July 23, 2005
World's best Radio Station
My iTunes playlist crossed a milestone the other day, and I didn't even notice. According to iTunes, I now have more than 24 hours of music on my playlist - 1.2 days - 459 songs. Almost none of my music is ripped from CDs because Heidi had sold most of my old CDs long ago. (We got, what maybe $40 for the whole pile? Drat!) So I guess that means I've spent $455 at the iTunes music store now. Wow, that's a lot of money 99 cents at a time.
Though it is a wonderful thing. I can listen to all my favorite music all day, and still never hear the same thing twice. I absolutely love my playlist. It is way way better than radio.
Or is it? While I wait around for an iPod-in-the-car solution that is better than the FM transmitter hacks that you can get from Monster or Belkin or Griffin, I still listen to the radio when driving around. And so a new station got my attention....
I am not Mainstream. Am I?
I imagine that my listening habits are unique to me. The music I like most is called "Alternative", and I like that term - it makes me feel like a rebel.
But don't put me in a box. I also like to think I have unusual and eclectic tastes. As I sort through the categories in my iTunes playlist, I see that I've picked out a lot of Alternative, Rock, Pop, R&B, Vocal, Reggae, Jazz.... And strangely, a big selection of Soundtrack. I guess I like music from movies - it can be the best stuff! For example Paul McCartney's "A love for you" - you will find it nowhere else.
Certainly, I've bought a lot of music that Heidi doesn't like - she builds her playlist by picking and choosing from mine. And she adds some "girl music" that is just so soft and squishy that I just can't understand the appeal. But everybody is different, right?
So I am happy being unique.
The other day I was winding my way through the iTunes music store following the "listeners also liked" links around until I finally found my favorite iTunes Essentials section - the section of the store that seemed most tailor-made for me. Imagine my disappointment when I looked up and saw the name of the this totally rocking mix.
This label is supposed to apply to music for the over-30 set. According to iTunes, "Mainstream Rock" includes music ranging from "oldies" from the 80's (is that really considered old?) to popular contemporary hits and is considered the non-offensive "softer" side of rock music.
It is music for fuddy-duddys. The label makes me feel like I have the music preferences of a soccer mom in her minivan. But, I guess, it must be true. I am married and live in a split-level house in the suburbs and go to the gym to try to get into shape. We have two kids, two cars, and two jobs. I am getting older. I am mainstream.
Rockin the Suburbs
Despite any dents and scratches, my SUV has never been offroad. I basically only drive it when I am trucking around my two kids to summer camp or to their friends' house or wherever. Blame the weatherbeaten look on inside-the-garage parking mishaps.
So as I and my two mini-me's wind our way through the Suburban Jungle on our way to summer camp, we turn up the tunes on our favorite music. And Mainstream is what we listen to.
Back in March, a new radio station started playing in Philadelphia. It caught my ear because one of the radio announcers is John O’Hurley, who has a very distnctive, ironic voice. You know who I am talking about? He played the "J. Peterman" of Unusual Catalog fame on Seinfeld, and he is awesome (some clips).
"BEN-FM", O’Hurley intones in ironic falsetto, "we play Anything we Feel Like." And then later, "Rrraaandom Radio with no rules. No rules means Chaos. Now for some Chaos!"
And it's true. This new station is nothing like anything I have ever heard on the radio before. They play an eclectic mix of everything - it's like my iPod, but better, because the station has an ever bigger playlist.
Listening to BEN-FM is totally different from a regular radio station where you hear basically the same thing every day you tune in. Listening to BEN-FM for an hour I might hear one song I heard the other day, but the other 10 songs are totally different. They are songs I feel like I haven't heard in ages, but all fresh, catchy, memorable, awesome songs.
It is a station full of Mainstream Rock, I suppose. But good, broad, eclectic Mainstream Rock. Not just "70's" or "80's" or "90's" or "new". Not just "hard" or "soft" or "classic" or "pop" or "alternative". But everything. Everything good.
Jack, Bob, Ben, who?
According to Wikipedia, BEN-FM is an example of a new category of radio stations modeled after the Canadian stations called Jack FM. The idea is simple. Instead of sticking to a single narrow playlist of 100 songs, expand the playlist to 1000 or more.
But which 1000 songs to pick?
The secret, I think, is that there are a lot of "Mainstream Rock" people like me out in the world. We really like the 70 songs on the iTunes Mainstream Rock list, or the top 20 on Billboard's Mainstream Rock list. But we don't want to listen to those 90 songs all day long. There are another 1000 songs which are appealing to us too, and they are just as good or even better. We have just forgotten about them.
And as any iPod owner knows, lengthening the playlist completely changes the experience. A long playlist is way better.
The format has swept Canada and the U.S. and according to Wikipedia, has "succeeded in every market" where it has been attempted, except, for some reason, in Hawaii. I know I haven't changed the station in my SUV for months. It is the new sound of radio.
The format is not without controversy. It is a DJ-free format with a huge playlist - something that directly competes with "infinite-playlist" DJ-driven radio. On the Y100 website> you can read about the local, deeply emotional anti-BEN reaction among the local rock-and-roll radio elite here in Philly. "Shallow radio," they accuse, truthfully. I can understand the sentiment, and I mourn the loss of a live DJ. But the truth is, I am not a radio elitist. The computer-crafted BEN-FM playlist of broad and shallow #1 hits sounds just great to me.
What Radio means for an iPod generation
I imagine that the new long-playlist format has been forced by the emergence of mp3 players and iPod. The whole music industry is being reshaped. After you buy a few hundred singles on the iTunes music store, it changes your listening habits.
Not only do you lose tolerance for hearing the same few songs repeatedly; you also lose tolerance for hearing the crummy experiments from your favorite artists over and over. You want to hear the best singles from everybody, whenever they were hits and whomever made them. You become an eclectic pick-and-chooser, and you won't settle for an old-format radio station anymore. You need something like BEN-FM.
Like many radio stations, BEN-FM also has an interesting commercial relationship to mp3 players, especially since it is so iPod-like. If you go to the station website, you will notice that you can see the current playlist for the radio station, and you can directly buy WMA files for the music for 99 cents each.
It is almost exactly what I want. I have been buying my favorite the songs from the very broad BEN playlist. I hear BEN-FM and it inspires me to expand my own playlist to be even better than the radio station. In the end it will be all my favorite music. In the end, perhaps, I will get a good iPod shuffle plug-in solution for my SUV and then won't listen to the radio so much anymore again.
Pay for Music by Buying the Stock
It's a shame, though - the WMAs sold in a one-click format on the BEN-FM site will not play on your iPod. They only link to the songs in the silly Microsoft format. What to do? Buy a song or two on the BEN website and throw out the iPod? No way.
I have been expanding my iTunes list by finding the names of the songs I like on BEN-FM's website and then going back to the iTunes music store to buy the songs in Apple's format instead. It is a royal pain in the neck, but it is worth the trouble. I've already sunk $400 into the iTunes music format, and so I am not exactly going to walk away from that awesome music library. And I absolutely love the Apple devices anyway.
And so motivated by BEN-FM I will continue my quest of expanding my iTunes playlist and eventually Apple will have another $500 from me, even if it means lots of extra clicking and searching. It's a classic case of platform lock-in. 99 cents at a time, customers window-shopping at your competitor and then walking across town to come to your store. Steve Jobs learned his lesson from Bill very well.
Buy AAPL. It will pay for your music habit.Posted by David at July 23, 2005 05:28 AM
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