Will Apple Finally Kill the Radio Star?

As I was growing up, the only way I could get introduced to new music was listening to a few select stations that I could pick up in our back-woods log cabin.   Aside from one musically enlightened friend who gave me guidance (thanks!), I was at the whims of these stations DJ’s and program managers for the music I was exposed to.

What is the dynamic today? What brings to my attention the hidden gems that would otherwise hide in my thousands of songs? What tells me what new music I could listen to?

Of the several options I have tried I find myself returning to the Genius Playlist Creator and Genius Recommendations on iPod/iTunes. I suspect that many others of the other iPod/iPhone users out there have done the same.

In some ways this is a great thing:

  • The music is tailored to your tastes (the ‘demographic of one’)
  • It fits with your schedule, and not some time slot defined by radio listener demographics
  • Its location independent (well, ok satellite radio offers this too)
  • You don’t have to hear ‘popular’ songs multiple times a day
  • While the radio station was keen to appeal to everyone they risked pleasing nobody
  • As your mood changes, so can your music
  • You can easily try new music and buy

But there are drawbacks:

  • Your music is now controlled by an algorithm; while its amazing, I notice many song show up VERY often (almost like iTunes is trying push certain artists… hmmm)
  • You are only pointed to new music in iTune’s library; it makes me wonder what I’m missing… does iTunes bother with fringe artists?
  • There is always the risk that Apple decides to actually manipulate the results to promote music not based on taste, but who is paying more to be promoted (hey – this sounds familiar)

I’ve tried the new forms of radio: internet-based, satellite radio, even a brief foray back into local radio, but they are all basically the same formula…  I think they have finally lost me to the ‘demographic of one’.



3 Responses

  1. This is a great topic. It’s worth keeping in mind that broadcast radio operated — as did most media — under conditions of content scarcity that vanished with the Internet, especially its 2.0 iteration. That is, there may not be quantifiably more music out there — but it’s vastly easier to find way more of it.
    I haven’t tried iTunes Genius yet. From your report it looks like its algorithm works like those of custom online radio stations, like Last.fm. As for the aspersions you cast on iTunes’ catalogue and frequent suggestions, I would not at all bet surprised if down the line iTunes gets busted for some kind of payola deal. In my browsing and shopping at iTunes, I have found they do represent fringe and niche artists and sounds — but only to a certain point. It also has holes in its major-label inventory too, by the way.
    I personally like iTunes radio stations and other online radio stations, but there’s still a bewildering choice of those. Instead, may I pass on a different kind of tip for music hunting, if Genius feels too synthetic or unconvinving: individual music fan blogs. Again, an overwhelming infinitude of these, but tracking through the aggregations at Hype Machine, you can find specific music blogs that are run by actual humans with tastes that resonate with yours, and never mind the Al Gore Rhythm.

  2. Thanks Mark,

    Your comments as well as a few on Facebook from Dave reminded me of a few services that actually showed a lot of promise, but have since disappointed.

    Pandora, Last.fm & other internet radio stations that use smart algorithms to guess what things you might like are awesome. In particular, I liked Last.fm’s ability to dig up obscure stuff I could try. Unfortunately, our Canadian market seems to be locked out of some of these sites by copyright issues.

    I just went back and had a look at Last.fm and I see the subscription is only $3 (USD) a month!! Based on that I think I will give it another try. Perhaps Apple doesn’t have the lock on this I thought!

    I am also giving ‘MusicIP’ mixer a try as a ‘Genius’ alternative. So far I am not a big fan of the GUI, but it did seem to spend a lot of time analyzing my library, so we will see how smart it is.

    Hype Machine looks very interesting.

    Thanks for your comments, both on the blog and off!


  3. Good blog, sir – i’ve been enjoying reading it.

    I can think of at least one other drawback of Genius, Last.fm, etc. These services can easily become something of an echo chamber, whereby the listener consistently gets more of the same. If not the same song, the same style, and there is no built in mechanism to surprise the listener, no impetus for breaking out of habit. Mind you, conventional radio was transformed by the 1980s into a beast with the same tendencies, only magnified by very narrow financial concerns. This is part of why i stopped listening to radio the moment i started finding alternatives.

    To avoid algorithms, one suggestion is, believe it or not, to use Amazon. This won’t save you from possible payola, but the music section at Amazon has a “People who bought this CD also bought…” feature. It doesn’t take long to get lost down a pretty interesting musical rabbit hole following some of those ‘also-boughts’. Of course, this is a little more time-consuming than an algorithm, but hence the reward, i’d say.

    If you’re willing to spend even more time, there are sites like Pitchfork Media and the Internet Underground Music Archive. And of course, there’s always the blogs – most now have streaming song samples from the albums they review, and it doesn’t take long to find folks whose musical tastes overlap with your own, while also introducing you to stuff you wouldn’t even have thought to look for.

    Happy hunting!

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