What if Spotify Radio was like actual radio?

Now see, I’m not arrogant enough to assume that this idea has never occurred to anyone at Spotify, because it’s quite an obvious thought, and I assume the only reason things aren’t run this way is due to some boring legal technicalities. On the other hand, this is my blog and I can pontificate if I want to, so on that note, here’s some musing on Spotify Radio and how it could be better.

Spotify Radio, in its current incarnation, works just the same as last.fm radio (RIP) or Rdio radio or iTunes Radio or just about every other music streaming service “radio”. Oh, you like this artist? Or this genre? Well, we’ve set up an algorithm that works out other songs you might like based on your enjoyment of this artist or genre, wowee aren’t we the most amazing discovery tool. We are the oracles of new music. We can predict your taste. We are your best friend. WOW.

Except a) this kind of discovery only works if your consumers actively seek it. And b) that’s really not how radio works. Radio works by selecting a limited (Capital) to broad-ish (Radio 1) playlist of songs and hammering them to their audience whether they like them or not. The only way to avoid a song on the radio is to switch it off. Or switch it over. And chances are they’ll be playing that song on the other station too. Radio doesn’t care about accommodating your taste because radio wants to mould it.

At the moment, traditional radio still has the music industry in a stranglehold, manipulating the mainstream reach of online buzz by playlisting songs (or not) and therefore restricting the industry’s ability to be reactive and timely in a digital age. On-air, on-sale has failed as a model not because it’s a bad idea, but because the on-air part of the bargain fails to hold up their end. Instead of reflecting the US chart model, which allows a song to grow into a long lifespan, radio stations here still favour the “exclusivity” of being the sole outlet for 6 weeks before a song is released to own. If your song premieres on the same day it goes on sale, radio ain’t playing it, effectively suffocating your release and killing it off before it gets a chance to breathe.

The new streaming rules had me hoping that this would switch up the game a little, but so far, no good. Which has me wondering how it is that Spotify could weaken that iron grip radio has and tip things back in favour of the good music consumer (ie. me) who just wants to own new releases immediately as soon as they exist without “stealing” from anyone and not wait until 3 months later than the rest of the world. Here’s my proposal.

Spotify Radio undergoes a serious overhaul to become an actual radio station. A group of Spotify employees select and curate an expansive and diverse playlist of new songs featuring major and indie label acts who have made their music available on Spotify. The playlist updates in the same way it would update on any other radio station, on a weekly or fortnightly basis. In addition to music, the playlist would also feature Spotify exclusive interviews and sessions to break up the music. Users stream the playlist just like any other Spotify playlist. While the bulk of content would be current, previous listening habits can be used to inform “throwback” plays and “recommended for you” which would bulk up the listening experience.

For freemium users, Spotify Radio would integrate into their listening sessions by playing selections from the Spotify Radio playlist instead of just adverts. You hear Spotify Radio tracks in between your chosen, scheduled listening in 3-5 song intervals, just the way you would with Spotify adverts. For example, if you’re listening to a 12 track album, a freemium user might expect to hear 2-3 songs from the Spotify Radio playlist. And of course, adverts don’t disappear. In fact, if you’re a prudent marketer you might then purchase an ad spot before each freemium play of your artist’s track (or related) in the same way you might pay for a YouTube pre-roll.

Now obviously this doesn’t solve the sales problem by any stretch of the imagination, and the music industry is of course, one that is focused on sales. But it does aim to reduce the time between premiere and release and cater to what is now an on-demand consumer base. The promise of exposure on Spotify “Radio” would encourage labels to release tracks to Spotify prior to impact date, weakening the dominance of traditional radio and seeing those tracks chart quicker (if not higher), forcing the hand of playlisters and reducing the gap between on air, on sale until it no longer exists.

Is this a viable solution, or even a particularly good solution? Probably not, because if it was, it would probably be happening already. But the rub of it all is this: music cannot be sustained in isolation. It requires exposure, whether that be radio play, live performance, word of mouth or with the help of nifty, nerdy behind-the-scenes tech that thrusts it under the nose of the audience, willing or otherwise. The jostling of iTunes, Spotify, Google, radio and myriad other services for a monopoly directly contradicts the natural order of things. Music is an ecosystem and ecosystems require co-operation in order to thrive. The UK cannot continue being 3 months behind the rest of the world when it comes to digital releases, and a solution to the on air, on sale “conundrum” needs to be found that finds in favour of artist and fan not the suits who do the distributing. The tide is irreversible, guys. Please start swimming with it instead of doggy paddling in the shallows of the past. You’re drowning us all.

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