#2: The strange attraction of Beats1

The role of radio in a streaming world, music discovery, algorithms and the power of context

Back in June, I posted the tweet above. Since posting it, I’ve wanted to revisit this observation and dig into this nagging feeling I’ve been having lately.

That is that presenter-led radio (like Beats1) is a better medium for discovery than streaming.

Perhaps my statement that Beats1 is underrated is wrong. Besides, they claim themselves to be the world’s biggest radio station. Whilst it’s impossible to verify these claims given Apple don’t publicly report the numbers, and many argue that it cannot be true, I stand by my claim that it’s a product which given its size, flies under the radar in tech circles.

It’s a product that goes against most conventional tech-product-wisdom (heavy focus on human curation vs algorithms, mostly “live” vs on-demand), and from that perspective, it’s worth exploring the mechanics and dynamics of what make it a great product, at least in my opinion.

By the way: for anyone who has missed what Beats1 is - it’s a free, 24/7, live, global “radio station”, that lives on Apple Music, that is curated and hosted by some of the world’s biggest presenters, including Zane Lowe of BBC Radio 1 fame. In addition, a number of massively popular artists curate their own shows including Drake, Elton John and Ezra Koenig.

Image result for beats1 app

It’s worth noting that I’m a heavy and dedicated Spotify customer (here’s my Spotify profile by the way), but something about the Apple Music Beats1 product keeps pulling me back for certain listening situations. I’m currently combining the two products - Beats1 for more “mindless listening” at work in addition to discovery when I’m in the mood for finding new music and Spotify for actively building playlists and listening to the music I already know I like. It’s worth mentioning here that Beats1 is actually free for all iOS users and doesn’t require an Apple Music subscription.

I think my attraction to Beats1 as a product is based around the following:

  1. Something about the in between song presenter chit-chat is soothing.

  2. I find music discovery “easier” with the help of the presenters who set context.

Context, Presenters and Discovery

As I said above, I find the process of discovery i.e. listening and finding new music far easier in the Beats1 context. I find listening through a whole “New Music” playlist on streaming platforms like Spotify challenging. I find myself getting distracted, skipping tracks without giving them a chance and eventually I give up and go back to one of my various “Favourites” playlists.

The bizarre thing is, I feel like even if the track-list was identical, the Beats1 experience is vastly different. Crazy, right? How can a presenters few words in-between songs possibly impact my listening experience (and patience) this much?

If I would try to put my finger on it, I enjoy the "journey" that a presenter takes me on.

I realise that this may sound awfully counterintuitive and perhaps speaks more to my attention-span than anything else - but I can’t help but feel there is something in this.

The journey is really about context at the end of the day. A few minutes of discussion about an artist before the track plays, the artists personal story, the curated way in which tracks flow in and out of each other to set mood - they really are powerful mechanics that do impact the listening experience. None of this should come as a surprise though - great radio DJ’s have been doing this for decades.

As the godfather of Rock Radio Fred Jacobs notes in a blog post:

“That is, the Internet generally provides the robotic, algorithmic machine that points fans in the right direction.  But only broadcast radio has the ability to provide context, entertainment value, a local sense of place, and the ability to put it in perspective.”

That idea about “sense of place” is another really important factor in my view. The older I get, the less I have my “finger on the pulse of youth culture (obviously), and I’ve found the various shows on Beats1 have helped shape this local sense of place. The emerging grime artist out of of London or the next big rock band out of Nashville. The presenter’s help you understand their journey, what influences them and how they fit into the musical landscape of right now. They may not have broken the internet yet, or be on Spotify’s Top 100 Global tracks yet, but I guess that’s really the problem with algorithmic curation. More on that below.

“In many ways, internet radio has replaced blogs. Years ago when you wanted to hear about new music you, would just go on a blog, and now I think in many ways internet radio has replaced that space for new music.” (Kate Hutchinson)

Discovery & Algorithmic Curation

During the summer I read the “Spotify Untold” (sv: Spotify Inifrån) book written by journalists Jonas Leijonhufvud and Sven Carlsson (the book is absolutely worth a read by the way) and something that really jumped out at me was how intense the discussions were with regard to algorithmic curation in the early days.

Image result for spotify inifrån

According to the authors, one of the sentiments that Daniel held dearly in the early years, was that Spotify should give you access to the world’s music, but ultimately shouldn’t tell you what you should listen to.

Clearly, and as is detailed in the book, eventually the pro-algorithm side would win that battle. Spotify has certainly become more algorithmically-driven over the past years. Whether or not Daniel and his side ultimately changed their minds, or they followed what the market was asking for - I guess I’ll never know. Anyhow, the algorithm-driven “Discover Weekly”, “Release Radar” and the “Made For You” playlists have seemingly been a huge success.

Clearly, there is a place for algorithms in music discovery. That listening to Beyonce makes you more likely to want to listen to Rihanna makes total sense and absolutely helps power discovery, however I do think, one of the risks with purely algorithmic curation is the lack of a “musical diversity”.

If I’m listening to Beyonce, sure I’m likely to want to listen to Rihanna, but something I’ve noticed on Beats1 is how often a presenter takes this concept but puts another spin on it - by playing a young artist heavily inspired by say a Beyonce. By telling a story about Beyonce’s own influences.

Spotify’s claims that they help create musical diversity - that the average user is listening to more and more unique artists, much of that due to these programmed new playlists. This is clearly a good thing for discovery.

On the other hand, one can’t ignore that streaming is increasingly dominated by a small group of amazingly successful artists such as Ed Sheeran, Drake and co. The often-quoted number floating around is that the top 10% of artists generate 99% of the streams.

Perhaps we’re listening to more artists thanks to streaming, but is the music becoming more and more similar? Some have criticised the streaming platforms suggesting that they push artists to conform to trendy standards, creating music that suits a certain playlist.

This new type of genre even has its own name - Streambait. Songs are getting shorter and shorter and the "hooks” drop earlier and earlier in songs (of course to avoid skipping). All in the name of “setting the mood”.

And to be fair: I get setting the mood. “Dinner with Friends” is a great innovation, in all its simplicity. However, with more and more people listening passively to programmed playlists - are people “actively discovering” as much music?

To link this back to Beats1, I feel like the presenters must have more freedom. More room to push the boundaries and take the listeners on a journey. The presenter drives engagement and as an engaged listener I’m more open to new things.

“Its model doesn’t code for surprise, but perpetuates “lean-back” passivity. There is no context on the platform, merely entreaties to enjoy more of the same: “You like bread? Try toast!”” (Ben Beaumont-Thomas and Laura Snapes)

Summary

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes” - Marcel Proust

Radio and human presenters and really any form of human curation helps you to open those new eyes, Presenters can drive engagement, set context, share perspective and a sense of place. They can help us develop patience, and give things a chance. Less skipping, more listening (you also cannot skip live radio of course, which helps).

Do I dislike streaming and Spotify? Absolutely not. I’ve been a paying customer for almost 10 years, and will continue to be. And you’ve got to give it to Daniel and the Spotify crew - without them the music industry would still likely be in rapid decline. Not to mention, Beats1 probably only exists because Daniel Ek and his team were so fierce in pushing the industry into streaming - and it’s clear that Apple followed Spotify into that game.

The fact is: streaming has helped break the negative trend for the music industry and for that we should be grateful.

End of the day: streaming and the likes of Spotify will only continue to grow and most likely radio will continue to decline in both relevance and prevalence. I do wonder though if we’ll miss it when it’s gone.


Until next time,

James.