Beats 1 and the Relevance of Modern Radio

Several weeks ago, Apple officially unveiled their streaming music strategy: Apple Music, a service much like Spotify or Google Play Music in that you, the consumer, pay a monthly fee to gain streaming access to a catalog of on-demand albums. In this case, the catalog is every track available in the iTunes Music Store, which competes favorably with everything available on Spotify, et al. None of that stuff caught my attention.

On-demand streaming services have their place, to be sure, and Spotify in particular has brought a lot of interesting innovations to music consumers, particularly the ability for users to offer playlists that other users can “follow”. But for me, none of these services provide a sufficiently-compelling solution to the music discovery problem. When your primary method of finding music is by searching for songs you already know, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever hear any music you don’t already know. Music consumers who rely on Spotify alone are more likely to become bored with music in general, for this very reason. Spotify and Google Play have made some recent strides with the introduction of themed, curated playlists that can be browsed by mood (or, in Google’s case, offered to the user depending on time of day), and these are great. But they’re still not as good as radio.

“Still not as good as radio”. That’s a sentence I never expected I’d write. How well I remember purchasing my first MP3 player back in 2001, thinking myself at last free from the “tyranny” of radio: the constant commercials, the never-ending barrage of Lynyrd Skynyrd… With my new MP3 player, I could listen to whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted! And I did– for several years. There was so much that I lost along the way. Music had been a social experience, one of the few things that united everyone in town. Our radio stations were the embers beneath us– burning some, leaving others cold, but giving us all a communal source of warmth. When we moved away from radio, we became isolated. I sought out concert after concert, looking for a way to have that communal music experience again, even if only for an hour or two at a time.

Of course, “radio” as a concept never went away. Local radio stations still exist, an undying wellspring of Toby Keith and ads for dentists. And then there’s Internet radio. Someone sets up a server and streams their playlists out to the world. You, the user, use a program like iTunes to connect to these streaming playlists, and listen for however long you like. You could say they’re ubiquitous– I’d say there’s too many of them. The more choices you have, the less interested you become in any of them, like staring at the wall of beer at BevMo. That’s to say nothing of the cold, impersonal nature of Internet radio– your DJ is a computer program, and it never sleeps.

Some folks tell me that radio is dead, that there’s no point to it now that we have Spotify. “I can listen to any song I want, anytime I want”, they say. “Why would I want to hear music that was chosen by someone other than me? Why would I want to call in a request? That concept just doesn’t work anymore.” But I disagree. I look at the popularity of Twitch, of live-tweeting popular TV shows, and I see an unserved market: folks that want to consume content and never feel alone. I missed radio, and I could see where maybe I’d be alone in that. But still, I felt certain that radio as a concept could still thrive today– as long as there were no commercials, the music was well-curated, and interesting on-air personalities could be brought in to help make it all feel like a more communal experience.

Enter Beats 1. It’s the one part of the Apple Music announcement that did catch my attention: an online radio station with DJs, scheduled programming, artist interviews, artists serving as guest DJs, and a crew straight out of the BBC– long considered the home of some of the world’s best, most relevant radio stations. It would be provided to everyone with an iPhone or a copy of iTunes, whether or not they signed up for Apple Music. And best of all, it would be live.

I signed up for Apple Music as soon as it became available at 8:00 this morning, and have been listening to it all day. Most of the music is great! Even when there are songs I don’t like, it’s a great experience being able to follow along with other listeners by checking to see what folks are saying about Beats 1 on Twitter. It’s too early to say whether or not this will be the music discovery tool I’ve been missing for all these years, but I certainly don’t want to be without this sort of service again.