Tuesday 26 February 2008

We Have Seen The Future Of Rock And Roll…And It’s Complicated: Radio (Part 5)

If the music industry had any sense of history it would just have to look at radio to have déjà vu all over again. Eighty years ago, radio was going to kill music companies – if people could hear records on the radio, why would they buy them?

Now, as radio moves to the Internet, they see some quick bucks for the balance sheet. Australia has already doubled licensing fees and as a result effectively killed local Net radio. The US music industry is lobbying for a 38% rise, which will have the same effect because even big American stations can’t afford it. Britain has a different problem.

The government wants us to switch from the current FM to digital radio and even more stations. We don’t care. Even the biggest digital-only station has only 3% of the nation listening and the City boys bankrolling the digital radio expansion are starting to pull the plugs, with Virgin already slashing its digital-only stations. Instead, we’re listening to radio on the Net. Six of the Top Ten iTunes podcasts are regular BBC shows.

If the magic of radio is built on the serendipity of hearing good music you weren’t expecting, then sites like Deezer, Pandora and Last.fm are the new radio, not to mention the shuffle setting on iPod. But, counters Director of The Radio Academy Trevor Dann, “Playing your own records on an iPod isn’t very companionable is it? There’s no weather or travel news. The challenge for radio is to make engaging content which listeners want to enhance the experience of listening to their own collections. Also don’t underestimate the appeal of talk ABOUT music. And indeed about other things.”

A further problem is commercial radio’s seeming inability to compete or collaborate with companies building Internet broadcast empires. They’re fixated on competing with the BBC, beholden to shareholders who want them to consolidate into two or three consortiums. There’s even the launch this year of C4 radio, a public broadcast competitor to the BBC. As Dann points out, with radio available on FM, digital, Internet, Wi-Max, DTV, podcasting, and mobile, “the big issue for radio is to work out whether we’re in the content business or the delivery business. Radio on demand is attracting a new audience and we need to concentrate on reaching our audiences in the ways they want to find us, not necessarily in the ways we want to reach them.”

If radio-by-podcast continues to grow in 2008, the smart guys like Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross could start to exploit its potential to create original programming that isn’t radio patter or stand-up routines but uniquely suited to the medium, much as Will Farrell makes cheap TV especially for YouTube.

The government has a problem with moving us to digital radio. If financial backers start closing down stations and driving distribution onto the Internet it will have to seriously review the initiative.

The great thing about Internet radio is that all kinds of music can find its own audience, able to migrate everywhere. The world is, literally, at your fingertips. If the American music business manages to raise license fees and kill most of the their Internet stations, a large audience will be left wanting. Once more they’ll be the bad guys holding back the future.

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Music Labels
Part 3: Live Performance
Part 4: Mobile & Internet

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