The Changing Face of Radio & Music Distribution

Catching up and increasing my news dosage after a well deserved time off with family, I just ran into Leander Kahney's article in today's Wired titled “ – Music To Listeners Ears.” For regular readers of the Digital Tavern, it's no secret that I've been blasting the homogenization and sad state of radio today. Perhaps unfairly, but I've been particularly harsh on ClearChannel:

That aside, I do believe ClearChannel is not alone, but it's perhaps the single largest contributor to the decline of good radio and therefore limiting our music choices.

Kahney discusses British-based internet radio service, and its use of collaborative filtering technology in order to tailor music streamed to listeners based on personal preferences and listening history and compares this to other listeners to its streams. This is not unlike Amazon's personal recommendations or TiVO's auto-record feature.

[…] If there's a high degree of overlap between what you and others like, it's a good bet you will like something they recommend because you have similar tastes […] Here's how it works for Users can either fill out a profile or just begin listening. If a song plays to the end, the system logs this as a thumbs up. But if the user doesn't like a song and hits the Change button in the player, it's marked as a thumbs down […]

Also mentioned in Kahney's article is Clay Shirkey and the paper he authored earlier this year “The Music Business and the Big Flip” . In his essay Shirkey sees a new era in music publishing where artists can find new audiences and listeners can discover new music. He likens this future to what's happened with writing on the internet. Though Shirkey may avoid the word “blog” in his article, he poses the idea that internet tools like SlashDot, KiroShin, Blogdex and DayPop among others have basically eliminated the need for editors; editors in the classic sense where they filter then publish content. These new era publishers let readers and technology to publish then filter.

[…] The internet has lowered the threshold of publishing to the point where you no longer need help or permission to distribute your work. What has happened with writing may be possible with music. Like writers, most musicians who work for fame and fortune get neither, but unlike writers, the internet has not offered wide distribution to people making music for the love of the thing. A system that offered musicians a chance at finding an audience outside the professional system would appeal to at least some of them […]

Shirkey is quick to point out there are holes in his analogy but he still sees the glass half full here.

[…] There are obvious differences here, of course, as music is unlike writing in several important ways. Writing tools are free or cheap, while analog and digital instruments can be expensive, and writing can be done solo, while music-making is usually done by a group, making coordination much more complex. Furthermore, bad music is far more painful to listen to than bad writing is to read, so the difference between amateur and professional music may be far more extreme. […]

But for all those limits, change may yet come. Unlike an article or essay, people will listen to a song they like over and over again, meaning that even a small amount of high-quality music that found its way from artist to public without passing through an A&R department could create a significant change. This would not upend the professional music industry so much as alter its ecosystem, in the same way newspapers now publish in an environment filled with amateur writing. […] is not exactly what Shirkey sees here, nor what I would like to see evolve on internet radio. There have been attempts at creating a users or “peoples' choice” system of unleashing and recognizing new artists. and come to mind. Though has a user experience that is convoluted and difficult for new users, though to its credit it has attracted quite a loyal following. Garageband, on the other hand, has had its degree of success but investors have pulled out, technology limitations and lack of publicity have hindered its widespread acceptance. However, I do believe that a decentralized potpourri of Garageband, iTunes Music Store and would provide an environment that's not unlike the world of “professional” journalism and blogs. Perhaps the key missing element would be an RSS-type of distribution feed or stream that would be technology independent and provide for an easy manner to find, listen and provide input/comment on music and artists.

This week I'm in Washington DC attending SuperNova. Ironically enough, Clay Shirkey is scheduled to be in attendance and speaking. Shirkey among other thinkers, writers, business leaders, technologists and opinion makers participating in this conference can be influencers in “what's next?” I'll report more on the conference and conversations later this week.