could ever want through subscriptions to Streaming Services. Spotify counts more than 30 million tracks, each available anywhere and at any time.
The real shift, however, is in how consumers are listening to music in this environment. Last year, playlists overtook albums in time spent listening; a number which only continues to grow.
It’s these playlists that will be radio’s competition if Radio doesn’t instead see Streaming Services as an opportunity. Radio needs to strategically use playlists as part of a larger brand positioning and marketing strategy. I could throw around the words ‘listener’, ‘user’, and ‘audience’ fairly liberally and, for me at least, they mean similar things. But most commercial stations are only incentivised to increase their listenership. That needs to change.
In addition to music consumption, music discovery has evolved. Music is no longer spread through silos by record companies pushing their priorities, or by stations having exclusive first plays. Radio is no longer determining which songs make it. Many stations know and have adapted to this, but that’s not enough. The real opportunity lies in the curation and discovery of NEW music — something that is already part of what any station does on a daily basis.
Streaming services are addressing the discovery challenge in their own ways. Spotify acquired The Echo Nest to assist with data-driven music discovery & personalisation. Their Discover Weekly playlist is a personalised playlist aimed squarely at promoting new artists and songs. Apple’s Beats 1, on the other hand, dives straight into radio territory by creating live, on-air-like shows. If you’ve ever listened to Beats 1 you’ll have noticed that it’s engaging, on-demand content which has more in common with traditional radio than podcasting.
But South African music radio? Well, it’s complicated. I believe that to grow you have to break new music. Even if you can’t play it on air.
Before Hlaudi dropped the 90% local content bomb, 5FM’s role as a national youth station was to break new tracks. The impact that this mandate had in differentiating 5FM’s and other SABC station’s respective playlists has been substantial (whether you think it’s good or bad).
What I think is being missed, however, is the opportunity that this created. Without a national station that could play new international music, many labels and radio pluggers looked towards the top regional commercial stations to start adding new tracks and, of course, this simply isn’t their mandate.
Which brings me to an issue I have with mainstream Top 40 in a world of music streaming — that they don’t offer anything different. Imagine, instead, if these stations made Apple Music and Deezer playlists of songs not on their playlists? Streaming Services are another vehicle where stations can have a brand presence, especially one that promotes music discovery. The benefit is being able to curate a much greater variety of music.
Sometimes I think the way radio treats music in a streaming world is irrelevant. In years past the life of a song may have been determined by radio, but these days a song may burn before a station even starts playing it, because it’s been on the Apple Music or iTunes chart for the last 2 months. There’s too much pressure on humans to make the right playlisting calls.
Radio is an incredible format. Apart from the live music scene, it’s the only pervasive real-time music format that is social, embraces the New and invites every listener to be part of a tribe. It’s exactly the thing that Streaming Services don’t have — a personal and passionate relationship.
Streaming Services emphasize the personalized playlists such as Discover Weekly because the data gets as close to an intimate, unique recommendation as possible. Data is their strength and, even though users are shown to switch between playlists a lot, the engagement is high. For labels, growth in this format is incredible, but it requires curation because, with so much to listen to, how do people know what music to listen to?
Cue Curated Playlists. Just like radio plugging, the labels have playlists curation companies that you may have seen. Universal owns Digster, Sony owns Filtr, and Warner owns Topsify. Labels glean insight into streaming track performance, and use those insights to adjust worldwide marketing campaigns. There’s no reason why individual stations or media powerhouses like Kagiso Media or Primedia shouldn’t have their own mood and genre playlists to promote their brands, or research tracks before adding them to the station. Users, listeners or audiences don’t necessarily just want to hear from one label or an artist. They want to hear about everything that there is to offer from someone they trust, and radio listeners trust a station’s music judgment.
Locally, some stations build streaming playlists based on their music strategy or the chart — but if you’re simply publishing the station’s chart, why would someone tune in? Why not test some of the tracks that didn’t make it to the playlist, along with some edgier tracks that may appeal to a smaller niche within your overall market, but not enough to make them suitable for playlisting? The takeaway for radio is that you have to be a little unique on Streaming Services.
At Labs.fm, we’re firm believers that Radio can be better, and already do music recommendation reports as a service, such as which tracks are a good fit for a station to add or which tracks are in danger of burning. But, taken further, we’re able to look at audiences, recommend growing niche tracks, as well as build and manage those playlists. These are the kinds of activities that make sure a music strategy can compete with streaming playlisting, and also serve as extensions of a station’s brand.
It’s interesting to note that while Spotify publicly displays the playlist follower count, Apple music does not. BBC R1, with their over 400 000 followers can’t call those numbers ‘listeners’, but if surveyed, how would a Spotify user interpret the question “Have you listened to BBC Radio 1 over the last 7 days?” Perhaps, then, the greatest threat to radio is the way listeners are counted right now. Because if that Spotify user answers yes, or attended the BBC Big Weekend, I’d call them part of BBC 1’s “AUDIENCE.”
I make the case for Radio playlists because I believe these could not only provide valuable research data for radio but also be another Brand touchpoint. By aggregating many playlists, radio can be made a lot better, and stations can gain wider Audiences. I want radio programmers and compilers to use data and streaming playlists to be adventurous and take more risks. Stations have such a wealth of knowledge and listener trust. If other mediums such as playlists, podcasts and events aren’t prioritised, there’s no incentive for stations to do anything outside of traditional radio, and they’d be missing a massive opportunity.
You can listen to the full, original talk from Radio Days Africa on Iono.