The Demise of Radio

In the New York times article about the plight of traditional radio, Richard Siklos sums up the problem in one sentence, while talking about a particular commuter who has tuned out over the air stations:

Mr. Glassman, who is 51, said he turned a deaf ear to radio primarily because of the advertising and because he finds the playlists of his favorite stations too mainstream and limited.

It’s a two-headed monster that is killing traditional radio.  The first is the limited playlist that appeals to a very limited demographic.  Back in the day, narrowly crafted stations weren’t an option and so people found the station that was closest to their taste and stuck with it.  Now, thanks to satellite radio and online services, there are an infinite number of programming choices.  What used to be good enough simply isn’t any longer.

The other, of course, is advertising.  I’ve talked about it plenty- people’s lives are hectic and stressful enough these days.  They will no longer tolerate someone screaming in their ear about how some car dealer will not be undersold, etc.  People want radio, which is primarily a car-based experience, to be a relaxing influence- not just another run at their wallet.

It’s funny though.  I talked the other night about listening to WOWO at night on my little transistor radio when I was a kid.  I bet I logged hundreds of hours listening as I fell asleep.  I don’t remember the ads.  I’m sure they were there.  Maybe they have gotten more intrusive.  Maybe now that I am part of the targeted demographic, I have lost the ability to tune them out.  Maybe technology like XM and TIVO have spoiled me. I just know that I can’t remember hearing the ads I can no longer tolerate on WOWO when I was a kid.

And I know that for a few bucks a month, I don’t have to tolerate them.  That, together with portable music players and CD-Rs full of MP3s, is what will eventually spell the end of traditional radio.

Right now, the majority of radio listeners (230 million to 11 million) still suffer through traditional radio.  That tells us two things.

One, that there are other negative forces at work against traditional radio, such as the loss of greater numbers of younger listeners.  My hunch is that many of the people who listen to traditional radio are casual listeners- who have the radio on because it is the only option in the car, but who are not committed listeners.  I also expect more and more people are gravitating towards talk and sports radio, which is generally local by defintion and probably less subject to listener erosion than music radio.

Two, what is a bad situation now for traditional radio is only going to get worse and more and more people gravitate to other music sources.

HD Radio will stem the bleeding, but it won’t stop the migration to ad-free pastures.  Radio stations can go online, but that doesn’t help the narrow playlist problem.

If there’s a way for traditional radio to regain momentum, I certainly can’t see it.

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Where It Ain’t in Music Discovery

I have to disagree with Fred Wilson about finding new music.

Pandora and Last.fm are absolutely, positively and without a doubt the holy grail of music discovery. I have discovered more good, new music on those sites in the past month than I have in all of my years of blog reading.

It’s not about spoonfeeding- it’s about algorithms (be they mathematical or social) that help you find music you like, but have never heard. Whether that’s music on a 20 year old record or music freshly uploaded by the artist is immaterial.

I have traditionally favored Pandora slightly over Last.fm, but with the new design and added features, Last.fm has pulled even in the two horse race for dominance in music discovery. Here’s my Last.fm page for anyone interested, and here’s Fred’s.

If you, like me, are an alternative country fan, you can add Twangville to the mix for a trifecta. If you like live classic rock, add one more site to the list: Vault Radio.

And I have to agree with Bob Lefsetz, particularly when he writes:

I’ve got XM. I’ve got Sirius. I’m not living in the world of terrestrial. I never want to hear another commercial AGAIN! I just want music. All the time.

and:

“Remember how you used to rush home to play your favorite records? How you needed nobody else in the room to feel joy? How you played the same track for an hour straight?”

I remember the first time I heard Paul Kennerly’s ensemble record The Legend of Jesse James. I listened to Charlie Daniels sing Northfield: The Disaster over 100 times in a row over a week or so. Not one other song entered my ears that week. It was spiritual. And it’s still one of the best songs I have ever heard.

Now back to Fred.

He says that the place to mine for new music is the mp3 blogs. He gives no link to them, because they are distributed. It’s like those cats in that commercial. They’re out there somewhere, but getting them to one place is a chore.

Yes, there’s The Hype Machine, which I think is a pretty neat web site. But unless it wants to change its name to The Next RIAA Defendant, it is going to be limited in the scope of music it can include. Don’t get me wrong, I like The Hype Machine, but Pandora it is not.

Blogs are great, and some of them feature good new music. But, in general, blogs are where it ain’t as far as discovering new music without a lot of unnecessary effort. Heck, even podcasts are far better suited for that purpose. One of the reasons we do the RanchoCasts is to help people discover new music.

New music doesn’t mean music that was just made. It means music that is new to the listener. When I became a huge blues fan a decade or so ago, a new universe of new music suddenly became available to me- little of it made after 1980.

I’m all about unsigned bands and new music that hasn’t been manufactured by the star maker machinery behind the popular song, but let’s not get carried away.

There is an almost unlimited universe of new music waiting at Pandora and Last.fm. And it doesn’t take herding cats to find it.

Bring Out Yer Dead: The Last Days of Traditional Radio

Bring out yer dead.
Here’s one.
I’m not dead.
He says he’s not dead.
Yes he is.
I’m not.
Well, he will be soon, he’s very ill.
I’m getting better.
No you’re not, you’ll be stone dead in a moment.

-Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Podcasting News reports today that podcasting and MP3 players are stealing listeners from traditional over the air radio. Cited is a study by Bridge Ratings, which predicts that by 2010, traditional radio’s current 94% penetration will have sunk to 85%.

According to the study, 27% of people 12-24 attribute their reduced use of radio to MP3 use; 22% attributed it to tired radio programming; 3% attributed it to podcast listening.

Other than the podcasting number, which seems about 10 times too high, those numbers sound pretty logical to me. I wonder, however, why there wasn’t consideration of the migration to satellite radio. My guess is that satellite radio, which is largely ad-free, will be the biggest threat to traditional radio.

Fred Wilson thinks HD Radio may save the traditional radio format. Perhaps, but I still say the desire for no ads will trump the desire for higher audio quality.

I believe that what’s killing traditional radio, and particularly FM radio, is its dependence on ads as the major revenue source. You can get away with ads for sporting events and other exclusive programming, but not music. No way. Not anymore.

The world is too flat for traditional advertising to fly. This is true in every media, and it is especially true for music. The smart PR firms out there are huddled in conference rooms thinking up some revolutionary marketing strategy that we haven’t seen yet. Mark my words- in 5 years advertising will be a lot different than it is today and in 10 years it will be a completely different industry.

Entire companies have been launched in the name of ad-avoidance. There’s simply no way people are going to continue to listen to over the top car ads and other nonsense just to hear the same songs they can hear without ads via an MP3 player or satellite radio. I often burn a CD-R with MP3’s and listen to it for a few days in shuffle mode. As the CD and DVD recording technology becomes more widespread and as auto makers continue to put better technology in cars, this trend will continue.

So what does traditional radio do? It has one major revenue source- and it is the exact one that will not work long term.

Traditional radio is dead. The only question is what will take its place.

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Pandora and Last.fm Move Over

Here comes Vault Radio.

If someone decided to create a radio station that would capture and keep my attention to the exclusion of most other musical endeavors, they could not do a better job that this.

Here’s the skinny from the Vault Radio page:

Bill Graham and his concert promotion company, Bill Graham Presents, produced more than 35,000 concerts all over the world. His first venue, the legendary Fillmore Auditorium, was home to many of rock’s greatest performers – Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Doors, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Prince – and the list goes on and on.

Graham taped thousands of live performances and stored the tapes in the basement of the BGP headquarters.

These tapes and the concerts they captured lay dormant until the Bill Graham archive was acquired by Wolfgang’s Vault (Bill Graham’s given first name was Wolfgang) in 2003.

Vault Radio is now playing selected tracks from these concerts in an FM-quality, 128K digital radio stream. Songs will be added to and removed from the radio show on a regular basis. We will be broadcasting unaltered live performance music from many of the greatest bands of the last 40 years. The music you hear on Vault Radio has not been sweetened or polished. You’ll be listening to what the band played that night – nothing more, nothing less.

Cheers!

Cheers indeed.

Steve Newson on Pandora

Steve Newson posted about his love for Pandora recently, setting forth why he likes it better than Last.fm.

I found two things interesting about his post.

First, he gets to the central difference between the two applications. Last.fm is based on what people who listen to the same artists you listen to like. It’s a social recommendation thing. There’s nothing wrong with that- it just is what it is. Pandora, on the other hand, actually plays songs with the same musical structure as songs you have indicated you like.

It reminds me of a running debate I have with another songwriter I know. I believe very deeply that someone with a nice voice could sing any lyrics at all, even nonsense, and if the melody, arrangement and playing are great, the song will be generally considered a good song. I know that when I hear a song on the radio that grabs me, 95% of the time it’s because of the melody and arrangement and the playing- not because of the lyrics. My friend thinks that’s hogwash and that a song needs strong, well crafted lyrics to be good.

He’s a Last.fm guy and I’m a Pandora guy.

Second, Steve mentions Howie Day. Here’s a small world moment: a good friend of mine (who grew up in Maine) is a friend of his. I heard about Howie long before he became popular. I still haven’t heard much of his music, but I’ve heard a lot about him from my friend.

I enjoy both Last.fm and Pandora. I just find that the new music I hear on Pandora is consistently closer to what I like than the new songs I hear anywhere else.

Fred's Radio, Annotated

Don’t it make you want to rock and roll
All night long Mohammed’s Radio
I heard somebody singing sweet and soulful
On the radio, Mohammed’s Radio

Several of us have been talking about the relative merits of Pandora vs. the Last.fm player as a way to find good music you’ve never heard. Fred Wilson really digs Last.fm. I like Last.fm, but so far I’m more sold on Pandora.

Fred’s one of my Last.fm “friends” so I thought I’d fire up his Personal Radio and see what songs played and what I think about them. Here are the first 10 that played and my thoughts about them:

1) Ween – Take Me Away. Though Fred and I like a lot of the same music, his tastes are chronologically broader than mine. I know everything about music prior to 1990 and almost nothing about music after 1995. Ween is sort of in between- I’ve heard a few of their songs, but not many. This one doesn’t do much for me.

2) Cat Power – Willie. My God, what a beautiful song! It sent a shiver up my spine. Perfectly beautiful. Great use of horns. A 10+.

3) M. Ward – Paul’s Song. I’ve read about M. Ward on Fred’s blog, but this is the first song of his I’ve ever heard. Fred, if you like this guy, go check out Bill Morrissey’s first 4 records. Good writing. I like it, but I’ve got Cat Power on my brain now.

4) Nirvana – Where Did You Sleep Last Night. As a general rule, I’m not big on the whole grunge thing. But this song actually has a melody, perhaps because it’s a cover of an old blues song. I’m no Nirvana fan, but this sounds good.

5) Rolling Stones – Stop Breaking Down. Fred and I share a love of Exile on Main Street. I love this song.

6) Peter Green Splinter Group – Running After You. Peter Green, the original force behind the first and better incarnation of Fleetwood Mac was one of the greatest guitar players in the world until he basically went mad. Peter Green average is better than just about anyone else’s finest moment. Not an earth shattering song, but any Peter Green is good.

7) Billy Bragg & Wilco – Airline to Heaven. Fine song off of the second Mermaid Avenue record. Good 12 string guitar.

8) Kings of Convenience – Misread. Never heard of this band before. Mellow indy sound. I like it, but I don’t love it. This would be a good song to listen to sitting on a deck overlooking some water on a fall day.

9) The Flaming Lips – Fight Test. I assume Cat Stevens got co-writing credit for this song, because it is virtually identical in melody and close in lyrics to Father and Son, one of Cat’s best songs. I like it a lot, but I keep thinking of the original song when I hear it.

10) The Zutons – Moons and Horror Shows. Never heard of them either. Great folksy number, that actually turns into an even better song half way through. I like it a lot.

All in all, I am pretty impressed by Fred’s Radio. Last.fm will become a significant part of my music listening experience. But I still slightly prefer Pandora.

Let's Trade Music Ideas

One of the many things I like about Fred Wilson’s blog is his musical tastes and the way he writes about music. The best new song I heard last year (Josh Rouse’s Dressed Up Like Nebraska) was discovered via Fred’s blog.

So the other day I noticed those new, red song and artist charts on the left side of his blog. I went and dug around the Last.fm site a little and decided that sharing playlists this way would be a great way to learn about new music. So I signed up, downloaded the plug-in that allows Last.fm to track what I listen to on our music server (other than the occasional A-Teens song by Cassidy, I’m the only one who ever uses the server, so almost all of the music on there is mine). I added Fred and a couple other people I know as “friends” and am looking forward to sharing playlists and discovering some new music.

You can see my Last.fm page here and via the link in the left hand column of this page. Check out my playlist- it’s alternative country, classic rock, blues and blues rock focused. If you share my musical tastes, sign up at Last.fm and add me as a friend. I’ll reciprocate and we can start mining for new music.