Editorial: Why Radio Died As a Music Discovery Medium (Don’t Blame the Internet)

Radio was once the place to be heard on for an artist. That isn’t the case any more. Drew Wilson talks about his perspective on why that is.

Here’s a question: when was the last time someone told you they heard this amazing brand new artist that they heard on a traditional radio station – that this artist was blowing up all over the place? It’s probably been years, if not, decades now.

Now, here’s a followup question: how often do you hear about people complaining that the radio can’t stop playing the same crummy music over and over again and that they need to get new music? This complaint is probably as old as radio itself and is continuing to this day.

In the 70’s and 80’s, traditional radio was edgy, new, cutting edge. Ask baby boomers who are huge music buffs what radio was like back in those days and they will probably tell you endlessly how amazing music was on the radio. They were constantly playing new music they never heard of before that was new, exciting, and different. As such, they will probably get a huge hit of nostalgia just from you asking.

Of course, ask anyone who is in their 20’s and 30’s how radio is edgy and new and constantly pumping out new and exciting music, you’ll probably get a mix of answers. This can range from how radio is playing music back in the day when new music is made to how radio is simply irrelevant with the advent of the internet.

How did we get to this point in time? There are plenty of theories abound. Still, when I hear music on the radio, it basically reeks of old stale, bland and boring music. Some of the songs I hear repeatedly over and over again include the following:

Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band – Old Time Rock & Roll (released in 1978 – 44 years ago)
Stealers Wheel – Stuck in the Middle with You (released in 1972 – 50 years ago)
The Rolling Stones – Start Me Up (released in 1981 – 41 years ago)
Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody (released in 1975 – 47 years ago)
Bryan Adams – Summer Of ’69 (released in 1984 – 38 years ago)

Yeah, sounds great if I ram a screwdriver into my ears. Of course, radio does play some “newer” songs – and I use the term “newer” very liberally here. This might include songs like the following:

Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit (released in 1991 – 31 years ago)
Bon Jovi – It’s My Life (released in 2000 – 22 years ago)
Prozzak – Strange Disease – released in 2002 – 20 years ago) (and that’s a very rare thing to hear in the first place)

I can say with confident that if the release years of music aired on the radio were the same back in the 70’s and 80’s – meaning they’d be playing music from the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s, I don’t think radio would be as huge as it was.

Of course, heading into the late 2000’s, radio wasn’t the only medium to showcase new music. By this time, MTV was already playing music (yes, once upon a time, MTV did air music videos), compilation albums were huge such as the Big Shiny Tunes series was becoming massively popular, and, of course, technology in video games had progressed to the point where licensed music was quickly becoming the norm. If you’ve played FlatOut 2, you probably know about The Vines – Don’t Listen to the Radio:

If you’ve played Need for Speed: Underground, then you probably know about Story of the Year – And the Hero Will Drown:

If you played Burnout 3 – Takedown, then you probably are aware of Yellowcard – Breathing:

If you played Motorstorm – Pacific Rift, then you probably know about Saving Abel – New Tattoo:

If you played Gran Turismo 4, then you probably know about Rock N’ Roll Soldiers – Funny Little Feeling:

You could really go on and on, but that trend of new, flashy, and refreshingly different music was there, at least by the mid 2000’s. I personally can’t recall ever hearing these songs play on a traditional radio station. Instead, it felt like I was listening to the late 90’s version of “classic radio”.

So, the question is, why does it seem like radio got stuck in a time warp and became the North Korea of the music scene? One of the understandable theories I developed by passively hearing the radio from time to time over the years was that maybe the DJs were just bad at their jobs. This, of course, was well over two decades ago. Indeed, there was turnover at the radio stations I got stuck listening to from time to time and I thought that, maybe, just maybe, the music would get better as the turnover continued. Sooner or later, one of the DJs would have a taste in modern music and play it.

I would ultimately be proven wrong on this theory.

As different DJs came and went on these stations, I couldn’t help but notice that the music remained largely unchanged. In fact, as time progressed, the music actually got progressively worse. As time moved forward, the released started looking further and further back. This, to me, was precisely the wrong direction radio should be heading.

Fast forward a few years and I actually personally worked inside a traditional broadcasting station. So, I personally got a nice inside perspective when I worked in traditional broadcasting.

I spoke to DJs in the traditional radio broadcasting to find out why radio is so wildly out of touch to modern day listening tastes. The story I got from the inside was that, back in the day, radio DJ’s would get together in listening circles about once a week to listen to various releases. They would discuss what actually sounds great and what might have been music that was particularly to the taste of one DJ and throw it out of the playlists. What remained got played on the stations. It was actually a reasonably good system.

However, as time progressed, these listening circles would disappear and no longer be part of the music selection process. Indeed, radio had become more of a part of a conglomerate and, as such, become more corporate. Apparently, the age old wisdom of the local DJ has a good feel of what people like to listen to was thrown completely out the window and replaced by a more corporate structure. This gradually meant that risk was considered bad and should be avoided at all costs – the antithesis of what radio was supposed to be.

So, the question then becomes, who selects the music? Clearly, the DJs do not. Well, as it turns out, neither does anyone else in those stations either. The person that is selecting the music isn’t even some guy sitting in his apartment with a massive CD collection. It was what was termed as “consulting firms” that may not even be from the same province. These firms go through all the hit music and determine what would be the safest song to play as per data like chart music such as Billboard (something that really hasn’t been relevant to music taste making in years, if not, decades). It was all about data analytics. When the “Big Data” trend became the new thing, this concept of data driven music selection was basically doubled down – probably what also explained the slide backwards in time for so many stations.

Of course, the problem with data analytics is that it’s only one tool. Many companies treat it like the be all and end all – much like the bad trend of running a company by spreadsheet rather than actually understanding the underlying structure of the company. So, the data that ends up being mined are what comes from past charts in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s which is when music was much more centralized. The end result is obvious, you attract people from those older era’s and drive out most of the newer generations.

Now, just because you drive away a certain cohort of your potential listening base doesn’t necessarily mean that they go away. They just find better sources of new music to listen to. Video games, throughout the 2000’s, proved to be fertile ground for listening experience. It also combined something a lot of people in the “younger” generations enjoyed already – video games and listening to music. It was quite a time to be alive if you could afford the latest consoles and games.

What also became revolutionary was the rise in file-sharing online. The timing really could not have been better for technology. While there was a brief overlap where radio started to slow down in the business of playing new music and the rise of file-sharing, that overlap really helped people make that transition between traditional broadcasters and the internet. It also formulated the idea for millions of “younger” people at the time of if you wanted to hear new music, you turn to the internet because radio just isn’t really good enough.

Obviously, there were legal implications of these habits in the early days given the unauthorized nature of it all, but the habits were largely being set. Companies, over the years, were trying to capitalize on this trend and Yahoo! did push the service of Launch which featured music video’s of different artists. Of course, connection speeds were much slower back then, so users wound up being treated to messy and smudgy postage stamp sized aspect ratios along with intermittent “buffering” messages, but the convenience factor did prove to be moderately successful over having to navigate IRC channels, commands, and long queues for somewhat higher quality music videos.

Apple, of course, was another company trying to capitalize on this with the launch of their iPod and iTunes – a move many Apple fans have said largely saved the company struggling to compete against the rival giant, Microsoft – a company that absolutely dominated the OS space. While there were problems with the model, such as the use of DRM, it was becoming clear that things were changing.

This massive shift happening was seemingly met with a large shrug from traditional radio. There might have been some smaller independent operations trying to come up with something different, but many seemed to be content with playing the same set of songs you’d think would come from some random music buffs old Winamp playlist.

MySpace also cropped up at around this era and it is that along with ArtistServer, MP3.com, SoundClick, Newgrounds, and many other services that helped to socialize the success of artists. The it was at this moment that the internet really put that listening circle back into the spotlight, only instead of the stations DJs acting as the filter, the audience themselves would be that listening filter, picking and choosing what songs they wanted to listen to.

YouTube, of course, did come around in 2005 and, by the time the 2010’s rolled around, it almost doubled as a music discovery platform for users. Anything they wanted to listen to was seemingly right at their fingertips. The added bonus is that, unlike file-sharing, listening to this music carried significantly less legal risk to them. There was also other sites that carried some of that such as MegaUpload, YouSendIt, and many click sharing services, however, YouTube, with the powerhouse that was Google backing it, would ultimately become a large space for small, new, and emerging artists.

This resulted in that generational split widening. As “big data” became a thing, traditional radio simply doubled down on what older generations enjoy listening to. So, old people got radio, which by some is considered a sunset industry, and “younger” people (i.e. 40 years of age and younger) scoured the internet to get their music listening fix.

Now, there are plenty of other excuses some observers point to. This includes blaming file-sharing for the downfall of the music industry as we know it (a charge that always had little to no evidence to back it up). Some might conclude that non-boomer generations pay for music while the younger generation does not with their file-sharing and, later, streaming habits. Of course, that argument never really held because music sales of LPs from mainstream artists only makes up a part of the overall music industry picture. Thanks to free streaming services like Spotify and others – which can be heard through digital assistance like Alexa – on demand free music has largely become the norm. At best, the idea that radio plays music because only a specific generation pays for music is a very disconnected argument at best.

Another tired argument is that the internet was to blame for this situation. Specifically, small radio stations simply can’t compete against “big tech” and it’s not their fault that fewer and fewer people can maintain the life of those radio stations. Of course, when you drive away audience members, those audience members need to have another place to go. If anything, the internet was a response to the poor business decision making at these radio stations.

Back at the broadcasting station, I remember passively walking past the studio’s where many of these DJs work. Because of my hours, I got to passively observe what DJs were doing when not speaking. What I saw, to me, spoke volumes about the music being played. Many of them either keep the station music on low or mute it entirely. The reason is that even the DJs can’t stand the music either. Most of the time, they were texting on their phones, browsing the internet, maybe taking a listener phone call, or chatting it up with their co-host. These are the very people many would think would be the most enthusiastic about the music. While some were able to sell the idea while speaking on the air that this was the most amazing music, most knew that the music being aired is utter garbage.

From a long term perspective, the picture isn’t really all that good for traditional radio. The boomer generation, the very generation that radio seems to obsessively go after, is getting older. Give this another 30 years and there won’t be a lot of people in that age group left to listen to the radio. Sure, traditional radio throws the odd bone here and there as if to pretend that the radio is for all listening age groups, but the alternatives that exist these days largely means that this occasional different music choice isn’t making radio any more relevant today. It’s a question of long term sustainability that traditional radio seems largely oblivious to.

In fact, even record labels know this. During a hearing at the Canadian Senate, Nettwerk Music Group told Senators that radio is largely irrelevant to helping build an artists career. If one of their artists songs is played on the radio, it doesn’t typically translate into any meaningful results. While Senators were astonished to hear this (probably in part because they grew up in an era where your music being on the radio was a huge thing), observing what has been happening in the last 20 years means that this comment is not entirely surprising to me.

While some defenders of traditional radio might be content with screaming that all of their problems can be laid at the feet of that darned pesky internet, it’s hard to see what internet companies did wrong here. If anything, screaming that it’s all the internet’s fault that traditional radio is facing problems is basically an exercise in shifting the blame from traditional radio’s own mistakes onto something as nebulous as the internet.

I would argue that if radio had kept up the push to remain relevant by offering new, great music, radio would simply be seen as a companion to the internet in discovering new music. Now, however, it’s been relegated further and further into the category of a relic to a bygone era. I submit that we got here almost entirely thanks to all the mistakes traditional radio has made along the way. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I got some music I found on the internet to listen to:

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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