Business Interviews Digital Media

Q&A: Alan Cross

By | Published on Tuesday 23 December 2014

Alan Cross

This interview from the recent M For Montreal conference appeared in the December 2014 edition of the CMU Trends Report. Buy our reports from the CMU Shop or get every edition by signing up for CMU Premium

As someone who has written about, talked about and championed new music for decades, and who has closely monitored developments in the digital music space over the last fifteen years, Canadian broadcaster Alan Cross could input into our overview of digital trends in multiple ways. But I was most interested in what he thought about the clash that is occurring between the rapidly rising streaming services and his own industry, that of radio.

Because for all the debates that have taken place over whether subscription services are cannibalising download sales, there is also the issue of streaming platforms stealing listeners from radio stations, potentially depriving the music industry of both the royalties it earns from the broadcasters and a key platform that has traditionally been used by the labels to launch new artists and songs.

Unsurprisingly, Cross has been monitoring this trend very closely as well. “Because in radio we work very closely with the music industry, and consider artists and record companies as our partners in many ways, we were obviously concerned when we started to see the rapid rise of online piracy fifteen years ago, and about the impact that was having on the labels. But we were removed from those developments in a way, because we didn’t initially see the internet as a threat to our business model”.

“But that has changed a lot over the last fifteen years” he goes on, “as we realised that AM and FM will eventually go in favour of digital distribution of one form or another. Because we are now encountering a generation that has never known life without the internet, and has never known any type of entertainment to be non-interactive and non-customisable, which means radio is going to have go down this road too. The connected car is also important for us; if you can connect your dashboard to your smartphone and get this great display in front of you, and whatever kind of information and entertainment you want when you need it, all by-passing your AM/FM radio, then we’ve got a problem”.

Traditional broadcasters, therefore, need to look to the emerging streaming music sector and work out what they can learn from these new rivals, and ultimately how they can compete in the interactive customisable entertainment age. All is not lost just yet though, because – despite the impressive subscriber figures – the streaming services, especially if you exclude Pandora and YouTube, are yet to really capture the mainstream market that has always been the core audience for radio, and especially the commercial stations. But it’s this mass market that the streaming start-ups need to engage for their loss-making businesses to become profitable.

For their part, the radio sector probably understands this audience better than many in the digital space, and indeed the music business itself. “A lot of people in the music industry like to think that, if only we can give consumers all the choice in the world, and expose them to all this music that’s out there, then those consumers will all get a better taste in music, and they’ll all suddenly start to like the same artists that we music geeks like. It doesn’t happen. It doesn’t work like that. If you look at the streaming charts already, what is being streamed the most? The big hits, the Taylor Swifts, the Ariana Grandes”.

“And you have to remember, while there are millions of music fans like us, there are billions of people who buy their CDs at the supermarket, listen to the Top 40 radio stations, and probably spent thirty to forty dollars a year on music maximum, because all they want is a song they can sing along too and tap their fingers on the steering wheel to. That’s it. And there’s billions of those people, and nothing is going to make all those people become hardcore music fans, because most of them don’t have the time or the inclination”.

The challenge for the streaming sector is that for this more mainstream audience, twenty million tracks all available at anytime is actually off-putting. “What radio says” Cross notes, “is ‘we’ve listened to all the crap, and we believe – rightly or wrongly – that these are the songs that are good enough for you to want to hear’”. Of course the streaming services hope that their respective discovery tools – whether based on algorithms, social data or, like radio, human curation – replicate that process to an extent, making their services more mainstream friendly.

As those discovery elements become more refined and more mainstream users start to sign up to Spotify et al, that’s when radio will be really under threat. Cross observes that “a lot of commercial music stations – and the US radio sector took this to the extreme – have spent the last twenty years reducing the amount of talk in their programming. They decided that talk was an interruption, getting in the way of the hits. But these stations still have to play the commercials, so you have some interruptions anyway. And that’s where radio is going to lose out – because the streaming services can serve up hit after hit without even the commercials. They can do what commercial radio has been trying to do all these years, only better”.

Therefore, Cross reckons, to compete long-term radio needs to focus on making engaging programmes again. Because radio done well isn’t just about curation, it’s about story-telling. And that story-teller role is more important than ever in the age of the skip button.

“With the streaming services, there is no one to tell you why any one song or artist is important, and why you shouldn’t skip that song after twenty or thirty seconds. And for a lot of listeners, a lot of the time that’s important with anything new, or a bit different. Sometimes you need repeated, unintentional exposure to a song or a genre before you go, boom, I get it, and that’s the problem with the streaming music services”.

“Because the skip button is always there” he goes on. “Listeners can say ‘don’t get it, don’t like it, skip’. Whereas radio has the opportunity to say, right, I’m going to set this up for you, explain who this artist is, I’m going to tell you a story, and I’m going to make the music come more alive for you, so you have additional emotional and intellectual engagement with the song. Offering that kind of context is something that radio can be great at, and which the streaming platforms will find harder to replicate”.

And the music industry at large has a vested interest in the radio sector refocusing on the story-telling role, Cross reckons, because it’s a key way in which radio can help with the all-important passive discovery process, getting new songs into the heads of people who won’t go out of their way to hear the unfamiliar.

“To create a hit song you need to expose it to people enough times until they like it”, Cross says. “The question is, with short attention spans and the skip button, how do we expose an unfamiliar song to people enough times for it to stick? The scary thing is the skip facility, and the data we are now getting about what makes people skip a track ten or twenty seconds in. As a pop songwriter it’s going to be hard to ignore those stats, you’ll look to the same old formulas that keep people’s attention. But that’s not necessarily the best way to create new music”.

The music community at large, therefore, needs story-tellers to help hook people in, which gives radio an edge as the streaming services tread on its territory. Though, Cross notes, “by going the less talk, more hits route, often because it’s cheaper to run, commercial radio doesn’t have as many good story-tellers on its team, the kinds of presenters and DJs who can provide context in an engaging way. And because it’s the smaller local stations that have seen the biggest cut-backs, there is nowhere for new talent to practice their trade before moving into the bigger markets. I think radio at large needs to refocus on that side of its business to prosper alongside the new competitors from the digital domain”.

This report from the recent M For Montreal conference appeared in the December 2014 edition of the CMU Trends Report. Buy our reports from the CMU Shop or get every edition by signing up for CMU Premium