On Friday December 12th, at Broadcasting House’s Radio Theatre, the BBC held their first “On the Beat” event, aimed at debating the future of music and technology. Given the hugely innovative work the BBC does in this area it’s perhaps odd that they’ve never held an event like this before, but I have to say it was a a highly engaging, thoroughly enjoyable day.

The event was hosted by LJ Rich, who hosts the BBC technology show Click – and who turned out to be a nifty pianist to boot.

The day was introduced by James Purnell, BBC Director of Strategy and Digital, who pulled some anecdotes out of Asa Briggs’ history of the BBC, especially about the BBC’s first chief engineer Peter Eckersley, who was arguably the country’s first DJ, playing gramophone records over the air. Purnell’s point was a clear one: that the coming together of music and cutting edge tech is in the organisation’s DNA.

The day’s keynote was given by Mark Mulligan, a veteran commentator on the impact of digital technology on the music industry. He gave a fairly riproaring history of music and tech over the last 21 years, pulling out the salient points about where we are now – “an age of unprecedented change and uncertainty”. With scarcity essentially killed off by Napster a decade and a half ago, it’s essential that the industry finds some other value, and for Mulligan this is fan engagement – “the most important currency”.

He also introduced what would turn out to be one of the major themes – “the tyranny of choice” – and finished on the note that the cinemas had consistently lost money until the introduction of popcorn. What was the music industry’s popcorn?

Mulligan was followed by a panel discussion about audience’s engagement with tech, featuring 1Xtra presenter, rapper and entrepreneur Charlie Sloth, Radio 2 and 6Music’s Head of Music Jeff Smith and Shazam’s VP of Product for Music and Platforms Cait O’Riordan. It was a fun discussion, with Sloth in particular telling it pretty frankly about media consumption by anyone under 25: “YouTube has changed the game”, “everything is consumed on on mobile”, “no-one watches TV” and (my favourite) “I’ve got a 10 grand home cinema but the kids don’t use it”. All salutory stuff, I think.

Smith’s presentation was, of course, about an entirely different demographic, the Radio 2 audience. For them, interestingly, digital is all about TV – that is, the closer media resembles TV in terms of functionality the more successful it is. It’s one of the reasons they’ve had quite so much success with red button live music shows: ELO in Hyde Park scored 1.2 million views for instance.

O’Riordan gave a fascinating presentation about the analysis of Shazam stats, discussing the relationship between Shazam acitivity, streams and radio play. She also talked through some changes to the Shazam offering, including a newly launched website, a news service and the sharing of Shazams. Clearly the company is at least in part positioning itself more as a content destination.

There was a lengthy Q&A with some really interesting points made. Smith made the observation that “radio has always been good at knowing the audience,” which I think is spot on. He also pointed out that for his audience, the connected home was definitely becoming “less scary”. But my favourite observation again cam from Sloth, who responded to the question “Won’t the now, now, now generation eventually settle into laziness and seek out the familiar?” “No,” he said, “It will only get worse.”

The second session of the afternoon was all about music metadata, which regular readers will know is a hobbyhorse of mine; the session featured Tom Allen from Metable, Brittney Bean, Songdrop CEO, Nicholas Humfrey from BBC R&M Online and Robert Kaye from MusicBrainz. The discussion covered a lot of ground; I was taken with some of the following observations:

  • Crappy metadata means people don’t get paid.
  • It’s difficult to get good metadata from the record labels Why? Well for one thing, said Kaye, the record industry simply “doesn’t trust these metadata hippies”.
  • For Music Brainz, it’s all about “what the artist intended” – and they go out of their way to ascertain this.
  • The publishing industry had made ISBNs work; why couldn’t the record industry make ISRC codes work?
  • Oh and for new bands, Google your band name choices before making any decisions!

The final panel of the afternoon was all about music discovery and featured Radio 1 and 1 Xtra’s Head of Music George Ergatoudis, Henry Firth, founder of Ping Tune (“The Human Music Network”) and Spotify’s Director of  Economics Will Page, each giving a brief presentation before settling into a discussion and Q&A. Some of the more interesting points included:

  • Streaming had reached a real watershed this year, with Meghan Trainor getting into the top 40 on streams only.
  • There’s a general sense that we’re “drowning in music”. Well-crafted, presenter-led radio can really help with this.
  • Indeed, despite all the tech, a recent Nielsen Music 360 report put radio a still the #1 route for music discoevery.
  • It’s all too easy for those of us involved in this to assume that services are more mainstream than they are; Soundcloud, for instance, as huge as it is, is still ultimately a niche service.

Along the way, reminding us that this is, after all, all about music, we had performances from two BBC Introducing artists, Sam Sure and LAYLA*.

So as I said at the top, this was a stimulating afternoon and I very much hope the first of an annual series.


* A great example of a music metadata conundrum in action – is she all in CAPITALs as per her facebook page or not?!