Everyone saw it coming, but in June of this year, the world's most valuable company launched a music streaming service. There were plenty of keen-eyed critics who saw more to Apple's 2014 Beats acquisition than a range of fancy-looking headphones (the buyout of course included the then-fledgling streaming platform, Beats Music), and that the move was the beginning of the inevitable evolution of iTunes that would see the company take hold of the digital music business all over again. And that it made Dr. Dre the self-proclaimed 'first billionaire in hip hop'.
But what no-one seemed so interested in predicting – even after Radio 1's longstanding new music talisman Zane Lowe was reported to have upped sticks for Cupertino – was that the company would launch a radio station, since revealed as Beats1, along with its streaming service.
Nobody expected it because video (YouTube) had already killed the radio star, right? Wrong. It's because the likes of Spotify, Deezer, Rdio and Tidal (OK, maybe not Tidal) – with their teeming catalogues of all the records you've ever and never heard before – replaced the radio star; and replaced them with, in the spirit of today's selfie-obsessed digital universe, you or anyone else with £9.99 (or thereabouts) going spare each month. Right?
Not quite. In fact, radio appears to be very much alive in 2015, whether in its traditional wave-based form, via online-only audio broadcast platforms or – if you'll allow the slight stretch of definition here, we'll address this at greater length shortly – in disruptive multimedia-driven enterprises such as Boiler Room that are adapting radio's core aspects to a still relatively new medium.
With the increasing appeal and popular uptake of streaming services, however, there is a risk that radio will be among the first casualties that are somewhat par for the course when it comes to mass adoption of technological advancements (how many people do you see squeezing a CD Walkman into their pocket these days?) And in such circumstances, it is the specialist offerings that are more often than not first on the pyre.
Whether it be the BBC's 6 Music offering, which narrowly avoided termination of service in 2010, or more recent examples such as former lukewarm indie haven XFM's transformation from dedicated "alternative music" station into Radio X – which is aimed with no apparent self-awareness at capturing the UK's oh-so-pitifully-underserved audience of 25-44 year old men – the reasons for withdrawing support are often coldly financial and, sparing change.org petitions perhaps, largely unavoidable.
The new face of Radio X, Chris Moyles, makes his return to the airwaves after a nearly four year absence to front what Global Radio – XFM/Radio X's parent company – is calling the "first truly male-focused" station. Which will, by all accounts, blast out humanity's finest dad rock discographies from sun up to down. It sounds like a radio station version of Top Gear and is probably going to make loads of money, which is great for corporate bankrollers Gillette and O2 but perhaps not so for that up-and-coming bedroom producer who's been living off Pot Noodles to save up money for ancient synths or the garage band whose lead singer has sold their Ford Fiesta to pay for a demo recording.
So, will radio as fans know it soon be consigned a lifeless role of 'content marketing platform', propped up by brands and fronted by "big personalities"? (Read into those quotation marks what you will.)
The fact is that, for many, there remains an enduring, perhaps somewhat nostalgic appeal to radio – not dissimilar to that enjoyed by vinyl versus, say, CDs or mini-discs – and it's visible not only in the success of cultural idolatry such BBC Three's hit The Office-meets-Ali G mockumentary series, People Just Do Nothing, but also actively so in the crop of new stations and hybrid platforms that continue to spring up from the UK's fervent underground. When Rinse FM was granted its community radio license by OfCom in 2010, it was seen – and rightly so – as a huge achievement not only for the station but for the wider music scenes that it had played such a vital role in developing and supporting. There are still plenty who can recall their first encounter with John Peel, or their introduction to the buzz of hearing a pirate station fencing with official frequencies, and feel driven to contribute to this lineage.
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The beauty of the Internet is that we can say or do what we want.
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But for the capital's new crop of radio entrepreneurs, the goalposts have moved considerably: "Traditional FM radio is no longer relevant," says James Browning, founder of Balamii, a new broadcasting platform based in Peckham, "it's been that way for a while." Likewise, Radar Radio's management team – namely Ben Fairclough, Harriet Taylor, Cahal Naughton and Ollie Ashley – have no ambitions for an FM license: "The beauty of the Internet is that we can say or do what we want. The future is on the Internet now, where you can listen to anything on the move and interact with what you're listening to." Along with the more-established likes of NTS (which was crowned 'Overall Best Online Radio Station' last year by radio-advocate online streaming platform Mixcloud), the capital's blossoming stations seem less concerned with the storied romance of climbing tower blocks to erect homemade aerials.
In many ways, though, little has changed from the days of Radio Caroline – the UK's first recognised pirate radio station – with station owners still driven by much the same cause: to broadcast and represent music that listeners don't have access to via traditional outlets, and to do so without restriction. Today, as if mirroring the international waters in which Radio Caroline docked its ships, the freedom inherent in the Internet and the World Wide Web as a platform is key to this. The Web also matches those international waters in terms of vastness and saturation, which only heightens the importance of radio's curatorial aspect.
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"Curation is key - when there are services offering +26m tracks to listen to it's too much," says Browning. Logan Sama, a grime DJ and radio veteran who made the switch from pirate Rinse to former-pirate Kiss FM before stepping out as a free agent and hosting shows on a range of platforms including BBC Radio 1Xtra and Boiler Room, agrees: "Radio is curated and it has a live element," he says, "there's interaction and a human element. Streaming services can be entirely bespoke but there isn't the same sense of being part of an event." This idea of radio as an event is interesting, and arguably something that Boiler Room has developed in a more literal sense with its multimedia party broadcasts. Gabriel Szatan, Boiler Room's Editor-in-Chief & Music Programmer, describes the platform as "a Venn diagram of traditional radio and instant access to video and music on demand, with a direct ley line back to club culture."
Club culture of course, in all its historic hedonism, is something undeniably curated too: from the lineup, to set times, to what the DJ has packed into his bag for that night, in that town or field, for those people. In fact, it's that controlled aspect that Szatan sees Boiler Room as honing (for everything else there's Boiler Room Knows What You Did Last Night). "If you look at the best of the specialist broadcasters – your Benji Bs, Mary Anne Hobbses, or people like Charlie Bones on NTS, who have regular shows and are regarded as tastemakers – I think Boiler Room is akin to that in that it's a conduit for taste," he says, citing notable radio influences, "it's kind of this weird hybrid entity that you put your trust in."
If third-party curation is part of what sets a radio listener's experience apart from their interaction with a streaming service, then it begins with a station management's own hand-picking of its roster. Radar carries a mission statement that is as much about developing the careers of those artists receiving exposure through plays or appearances on shows as it is the careers of those actually selecting the music and producing the shows.
"Radar was a direct response to the lack of exciting platforms made available to young, up-and-coming DJs based in London," the station's management tell us, "we felt that someone had to channel that pirate radio energy that London is so famous for." For their part, the team at Radar shows a respectable dedication to selecting and nurturing genuine radio talent, asking applicants to send through an example show before providing them with extensive feedback on both the positive aspects of the show as well as areas in which it could be improved.
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Curation is key...
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Szatan sees this 'meta-curation', if you will, that installs tastemakers into their position of influence as only increasing in importance as digital discographies make inordinate, unfathomable swathes of music more available than ever before. "Saturation is a great way to put it, because if you have this infinite amount of music and resources at your fingertips," he says, "it's like being in a supermarket with 30 types of mustard – it's very difficult to know which one to go with."
And it's here that the smaller independents have the edge, benefitting as they do from ears on the street and an agility in adapting to a shifting market that exec-laden corporate models running on approvals and ad sales accountability no longer have access to. That being able to offer this kind of specialist service aligns so closely with many of these new stations' raison d'être is, of course, little coincidence – Balamii's Browning bluntly describes his offering, which aims to provide more accurate tracklisting information than competitors both big and small, as in opposition to the "X Factor Radio stations on every frequency."
Szatan agrees, and argues that there's great opportunity in both encouraging and providing support to the most passionate fans who are neglected by larger media providers: "It's much more of a commitment of time and resources to go out and find [new] stuff now, rather than having 120 minutes on MTV2 or The Old Grey Whistle Test when they'd have a diverse programming roster. Now you're just going to have the same Sam Smith song over and over and over on Radio 1," he continues, "so yeah, I think that a schism's opened up between your average music fan and the one who's ready to commit to deep diving into it, so those tastemakers and conduits do become more important."
But as is so often the case when technology comes in to play a disruptive role, the flow does not move in just one direction. Spotify's 'Found Them First' feature rewards discovery and gives a democratic edge to traditional top-down curation. Rdio – a playlist-based streaming service that functions similarly to the Nokia-developed, now Line-owned MixRadio mobile app or Last.fm's almost revolutionary in-browser 'scrobbling' service – has partnered with a range of curators to expand its offering. Partnerships include influential media properties such as blog aggregator Hype Machine and A.V. Club, record labels (XL, Sub Pop and Stones Throw to name just three) and, interestingly, more than 500 live US radio stations to fulfil what CEO Anthony Bay says is the company's "objective of providing the world's best Internet radio experience."
The BBC too is launching its own streaming service, building on the existing 'Playlister' discovery tool that currently allows listeners to hear 30-second clips of songs played during regular broadcasts – and export playlists to Spotify, Deezer and other streaming services. Given the broadcaster's captive radio audience already exceeds the tens of millions across its music stations and its history of implementing genuine digital innovation to expand its programming (see: iPlayer), there's revolutionary potential here.
Browning is more than aware of the challenge smaller operations such as his face: "Spotify get people to create their own playlists (Obama did one) and Beats1 get people in to host their own shows, much in the same way we do," he continues, only half joking, "I guess you could say Balamii and Beats1 are similar, except we're based out of an arcade in Peckham and don't have any money." There's nothing defeatist in his statement though. In fact, what is strikingly common among all of the young station heads we spoke with is their shared ambition and unwavering loyalty to broadcasting. Logan Sama – a relative veteran – puts it simply: "Anything that allows you to reach thousands of people is great. And of course with stations online like Radar, Mode and NTS there are new platforms opening up that newer artists and acts can get heard on and hone their skills."
This strength and belief in the grass roots goes a long way to negating the sway (and money) that the world's media giants benefit from. NTS has reported a 300% listenership increase for the past year and finds itself host to names as stratospheric as Goldie and Seth Troxler whilst still offering a roster that can appeal to the most eclectic of tastes. It's arguably in this balance that these type of stations find their relevance – Boiler Room's Szatan finds himself increasingly "veering towards the unknown" in the face of familiar music being so easily available – as well as the inevitable sense of community that these experiences foster. In the absence of a dedicated streaming service with the same kind of specialist curatorial offering, there's little to suggest that this relevance will dwindle.
And "dedicated streaming service with a specialist curatorial offering killed the radio star" doesn't have much of a ring to it anyway, does it?
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Words: Will Pritchard (@Hedmuk)