I recently gave a speech in Amsterdam at Radiodays Europe, a significant gathering of broadcasters from throughout the Continent (and indeed, the world) and a fine conference. One of the topics I discussed was how radio, until very recently the top source for music discovery, was gradually losing that image to YouTube, Spotify, and other Internet-delivered services. Of particular concern to the radio industry is this graph, showing the top choice for keeping up-to-date with music for 12-24 year-olds:
My Edison Research colleague Sean Ross tackled this issue bravely and well from radio's perspective here, but I want to take a bit of a broader view--one that is relevant to anyone in media, no matter the channel.
The question I was most often asked in Amsterdam was this: "How does radio get the music discovery image back?" I submit that this may be the wrong question. Consider the following recent developments:
- Garth Brooks has his own channel on SiriusXM, on which he admittedly does not play any new music (yet.) Beyoncé, Kanye, and Rihanna have all released new albums on Tidal--and nowhere else. Artists are "balkanizing" like never before.
- The rapper Future's new album, HNDRXX, just debuted at number one on the Billboard charts. The album he replaced was the self-titled album from...Future. He replaced his own album at number one. This has never happened in the history of Billboard. I've listened to both albums. They are good. But it wasn't exactly Rumours replacing Hotel California in 1977. Just sayin'.
- The top 16 songs on Spotify's UK and Ireland charts are the 16 songs from Ed Sheeran's new album. Those 16 songs are also all in Spotify's global top 50. Every song. Again--good album, but not Thriller-good, surely.
The fact that Future replaced himself begs the question: was there no other good music between Future releases? And how can Ed Sheeran take up the entire British Top Ten on Spotify? The answer is partially that both artists have significant followings, of course, but also that nature abhors a vacuum. And that vacuum, my friends, is the lack of a variety of new hits. The problem isn't with us. It's with an ecosystem that can produce these increasingly bizarre phenomena.
I was quoted a few years ago in Charles Duhigg's recent book, The Power of Habit, about how radio "builds" hits, protecting brand new music (which nobody loves immediately) by surrounding it with familiar hits and promoting it with enthusiastic DJs. Today, music listeners are exposed to fewer unfamiliar songs than ever before, thanks to on-demand streaming, searches on YouTube, and forgoing albums in favor of 99-cent singles on iTunes.
Here's the thing: that's what consumers want. The genie doesn't go back into the bottle. So lamenting the continuing erosion of radio's music discovery image by blaming listeners or "the system" isn't productive. The market is speaking, loudly, and it is choosing familiarity over serendipity. And as a result, music discovery as we have known it is broken.
So, to return to Amsterdam, the question for radio executives isn't "How do we regain our music discovery image?" Rather, it's "How do we fix music discovery?" How can radio innovate, and disrupt the disruptors?
My good friend and podcasting partner Mark Schaefer is fond of telling the story of the Rand McNally corporation, known for years as a leader in printed maps and road atlases. It's not a brand we talk about anymore, because we don't use road atlases anymore, thanks to modern GPS navigation. Rand McNally is still around, but their failure to develop a strategy to deal with digital upstarts like Mapquest and TomTom led to a Chapter 11 filing in 2003, and they lost their leadership position in navigation.
I'm sure that in the boardrooms of Rand McNally there were dozens of heated strategy sessions focused on regaining that position. But often, the solution to being knocked off the top rung of a ladder isn't always to keep scrambling to regain your rung. It's to build a better ladder. While taking a canal cruise through Amsterdam last week I happened to see TomTom's HQ building (they are a Dutch company) and I was struck by the same notion Mark was in his Rand McNally story. Just as TomTom knocked Rand McNally off the navigation ladder, TomTom has itself been knocked down a rung, by Waze and Google Maps. Waze was developed not to be a better map, or even a better navigation tool. It disrupted both spaces by focusing on getting people from point A to point B faster. Even if that means winding through housing developments instead of taking the Interstate.
So, if your brand loses an image, the key here is not always to fight to get it back. It's to solve a better problem. It's to imagine what will eventually kill the other brand that took it away from you, and become that thing, whether or not it has anything to do with the image you lost. The "serendipitous discovery problem" threatens to disrupt much more than the radio industry. That's the problem to solve.