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BEATS 1: CHANCE, CHOICE AND "CURATION"

I’ve been trying to get my head around the implications of Beats 1, which has quickly become the most-discussed topic in the biz. I’ve heard that it’s utterly transformative, but also too cool for school. I’ve been told that it’s obsessively listenable but might not move the needle. I’ve also heard that it could change what “the needle” means.

It seems we may have our first example of traditional needle-moving in Astralwerks/Capitol’s Halsey, whose preorders have exploded in the wake of big Beats love, although she’s also gotten key exposure from some influential terrestrial stations. We shall see.

I think Beats 1 may also undermine some cherished tech-world truths about what consumers want. Part of this is, as some observers have noted, an updated version of old-school radio. Another is a sense of excitement and context that only a presenter can provide.

Much ink has been spilled on Zane Lowe, the Kiwi BBC Radio 1 refugee who’s the mad captain of this ship. Lowe’s passion and eclecticism have clearly helped shape the whole enterprise. But the specialty shows on the digital station are also illuminating: Dr. Dre’s show mixed hip-hop from all over, Q-Tip blended Common, Jimi Hendrix, Bill Withers, Herbie Hancock, Jay Z and a million other records, and Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme ran the gamut from jumpin’ jive and blues-rock to electro-pop and proto-punk.

We’ve been hearing a lot about “curation” from the Apple Music team, and the word has been picked up across the culture—with the assumption that it basically meant a refined, more human version of tech as media concierge, tailoring itself to your choices.

Beats 1 is quickly demonstrating an interesting fact, however: Music fans are embracing a music delivery system that involves less choice rather than more.

This isn’t a brand-new revelation: Pandora’s one-touch stations, Spotify’s hit-driven playlists and SiriusXM’s adventurous stations follow the example of terrestrial radio in taking the work out of music programming—which a majority of listeners, with plenty of other things to worry about, seem to like.

Music fans are embracing a music delivery system that involves less choice rather than more.

While on-demand media and niche playlists satisfy a certain need, though, they’ve deprived us of the water cooler. What’s missing is the presenter—not merely a DJ, but someone who’s on fire for the music and can put it in context. That combination of energy and knowledge can be infectious, and makes for more music discovery.

The presenter can make listening an event. Just as people talk about the previous night’s HBO show, they are now starting to talk (and email, and tweet) about Beats 1.

Indeed, Beats 1 says you’ll listen to what we play, and you’ll like it. Even if what we play is difficult, or atonal, you’ll probably stick around to hear what’s next. Listening to challenging, confrontational songs is different on the radio than in a playlist—it’s part of a larger whole defined by whichever lunatic is driving the bus, and one wants to know where the bus is going. I’ve listened to more hip-hop and EDM than I normally would, with some nice discoveries as a result, while my hip-hop-obsessed officemate actually heard a rock track she liked.

It wasn’t what we would’ve chosen. And we liked it.

 

 

 

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