Sticks and Picks

Radio as Background Music

Radio confuses me. Not so much in the how radio operates, but instead why. Having a USB input in my car stereo when I moved up here to Atlanta two years ago meant that I didn’t have to search for a local station I connected with. I just brought the music that I like with me, and plugged in. Just recently, I went a few days without plugging in my iPhone while driving. In doing so, I found that in the two years since I had left radio, still the same old hits are being played.

I’ve written about radio before. In fact, in this article, I gave praise to that station that I grew up with for implementing a new “you control the music” format. It was a bold idea that let listeners vote on the songs played, and (from what I can tell) is going over well. I had high hopes for this new terrestrial based yet internet minded format, but listeners still seem to gravitate towards the familiarity of songs they’ve already memorized.

For the classic rock stations, repetition is one thing. From the start, the station is based off of an extinct genre. Even though dinosaurs like the Rolling Stones and Black Sabbath are still putting out new music, classic rock stations are still busy excavating dusty old bones without the need or desire to see and hear the living behemoths in their natural habitat. For every other format though, new artists and songs emerge on a regular basis. So why is it that even when we’re given a large selection of music, we still prefer the familiar?

While in the past radio seemed to play more of an active involvement in breaking artists, we now have much better avenues with which to better serve this purpose. It’s almost as if we’ve given up on radio as a way to discover new music, and instead choose radio only when we wish to tune in to our own comfort zone. Seeing this in its listeners, the radio industry has all but thrown in the towel in the fight for discovery. With both sides feeding the other, radio has perhaps unknowingly become the primary supplier of background music. 

Without an active engagement with listeners, music played over the airwaves is seldom engaging, except when we find ourselves singing or humming along with the chorus of a song embedded in our subconscious. Not tuning in with the intent of finding something new or exchanging opinions with the radio host, radio simply acts as a drone against the silent backdrop of our daily lives

There is some comfort in knowing that at any given time, I can count on hearing the music that I grew up with. The problem here is that I’ve grown up, while radio seems to remain stuck in a time that it can’t seem to forget. But maybe that’s just what radio has had become in today’s market - an always present but seldom noticed reminder of the music we enjoy, if only for its nostalgia.


Internet Radio

Over the past few years, internet radio has become increasingly popular. Services like Pandora, Spotify, Last.fm, and many others provide an alternative to terrestrial radio that gives listeners more control over who and what they listen to. With the advent of the smart phone, users can now listen to internet radio on the go, which has attracted many more users (including me!). But how exactly do these services operate? How do they help artists?

Internet radio, like its terrestrial counterpart, is funded by commercial advertisement. Users have the choice of paying nothing and listening to a (usually) 30-second commercial after every few songs, or paying for a monthly subscription free of ads. Paying a monthly subscription can also get you other benefits, such as higher quality audio or a longer listening time per month. 

Also included in some internet radio applications is the ability to share what you are listening to on social network sites. Spotify’s Facebook integration for example, allows users to share songs and playlists with others and display what you’ve been listening to. Despite me listening to some off-the-wall stuff sometimes and wishing that it wasn’t shown on my Facebook timeline, this sharing feature provides a great tool for music lovers who wish to be keep current on what their friends are listening to.

On the artist’s side, Spotify is another great tool available to help you get exposure. On the business side, artists can expect a share of the advertising profits based on how often your song was streamed, or $0.70 per digital download. The only problem with this, is that at the end of 2011, artists made and average of $0.00029 cents per song stream. This isn’t exactly decent money, and asks the question if paying to get your music on Spotify  is worth the money. It’s also being argued that Spotify is increasing access to music, but decreasing spending in that listeners will just stream a song rather than purchase it.

Personally, I use Spotify quite a bit. It’s been about a year since it came out in the US, and I think it’s a clear indication of how we’re going to be listening to music in the not too distant future. Between Spotify and Pandora, I’ve found several new bands who I later either purchased their album(s) and/or went to their shows. So while there may not be much money to be made by streaming music, the accessibility and control that internet radio offers is providing better ways for artists to be heard. Besides, I’d much rather listen to a station of music I know I’ll enjoy instead of hearing the same Nickelback song 10 times a week.