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Is Beats 1 Radio Built to Last?

on July 02, 2015, 2:00pm

Apple Music has launched and the reviews are … ”eh.” A whole lot of “eh,” from “seen it” dismissals like Gizmodo’s to individual comments all over Facebook and Twitter from self described music fiends that have turned up everything from questionable functionality to outright glitches. Whatever Apple Music’s functionality or lack thereof, one aspect needs further consideration: namely, the radio model they’re offering via Beats 1. Not because something vital and new has happened, but because it feels something is just being replicated all over again — again.

The idea of Internet radio as a successor to actual radio has been a pipe dream since the Internet’s ‘90s breakthrough. A number of services soon came into being that grappled with the idea on both technical and, for lack of a better word, emotional levels. From predictive streams that try to guess what music you want next (like Pandora) to the fragmented is-it-or-isn’t-it nature of podcasts, there’s never been one exact answer — especially when so many terrestrial stations happily broadcast on the Internet now anyway.

The way Apple is trying to break through with Internet radio is similar to what Sirius was trying to do in recent years in their own realm of satellite radio: throw a lot of money around, get big names, and lock everything down as much as possible. Sirius found a perfect storm when the chance to get Howard Stern on board presented itself in 2005. It gave the wildly popular DJ, a proven quantity several times over first in New York and then nationally, a chance to escape from the FCC’s oversight of terrestrial radio and to lock in a good deal for himself. In turn, it instantly boosted the profile of Sirius to the point where it swallowed XM and pretty much cornered the market for a few years. Stern himself has now completed a decade-plus run on Sirius and is essentially both identified with the station and its flagbearer.

Sirius also took advantage of technology to explore niche options. One of the most well known was Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour run. A weekly hourlong show that ran from 2006 to 2009, it combined both an obvious known name, a high concept (shows focused on songs around a particular theme), wiggy radio-specific humor somewhere between the Firesign Theatre gone straight and the Prairie Home Companion gone loopier, and a general sense that something new could thrive. After its conclusion, Dylan implied that his contract had ended; whether or not that meant Sirius thought it wasn’t successful enough to continue or Dylan continued it out of obligation and then stopped when said obligation was finished remains unclear. Either way, it was a demonstration of possibility — trying to imagine something similar on a commercial station of any stripe is near impossible.

It’s hardly a one to one comparison, but Apple’s moves aren’t too far from that bit of recent history. However, whether it’s a reflection of the times, higher stakes, or sheer ego, what’s happened is more akin to a carpetbombing than a response to other services. Acquiring Beats meant bringing Jimmy Iovine, Dr. Dre, and Trent Reznor on board in one fell swoop. Beats 1 started to stand out when high profile UK-based radio DJ Zane Lowe got on board earlier this year, and a few days before the formal launch, the word got out about who else would be participating. It felt like a smorgasbord out to serve all: Drake! Elton John! Dre himself! Josh Homme! St. Vincent! Jaden Smith! Disclosure! (Wait, hold on, Jaden Smith?)

drake apple music Is Beats 1 Radio Built to Last?

Ben Sisario’s New York Times piece on Lowe’s move to Beats 1 isn’t a tongue bath of Apple in itself, but you can sense the money and heft Apple’s provided to put Lowe front and center in America — important since, unlike Stern when he moved to Sirius, Lowe’s nowhere near famous here yet. Throughout the piece, the company tries to convince the reader they’re going to do radio right. Even the technical screwup detailed at the start makes it all seem to feel more “real,” a little college radio roughness amidst the glamour.

But a goofy startup this isn’t, and Apple’s not doing this for charity or shits and giggles. Besides Sirius, another comparison point could be made: Tidal. In that case, Tidal went to deep extremes to try and convince everyone involved (most notably the people all shuffled together on that stage at the PR launch) that it was “for the artists.” There’s nothing like that here: Apple is the company in charge, not Jay Z heading an investor pool. Dre et al may have the high level executive offices and maybe Eddy Cue listens when Taylor Swift coughs, but Lowe’s going to be on the chopping block if his tenure doesn’t work out as Apple wants it to. If Lowe decides to make noise after a time, the likelihood is that Apple will shrug and shuffle him out without a care.

Lowe’s opening playlist for Beats 1, the initial tone Apple wants to put into the world, feels like an advertisement for the fact he has access to Dr. Dre and AC/DC. It also includes a slew of artists that feel “with it,” artists with recently released albums urgently backed by labels at present, legacy artists that people will recognize, and slight breaths of something just barely half new. It could have been focus grouped. Meanwhile, if certain shows don’t end up maintaining what Apple wants, then Apple won’t feel particularly obligated to continue them. Which celebrity hosts choose to continue on after the splashy debut is up to them — I’d love to see the exact contracts myself — but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are rumblings in the future if they feel like the job is not worth their while, or even that special.

There’s a few telling moments in another part of the Apple Music PR push. Reznor’s interview with Evan Minsker for Pitchfork — itself listed at the end of the piece as one of Apple’s Curation Partners, to use the official phrase — is notable for Reznor flat-out admitting most streaming services were the same to start with. (That didn’t stop him from trashing Tidal along the way, making this particular battle feel like the one between “Bad Blood” and “Bitch I’m Madonna” — two camps of equally famous people out to persuade a general audience theirs is the better one to be with.) One eyebrow-raising moment came when he casually mentioned the slow-growing/word-of-mouth success story of Bandcamp (which he freely admitted to knowing little about) as only driven by money. Even more perversely funny was when he described Apple in contrast as providing “empowerment of the artist — that they don’t have to go through a label or anything else,” which is … exactly what Bandcamp provides.

When it came to the Beats 1 Radio side of things, Reznor delivered a fairly pat phrase: “radio stations that were programmed by people.” I’ve heard that kind of phrase plenty of times in plenty of variations over the years about terrestrial, satellite, whatever. It’s your music! It’s real! No BS! Instead of local personality DJ names migrating from station to station, it’s big artist names, precisely so they can scream further, “Hey, it’s real!” Lowe apparently had Jaden Smith call him up and ask to play the Buffy theme, which means that Beats 1 is great at attempting synergy, but I wouldn’t call it a sign of being deathless. Because it is focused in on known names and familiar people, the goal of Beats 1 is less discovery than it is getting those who were already inclined to listen to such hosts to do so all over again.

There’s no question that new possibilities can exist, though. Potential models to screw with the system do too, like something akin to Dylan’s Sirius show. Beats 1 Radio could all work out more successfully than expected, and if Apple gets its money as a result, that’s all that matters. (Again — that’s ALL that matters.) But being suspicious is always a better stance when the rhetoric’s particularly high-flying and promising the moon. Last time Apple tried something new, we all got a U2 album nobody really wanted. Will this time around be any different? Is corporate rock radio any less corporate rock radio if it comes from a tech company instead of a media conglomerate? I’ll leave you to consider the words from a certain anthem from 35 years back: Don’t be surprised if glittering prizes and endless compromises shatter the illusion of integrity, again.