Beats 1. Worldwide, always selling

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I’m using this blog again to throw out some early ideas for an academic article. The subject this time is Apple’s attempt at creating a radio station: Beats 1.

Launched in June this year Beats 1 seemed to be an odd step for Apple. Whilst the front page of iTunes promotes music, podcasts and movies Apple has so far stayed out of the content business, but then remember that it’s first instinct with iTunes was to let users make their own way. By running a music download store Apple realised they could sell the product and the music to fill it. In other words they were selling an experience. To some extent that’s what they are doing with Beats 1.

I’m not alone in noticing the difference between Beats 1 and other radio station. Being global it means that those traditional notions of breakfast, drivetime and evening are redundant. Listening to Beats 1 you could be excused in thinking you were listening to late night Radio where John Peel, Zane Lowe and now Annie Mac built the “Ratings by day, reputation by night” ethos of Radio 1. At Beats 1 it’s always night somewhere. Of course ratings only matter if you’re trying to sell airtime to advertisers or persuade government of your public value. Neither of things apply to Beats 1. They don’t sell airtime. Commercial radio sells products made by other people and the music (usually) is the means to make sure enough people hear those messages enough time. At Beats 1 the music is the product. Music that can be bought in the iTunes store but more significantly streamed for 10 quid a month on Apple Music. Hey, if you like the track enough the whole album is a few clicks away. Of course, it’s not unique. There’s much here that reminds me of Amazing Radio.

Beats 1 exists as a gateway to Apple Music. You can listen live for free but if you want to listen again, stream more music and make use of the sharing features you need to pay. Apple could have used a Netflix model and tracked play data from Apple Music (they may do this but nobody’s reported it) but they decided to use humans instead. Famous humans. Famous humans who famous musical humans like talking to and respect. Humans who know music. People like Zane Lowe and Elton John. In effect Beats 1 becomes the coolest radio station in the world. It seems to go against the grain, as places people at the centre of the process at a time when radio leans on tight formatting. Of course, as you might expect it’s not that simple. The playlist is still pretty tight as reported in this article in Billboard but it’s still miles away from your local Capital or KIIS. Generally, though, the DJ’s curate their own music and with repeated shows the data might be a true reflection.

This curated approach is not new and is often advocated as the alternative listeners really want. There’s much written about this, not least in academic circles. For example the report here from Tim Wall and Andrew Dubber. There’s no one format here, with shows veering from one genre to another, in traditional commercial radio this would be format suicide.

There’s much here that sounds like community radio and to some extent that’s what they are doing – making a community. A global community of music fans, united by the Church of Jobs. Steve that is. You can see this in the advert above. A mix of people, putting in earbuds and hitting play. Notice they start alone but soon gather friends, all dancing (or running) to the same beat. To me this is part of what Apple is trying to do here, build a community around their products. The iPhone is branded as more than a phone. It’s a social tool. It’s a gateway to experiences and a means to share those experiences with the world. Of course this takes on a whole new dimension with stories this week that Apple are looking to follow Amazon and Netflix into making movies and TV shows.

Apple was always a technology company, in the same way that Amazon was always a retailer. But, when you start making devices it starts to make sense to make the content to fill them. You sell other peoples stuff, or you could make your own stuff and make people come to you to see it. If you want to watch Clarkson in 2016, you’ll have to go to Amazon. The BBC won’t have it. Neither will Sky or Netflix. What makes Apple Music interesting is that Apple have already confirmed that it will also be coming to Android before the end of the year. So, it’s not a lure to make me buy an iPhone. It’s going to stand alone and fight Spotify, which is where the battle is. It sounds like radio but it’s not about radio. I doubt Apple will be buying up transmitters or adding to DAB multiplexes or satellite radio services. It will keep it online, where it can build an avoidable link to the paid-for elements of Apple Music.

I’ve a few interests here. There’s much that is interesting about a format where presenters and producers are empowered. Of course they can do this because the mode of listening is different. People might listen in their car, but I doubt it will be the soundtrack to any factory floors. It’s a different format because it’s aim is different. It might the shape of things to come, but probably isn’t. It is however a positive for radio and radio talent. I’m not sure there’s going to be defining conclusions here, but I’m enjoying the thinking and the reading. No doubt I’ll post more at some point.