Yesterday the BBC’s Director General Tony Hall laid out a vision for the future of the BBC (for an excellent take on this see the blog post from MIDiA’s video analyst Tim Mulligan, and yes the name may look familiar, he’s my brother!). The BBC has long played a crucial innovation role in the digital content economy but it has yet to carve out a convincing role for itself in online music. It has built up a compelling YouTube content offering and it has pursued a streaming coexistence strategy with its innovative Playlister initiative but the bigger play has yet to be made. That looks set to change, with the announcement that the BBC is planning to launch a ‘New Music Discovery Service’, which would make the 50,000 tracks broadcast by the BBC every month available to stream for a limited period. The initiative is interesting in itself but its implications are more profound and could have global repercussions.
Radio Still Rules The Roost But The Streaming Fox Is At The Door
Radio is still by far the main way most people interact with music. 75% of consumers listen to music radio regularly compared to 39% that stream for free. Radio also remains the main way in which people discover new music and its DJs are still some of the most influential tastemakers on the planet cf Apple poaching Zane Lowe from the BBC’s Radio 1. But things are undoubtedly changing. Music radio penetration among 16-24 year olds falls to 65% while streaming rises to 54%. In Sweden streaming has overtaken music radio among 16-24 year olds. All of this without even considering YouTube which has overtaken radio for 16-24 year olds in markets as diverse as UK, US, Sweden, Germany and Mexico and is on the verge of doing so in France. (All consumer data is from MIDiA Research). Radio held its own throughout the digital revolution of the last 15 years but the cracks are now there for all to see. Most radio broadcasters do not yet have the assets to properly navigate the digital transition. In most markets there is no dedicated digital platform (the US and UK are two notable exceptions) so broadcasters rely increasingly on mobile streaming for engaging audiences digitally. Which means they are one swipe of a finger away from a bewildering array of radio alternatives. It is this dynamic that underpins the BBC’s approach to streaming.
The Tyranny Of Choice
Though streaming had been around long before Spotify (hello Rhapsody) the Swedish upstart simply made the model work. It did so by fixing buffering and by giving consumers frictionless (i.e. not cost and easy to use) access to all the music in the world. By fixing that problem Spotify inadvertently created a new problem: the Tyranny of Choice. Consumers are paralysed by excessive choice. The Tyranny of Choice is of course not solely Spotify’s fault but it was certainly a catalyst for it. With the traditional gatekeepers / curators (delete as appropriate according to your worldview) increasingly bypassed by data-driven discovery, mainstream music fans are left feeling utterly bewildered.
Consumers Don’t Get Curation
The BBC is keenly aware of its value as a curator and quite frankly thinks it can do a better job than pure play streaming services. It is probably right. But what it doesn’t yet know how to do is communicate and deliver that value outside of the framework of radio. The problem with curation is most people don’t think they need it. Just 5% of consumers state they want discovery and recommendation features from streaming services. Yet these are in the main the very same consumers that listen to music radio, which of course is all about discovery and recommendation. The difference is that it doesn’t feel like it.
Setting Curation Free
This the challenge for the BBC and all radio broadcasters: how can they take the essence of DJ led programming and translate that into the streaming environment. Apple’s approach of simply taking programmed radio and building on demand streaming around it is one bold approach but it is just a first step. The BBC, and other publicly funded broadcasters, have the advantage of being able to take the long view, of planning for long term evolution rather than focusing on ‘flipping’ their start up or keeping shareholders happy each quarter.
The BBC is placing the bet that giving its curation the maximum ability to permeate and interact with the streaming marketplace will give it the best chance of delineating which models will work and how best to bottle up that curation magic dust. It is also a bold move because if it follows its course this could see the BBC’s content, curation and editorial break free of the confines of the BBC. Because if it works well enough out in the ‘streaming wild’ why would a user need to even visit a BBC property. The BBC is setting curation free. It is a strategy that gives a hat tip to BuzzFeed, a company with a stated intent to distribute content as widely as possible even if that ultimately means killing off the BuzzFeed website. A quote from BuzzFeed’s CEO Jonah Peretti sums up the thinking perfectly: “Content might still be King but distribution is Queen, and she wears the trousers.”
So watch the BBC’s streaming endeavours closely because the outcomes will likely provide blueprints for thriving in the streaming era for media companies of all types and sizes right across the globe.