Some people say that the dawn of the digital era is synonymous with the end of traditional radio. The rise of Internet radio stations would have made the original ones become obsolete. Their emergence, at the beginning of the 90’s, have been compelling : in 2007, Olga Kharif wrote in ‘’The Last Days of Internet Radio ? ‘’ that the number of online radio listeners was more substantial than the combination of satellite radio, high-definition radio, podcasts, and cellphone-based radio: it was representing more than 57 million weekly listeners in the United States. It is estimated that this number is now more than 176 million. Why is web radio such a great success? What does that change for the listeners and for the artists? What does that mean about our culture?
The term ‘’Internet radio’’ designates all media that can be accessed instantly by anyone, everywhere in the world, as long as an Internet connection can be reached. For the most part, web radios are using streaming, podcasts, and playlists. But these technologies do not only make them possible to be autonomous from broadcast waves – it also makes possible more independent in regards to time for listeners, record labels for artists, as well as the rules, money, and space for broadcasters (or, here, webcasters). One more time, the Internet is claimed to be the prophet of liberty.
Web radios were permitted by the creation of MP3 music files in 1992, that gave birth to a revolution of downloading and music file sharing started by Napster. From one day to an other, people did not need to buy cassettes and CDs anymore: they could find the song they wanted to play for free, simply using their computer. Plus, if you could acquire those files, you could also share them very easily. This was certainly one of the greatest inventions of all time, and people saw this as a real revolution. Webcasting requires much less material than broadcasting – a computer, a downloading software and a good Internet connection are everything you need. Which means that you do not need a lot of money, you don’t have to become popular to survive, you do not have to sell your soul to the devil; playing commercial music that would attract an audience that is not necessarily interested in your initial artistic identity.
Indeed, online radio also represents a way to escape from the music industry and the rules that it had established. In the early 1900’s, the market was almost exclusively controlled by six major record labels. In the 50’s, they were only three. But the Internet opened an access to every music that was created and shared on the web, without any filter – at first.
However, this new ability of downloading and sharing music files for free became very controversial: artists and record labels were seeing it as stealing their property. After years of debates, Bill Clinton signed the Digital Millenium Copyright Act in 1998: like AM/FM radios, web radio stations would have to pay royalties for the music that they would find online, and for the music that they would share. The price would vary according to the popularity of the artist.
This might be, or might be not, a reason why many online radios started to play obscure small rock music bands: to avoid paying royalties. But it is for sure that one of the reason of the great popularity of this new technology is that it was offering new artistic alternatives to traditional corporate and standardized radio, for people who would not share the common tastes or who would like some variety: it became easy to create your own website to share very specific music that might not be played by local radio stations, and to attract an audience that would be curious about special interests. This way, DJs could corner new markets, and individuals are now able to choose to listen to a specific genre he wants to listen to, or to a mix of different kind of musics, or to artists that are unsigned by labels… In fact, it plainly changed the culture and consumption models.
Playlists have become the favorite way of listening to music. Why ?
First, because most of the principal radio stations are extremely conservative. A Wall Street Journal article revealed that ‘’the top 10 songs in 2013 were played twice as much as the leading songs in 2003. […] The reason for this increasing repetition comes down to data, which suggests that replaying top songs keep listener engaged.’’ This sad assertion is based on the observation that the majority of the listeners do not want to listen to unfamiliar music. This way, playing more experimental genres would mean taking the risk of seeing the audience shrinking and, of course, of loosing money. The New-York radio programmer Ebro Darden testifies: ‘’Taking risks is not rewarded, so we have to be more careful than ever before’’.
But what about the people who are curious about being surprised by new talents ?
That is where Spotify, Pandora, and all those on-line music recommendation services have been clever. They are using downloading technology to provide millions of streaming music protected by Digital Right Management Act. Their method is largely criticized, because the royalties that they pay to artists are ridiculous (between $0.0006 and $0.0084 each time that a song is played, before the label takes its part). But there is something even more vital than money that these services can provide to new artists – it is exposure. Today, being exposed is the only way to access popularity if you can not afford a powerful record label. And popularity leads to ticket sales, album sales, and Internet streams.
An other reason of the rise of web radio at the expense of traditional radio is that, contrary to territorial radio, it made the consumers confronted to their own personal choices. Instead of listening some music imposed by a DJ, they had to think about what genre, what band, what song, they want to listen at this exact moment, at this exact place. And if you do not want to have to take any decision, you can just select a web radio that you know is playing music that you like. This is a possible thing to do with traditional radio, but you have to find the specific DJ, playing on the specific local radio, and after you found it, you would only be able to listen to his music for one to three hours – during the time of his show. And you would have to adapt to his schedule. An other way to discover new music can be to browse in the gigantic discovery source that the Internet is representing : MySpace, Soundcloud, YouTube, Tumblr, Mixcloud… We are spoiled for choice. But having too much choice can be discouraging for some of us.
Today, with the reign of Pandora and Spotify, the best playlist that you could ever imagine can appear in a fraction of second, just by selecting an artist that you like. If you want to discover new songs, these services propose you a panel of tracks that perfectly fit your tastes. Those « On-demand services » do not even require you to demand anything anymore — they are anticipating your desires. That can even be disturbing – sometimes it feels like our Internet radio better knows our own tastes then ourselves.
Last week, I was doing some shopping in a vintage store. I thought that the music that the shop was playing was amazing. They were playing only songs from my favorite albums of my favorite bands. During one hour, I could have sung by heart every lyric of each song. Before leaving, I asked a staff member who created the playlist (I absolutely wanted to meet him/her – he could become my best friend, that was for sure). The seller answered me that the playlist was made by Pandora. I left the store, without knowing if the idea that I just met my ideal musical algorithm instead of my musical soul mate was something I should be excited about. Then, I realized that, in contrast to my Spotify radios recommendations, the playlist that I was just listening to was not made for me. It was representative of a community of people who have the exact same musical taste as mine.
A lot of people blame web radios that are using algorithms because « it is so impersonal ». I don’t think it is. It is probably because it is so personal that it can be disturbing. I love listening playlists that are created by people, podcasted or broadcasted. But they will hardly fit my artistic personality the way algorithms do.
However, it should not be a reason to erase territorial radios from our listening habits. In fact, it is even a very good reason to keep listening to them.
Exactly two weeks ago, Donald Trump was elected to be the new President of the United States of America. Billions of people from all around the world threw up their hands in horror, wondering how such an unbearable thing did happen. The most surprised were the American people themselves. One question came to our mind : how is it possible that I did not realize how much Trump supporters I am sharing my own country with ? How was I so certain that the majority of my fellow citizens was approximately sharing my representation of life ?
That is how we began to hear about « filter bubbles ». The day after elections, Mark Zuckerberg was accused to have a great responsibility in Trump’s victory. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Snapchat are representing a great part of our social life, and for most of the users, they are the place where to access to all other media. But the articles we are reading on social networks do not appear by accident, and that is why it is so controversial. Using a very similar algorithm as the one that Spotify is using to offer a playlist designed to measure, Facebook is selecting the pieces of information in which the user might be interested. Which is actually comfortable: we do not have to research news to stay informed – they are coming to us, through our « News Feed ». It is very satisfying. But it is also very blinding.
Indeed, the idea that the individuals do not bother to choose the way they want to receive their informations is problematic. Because, apart from the fact that, this way, we are giving to social networks the opportunity to manipulate our opinions, we are above all disconnecting ourselves from the reality that is unfolding before our eyes. Facebook’s News Feed algorithm is collecting data about links that we read, posts that we share, comments that we like. Taking account of these pieces of information, it will, then, propose you to read articles that will please you, so you want to like, share, consume more news. Facebook’s purpose is not to depict a realistic representation of what is happening in the world, but to make us feel comfortable with your Facebook environment. But Facebook is not the only one to blame — it only makes the process, that we would make by ourselves anyway, easier. Who never deleted a social network « friend » because he was making statements that sounded improper to you? Each fascist, insulting, disgusting message is perceived as an aggression. And nobody likes feeling attacked in its opinions.
Yet it appears to be very wholesome, to say the least. First, because facing different opinions is challenging ours, and, by this way, either reinforces them or makes them evolve. Plus, because confronting them make us realize that they exist. And the only way to fight ideas that sound wrong to us is to localize them and take stock of how powerful they are.
Even though the issues are not proportional, social networks’ game of filters operates in the same way as big streaming radios do. Snubbing musical genres that we are not familiar with, leads us to focus only on what we know and are sure to like. It means closing doors to new potential areas of interest.
Thus, if web radio is an efficient way to « balance the audience desire to discover new music while belonging to a tribe » (one of the subjects of the Music 4.5 Smart Radio seminar 2012), tuning to traditional radio stations that are offering a wide variety of musical programs, with educational goals, stays the best way for individuals to open their horizons and to emerge from their cultural cocoon. The Internet can be the greatest opportunity to open our minds, but the reality is that we are often reproducing social and cultural patterns that we are experiencing in the society we are evaluating in. A more human and less maths-based approach to music seems essential for our ears to remain alert, and, by this way, to have a better understanding of the different cultures that are interacting in the world.