Friday, September 11, 2009 Radio Station? Say it ain't so!

I'm a huge fan of and the work they do, but I've always been a little curious as to their role with CBS. Apparently, CBS has decided to use the online radio station for something that it is not: a terrestrial, non-personalized radio station. While it might be "neat" to use this tool to see what's popular among the specific demographic of the online station, by no means is this a great tool for recommendation - which is at the heart and core of's mission. What would such a station play anyway? Depends a lot on the type of "chart" they are using, but suffice it to stay, most plays will fairly bland in terms of their novelty factor. For example, let's look at the current Top Ten artists: (Note: This was written around September 8th and published later, so the current artists are different, but concepts are the same).

1) Radiohead
2) Beatles
3) Coldplay
4) Muse
5) Michael Jackson
6) The Killers
7) Metallica
8) Kings of Leon
9) Red Hot Chili Peppers
10) Artic Monkeys

Besides the obvious British bias, we can see that the most common artists are not exactly "strange." They are all (at least) decent, respected bands. Some have been around a while (Radiohead, Coldplay, Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers) and some are staples of any music list (Beatles, Michael Jackson). However, I wouldn't exactly say that these bands are strange to radio play (yes, to some degree, Kings of Leon and Artic Monkeys are not as common, but I would hardly say that they get almost no radio play, at least in the US). (As an update, on today, September 18th, the Beatles passed Radiohead, which came out September 9th. While this does show the power of's "buzz meter," it is hardly unforseen. Further, this is an example of already popular, known bands simply trading places.)

Also, these two bands are really in the list due to recent releases, as evident from the current Top 10 tracks:

1) Kings of Leon - "Sex on Fire"
2) Kings of Leon - "Use Somebody"
3) MGMT - "Kids"
4) Arctic Monkeys - "Crying Lightning"
5) Coldplay - "Viva La Vida"
6) Lady GaGa - "Poker Face"
7) Muse - "Supermassive Black Hole"
8) MGMT - "Time to Pretend"
9) Black Eyed Peas - "I Gotta Feeling"
10) MGMT - "Electric Feel"

Yeah, these are all very rare indeed. Hint: If the artist is being asked to play at the MTV Music awards, then it is a safe bet that the artist is not a rare find. What if I contiue farther? Well, #14 is "Wonderwall" by Oasis and thank God because I haven't heard that about a bajillion times.

About the only good list would be the "Hyped List," but this is more than likely just following new releases. Truth is that a station that would be that eclectic probably won't fair well since users would be hearing a high degree of music they don't like (i.e., people probably will not like bouncing from niche to niche).

The truth is that this violates the very nature of - personalized music discovery. Will the radio station fail? No, of course not. It will actually be interesting to see how well the record companies try to follow the Wisdom of the Crowds. This is, after all, capitalism. It was always believed that record companies tried to make people like certain bands, but in truth, the record companies just knew what most people either liked or, at least, could listen to without running from the room screaming. Truth be told, Nickelback and Creed suck, but most people can listen to them because it isn't so awful that I can't either tune it out or stop myself from sticking pencils in my ear . It's just boring rock template music. People didn't buy millions of Spice Girls albums because they had a bunch of money in their pocket, found themselves in a record store, and didn't know what else to buy. They bought it because they wanted to (and you know who you are and should be ashamed of yourself - if my sister had a webpage, I'd link to it here).

I fear this radio station will just be yet another radio stations which focuses on the rather narrow "head" of the long tail and never really gets into the niche markets. The reason? Radio execs focus on what's popular and what will be popular. They are still successful in this, but what they lack is the ability to tailor distribution channels to individual needs and wants. It is not the price of songs that is destroying the music business. If that were true, then as online marketers slashed prices, sales would increase. But this hasn't happened because, despite what Napster fans would have you believe, it was never about prices, but about finding the music that you, and only you, wanted. This is the market that sites like are designed to infiltrate - but a radio station broadcast to millions cannot capture this ability. On the other hand, one can hope that I will be pleasantly surprised.

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