From Online Music Catalogs
The light may already be peeking out at the end of the
tunnel. It requires true broadband custom-casting on the
Net, but that may not be too far away. (Yeah, yeah, they
said that about cable modems a couple years ago, and
they're still piddling around with the regulations and
technology standards, but once we get the secure
transaction standards for e-commerce, perhaps the gate will
open.) Even if it's further on down the road, eventually
And then, this is what will happen. I hope. First, some
What exactly does music radio provide?
There are two services that music radio provides to its
listeners, in the guise of an audio programming service:
1. A fairly consistent variety of music for life's auditory
2. A free sample of newly released records prior
The record business mainly makes use of the second aspect.
The radio business itself concentrates more on the first,
as a means of attracting a large audience with which it
keeps its ad rates high, to make a profit from ad sales.
But I'm not really that concerned with the radio business
itself. I'm more concerned with an audio programming
service in the abstract, from the user's point of view, and
how this might dovetail with the desires of record
companies and independent acts to sell their products.
Note: There used to be a third angle, which still lives on
in non-commercial radio programming, i.e.,
education/information about music either in general or more
often by genre, in little corners of programming by
college, public and off-shore "pirate" stations. But the
audiences for these programs are currently not large enough
to make a significant impact on the music business by
affecting mass airplay charts. They manifest too much
variety to register on the radar for any one artist or
composition, with little if any tie-in to measurable sales.
Successful commercial programming long ago migrated to
"formats" that are specifically non-exploratory, using an
increasingly narrow selection of tracks for high-rotation
airplay that creates quick brand recognition for individual
songs and artists, leading to clear short-term "hits" in
What does a listener want from audio
A listener wants two seemingly contradictory things from
audio programming: consistency (they want to know that when
they tune in a particular channel, they will get "that kind
of music" that they expect), and freshness (within the
confines of "that kind" they would like to hear some new
things that they haven't heard before, even while they like
hearing some of their old favorites along the way as well).
The standard way to approach this in a mass-market medium
is to define genres (or even more narrowly in today's world
of radio formats) that determine the bounds of what to
include and what not to include, in order to reach a
desired consumer target market that is attractive to
consumer product/service advertisers. Then, the average of
the majority rules: anything that has too much
"personality" to avoid repelling significant chunks of the
target market is excluded. Can't put in a single cut that
makes people switch channels. Music that is undistinguished
enough to be widely tolerated will suffice, while any music
with character that is potent enough to evoke a significant
amount of passion will inevitably turn off enough listeners
to affect ratings.
So this means that the least common denominator of a target
demographic audience is all that can survive in this mass
medium. That ultimately doesn't serve the individual
listener (we know that each person has their own
cross-section of music that they like and dislike, that
generally diverges quite a bit from what even those with
similar demographics would choose for themselves).
What does a record company or act want from audio
Pretty simple, they want to get heard by the people who
would like their music and want to buy it. The averaged-out
formats in music radio constitute a tiny bottleneck through
which newly-released music can get heard, and leads to a
tiny cadre of successful acts in the midst of a sea of
back-listings in a record company's catalog that never even
cover their production costs.
Record companies would like it if all of their acts could
recoup the production costs (and promotion, and
tour-support, etc.), because it would wipe out the losing
side of the business and focus entirely on the
profit-making aspects. Even if not all the acts recoup, the
more sales that come from unrecouped artists, the higher
the unit revenue, since the record company is keeping all
the royalties (artists don't start to get royalties until
they are recouped for all advances on
Bottom line, it's in the company's financial interest to
have as wide a base of artists from which it gathers
revenue. Instead of 10-20%, think what kind of money a
record company could make if it had 70-80% recoupment.
However, radio formats work directly against this goal.
How could audio programming be improved?
Customize it to the user on an individual basis, without
regard necessarily to well-defined genres (certainly not
formats). Then listeners get to hear more effectively what
they really want, and the population of listeners gets a
chance to address a wider variety of artists, in the total
mix of their individual tastes.
It's like each listener could define their own "custom
channel" on the spur of the moment, unconstrained by anyone
else's arbitrary definition of music genres or styles.
The listener wins, and the record company gets a more
accurate reach for the true market of each individual act
in their domain, allowing more acts with moderate audiences
to rise to their full market potentials.
Instead of today's all-or-nothing, blockbuster-or-bust
dichotomy, we get a truer continuum of economic levels,
allowing the opening up of the "musical middle class" in
the commercial music world, where a great deal of quality
material is currently lost.
Okay, so who is in a position to build
Online music catalogs. Large stocks of hundreds of
thousands of titles are now available from several online
catalogs, many of which already allow you to listen (via
RealAudio or other methods) to samples from their catalog.
The first online/downloaded delivery of music for consumers
is already here. Recommendation features, from
collaborative filtering to experts' and artists' favorites
to even algorithmic systems for direct, nonsubjective
content comparisons, are beginning to become more populous.
With broadband platforms of the not-too-distant future,
this can become a personal, reliable, high-fidelity medium
for customized audio programming.
What does it look like?
Here's the sketch. Record companies and independent artists
cooperate with a music catalog to provide digital files in
a proper format for loading into the music-sample database.
(That is, if you want to be included, as an individual act,
it is in your interest to help the catalog company avoid
processing hundreds of thousands of albums on their own
dimes. Spread out that cost; in the end the investment will
be worth it.) The catalog company would provide a free
software tool to correctly pre-format the data given to
them. Load up a huge database of digitally stored music,
that can be accessed multiply and on demand by the playback
technology provided to the user, via the Net.
A user can log in and define a "custom channel" by
selecting any track stored in the database as a "center"
point. Then using any combination of recommendation tools,
define a set of tracks or artists that are "similar to" the
center point track. If you like, go out a second step, to
find anything similar to any of the first "similarity set"
-- that determines a pretty large set of material for a
single listening session.
Now, program a "random walk" through this musical space.
That's your custom audio program.
1. Provide a "skip" button, so that any track that comes on
may be skipped if the user chooses. (Also provide a "pause"
button to accomodate interruptions without losing content.)
2. Provide a "mark" button, to identify for future
reference, if the listener really likes the track, and/or
to bring up detailed information on the artists, etc. Allow
seamless, integrated purchase of the track or album right
then, in context. (Delivery either online or by mail --
subscriber info is already available.) Perhaps provide a
discount on the audio service for frequent-purchasers, or
for other user-feedback.
3. To fine-tune the musical space, allow particular artists
or albums to be excluded from a selection set, and time
frame to be specified (new releases, nostalgia, etc.).
4. Instead of running this all via desktop PC, create a
custom appliance that hooks into this system like a regular
radio receiver (cf. the cell-phone or cable TV model where
the phone or set-top box is
free and the service is paid). Build a decent transistor
radio into it, if you like, with an AM/FM/Net switch (some
of those "boutique" stations still program some pretty cool
stuff, and we don't want to deny the listener the full
range of programming options). Provide line-out jacks to
hook this into a high-fi system, small speakers for remote
listening (how about a wireless Net connection?), and a
headphone jack. Plug and play. Give it away for free in
return for a minimum subscription to the service (three
5. Make sure your database is as large as possible -- the
best service will be the one with the most choices for
selection into a custom channel. If you are a single major
label, operate this service as a separate entity so you can
distribute the products from all the other labels (you can
still get a small profit from those sales, and you get
total volume staying with your own service instead of
6. Advertising could be included, to reduce costs,
particularly for music-oriented promotions such as concert
appearances. Any music-related advertising could be
captured in the recommendation features, so that they would
be targeted to people who are on average more likely to be
interested in such information. However, ads could be set
up so that they cannot be skipped, as a guarantee that they
are delivered whole or not at all (each ad delivered would
reduce the user's cost by a fixed amount per time
duration). Provide an option for the user to determine the
frequency of ads in their programming (every third track,
every fifth, etc.), allowing them to decide for themselves
just how much ad exposure they are willing to endure in
return for cost reduction. (And if well-targeted, some
users may consider these ads to be useful information, and
choose a high frequency, even as high as one ad per track.
The key here is user empowerment to decide for themselves.)
7. For all parameters entailing user control, take care to
determine a good set of default settings as a starting
point, so that setup is not a huge task. Then provide
prominent and clear instructions on how to increasingly
take more control over the content.
What about pricing?
This needs to be balanced carefully. BMI/ASCAP/etc
performance royalties would need to be negotiated for this
unprecedented service (personalized, individually delivered,
but not stored unless permanent product is purchased),
in such a way that the subscription fee pays for it along
the way (artists are paid for any significant portion of their
music that is not skipped during the program). Ads need to be
priced per delivery to compensate properly for this cost,
plus leave a margin for profit by the service (price for
advertiser = user's service discount + service provider's
profit). Subscription fee needs to be flat, per month,
to be able to realistically compete with free, ad-supported
programming (with optional discount offers such as ads and
volume purchases), low enough to be valuable for the user
(no usage charges), high enough to break even plus margin.
What about security and piracy?
Use encryption and watermarking such as is built into
systems offered by companies like Liquid Audio.
Doesn't this require tons of bandwidth
for the server and pipeline?
Yes it does. But there are several strategies that can help
reduce redundancy in the bitstream. Most of these are
already in use now, and can likely be further improved and
1. Mirror sites -- the simplest way to scale server/pipe
bandwidth is to create multiple copies, and spread out the
users and/or content among them.
2. Non-lossy audio data compression -- given constant
bandwidth, there are several ways to use less of it,
without losing necessary information. One
recently-conceived method, for example, uses transmission
of "difference data" off of an initial "carrier waveform"
rather than direct transmission of actual audio data. By
choosing well-matched carriers for differing sections of
music, the data bandwidth can be substatially reduced while
hopefully still retaining fidelity.
3. Buffering -- at a certain point, bandwidth becomes large
enough to exceed the minimum for real-time streaming for
individual users. At that point you can begin sending
"future data" ahead of time, stored by the user's equipment
until it is needed, and allow for traffic variation over
the Net, thereby stabilizing traffic somewhat (traffic
peaks are one significant obstacle to custom-casting).
4. "Pseudo-custom-casting" -- combining the "random walk"
and moderate-length durations of single tracks with
Internet multicasting can enable increased efficiency with
a "pseudo-on-demand" service, after usage rises to the
point where there is significant duplication of content
among simultaneous users. By setting up a large array of
very fast audio-streaming servers that can continually loop
a significant subset of the database of music tracks, one
can simulate a real-time service. With randomization of
start times of the variously-long individual tracks,
chances are great that within any typical selection set
there will be a new track re-looping every several seconds
(adequate to serve as "breathing space" between tracks, as
on radio programming).
Thus the "randomization" can arise simply by choosing the
next available unplayed track in the selection set, at
the end of each currently-playing track, and if several
users have included that track in their sets and request it
simultaneously, it is multicasted out to all of them
together, thus conserving the bit stream and server
These are the kinds of things necessary for "broadband
custom-casting" (aside from brute-force performance
increases in individual servers and network connections) --
that was not an idle requirement. But if Moore's Law holds
steady over the next several years while such efficiency
techniques are developed further, such "audio on demand"
could very well become feasible.
In the meantime, LAN/Intranet-based development with a
limited user set can serve as proof-of-concept for those
wishing to begin immediately.
What about the proliferation of "boutique"
programming via the Internet?
This is beginning to happen, as many audio programmers are
taking to the Net to avoid the bottleneck of airwave
licenses, etc. (The installed base of receivers for this is
still relatively small, as is the net itself, but
undoubtedly this is on the rise.) The concept described
here is simply the same idea of narrowcasting taken to its
logical extreme, and given to the user to control, with a
seamless tie-in to fan information, communication and
sales, in context.
In fact, the record industry seems to be reporting a slump
in recent years. However with the booming economy of the
same period, one wonders if independents might already be
eating into the total volume of recorded music sales, at
the grass roots level, and thus unmeasured by the big
players in the industry.
Custom-casting may cut into the volume of celebrity profits
in the music business, but it probably will not wipe them
out completely or even largely. In fact, format-oriented
radio probably will endure indefinitely, though it may
adapt itself to changing market forces created by a
custom-casting market. All the above idea would do is open
up the middle levels of audience size to artists who
properly fit there, turning the hourglass shape of today's
market into the more ideal triangle that it should
-- Dan Krimm, 8/97
Copyright © 1997 Daniel Krimm. All rights reserved.
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