Thursday, 18 May 2017

Why the demise of Radio One is bad news for new music

For those of us who have spent much of our careers dependent on one meeting a week at Radio One to define success or failure the news that the station’s RAJAR figures mark a further decline in listenership could be a moment for an outbreak of schadenfreude. They should not. 

In tandem with MBW’s analysis noting that Spotify now reaches more people (in very rough terms) than Radio One and The Guardian’s reporting this morning that David Bowie was the most popular act of 2016, this collision of data confirms what we all knew already; that new music is losing out to catalogue in the battle for public attention. 

Alongside the Radio One figures, it is worth remarking on the continued growth of 6 Music listenership. For those of us concerned with the ‘alternative’ scene who campaigned long and hard to keep the station from closure, such a boost would seem to be a positive, yet the combination of Radio One’s continued slide and 6’s quarter on quarter growth reveals an unintended consequence of the success of keeping 6 open; a ghettoization of music into dead ends. 

Many of us can remember the power of the Radio One playlist in its 90’s pomp. An addition to the B list was the moment that you could start to plan a sizeable campaign, an A list was a moment for bunting. Whilst neither was a cast iron guarantee of success, it was a big step towards it and that certainty allowed investment and risk which, in turn, delivered a vibrant and profitable new music market. The same cannot be said of a 6 Music playlist. This is not the fault of the station but the BBC insistence on atomising its content and allowing assumptions about listener age and taste to define its output. This has led to a relationship between artists and the organisation’s output that is less profitable for both parties. In hiving off music according to genre or artist age the corporation has shot itself in the foot, taking a mass audience and throwing it to the winds, diluting itself to a point where it has lost its position as the ‘home of new music’.

The great white hope is that streaming services will take up this mantle. Yet for all the positive talk about investing in new music and graphs and charts demonstrating the labels commitment to new artists, the reality on the ground suggests that either this is failing or that it is a shibboleth, a manipulation of the facts to suggest a reality that simply does not exist. It’s a simple exercise to conduct. The sales for new artists in 2016 revealed by MBW and reported by NME here are grim reading for those of us concerned with pushing forward new music at a successful and sustainable level – ie with returns that allow artists to be full time. Certainly the reduction of sales as a barometer plays a part here, this is not slam dunk fact territory, but then a look at Spotify’s most streamed debut artists of 2016 hardly reassures, the top spot being taken by anartist that we really should not be talking about in debut terms. Or talk to most managers or new artists about the gap between their ambition and available sources of funding; such pillars as tour support, personal advances and instrument funds being long consigned to the past amidst a feeling that capital is being reassigned to reissues and digital strategies to exploit catalogue; a business approach best characterised as ‘guaranteed return over risk’.

From a strict business perspective, this new landscape works fine for labels in possession of catalogue, a list that includes plenty of independent operations alongside the big three. I have yet to hear anyone from a label explain to me what happens in a decade or so when the list of artists that have achieved real, tangible, lasting success remains stuck in the late 90’s with odd exceptions like Adele, Sheeran etc. Some artists, the Stormzys and Skeptas are finding ways to work around that but the hit rate is still woefully poor and the DIY model is not a solution for every artist. 

Avoidance of risk given the easy money to be achieved from streaming services is an obvious attraction for labels but that, ultimately, is not a recipe for a lasting and progressive musical landscape. Labels need more certainty and support to invest in new music at the levels that new artists once enjoyed. Music is, after all, a business first and the current risk of a debut act is far too great given the likely returns. The idea that new music is driven exclusively by young people needs to be junked. For all their reverence of John Peel, a new equivalent would be first out of the door and on the way to 6 Music in the current climate. If the BBC wants to retain Radio One as a force for new music, a change in approach to how to contextualise new music and encourage a more diverse and engaged audience, regardless of when they were born, is needed.

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