NextRadio releases usage metrics

Tuesday, November 26, 2013 - 12:25pm

Emmis-owned TagStation, which produces and distributes the NextRadio broadcast listening app for smartphones, released usage statistics for the program’s first 100 days of live operation. Headline brags are:

  • 75,000-plus app downloads
  • 5,100-plus FM stations tuned from the app
  • 33,000-plus listening hours total

In addition to the usage metrics, distribution is widening. NextRadio was first installed on Sprint phones equipped with FM receiver chips that are necessary for the app to work. That footprint was widened to HTC’s One Max phone a couple of weeks ago. TagStation today pre-announced an upcoming partnership with Boost Mobile in January.

The chip requirement means that NextRadio can only work with participating phone models, and, in fact, is not available at all from the Google Play app store when accessed by unequipped phones. A “stub” version of the app is built into partner phone models, and that stup must be activated before use. The activation accounts for the “download” metric above.

NextRadio is an interesting mobile broadcast play that seeks to leverage radio’s traditional mobility in an increasingly smartphone-dominated world. It also seeks to correct a blank spot that was arguably created by Apple. When Apple introduced the first iPod, it launched into an existing MP3-player market whose devices usually contained AM/FM receivers. Their manufacturers assumed some demand for radio listening along with MP3 mobility.

Apple’s iPods have never included broadcast reception, and as that mobile-player brand took over the market, walk-around FM listening fell off the default spec sheet for handheld music devices. NextRadio puts it back in, but requires special device builds to accomplish it. For that reason, roll-out of the NextRadio app is dramatically slowed.

In addition to competing with non-compatible phones, NextRadio competes with Internet delivery of radio webcasts, especially via aggregating platforms TuneIn and iHeartRadio. That might seem like a crippling disadvantage to user adoption, and OEM adoption. NextRadio's big advantage is that the Internet (and a costly data plan for receiving it) is not necessary. You just have to be in range of local stations.

We like NextRadio in concept, even as we recognize the app’s steep uphill climb. Here in the RAIN editorial office’s gadget museum, we have treasured MP3 players built years ago, with FM receivers still in use. They key to NextRadio success is to demonstrate demand for smartphone-received FM, sufficient to motivate OEMs to put that chip into their handhelds -- like the old days.

The push-pull relationship of streaming and albums

Wednesday, November 6, 2013 - 12:15pm

Can streaming music help album sales?

Last week’s SoundScan charted the lowest number of single-week album sales since 1991, when that measurement started informing Billboard charts, and there was immediate apocalyptic talk that streaming killed the album.

Pessimism might be justified when it comes to the album’s product legitimacy in 2013 and beyond. Bob Lefsetz applies his characteristically blunt futurism to the topic in a reaction to weak sales performance of Katy Perry’s new Prism collection.

Streaming music is not the cause of declining album sales, although it does reflect and support changing consumer demands and expectations. Consumer choice has been evolving for 15 years. Whether that marketplace shift is blindingly sudden or laboriously slow depends on whether your clock is set to Internet time or normal-world time.

The album suffered its first collision with digital reality when the mp3 format was unleashed, along with corresponding computer apps that enabled recording CD tracks. The term “ripping” resonated with illegality (“ripping off”), but copying tracks to mp3 files was just a legal as copying them to cassette tape.

It was the widespread sharing of mp3 tracks that was legally problematic. Sharing mix tapes on cassette was illegal, too, but so cumbersome and one-to-one that nobody much cared. When the original Napster hit the net in 1999, a one-to-many file-sharing revolution occurred. Horrified record labels complained that they couldn’t compete with free music, an obvious though arguable point, but two other values made Napster popular: a long tail of music unavailable elsewhere, and tracks separated from albums.

The iTunes Music Store rescued labels by wrapping a commerce solution around some Napster attractions. Doing so demystified and sanctioned single-track consumption. Steve Jobs had to talk the labels into breaking apart their albums for sale, and gave them digital rights management (DRM) in exchange, at least temporarily -- mostly solving the copy problem for iTunes-purchased tracks.

Music as e-commerce was off and running, but the album was a seriously broken product by 2003. A CNN Money article in 2010 reported skidding album sales in nine of the decade’s ten years.

Streaming music was operating in various forms before iTunes Music Store launched, including webcasts (AM/FM and pureplay), eMusic (subscription to download) and Rhapsody (subscription to stream). The combination of all these forces -- unauthorized file-sharing, iTunes price-per-download, subscription jukeboxes -- ushered the playlist era, a mix-your-own-album type of music consumption. Music became increasingly granular, smashed from album boulders into playlist gravel.

The mobile computing revolution, which started with laptops and accelerated with smartphones, furthered the trend. As cell phone data speeds increased in rapid technology cycles, the concept of accessing music from anywhere became viable for an enlarging class of well-equipped consumers.

Something else happened: a new streaming business framework based on advertising unlocked the “celestial jukebox” to people unwilling to pay for a music subscription. Spotify, Rdio, and their ilk offered an easy, no-charge on ramp to the so-called access model, where music exists as an always-on cloud of content available anywhere, synchronized across personal technology devices.

More than just granular, music has become atomized. The musicians’ complaint is that atoms of music consumption don’t pay as well as selling the big rocks (albums) or little rocks (price-per-track). The streaming industry’s response is that the liquification of music is still in early days, and when streams become tidal, everyone will prosper.

Recent experiments in iTunes Radio indicate that streaming access can stimulate old-world music purchase habits. iTunes Radio streamed Eminem’s new album for week before its release as a download or disc. The service did something similar with Justin Timberlake’s latest release; we noted then that “album release date” had taken a new, more liquid definition. We also noted that Timberlake’s album was perched atop the iTunes Store album-sales chart, while its individual tracks were far down the singles chart.

Whether streaming is driving album purchases is difficult to determine, but there does appear to be correlation of iTunes Radio pre-release streaming and iTunes Store chart performance. The Eminem experiment seems to be producing the same effect. The album’s pre-sales have propelled it to the #1 chart position. At the same time (either connected to pre-release streaming or not), Billboard reports that the Eminem album will start its Billboard 200 life in the top slot, and notch the second-highest album-sales week of the year.

So, while general music streaming might not support album sales, targeted promotional streaming on a major platform might funnel users who still enjoy outright ownership into traditional music stores. Especially when, as with Apple, the streaming service sits side-by-side with the music store.

WiMP offers hi-fi streaming in Europe

Wednesday, October 2, 2013 - 12:45pm

In what could be characterized as a noble attempt to bridge the mass market’s preference for convenience over quality, and the audiophile’s choice of pristine audio over mobility, a Scandinavian streaming music service called WiMP has introduced lossless streaming. Lossless audio files are derived from the original source (such as a master recording) without suffering the sound-degrading compression which is applied to create an mp3 or AAC file. The value of compressed files is their smaller, more portable size -- you can fit more of them into a mobile device, and they stream more fluidly in mobile bandwidth situations. In a market governed by smartphone listening through cheap earbuds with severely constrained frequency response, audiophile demand is always niche.

WiMP does not force the high-quality solution on its users, but does offer it as one of several quality options. The company also re-sourced its library, replacing so-called lossy originals with lossless versions. That enabled WiMP to control the compression schemes from top to bottom.

WiMP is currently available in Denmark, Germany, Norway, Poland, and Sweden.

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